Small animal vet, author, technology enthusiast and entrepreneur. I have a passion for the power of technology to amaze, educate and enrich our lives, including those of the animals we share this world with.
The presentation above is a recorded version of the same one delivered at the 2018 VR Voice ‘VR in Healthcare Symposium’ held at Harvard Medical School, Boston, USA.
Please follow the link below to access a PDF version of the full paper from the above presentation, including the results of the survey conducted on the experiences and awareness of VR and AR within the veterinary profession.
I love to run in new places as it is often one of the very best ways to get to explore a new location and observe those little details that make it fascinating. I have already had the pleasure of running in Spain recently and so it was with excitement that I packed up my running gear once again, including the much needed cold-weather layers, and jetted off to Boston, USA. My primary purpose for a visit to the city was to speak at a Virtual Reality conference, specifically on the subject of VR in Veterinary, but I extended my stay for the week in order to explore it fully. It has long been on my list of places to visit, appealing as it does to my inner nerd, what with such prestigious landmarks as Harvard and MIT representing the epitome of geeky culture. It is, of course, also the setting for one of the premier running events of the calendar, namely the Boston Marathon. As such I knew that it was bound to be a runners’ city and I was not disappointed.
During the planning phase of the trip I looked into both suggested runs in the city, with the classic Charles River loop coming out on top, and also sought out some groups that I might be able to join for one or two runs, thus injecting a little social experience into my pavement pounding. The group that caught my attention was the Heartbreak Hill Runners, an enthusiastic and, as I soon discovered, large group of runners of all levels that meet for regular sessions, congregating out of one of the group’s several shops. The session I joined in with was their weekly Saturday morning long run, which happened to coincide nicely with my own training schedule mandated long run. Bonus! Getting out to the start point was a bit of a mission as it was located in the suburbs of Boston, specifically Newton, and for some reason the metro that morning was on super duper slow mode, with a replacement bus having to be used for part of the journey. Instead of being super early, as had been my intention, I ended up having to jog from the final metro station to the shop, although we didn’t actually set off for a little while longer.
Situated on a corner, the Heartbreak Hill Runners shop was modest in size but packed with not only an impressive array of running merchandise but was crammed with people! I had not expected there to be quite so many in attendance and was even more impressed when I was given a wristband after registering – this apparently entitled me to make use of the aid stations that were put on – and had the option to leave my bag in a secure part of the store while we all ran. All very organised indeed. After a briefing from head coach and owner Dan – most people there were in the final weeks of training for the Boston marathon – we were encouraged to shuffle outside, find our respective pacers and to get going. I was expecting just a casual small group run but what it seemed to be was a very well organised mass event – this truly did seem to be the city of runners, an impression that was further reinforced by the fact that there were clearly lots of other groups out training as well, in addition to loads of other aid stations, complete with cheering spectators and supplies. I couldn’t help smiling at the thought that even the supporters seemed to train for the Boston marathon!
The looped course took us up Heartbreak Hill, along the edge of the nearby reservoir and past Boston College, before taking in another long, steady climb and a relatively flat, fast return to the shop. Many of those running were due to do 3 hours of continuous running, meaning multiple loops. As tempted as I was to join them in this pursuit I only had a half marathon distance pencilled in and so after scaling Heartbreak Hill and reaching Boston College for the second time I about-turned and returned to the shop. Feeling buoyed by my efforts and loving the general atmosphere of the shop, the team and the whole morning I felt compelled to purchase a couple of awesome T-shirts, designed there in Boston by a couple of runners, snapped a couple of pics and even had the honour of making it onto their famous wall of mugshots 🙂
Having experienced the feeling of being a runner in Boston on a normal week I can only begin to imagine how electric the atmosphere must be for the annual marathon. Who knows: perhaps I shall be back someday to find out first-hand.
The beauty of running is that it is possible to pretty much do it anywhere. The equipment requirements are essentially very simple: a pair of decent running shoes and some suitable athletic apparel, because lets be honest no one is going to be heading out for a training run wearing their travel suit, are they?! When preparing for a race such as the Eiger 101 it is important to keep up the training regardless of where I find myself and whether or not I am on holiday. So it was the case at Christmas as I headed out of Dubai and flew to Spain – specifically Granada to start – for the week encompassing Christmas itself and including my dad’s birthday. With triathlon I would have fretted about the logistics of being able to get in some bike training and finding the closest pool so as to keep up the swim programme. Not so with running. All I needed to pack were my runners, including my trail shoes because, who knows, perhaps I’d find some good off-road options, and a couple of slightly warmer layers more than I’d normally don for Dubai-based training. Simple and it meant that the ‘athletic endeavours’ compartment of my packing took up a tiny corner of my suitcase as opposed to needing to lug around a bike box!
So what of the running in Spain itself? Given that it was December and we were up in the mountains, on the fringes of the Sierra Nevada range, it was cold. There were, however, just two days when one could describe conditions as wet and so the bulk of my running was conducted in chilly crisp air with bright blue skies and sunlight, making me very grateful that I packed the trusty Oakleys alongside leggings. Granada offered a feast of options, both visually and physically as I had the option to run flat, following the river in both directions, with landscape painting quality views of the distant snow-capped peaks as a backdrop, or take to the steep climbs up into historic neighbourhoods, or barrios, like Albaícin or the climb up to the famous landmark of la Alhambra, the medieval hilltop fort that is Granada’s enduring image. With steps, pedestrians, narrow streets and generally lots of little features of interest to pay close attention to, road running in Granada did have more in common with a true trail run than a plodding, steady road run, with the need to vary pacing, stride length and effort regularly. This made for both physically and mentally rewarding runs. Being able to head out at any time of the day due to high temperatures not being a concern was also a welcome blessing.
