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 Salomon Wadi Bih run is a UAE sporting institution, having started 25 years ago, and that sees athletes take on a variety of distances, both in a solo capacity and as teams. Having had my first taste of this event in 2015 I was seduced back, this time to take on the full 72km distance.
I camped the last time, finding the experience really enjoyable and part of the entire Wadi Bih package. My intention had been to do the same this year but I ended up booking a room at the Golden Tulip on account of a friend, who was due to accompany me but ultimately decided not to come along. It transpired, however, that in spite of the insanely inflated price, the weather that weekend made it such that having a room was an absolute blessing! I still made the obligatory stop off at Lulu Hypermarket in Dibba though in order to pick up supplies, determined as I was NOT to rely on eating at the hotel. Hint for anyone looking to stay at the Golden Tulip on the weekend of Wadi Bih: dig deep as they charge a FORTUNE that weekend! My room was 280 OR for two nights, which ultimately worked out, with taxes, to about 3000 AED, or $700! Ouch!
Paperwork. Oh The Joy.
I knew from previous experience of the border at Dibba that it can take a little while to get through, and with the weekend and Wadi Bih event taking place it was important to arrive early in order to pick up my papers and get to the hotel before things got too busy. In spite of arriving in good time what I found was sadly a scene of disorganisation, with several people having failed to find their papers, which were to be found in a multitude of lever-arch files and that we were to search through ourselves. With no real apparent order to the papers – we had been told they were organised initially by country and then in alphabetical order, the latter did not appear to be case. Coupled with the very high winds that were gusting in from all sides of the open pagoda, and the threat of rain, the entire process didn’t strike me as being very well thought out. In spite of having submitted my documents over a month ago I was unable to find my pass and so had to join a pretty big group of runners in a similar position as we had to wait for our passport and visa details to be resubmitted and our papers reissued. Cue over 2 hours of waiting, during which time I entertained myself by consulting for them on the optimal construction of a wind barrier 🙂 and taking a stroll down to the fish market. Eventually, they brought a computer and printer to the site so they were able to expedite the process and by 6.30pm I had my papers and was able to continue my journey. Thankfully there was no delay at the border gate and so I sailed through with no issue. I was, at that point, very grateful that I was not camping after all on account of it now being dark and very, very windy! Quite the contrast to my last Wadi Bih experience.
First Time – Clueless
Given that I had never run this kind of ultra distance before and was thus pretty clueless I sought out some friendly advice. Chops, a friend who had run the 72km a couple of years before, was forthcoming with several absolute pearls of wisdom on a number of matters, including what to pack/ take with me on the run, and what to expect. 72km is a long way to run in one go, especially with some of the meaty climbs that Wadi Bih has. The kind of gems he proferred included packing some wet wipes in case of an emergency loo break, something that would only seem obvious if and when the need arose. Thankfully my day passed without any gastrointestinal upsets and I was able to focus solely on the running.
Knowing what to wear for an ultra marathon was another consideration that I hadn’t really had to ponder before. I was advised not to wear lycra tights on account of them getting very hot later in the day, although given the day we ended up with they may have been a great option after all. I ultimately opted for a pretty standard get-up, choosing to sacrifice toasty legs in the morning for the freedom to move unencumbered, wearing race shorts and calve compression socks. Taking along a spare, dry pair of socks, which I swapped into at the halfway point was an idea I was glad I went with, as the feeling of fresh feet after five hours of trudging did wonders for my energy levels. One of the absolute essential elements of an ultra-runner’s ‘outfit’ however is lubrication and so I ensured I was well greased up with the trusty 3B cream and had absolutely no chafing issues for the entire 9 hours that I was out and active.
I decided at the start line to don my Patagonia base layer and was sooooooo glad I did. However, I only put it on after one of the spectators commented on the fact that I was going to be “really cold” and after I experienced the howling wind that I met on turning the corner to the bag drop. Rather than leave the layer in my half-way bag, as had been my initial plan, I decided to wear it from the start after all and soon thanked my lucky stars I did! A number of runners were heading out on the course wearing just singlets and not carrying any nutrition, which I found either extremely brave or utterly misguided – I couldn’t quite decide!
From the very start the winds were relentless and as we exited the Golden Tulip in the dark we hit a wall of wind. I was so happy that I was wearing my Oakley transitional lenses, base layer and snood as not only did I feel protected from the wind chill but also from the sporadic flying debris and dust that was whipped up and flung at us at regular intervals. At a number of points the wind was so strong that it physically stopped forward progress and we had to fight in order to stop actually going backwards. Given that we started the race at 4.30am it was pitch black and as we left the lamp-lit glow of the housing areas and joined the road leading up into the wadi itself, the only light available was that from our own, individual head lamps and the occasional car, both support and police, that passed. Hearing the howl, like a jumbo jet coming in to land, of the wind as it hurtled in gusts down the wadi towards us, was a surreal experience and were it not for the fact that there were a whole group of like-minded nutters out on the course experiencing the same, it could have been terrifying. There were umpteen moments whilst I was being pummelled by a particularly savage gust that I chuckled to myself and wondered out loud what it was that I was actually doing. I mean, really?! I signed up for this?! I was voluntarily subjecting myself to these horrendous conditions, on a course I did not know, over a distance that I wasn’t even sure I would be able to complete in one go and all for what? Bragging rights? Personal achievement? I honestly didn’t know. I guess I just needed to know I could do it, or at the least that I had tried. I knew from having gone the distance in Ironman races that I could cope with being out on course for extended periods of time but what I didn’t know was whether I had the physical fitness and mental toughness to run not only an ultra marathon but one that ascended over 1000 feet. Especially in the kind of conditions we were being dealt. The severity of the conditions were driven home even more by the briefing from the organisers that said they may even need to shorten the course or put an early end to the race should the conditions worsen and especially if rain were to fall higher up the wadi, such was the real risk of flash flooding taking place.
As much as I had really intended to train a lot more for the event I ultimately fell way short of the recommended volume and there is no way I arrived at the start line having run as much as I should have. As such, I was feeling pretty apprehensive as the race approached and had even contemplated asking if I could drop out of the 72km distance and perhaps run the 50km or 30km again. However, I rationalised my decision to stick with the full distance by telling myself that the very worst that could happen was that I simply did not finish the race. That was it. I wanted to see the top of Wadi Bih, as I was denied two years ago by running the 30km distance, and so I vowed to do my best and see where and how far that took me. That is how I found myself lining up at the start of the Wadi Bih 72km race 2017.
“Ultramarathons are eating events with some running thrown in.” This was the advice I was given by an experienced trail runner and coach and chimed with my knowledge and experience from iron distance triathlon. As such I knew that I needed to go into Wadi Bih with some decent nutrition planned. The trouble was that I had never run an ultra marathon before so wasn’t certain as to what would ultimately work best. Race entirely on gels? Good way to get the shits was my thought on that. What solids should I take then? Dates and fruit seemed a good bet, as did chewy/ gummy sweets – simple to guzzle down, carry and packed full of energy. One thing I also remembered from Ironman was how good it was to get some protein down at some point during the race. As such I ended up packing a small packet of beef jerky in addition to a smaller, beef jerky stick, the latter proving to be the better option for an on-the-run snack. In the end I found that I took way too much food, returning with most of what I took, especially given that the two aid stations en-route had a good selection of snacks, such as chocolate bars, which I ended up relying on for the second half of the race. In addition to my 2 litre Camelpak containing Aqualyte and which I topped up with water only once, I also took a handheld Amphipod, with water, honey and those oh-so-amazing little wonder-seeds that are chia. I figured that if they’re good enough for the famed Tarahumara ultra-runners then they should be good for me. It was sipping on that solution that saw me right for the first third of the race before I started drawing on the other resources I brought along. A friend, David, who was also out on the course and who knows what he’s talking about when it comes to ultra-running said several times during the day that it was vital to maintain good nutrition and to drink more than you feel like drinking. The latter was good advice indeed especially as I noticed that my urine was getting more and more concentrated, in spite of not really feeling particularly thirsty. His words and the feedback from my own body drove me to start increasing my fluid intake, a move that I am certain held off any cramp during the race. In previous years, the latter hours of the race are usually run in hot, sunny conditions, with keeping cool and well hydrated the main concerns. This year, however, the emphasis was on keeping warm, which meant adequately fueling, whilst actively remembering to drink enough.