One of the most memorable runs I completed was towards the end of my stay in the city as I struck out along the river, following the path as it left the main city, becoming more and more rural and eventually transitioning to a narrow trail. I opted to turn back once the path became both too narrow and too muddy, retracing my steps into Granada before taking a right that led me through the centre, weaving between strolling pedestrians on their morning commute, before climbing steadily toward Albaícin. I love those runs when you just feel so good that the thought of sticking to ‘the programme’ and bringing that feeling of flow to a premature end seems wrong, disrespectful almost, and so it was this thought that drove my legs and body up and up right to the top of the hill on which the small church of Ermita de San Miguel Alto was situated. Due to it being a fairly cold and damp morning I was one of only three people present and so was able to enjoy the panoramic view out over the city unobstructed and in peace. Well worth the climb up!
From Granada I parted with my parents at Malaga airport, them returning to the UK whilst I flew up to Madrid, where I spent New Years with my girlfriend and other Madrid-based amigos. The running in Madrid is as good as that in Granada, and once again, I was blessed to be able to run at any time of the day without the fear of heat exhaustion or sun stroke, and with both the city to explore and the expanses of the various parks, such as Parque del Retiro, and the huge Casa de Campo, I was in runners’ nirvana!
People often describe life’s journey as a rollercoaster. The same can absolutely be applied to an ultramarathon as one most certainly experiences fabulous highs and descents into lows before almost as quickly ascending to new heights. So it was for my last big athletic push of 2017: the UTX 50, organised and staged by the fantastic Urban Ultra team.
The day started as most do when you’re into weird things like running very very long distances for fun: in the dark and far earlier than most humans would consider sane. With my race pack having been picked up a couple of days before and the requisite bits of mandatory kit acquired, nutrition and the various items of clothing I may well have needed during the day were carefully packed into my car before I started the long, somewhat hazy drive out towards Ras Al Khaimah and the pin-pointed location of the race setting. Thank goodness for Google Maps is all I can say as without it I sincerely doubt i’d have made it to the start line. As I followed the digital line on my phone’s map display off the main highway and onto an altogether narrower, more sandy roadway I soon became grateful for the fact that the organisers had remembered that not everyone in the UAE drives a 4WD. Having said that I reached a point where it became clear that to proceed may well have meant risking getting stuck in the very soft sand that the road had transitioned to, especially as I had already seen one runner do just that after taking the wrong one of two options at a forked junction. The race site, I was informed by a couple who had opted to camp overnight, was just a hundred metres on and thus easily walkable.
One thing that many people find hard to get their heads around, especially after the stifling heat and relentless humidity of the summer months is the fact that in winter it does actually get pretty darned cold, especially out in the desert. As such, getting changed into my running gear was a nippy affair and I was glad to be able to don my snood and Patagonia base layer before grabbing my CamelPak, with nutrition stowed away, and head torch before making my way over to registration. Quite a few people had, it turned out, managed to drive to the main site – the road into camp was actually passable by normal cars; these things often only become apparent after the fact – and when I arrived the music was pumping, lights were on and the inflatable arch of the start and finish line was clearly visable, with registration just to the side of it. Signed in and with at least forty minutes to go until the start I opted to head back to the car and hunker down with a book rather than freeze by standing around idly. I’d have more than enough time to spend on my feet come the actual race!
The trail and ultra scene out here is a relatively small one and so the same faces tend to pop up at most events, which makes for a really nice, familial or collegiate atmosphere. So it was as many of the Dubai Trail Runners, including head honcho, Lee, filtered into the start line huddle, exchanging greetings and comments on how chilly it was, before we were given the briefing and placed under starters orders. “5, 4, 3, 2, 1….FOGHORN!” We were off, with the eventual race winners striking up an impressive pace from the get-go whilst I found myself comfortably towards the front but in no way pushing for any kind of heroic lead. Not in this race and not generally in this sport – I respect the distance too much and recognise my own limits at present. Besides, we first of all had about 3km of sand and dunes to traverse before the more traditional trail running ensued and based on my limited experience of dune running I know how tough it can be and so wished to conserve energy as much as I was able. One thing that fairly rapidly became clear was that I could easily have done without the base layer as within about five minutes of dune-climbing effort I was well and truly ‘warmed up’ and would have jettisoned it early on had I been ok to stop. Instead I elected to push on at a steady pace before making the final breathtakingly beautiful descent down the last big dune, with the sun now making an appearance and illuminating the dunes and mountains of the area, and stopped at the bottom, where the hard track started, in order to pack away my base-layer, sand gaiters and lamp and catch a much needed breath before the main section of the day kicked off.
I can’t really say that I had any real strategy for the day other than to remember not to push it too hard in the early stages as tempting as it may have been, and to remember to remain hydrated and adequately fed, both of which are surprisingly easy to forget to do, especially in cooler conditions. I had intended to listen to some music as a way of ‘zoning out’ during the race but found myself foregoing that option in favour of simply enjoying my surroundings, brief conversations with fellow runners and to pay close attention to both the trail – an important way to reduce the risk of stumbles, falls, ankle twists and all of the other ridiculously simple to occur happenings that can befall a trail runner, especially when tired – and my general surroundings, both of which were beautiful. The first section of trail after the dunes took us out of the ‘countryside’ and into an area of housing, meaning a section of paved road running, where we came upon the first aid station – I elected not to stop at this as still had plenty of water and was feeling in a good flow state so wished to capitalise by continuing on. After that the trail took us into a narrow section of wadi before opening up into a wider, more isolated, or wilder area of proper wadi where we found ourselves for about the next 10 km. I found the initial 20 km to be comfortable and was able to maintain a steady pace that saw me overtake a few people, although I also had several people pass me in turn. My feet were feeling good and I once again thanked good fortune that I had discovered Injinji and their incredible socks as they seemed to be my saving grace as far as looking after my feet was concerned.
After the second aid station, which was positioned in a picturesque little farming village and at which I did make a stop, enjoying the orange slices on offer, I did start to feel my legs a little more and on the steeper sections of short climbing elected to walk. I also stopped for a few minutes, not out of fatigue but because the narrow path that climbed up behind and between some buildings had on one side stables and out of two of the open windows popped the heads of some stunning horses. I couldn’t ignore them and so stopped to say hello, enjoying the interaction with my new equine buddies, only spurred on by the voices of another two runners scaling the path behind me. From there the road wound up and down and around the farming community, with cute little stone buildings surrounding cultivated and terraced fields of lush green crops flanked by the razer tipped peaks of the UAE mountains surrounding us. The start of the final descent of this section was marked by a rusty iron gate and once through it was a knee-pounding run down towards a long, straight, somewhat demoralising stretch of main highway running that seemed to coincide with the start of the day’s heat. I was ok for about the first half of this particular section but then felt myself hitting up against a bit of a wall before caving in to temptation and choosing to walk for a bit. A short walk was soon extended at the next to a longer walk and if it were not for the heroic efforts of one runner, Elliot Lewis, and his words of encouragement as I then ran the next twenty or so kilometres with him, I would have had a truly miserable experience and succumbed to the spectre of walking most of the rest of the race. Ultra marathons mess with your head. They’re long enough that to get through them in one piece does require constant thinking, reassessments, personal pep-talking and it is so easy for those voices of doubt to start creeping into your head before screaming at you to ‘just take it easy for a bit’ that they become hard to ignore. It may have been that some decent, motivational music would have helped at this stage, but I had a better option: another runner to keep me motivated and going. That’s another thing I do love about this sport – very rarely do you encounter a selfish athlete who is just interested in themselves and their own race. Most runners genuinely look out for their fellow race-goers and do what they can if they see someone struggling. Did my companion sacrifice some time in order to run with me? I don’t know but the point is that instead of silently cruising past me and leaving me to trudge the trails alone he made the decision to step up to the mark and be the guardian angel that I needed at that particular moment. For that I humbly thank him.
From the prospect of another thirty kilometres of painfully dull trudging in the heat I was instead in the much better position of finding myself approaching the final aid station, just 10km out from the finish, and at this point I felt strong enough to start to up the ante and pace. With the blessing of my running companion for the last 20km I struck out on my own once more and soon found myself rattling along at a blistering pace. What I should have recognised, however, was that it was too fast to be sustained and crushingly after about 5km I found myself hitting yet another wall and once more reduced to a walk-run regime as I gritted my teeth and willed the final few kilometres to pass. Those final few K’s were tough and there were several moments when I found myself talking out loud, admonishing myself for being arrogant and pushing off too hard from the aid station. If i’d maintained better control then I would have found a steady, sustainable pace and been able to at least run the entire final 10km. Still, one learns with every event. One thing I was determined NOT to do was walk over the finish line. Nah! Not going to happen. I was absolutely going to run that and so with the final 1.5km to go I dug in, willed my aching and leaden legs into action and focused on thoughts of the end. The trail entered an area of dunes and so I knew I was close, in addition to the fact that my Suunto told me the same thing, and then out to the right, in the distance I could see the runner ahead of me, Scott, turning into what I knew must have been the finishing chute, a narrow gully between two rocky outcrops that funnelled us to the end. That was all the motivation I needed to be able to punch the metaphorical biological nitrous button and sprint! It’s always amused and frustrated me in equal measure how no matter how done in you are during a race there always seems to be that small reserve of energy that is kept back especially for sprinting to the finish line. A little like always being able to find space for dessert. I could see Lee up on the rock and gave him a thumbs up as I rounded the final corner, saw the archway and locked in. It was done. 50km of running was over and another ultramarathon notched up. I gratefully took receipt of my wooden medal – a nice environmentally friendly spin on the usual metal offering – and waddled over to the gazebo where I earnestly accepted the offer of Coca Cola and some delicious soup! Just what was needed after nearly six hours of being out pounding the trails.
With some sustenance on board and my pack laid to rest I felt significantly better, joining the other runners to have finished in cheering our fellow racers across the line and enjoying the plentiful photo opportunities. One final group pic snapped, with the Urban Ultra goat taking centre stage, and it was back to the car and ultimately Dubai. My best laid plans of a relaxing evening of movie watching and feet up leisure quickly became a case of falling asleep on the sofa and thus marked the end of yet another fun filled yet tough day out on the athletic scene here in the UAE.
Finished in 5 hours, 38 mins and 9 seconds
17th place overall and 12th in my category.
(The winning time was 4’14”59! Staggeringly speedy!)
Following on from my previous post where I mentioned that I had placed an order for my very own set of Injinji trail socks, such were the incredibly positive reviews that seemed to be emanating from the wider ultra-marathon community when it came to the subject of blister prevention, I excitedly took delivery of the package that duly arrived from the US, where the company is based, and could not wait to head out for a run and test them out.