As the countdown to the start commenced I started telling myself that the best thing I could do was avoid the temptation to charge off with many of the other runners, including the eventual winner, who raced off as though it were a 10km sprint we were undertaking. In some regards it was actually quite comforting to be snug and safe inside my base layer, snood pulled up over my mouth and nose and wraparound lenses protecting my eyes from the elements. Keeping the pace to one at which I could have easily talked was my approach, slowed at regular intervals by sudden hurricane-strength gusts of wind thundering into us. I was pleasantly surprised as I found myself on a short hill ascent and descent that I recognised as being close to the 15km turnaround point from the 30km race I came second in two years before – I was feeling good and had covered the first 15km feeling strong with plenty remaining in the tank. Shortly after that point the sun started to rise and the rugged beauty of the wadi, with towering cliffs either side, began to come into view. A less welcome change was that I started to experience sporadic twinges of pain across my left knee, which I recognised as being ITB discomfort. I was initially able to ignore it, continuing to jog in spite of it, but as the kilometres ticked up the discomfort became pain and I was forced to walk more often than I really would have liked.
At about the 28km mark I paused for a few moments in order to dig out some food and saw the eventual race winner run past, back toward Dibba, looking flushed but in good form. How he had managed to comfortably scale the wadi still wearing a road-running singlet was anyone’s guess but it was an impressive feat nonetheless. Resigned to the fact that I was certainly not in the running for a podium spot I pushed on, soon being caught up by fellow Dubai Trail Runners, Sam and David, and stayed with Sam and a runner from Bahrain, Toby, for the 3km super ascent, which was absolutely taken at a walk. As we neared the top a descending runner breathily informed us that the “worst was yet to come,” which initially seemed like a bit of a negative thing to tell us until we heard the ominous roar of the wind tearing across the electricity pylons at the top of the slope before we turned the final corner and were hit head on by the full force of what felt like a force 5 hurricane! Cue a further few kilometres of bone-chattering wind-chill and stop-in-your-tracks headwinds before the 36km mark and the hallowed turnaround came into view. This marked an important psychological milestone for me as I had told myself that as long as I reached the halfway point then I was going to finish the distance, even if I ended up walking it. Knowing that I had made it that far and through the worst of the ascent was fortifying and after snapping an obligatory photo and topping up on fluids and food I started out on the second, final half, determined to avoid the seriously dark clouds rapidly encroaching on the horizon – the same clouds that were responsible for dumping snow on the top of Jebel Jais that very day and that had the ominous air of a fast-approaching, hostile army set on unleashing mayhem.
The scenery in this part of the gulf really was worth the effort of reaching, with the expansive yet intricately patterned rockscapes looking like something directly out of a Wild West set in the badlands of Utah. Despite the fact that I took a photo, even trying to capture some of the atmosphere with the 360-degree camera, the fact remains that the only way to truly appreciate the wonder of this area is to visit it in person. Standing atop the wadi and looking out over the surrounding mountain-tops to the distance drove home just how far from the urban, modern comforts of Dubai we really were, and it was refreshing and exhilirating in equal measure.
As much as the thought of running downhill seems infinitely better than the opposite, if the gradient is particularly steep then it can be just as uncomfortable to descend as it is to climb. I found that one tactic for the steeper sections of the course was to pretend I was skiing on a steep piste, carving from one side to the other in a zig-zag pattern down the slope. This did draw some quizzical looks from fellow runners but the important thing was that it seemed to actually work, significantly reducing the strain on my knees. By the time I got to the bottom of the main climb I felt as though I had discovered my second wind and even felt confident enough in my pace to remove the base layer and run the rest of the distance in my training top, although I did come close to digging it out again as the rain eventually caught up with me and the temperature fell through the floor close to the end.
It certainly did wind up being a race of two halves for me, with the first seeing me arrive at the turnaround in pain and feeling as though I was destined to hobble my way back to the finish, whilst the second remarkably saw me rediscover my running legs and enabled me to keep up a great pace for the last 30km, ultimately coming home in 22nd place, with a time of 8hrs 43 mins, out of a total of 39 finishers and about 77 who started out at 4.30 that morning. I found the entire experience to be a real rollercoaster of emotions, from humoured bemusement in the morning, as we found ourselves heading out in atrocious conditions to take on a challenge that most sane people would consider insane, to pained amazement at the stunning, rugged, expansive raw beauty of the wadi and the surrounding mountains, made all the more wild and spectacular by the raging of Mother Nature. To have the second half of the experience transform so completely as I found my legs and ran the final 30kms in excellent form, only to hit a wall again in the closing stages, all the while pushing myself on, willing my tired, aching, wind-and-rain battered and chilled body towards the end, I have to confess that this day made both of the Ironman races I have undertaken feel like walks-in-the-park in comparison. I laughed, I (very nearly) cried; I was in pain, I was flying; I was fatigued and broken, I was energised and motivated. I truly experienced everything I could in one monumental day. I am so glad that I stuck with the full distance and exposed myself to what was ultimately a huge personal challenge. I now know, once more, that I am capable of more than I initially imagined and my first thoughts after crossing the finish line were, “hmm, if I was really race fit then I wonder how much faster I could have gone?!” That is the joy and curse combined of athletic and personal challenges – they’re never really complete.
Arriving back at the Golden Tulip that afternoon, the entire outside area looked like a war zone, with debris everywhere and reports of several tents having actually been blown into the ocean! It seemed that in spite of feeling royally robbed in terms of the price being charged for a room, I was among the lucky runners to have the sanctuary of a warm, dry, draft-free and comfortable room in which to kick back in. Camping, after all, would NOT have been such fun. I joined the rest of the day’s runners and assorted family and supporters for well-earned and much appreciated food and enjoyed the presentation of prizes to the day’s various race winners – the prizes, incidentally, were awesome with each winner receiving, among other treats, a brand new Suunto multi-sport watch! Some of the times for each distance were truly incredible and it drove home just how talented some of our local amateur athletes really are – they’re literal superhumans!
In spite of having every intention to enjoy a cool, refreshing post-race beer whilst swapping tales of the day with other 72’ers, I simply ended up collapsing on my bed where I stayed until Saturday morning, when I woke to a very different scene outside and legs that felt as though they had been roughly detached from my body, put through a rusty mangle and hapharzardly re-sutured in place. Lets just say I was walking – nay, hobbling – like an old man and am still hearing complaints from my legs nearly a week later. As uncomfortable as my legs were, it was ultimately that good kind of pain; the one that reminds you of how hard you’ve worked and how much you’ve achieved.
Donning my Saloman Wadi Bih T-shirt, I joined the crowd of returning team runners as they continued to pour in to the Golden Tulip, basking in the glorious sunshine and the picture-postcard setting of the hotel and adjacent beach – a far cry from the same location just the day before. Having caught up with friends running the shortened and altered route team race (the wadi had been thoroughly washed out by rain the night before and was impassable) I checked out and started the journey back over to Dubai, but not before a good two hour wait in a line of traffic in order to traverse the border crossing back into the UAE. I hear that some people endured a five hour wait, so I guess I was one of the fortunate ones.
All in all it was a great weekend, complete with high drama, spectacular scenery and a massive sense of personal and collective achievement. The event celebrated it’s 25th anniversary this year and long may it continue, enjoying a further quarter century of challenging runners.