Getting in Touch with my Inner Ape
The first thing that really struck me about the Injinjis was the obvious fact that they have individual pockets for each toe, giving them the appearance of literally being a glove for the feet. Once on board and reconciled with the weirdness of their appearance – a simple side-effect of having always used and thus been pre-conditioned to ‘normal’ socks – I proceeded to don them, finding it a little fiddly to ensure that each toe made it snugly and individually into it’s respective Coolmax polyester, Nylon & Lycra enclave. Given the relative fiddliness and additional time required to make sure they are fitted properly I doubt I’d be reaching for this type of sock for an event such as a triathlon, where my ability to transition quickly is already laughable. They were, however, very comfortable and, in my opinion, looked stylish with their orange and green colour combo!
Did They Work?
Whilst at the time of writing I am yet to really test them to the extreme at full ultra distances, over the shorter training runs that I have been out on the results have been convincing enough. Now maybe my feet have simply toughened up since I wrote last and the introduction of ‘posh performance socks’ has had zero impact but I suspect that protecting each toe individually and preventing that annoying toe-on-toe friction, especially toe-nail on toe that I was prone to, has made a big difference. My feet have exited my running shoes looking unscathed – a far cry from the blistery horror scene that seemed to greet me just a couple of weeks ago. I think if my feet could speak, which I guess technically they can on account of being attached to, well, me, they’d be saying, “good find bro!” So yeah, I guess it’s official: I am, or at least was, excited by socks. Ah, the headonistic rock and roll lifestyles of the ultra runner, eh!
To get your own pair just head over to their website (nb: I am not in any way commercially connected to the company and have written this solely because I a) like their product, b) like writing and ultra-running, and c) like the thought of being able to help even just one other runner if and where I can): https://www.injinji.com/
(However, should anyone at Injinji HQ happen to be reading this and feel like they need a new brand ambassador then I’d throw my hat – or should that be socks – in the ring 🙂 You can, after all, just pay me in socks!)
I am on a bit of a rest week on account of being on the night shift. This essentially leaves little time for anything other than ‘work, eat, sleep, work again’ for a full seven days. I have, under instruction from Coach Trace, shoehorned a few very short runs in, which has probably been better for me than I realised at the time on account of ensuring that I at least get a little dose of vitamin D.
One of the perks of being on a less intense training week is that my feet have had a chance to recover, with my toes starting to resemble a normal person’s digits once again. Blisters, something that I never really suffered that badly with in the past, have been a pretty constant and unwelcome companion for the past few weeks, and has seen me scouring the web for advice on how best to reduce the risk of developing them and how to deal with those that do occur. Anyone who has suffered blisters knows full well how much they can scupper a good run and the last thing I want is to face the prospect of 100 km of unhappy feet – prevention is surely way better than a cure in this case.
There are loads of really excellent articles available, many from seasoned ultra runners, that go into incredible detail on how to manage and treat blisters whilst out running and I intend to get myself stocked with the recommended supplies to add to my pack.
BLOG POSTS ON BLISTER/ FOOT CARE – the top 3 Google results for ‘ultra running, blister care’ (30th Nov 2017)
This is what I am more interested in as I would rather not have to deal with pesky foot problems at all if I can help it. One piece of advice that seemed to crop up again and again in all the blog posts and articles I read about ultra-running was to invest in a pair of Injinji socks. The theory is that by encasing each toe in it’s own individual compartment there is less risk of the damaging toe-on-toe rubbing that so often occurs with normal socks. So, with thoughts of content feet I duly punched in the credit card info into their website and am, at the time of writing, awaiting delivery of four pairs of these apparent wonder garments. Lets see if they prove to be as awesome as reports suggest.
Wednesday 8th December 2017 finally saw the culmination of a good week’s worth of personal effort as I finally got to don my Sith cloak, fire up the lightsabre and walk the red carpet with plenty of other local Star Wars fans here in Dubai. The 14th annual Dubai Film Festival closed this year with the regional premiere of the much anticipated latest instalment of Star Wars, with this year’s hot release being The Last Jedi, that picked up from precisely where The Force Awakens left off.
As soon as I saw that they were screening it at the festival I knew that I wanted tickets but had every expectation of it already being sold out, such is the usual demand for not only a Star Wars release but also a closing night gala screening. To my incredible excitement and surprise there were tickets up for grabs and grab a couple I did. To add to the sense of anticipation and occasion the organisers stated that they were encouraging fans to attend in fancy dress: magic words for me. I love fancy dress and if it’s a theme that involves a sword, whether standard or laser, as in Star Wars, then I am all over it! This was demonstrated clearly back in my uni days when I actually spent two weeks working closely with the head of the physics department workshop to create a real set of Trojan armour, including authentic brush helmet and sword, for a veterinary party weekend. That’s how into fancy dress I get.
So, with a little under a week to get a costume together, and with the stakes elevated by the announcement that there would be prizes on offer for the best, I set to thinking of what to go as and how to piece it all together, including the major question of what to do regarding a lightsabre. My first decision was to go as a Sith, as I tend to think that the darker characters are usually the most interesting and seem to have the best costumes. But who? Kylo Ren was the obvious choice and I figured that loads of people would be opting for him, in addition to his costume not actually being that interesting. Sure he has a badass helmet and a slightly more interesting lightsabre but there just wasn’t that ‘wow’ factor that I wanted. I then considered Anakin Skywalker, as he embraced the dark side. The costume looked simple enough, with the base looking to be a black, or very dark brown, martial arts suit, paired with a large central belt, some fancy looking leather strips that hung down over the shoulders and, of course, a Sith cloak and hood. I would also be needing boots, or be able to fashion something that looked like boots. Some intial sketching and web research revealed the basic design and I even considered a wacky idea to augment the costume, and add to the overall theatric effect, by rigging up a small Yoda soft toy on the end of a clear length of plastic tubing, or the like, and attach it to my wrist somehow so as to appear as though I was making Yoda levitate by way of the force! I imagined the effect would be quite striking as well as being relatively simple to pull off.
As is often the case with creative pursuits one tends to tumble down the rabbit hole and new and more interesting ideas sometimes spring up where the previous ones were fulminating. So it was that as I was researching ‘sith costumes’ online I came across an image of Darth Revan, from the Old Republic series. In an instant I knew that he was the character I wanted to replicate: a bad ass, mask-wearing ninja-style warrior complete with his awesome cloak and lightsabre. Done! Now I just needed to figure out what to get in order to achieve the most authentic look possible.
Darth Revan’s mask is quite unique, as can be seen from the pictures. Whilst everything I needed could, in principle, be ordered online I simply didn’t have the time to wait and, besides, there is way more pride to be gained from actually making something as opposed to simply buying it. Several video tutorials ran through how to construct a costume version and so equipped with a supply of craft foam, spray paint, elastic (recycled from an old Emirates airlines eye mask), a hot glue gun, superglue, black plastic and imagination I managed a pretty decent job if I do say so myself. The only thing I would change were I do make another is to either find some less opaque pastic for the visor or cut some very thin spaces through it so I could see more than just shadows. The visual effect was awesome but I couldn’t really see a damned thing!
This was one of my proudest creations and whilst I could very easily have purchased a toy I wanted something that felt more realistic. Again, there were loads of online videos providing detailed instructions of how to make your own but all of them required a fully functioning workshop, electronics and more time than I had available. I didn’t need my lightsabre to make any noise or be so closely replicant of the ones in the films – all I really needed and wanted was something that lit up red and looked badass!
The answer came to me as I was browsing in Deira and a guy tried to upsell me on a torch that I really didn’t need. The shape of it – long, thin and black – suddenly looked to me like a pretty convincing lightsabre handle and when I inspected it, removing the head to discover that it had a powerful single bright LED at the end I knew that I had my base. All I needed to do was add a length of acrylic tubing and somehow create a red light instead of the bright white of the torch, and I would have a very convincing laser sword. But where to get the materials? My first thought was Ace Hardware in Dubai but after a previous visit to source some basic materials that did not leave me impressed I looked for alternatives. The answer came in the form of a company called Accurate Acrylics LLC based in Al Quoz. Seeing that they were open at 8am I popped over one Saturday morning before I was due to start work and was introduced to the manager, Sadyajit, who humored me as he listened to my mad cap request – the fact that I had the torch and pictures of what I was aiming to achieve surely helped. Lo and behold they were able to help and so an order was placed for a single length of 35mm diameter clear acrylic plus an end piece to seal the far end of the lightsabre. The cost? A mere 100AED. Sadyajit also arranged for it to be cut so that it would, in theory, slide snugly into place over the end of the torch base.
The piece was perfect, although I later discovered that I also needed to create a small hole on the reverse to enable the torch to be recharged once it was all put together, a minor roadblock that was overcome though application of a gas hob, a pointy-ended knife and time enough to slowly melt a hole where it was needed. For the color effect I used red packing film that I rolled several times and slid inside the entire length of the tubing, so as to diffuse the light produced by the LED into the desired level of red. A neat hint I gleaned from the online tutorials was to back the end disc with a reflective material, such as tin foil, so as to reflect back the light travelling up the tube, thus ensuring a realistic lightsabre effect. This was certainly a key design feature and really helped create the desired outcome. The final touch was to embellish the power button with some red craft foam, raising it such that I could switch the lightsabre on and off easily and adding some more color to the design. One of the advantages of constructing it the way I did was that it had a weight to it that really added to the impression of it being a real device, very similar to the Trojan sword that made part of my costume all those years before.
I don’t own boots and couldn’t find anything that was either in my size or that wasn’t for women in Deira. What I did do was to pair a relatively cheap pair of black men’s zipped shoes with my horseriding calf-chaps. The latter I had to fabric paint black, a step that saw me go through an entire can of black fabric spray paint – leather, it seems, really does soak up paint well – and required a few solid days of drying before they could be worn.
Most of the pictures I had seen of Darth Revan showed him wearing a dark full length tunic and I imagined that a very dark grey or black kandura would have substituted for the same perfectly. However, finding one in Deira proved to be incredibly difficult and after the umpteenth “no” and shake of the head from the vendors I spoke with I did start to wonder whether the reason they were claiming it wasn’t possible was that it might be somehow considered disrepectful to use one as part of a costume(?). My second thought, that being that an abaya would actually be even better, was quickly resigned to the mental “no way” file and so I decided to slightly alter the Darth Revan base by going a bit more Anakin Skywalker for that part. This essentially meant a trouser-tunic combo as the base, with the rest of the costume built around that.