With the hardware set-up and the software installed it was finally time to don the HTC Vive headset and enter my own VR for the first time. I am pleased to report that it was as awesome as I had imagined.
A little like scuba diving, which similarly requires the wearing of rather bulky, somewhat cumbersome equipment but whose experience is instantly transformed once in the medium for which it was designed, VR, as it currently stands, is much the same. The headset, whilst attractively and elegantly designed, is undeniably bulky and has some noticeable weight to it. It also looks pretty dorky if truth be told. No-one, I would posit, looks anything other than intensely nerdy wearing a VR headset. Still, as soon as the headset is placed on the head and the eyes drink in the rich graphics being streamed through the displays then, well, all that other stuff becomes instantly irrelevant. Like entering the water as a scuba diver, entering VR is met with the same perceived change of physical state. The weight of the headset is forgotten. The fact I looked like a dork was forgotten. I was, however, in a new world. Sure, I knew I was physically still in my room but then again I wasn’t. I was somewhere else entirely. That is the magic of VR.
The first experience of VR that any new owner of an HTC Vive will have is almost certain to be the tutorial. This takes place in a large white dome-like space, much like the O2 arena in London back when it was the Millenium Dome, complete with an echoey acoustic that one would imagine such a cavernous and empty space to possess. Whilst I was having an initial look around this new space I heard a voice from behind and turned to see a robotic sphere, complete with a central ‘eye,’ somewhat reminiscent of HAL in Kubrick’s Space Odyssey 2001 but friendlier. It was this levitating robotic head that was talking and it quickly became apparent that he was to be my tutor.
What followed was a systematic yet thoroughly entertaining introduction to the basic fundamentals of VR, from the principles of the play-area boundaries and the various functions of the controller handset buttons, neatly demonstrated by means of balloons, fireworks and laser beams emanating from the ends in response to each button being pushed. The balloons were especially fun as it quickly dawns on anyone going through the tutorial that one can interact with them, for example, by batting them away as one would do so at, say, a music festival. One of my friends, whilst undergoing the tutorial for the first time, released a swathe of balloons that floated gently towards the roof of the dome before quickly switching his controller over to serve as a laser beam and proceeded to shoot the balloons in a digital, VR version of clay pigeon shooting! Classic!
With the basics of the Vive explained in what I can honestly say is the most engaging, memorable, fun and effective computer setup tutorial I have ever undertaken, one of the key values of VR, and indeed spatial computing, as a medium was apparent: being immersive and interactive, including physically, serves to massively reinforce learning in a way that standard, screen-based tutorials just cannot. Can you imagine how much more engaged and willing to listen to the helpful Microsoft Office paperclip you would have been were you able to feel as though he was there in the room with you? If a simple start-up tutorial could have people grinning and feeling engaged then one can only begin to imagine the potential value of spatial computing for wider education. I have always believed that this technology will revolutionise learning and having now been able to experience it first-hand I am as convinced as ever. Going to school in the next five years is going to be awesome if the classroom experience is going to embrace the power of this tech – almost makes me want to regress back!
The kit has arrived and you are one step – physical that is – closer to taking that first virtual foray into an exciting, immersive new world. It’s just a case of opening the box and getting going, right? Not quite.
It took me about a week to finally get in to VR for real after taking delivery of my Vive, partly due to the fact that I moved house but also on account of one needing to put aside a reasonable chunk of time to dedicate to actually setting up the system. I’ll run through the steps I took in a moment but first it would be useful just to recap what I actually needed to have in place before being able to enter VR:
VR Headset, Trackers & Controllers – I opted for the HTC Vive and ordered it online from the US via Amazon. In the box was everything I needed to get going, other than the powerful PC to run it all.
PC – VR is processing hungry and requires a top-of-the-line graphics card in order to render everything properly. More and more ‘VR-compatible’ packages are coming onto the market with each passing day but, in essence, I knew that I needed to get a gaming PC as this was certain to have the grunt power necessary to fulfill my VR aspirations. In the end I opted for an Alienware 13″ laptop – it was a brand I was aware of, even as a non-gamer, and a laptop offered the portability that I wanted to be able to take my VR set-up to other locations in order to demonstrate it; not something that would be as easy with a chunky desktop.