I found a great Indian-style long sleeved top in Deira that had the classic look I was after and simply paired it with a loose pair of athletic training bottoms to give that combat effect. Darth Revan wears armour and if I had more time then I am certain that I would have found a way to create both the breast plate and wrist plates out of metal. Given the time constraints, however, I once again turned to the craft foam for their construction. The centrepiece of the costume was a central ring, that hangs from the main belt and that in turn has both a red length of silky fabric cascading towards the floor and a black length of similar material that wraps around the body. As I said before, the overall look is one of an ornately battle-dressed ninja, even down to the absence of any skin showing. This effect was achieved by wearing gloves and my black snood, that I wore up over my head such that when the mask was worn there was nothing but black showing. Very Sith indeed! In terms of where to get the central ring from I had initially thought to head to a plumbing store to buy a towel rack ring, as I imagined it would be about the right size. As it turned out what I actually found was actually a large seal for a a valve in an oil rig, or at least that’s what the guy in Al Quoz who looked very confused as he sold it to me said. Being bright red also added to its appeal as the flashes of red in my costume really contrasted brilliantly with the overall sense of black and paired brilliantly with the red glow of the lightsabre.
As much as I had initially wanted to create my own Sith cloak and hood, even purchasing a decent amount of material in the process, the fact is I ran out of time to get anything tailored and so I bit the bullet and purchased a costume version. It did the trick and I attached it to my armor with the use of tiny climbing clips in much the same way that I saw it was in all of the pictures I saw of Darth Revan.
I knew that I was not going to wear the mask the entire night and so in the interests of paying attention to detail I decided to apply some dark side of the force inspired eye makeup, blacking them up and smearing it down my face. This lent me a haunted, dark look that was absolutely in keeping with the entire ethos of the costume.
The overall effect was, in my own estimation, pretty awesome and when I first switched on the lightsabre and saw it’s deep red, eery glow in combination with the entire costume I felt that thrill of excitement and satisfaction that comes from putting something awesome together.
The Show Itself
I really enjoy the Dubai Film Festival and have been fortunate enough to attend gala screenings on more than one occasion. The venue – just adjacent to Souk Madinat – is superbly glitzy and they always do a fantastic job of setting up the screening room, with this year being no different as the room sparkled, literally, and treated film goers to extremely comfortable seats.
I arrived relatively early and chose to jump out of my cab just before the venue, meaning that those driving along Beach Road were the first to see my costume in all it’s Sith glory. One thing I did discover quite early on was that I had to be careful walking, as the red sash was very easy to step on and I nearly went A over T a couple of times. If I walked a little like John Wayne then it seemed to be ok though. I caught sight of a few other cosplayers on the way in, with a guy in a tux and a Darth Vader mask one standout, as well as a couple of Jedis, a couple of Kylo Rens – obviously – and a few girls channeling Rey. Rather than go straight through and soak up the red carpet atmosphere immediately I waited a while for my friend, Kaiya, to join me, although when it became apparent that she was delayed made the decision to meet her inside rather than miss the big walk through.
I did realise fairly quickly just how little I could actually see through my mask’s visor as I trod the carpet and suspect I may have missed a few more interview and photo requests than I actually received. One guy, from Gulf News I believe, stopped me early into the walk to ask where I was from and who I had come as, in addition to taking a photo, which I took the opportunity to brandish my lightsabre for. I found the corresponding Twitter post a couple of days later, although it turned out that he seemed to have gotten his guys from the UK and Star Wars characters well and truly mixed up as I was reported to have been “Rob” from the UK and to have come as “Darth Vader.” Err….no, not quite mate.
One thing that I did end up feeling a bit bummed about was that because I was a bit late into the gala I ended up missing, or being missed, by those who were judging the costumes. This I surmised from the fact that shortly after the introduction speeches were given they announced the winners and not being arrogant or ‘owt but my costume was significantly more impressive than most of those that won, especially the eventual winner who – surprise, surprise – came as Kylo Ren. As much as it wasn’t all about the competition – just getting to attend and enjoy both the film and dressing up was awesome enough – the prizes were pretty great, with the top four or five each getting one of those awesome little Sphero BB8 programmable robots. Nice. Still, you win some, you lose some 🙂
The film itself, screened in 3D, which was actually brilliant, was one of the best Star Wars episodes so far and suffice to say that it was very well received, with the 2.5 hours running time flying by like a Poe Damaron piloted X-Wing. I won’t run into a full blown review of the film though as there are about a zillion online already and, to be honest, you’re better off just going to watch it yourself. Do make sure that you’ve seen The Force Awakens first though as it follows on immediately from that one.
One of the most fun moments of the evening was actually the slow walk out, as it was then that both Kaiya and I got to feel like film stars as we were asked to pose in various photos. Whilst I am an introvert in spirit, when I get a decent character costume on I am happy to enthusiatically play a role 🙂 We even got to be interviewed by a movie channel as our very final act before hopping in a taxi and bringing the evening to an end. The lightsabre, mask and cloak are now hung up for a year when I hope to dust them off, re-channel the force and tread the red carpet once again as a Sith.
The slot is secured and the target set. So what now? What path will see me go from being a competent yet not outstanding runner to one who finishes a monumental endurance challenge like the Eiger 101 in a decent time?
The first important step, as was the case when preparing for my Ironman races, was to enlist the advice, guidance and self-pressure application that comes from having a professional coach on your side. I wasn’t certain if Trace, who expertly guided me to becoming an Ironman, would want to take on the tangenital task of training an ultra-runner, being a triathlon coach with a busy client-load and a packed race calendar, but was pleasantly surprised when she reacted really positively to the idea of taking on something new. It looks as though this experience will see both of us push our respective boundaries and learn something new.
Having an interim goal in the form of an earlier race is always a sound idea for any long-term training plan and so we looked at the upcoming races here in the Middle East and opted to focus immediate efforts on the Urban Ultra UTX-50, a mixed trail race on the 8th December that will see runners cover 50km of sand, trail and wadis, with some climbs thrown in for good measure. As a test of where my endurance running is and how my training is progressing this should be a telling event. The distance no longer scares me after doing the 72km Wadi Bih race earlier this year, although I feel as though I should be going into this race significantly fitter and better prepared than I was in February. As such, I am hoping to record a decent time and enjoy the day. The mainstay of my preparation has been to head out to Wadi Showka each Friday morning in order to hit the trails and steadily increase the mileage, with 28km being the furthest I have run this season, a significant way off the 101km of the Eiger but a decent start to my campaign.
With the temperatures finally dropping as we emphatically move from the oppressive heat and humidity of summer into winter (aka the ‘pleasant season’), there is less imperative to start runs at stupid o’clock as running in daylight no longer coincides with guaranteed heat exhaustion as it does in the summer months. There is, however, something incredibly exciting and satisfying about witnessing dawn whilst out on the trails, in addition to it actually being excellent training in head-torch use and running with just the light from several LEDs to illuminate the path. That was one of my most recent purchases: a new head-torch, as my previous one was quite frankly feckless, barely lighting the way ahead. My new lamp, in contrast, practically recreates daylight such are the number of lumens that it hurls out. Lovely!
Anyone who has ever put themselves through an endurance event, such as an Ironman race or a marathon, will recognise the description of the (often) many moments during the event when thoughts inevitably turn a little dark and take the form of “why, oh why, do I do this to myself?! What made me sign up for this hell?! That’s it! This is the last time…. never again!” Then, as one crosses the finish line, how those very thoughts pretty much instantly transform into ones of elated euphoria and a wry smile as you tell anyone who asks if you’ll do another, “well, never say never, eh,” meaning “yes, almost certainly yes.” It is the biological shot in the arm and natural high from endorphins and the incredible sense of achievement that follows completion of a really tough athletic challenge that sees us return to the endurance pantheon and continue to push ourselves on and on, higher and higher, harder and harder. Time and time again.
I’m no exception to this apparent rule and so it seemed almost inevitable that following the completion of two iron distance races, and two solid years of equally relentless training, my thoughts turned once again to event options. I had tried the whole ‘training just to keep fit for fitness sake’ thing and it really didn’t work – I NEED a specific goal and that invariably means an event to train for. One thing I realised from long course triathlon was that I was neither a natural nor an enthusiastic cyclist whereas the running I did enjoy – a fact that really saved both of my iron distance races given that the run came at the end. As such I decided that I wanted to focus more on running as I moved forward and in probably a very cliched way I looked to endurance options, namely ultra-marathons.
I first heard the term ‘ultra-marathon’ whilst at vet school as one of the farm residents, a great guy by the name of Ben, was known for running them. The prospect at that stage of running even a normal marathon seemed extreme and so I considered those who went well beyond that to be, well, a bit mental. Fast forward many years and having become well and truly initiated into the endurance sport world the idea of ‘going long’ was no longer an alien concept. In fact, it sort of felt like the natural progression.
Having made the decision to focus on running, and specifically trail, last season I got involved by joining Dubai’s Desert Trail Runners, headed up by running machine, Lee Harris, and closed out my first winter by taking on the famed Wadi Bih 72km race, which you can read more about here. As with most races, the lingering thought following completion of the event was “I wonder what I could have done were I to train harder?” It was this thought that drove me to look at race options and to find a really special event for which to train. The Eiger 101 was that race.
As soon as I found out about the Eiger I was smitten. For a start I love the mountains, a fact that was a major draw for me doing the Lake Tahoe Ironman in 2015, and the views that runners are blessed with during the Eiger 101 are legendary. Secondly, it is regarded as a tough race. A very tough race. Who wants easy, right? The difficulty factor applies not only to the actual course but also to actually getting a slot, with only 600 starts available for the 101km race, all of which sell out very quickly. I had tried to register last year in 2016, for the 2017 race, but was too late and so this year I was determined to do all I could to maximise my chances of a slot.
With the 31st October firmly penciled into my calendar and my credit card details at the ready, I was sat at my computer as the clock crept towards the 10am (Swiss time) mark. Tick. Tock. Open. Cue the kind of frantic clicking and typing that is normally reserved for efforts to secure Glastonbury tickets, coupled with the intense frustration that came with getting repeatedly booted out of the reservation page and/ or having the page fail as I was headed into the final payment screen. Twenty fruitless minutes later and I was no closer to being registered AND was now expected to actually start some work, having cheekily blocked out my first appointment of the day so as to be able to focus on the race booking. I was convinced that once again my efforts had been thwarted as I was presented with a screen that said something akin to “you’re in a digital queue,” before that became, “sorry but booking is now closed.” Grr! Twenty minutes of my life, nada to show for it and the prospect of the very race I had started training hard for having moved firmly out of reach. Needless to say I was peeved.
That was until an email pinged into my account that seemed to be telling me in no uncertain terms that I had, in fact, secured a place and I was duly invited to pay for it. So I did. How a day can about face and turn 180-degrees in a moment! So that was it….. I was in. I AM in. Awesome! But wait……that means I now have to run it. 101 kilometres. Up and down serious mountains. Holy s*$t! What have I let myself in for?!
The Eiger 101 – What Exactly Is It?