The actual process for getting set-up and into VR involved:
Setting up the Lighthouses – in order to be able to do room scale VR at present, it is necessary to have a minimum of two scanning sensors, positioned roughly opposite one another, in order for the computer to be able to track the headset and controllers and define a virtual “play space.” It is this process that ultimately took the longest to achieve, principally for practical/ DIY reasons rather than technical ones. The sensors that come with the Vive are known as Lighthouses and were significantly bigger, and heavier, than I first imagined they would be. I’d figured that I would be able to easily hang them from the wall using a picture hook, a pretty quick and simple task to install. When I examined them, however, I discovered that they weighed a fairly decent amount and had no hole or the like from which to hang via a hook. Besides, realising how important they were to the entire virtual experience the idea of hanging them loosely on the wall lost it’s appeal.
Each had two spiral sockets to allow them to be screwed onto a camera mount, like the one that you would use to mount an SLR camera onto a tripod. With one on the back and one on the base, there were two options for how I might mount mine. Included in the box were two pivoted brackets that were intended to be screwed to the wall, a step that would necessitate drilling holes in the wall of my room. In spite of my landlord initially saying it would be fine to do so he seemed a little less keen when I broached the subject again at a later date, and the fact was that I didn’t readily have access to the necessary tools to facilitate the mounting. That and the concern about drilling into walls where I had no idea about the location of power lines – receiving an electric shock would not be a great introductory step to VR! I also wasn’t certain about the optimal location for the two Lighthouses and felt that getting that figured out might be a smart move before committing to making holes in the wall. I also wanted to retain the option of moving the system easily, for example by taking it into work to demonstrate VR to my colleagues, and so a more temporary yet similarly stable solution was preferable. This set me off on a research effort.
Various options were considered and promptly scored off the list. These included mounting the boxes via heavy duty velcro attachments (not reliable enough); setting up tall camera tripods (too much of a wide footprint to be practical in a limited space); using GoPro handlebar mounts to attach the Lighthouses to curtain rails (I did, ultimately, do this for one of them), etc. One option that seemed to be getting a lot of attention online was that of using adjustable support beams (see an example here), which have the advantage of being easy to position, set-up and move again if necessary, as well as being secure. Coupled with pole grips like the aforementioned handlebar mounts for cameras this idea certainly appealed. The issue, however, was in trying to source said poles. Nowhere I looked in Dubai seemed to have what I was after and once again I looked to the internet. They had what I thought I wanted on Amazon but being fairly expensive (about $50 each) and pretty bulky I wasn’t sure if I could even get them delivered.
Desperate to actually get going I even looked into whether it was essential to mount them in the first place. According to one video blog on the topic it seemed as though the Lighthouses could scan and track adequately even whilst placed on the floor. This, I realised, was not a practical medium to long-term option and getting them at the suggested ‘above head height’ was still preferable. In the end I actioned what I intend to be a temporary solution: one I attached via a GoPro handlebar mount to the end of one of the curtain poles in my room – thankfully the power cable just extended enough to permit this – and the other I positioned on top of a tabletop mirror that thankfully happened to be as wide as the Lighthouse itself. In a bid to reassure myself that it was moderately secure I did enlist the use of some sticky tack to try and plant the base onto the surface a little more securely than it might otherwise have been. I wasn’t entirely certain if this positioning would work as this second station was sitting not angled down towards the floor but rather horizontally. I wondered whether this would adversely impact it’s ability to scan and therefore track me correctly in VR. I needn’t have worried.
With the Lighthouses positioned, powered and synched with one another (wirelessly and automatically) it was now time to fire up the headset and controllers.