A run. A very, very long run. Up and down some of the most majestic mountains in the world. The first event was held in 2013 so it is still a relatively young race, with options for shorter distances on offer alongside the 101 km event. The route takes runners on a roughly – very roughly – circular route starting in the Swiss village of Grindelwald, high up in the Alps, returning after taking in the best of the surrounding mountains, meadows and forests.
From what I can glean from the various blogs (see below) I have scoured since securing my slot in 2018’s race, the fastest times for the full distance come in at about 12 hours, with the cutoff being 26 hours. It would seem from what I have read that a fit amateur could be very happy with a time of around 20 hours. That’s a long time out on your feet and up in the mountains – certainly a lot longer than anything I would expect to face in an Ironman race. As such, I look forward to a very different approach to training for this event – this will be as much a cerebral challenge as a physical one. Bring it on!
With the Skydive Dubai desert dropzone closed for the scorching summer months and being a relative fledgling in the sport with insufficient jumps to be a Palm-bird I had to consider dropzones further afield in order to obtain my freefall fix. Yes, skydiving, as anyone who does it for fun will confess, is an addiction. A powerful one at that. The lure of open skies and thousands of feet of void to flip, slide, track and fly through is a tough one to resist.
Cue the search for potential skydiving holiday destinations. A few web searches, blogs and a Facebook Messenger conversation later I had my selection: Skydive Balaton, just outside the lakeside town of Siofok in Hungary. The main draw of this dropzone, other than the fact that the pictures and videos I had seen were amazing, was the fact that they jump from helicopters. Not just any heli though. No. Decommissioned military Mi8 choppers! After confirming that the forecast for my intended week was good – Eastern Europe, it seemed, was enjoying a very well timed heatwave – tickets were booked to fly to Budapest, the night shift finished and my bags duly packed. Freefall here I come!
Budapest, which I chose to spend a few days exploring at the start of the trip, was stunning and despite having an unfortunate start to the week after my laptop was stolen I found the city to be charming, full of history and, much like Prague, where I had been fortunate enough to visit with my father a few weeks prior, had incredible views at each and every turn. With my tourist mental checklist satisfied and hire car secured, I left the urban confines of the city and struck out into Hungary’s countryside, driving the one and a half hours out to Lake Balaton and the skydive complex, nestled at the Southern end of the runway.
I was immediately impressed with the set up there. Manifest was well organised, with my first point of contact, Krsytina, running it like the tight ship this place clearly was, and a great system whereby newly registered skydivers were issued a personal card, with this being used to self-manifest electronically, scanning in and collecting a paper ticket from an automatic machine just prior to the jump itself. Seamless, easy and sophisticated. So far so impressed. The complex itself was superbly serviced, with a number of individual hangars that groups of jumpers could make use of to pack and hang out in, a fantastic cafe and outdoor seating with panoramic views over the landing area. Skydive Balaton also has a range of really great accommodation options, from small two bed cabins, to more extensive lodgings, and, of course, the option to camp, with clean, serviceable showers and other facilities. The on-site restaurant, Aviator, served amazingly delicious food and, of course, refreshing local beer! It was easy to see why the centre played host to a number of boogies during the summer, with one actually coming to an end as I arrived.
One of the beauties of the sport is that it is wonderfully social and it wasn’t long before I was introduced to a great group of guys and girls, making the hangar in which they’d spent the boogie week in my base for the few days I was there. Welcoming, generous and fun they made my time jumping there even more awesome than I knew it was going to be and although several of my jumps were solo affairs – great for quiet contemplation and time to enjoy the expansive views of the lake and beyond – I was also able to do several jumps with other people, which is always more fun! The options for fun that come from jumping out of the back of a helicopter are almost limitless. The choice of HOW to exit is just the start. Run out? Fall backwards? Hanging drop? If you can think of it then you can pretty much do it from a helicopter. One of the funniest exits I was able to do was to hang from the rope out the back by my feet before dropping towards the earth below head first. The group jumps were hilarious, from a nine-way ‘Hot Dog’ jump to celebrate Luke’s 200th jump, to the ‘Cat’ jump that I got to do with Chris and Kim, in which we linked end to end before tracking, Chris then dipping his head to the ground causing me to fly up and over, catapulting across the sky! Epic jumps every single one. Even the journey to altitude was magical and I couldn’t help but feel as though I was in some kind of epic action movie, sitting with my legs dangling from the rear of this master of the skies as we hurtled across the grass before climbing like a colossal metallic dragonfly and revealing the lake and surrounding country far below.
Talking of generosity, I was extremely grateful to the guys, especially Aaron and Paul, who took the time to help refresh my memory of how to pack my own rig, a skill that I had long neglected in favour of simply paying for pack jobs in Dubai. There was a part of me that didn’t really feel like a complete skydiver not knowing how to pack myself and I ended the weekend confidently packing myself and living to tell the tale! In fact, I am pleased to report that my chute opened seamlessly on every pack that I did on my own, which is always reassuring! That’s another element of this sport I love: there are very few airs and graces, with most of the people you meet being down-to-earth (ironically) sorts with a sense of humour and a generous spirit. We all look out for one another and you’re guaranteed to have friends wherever you choose to go in the world. For that I am super grateful!
The weather gods were certainly smiling on us during our time there, as the day I left the winds picked up. As I drove away, back towards Budapest and my flight home, I had the satisfied grin and the aching muscles that signal a great few days of jumping, already plotting my return. If you’re looking for an amazing dropzone to visit then this is one for your list.