Connecting the Headset to the PC – whilst there are now systems available to allow for un-tethered headset connection, the vast majority of VR newbies will, like me, have their first experience via a fully tethered system, meaning that the headset is directly attached to their computer, via a long cable. With the Vive this cable has three components, all of which connect to the PC via an intermediary little box (included with the Vive). One of the cables plugs into an HDMI port, the second into one of the USB ports, and the third, a power cable that plugs into a power outlet. One of the cables and ports at the back of the headset is there to allow a set of headphones, or ear buds, to be plugged in – sound is a pivotal component of the immersive experience of VR – and the Vive comes with a simple set of ear buds included. I, like most however, have ultimately opted to spend some more and get a decent pair of headphones.
Switch on the PC and Set-Up – setting up the Alienware laptop itself was simple enough. These days computers pretty much come out of the box ready to rock and roll so I have skipped a description of that stage. With the headset plugged in it was now time to download the Vive software, via the Vive.com website. This very intuitively guided me through the set-up process, including checking that the Lighthouses were scanning correctly – they were 🙂 – and that both the headset and controllers were being tracked – they too were working well.
Once the system had established that they could see both the headset and controllers I was walked – literally – through the process of setting up the ‘play area,’ the term for the space in which I could safely immerse myself in VR without tumbling into and over furniture and the like. Unbeknownst to me until now my previous room was simply not big enough to meet the minimum floor space requirement for a play area, a fact that would have severely pissed me off had I discovered the hard way. As I say, I had thankfully just moved house and it turned out that my bigger room had just the right amount of ‘spare’ floor to permit a VR play area. Phew! In terms of defining this area, I was prompted to take one of the Vive controllers and sketch out, in mid-air, my area. That is I actually walked around the area in question whilst pressing the trigger of the controller to, in effect, draw an invisible chalk-line around the perimeter of my VR area. I had to repeat this process a couple of times as I was, initially, just shy of the minimum area requirement, but once it was done I could see on the computer screen a digital rendering of the outline of my safe VR play space.
Download SteamVR – a platform through which VR experiences, games and the like are available, I needed to download and install Steam in order to use my system. Again, much like installing the Vive software, it was a painless process to get Steam installed. Once it was and I had created an account and was logged in it was time to finally don the mask and enter my very own VR for the first time…..
Everyone says that the beauty and allure of the desert eventually ensnares you and it is perfectly natural to arrive in the Middle East for the first time and imagine that the desert, with it’s seemingly endless, barren landscape of sand dunes and not much else, is completely devoid of any beauty or charm. Spend sufficient time out here, however, and this opinion gradually shifts as you start to notice the features that make the desert such a beguiling environment.
I had heard talk of Liwa, with it’s huge sand dunes, from friends here in Dubai and knew that it was meant to be a particularly stunning part of the Arabian Peninsula, nestled on the edge of the vast area of wilderness that constitutes the Empty Quarter, straddling the border between the UAE and Saudi Arabia. I had imagined a solitary hotel appearing from the sands like a mirage and surrounded by towering dunes – a far cry from the towering glass and concrete that has fast come to define the main cityscapes of this part of the world. A trip to Liwa is simpler than one initially imagines it might be, with this desert oasis town easily reachable by a well serviced highway directly from Abu Dhabi.
Wanting to make the most of one of my post-night shift weeks off I opted to finally head to Liwa in order to see if my imaginings of the place matched the reality and so set about doing some basic research. Liwa is actually an oasis town sitting along the edge of the Rub al’Khali desert, with many farms growing crops including dates, for which it is famous, and is the historical birthplace of the ruling families of both Abu Dhabi and Dubai. It is easy to get to from Dubai via a 3 hour drive down the E11 highway, sticking with the same road as it passes Abu Dhabi and heads towards the Saudi border. The only issues one has to contend with during the latter part of this drive include the fact that the road from Abu Dhabi to the turn off towards Liwa is chock-full of lorries, meaning the journey ends up feeling like a high-speeds, high-stakes game of hopscotch as you’re forced to swiftly hop between trucks, narrowly avoiding the constant stream of wannabe Dominic Torettos as they hurtle along the fast lane as though they’re racing the Earth itself, flashing their lights like deranged watchmen. Survive that gauntlet and it is onto the main E45 highway inland towards the town of Madinat Zayed, the last main population centre before Liwa, a further hour away. It is vital to ensure that you have sufficient fuel before moving away from Abu Dhabi, with no fuel stations between the capital and Madinat Zayed.
I opted to stay at the Tilal Liwa Hotel, approximately twenty minutes outside of Madinat Zayed and a short drive inland from the main road, past the camel track and in the same section of desert as the royal desert camp, which I could see clearly in the distance from the hotel itself. A beautiful four-star hotel, it had pretty much everything a weekend desert warrior might need, with an inviting infinity pool overlooking the desert and views of camels and dunes, a fitness centre, a couple of well stocked and pricey bars, and a decent dining options. The list of available activities was also plentiful, from dune bashing and boarding, to camel rides and a desert horse trek. The only activities I really had in mind for the two days I was around were to visit the huge dunes outside Liwa and get some desert running in, both of which I ticked off during the stay.
Early Rise for an Epic Climb
Determined to make the most of my visit I had heard that a trip to the huge dune at Tal Mireb, otherwise known as Moreeb dune, was best at either dusk or dawn, when the light was at it’s most magical. As such I set the alarm for ridiculously early the next morning and headed out in the thick fog towards Liwa. The road from Liwa to the dunes snaked its way through and into the desert, at times forcing me to literally crawl along on account of there being so much thick fog. Eventually I arrived, just as the light was starting to illuminate the sky and the towering presence of Tal Mireb revealed itself. The Liwa festival, during which scores of four-wheel drives power up and down the dune racing one another, had finished just the week before and so there was still plenty of evidence of the event having been staged including, sadly, trash on the sand. With nobody else around I felt like I had the entire area to myself and set off on the lengthy trek to the top of the steep and lofty dune. The effort was certainly worth it, with panoramic views across the surrounding desert the reward and a stunning sunrise to welcome me. Were I someone who could actually sit stationary for five minutes I would have found the experience almost meditative. Once I had drunk in the incredible atmosphere and realising that if I left soon then I could still make it back to the hotel in time for breakfast, I ran down the dune, feeling like a cosmonaut bouncing across the surface of a giant marshmallow, and made the breathtakingly beautiful drive back out the way I came, stopping at several points to immortalise the view with my iPhone.
It is at this point that I reckon images definitely speak louder than words, so feel free to check out the short video I made at the dune.
TOP TIPS for a visit to Liwa & Tal Mireb:
1. Fill up with fuel before leaving Abu Dhabi – the next petrol station is about 160km (1hr 45mins) away in Madinat Zayed with very little other than sand dunes along the way.
2. Book early – there are three main hotels to choose from in the Liwa area: 1. Liwa Hotel, in Liwa itself, which is a three star establishment; 2. Tilal Liwa Hotel, just outside Madinat Zayed; and the Qasr al Sarab desert resort, a five star paradise about 90km, or an hour, outside of Liwa. If a hotel is not your thing and you have the necessary kit then camping in the desert is another option.
3. Visit Tal Mireb at either dusk or dawn – the light as the sun is rising and setting over this vast swathe of desert is breathtaking and well worth the effort it takes to get there. Scaling the dune, which rises over 100m from base to peak, is energy sapping and hot work so giving yourself the helping hand of doing so during the cooler parts of the day is recommended. I found the main advantage of a morning visit was the distinct absence of other people, making it feel as though I had the entire desert to myself.
“The great aim of education is not knowledge, but action.” These words, spoken by the philosopher Herbert Spencer, ring true and can, in my opinion, also be applied inversely. That is to say action delivers great education. For far too long the accepted model for delivering knowledge and training professionals such as vets has been to sit them all down in a lecture hall, drone on at them for hours on end, demand that they go off, read, write the odd essay and complete the occasional project, and then ask them to cram all of that supposed knowledge into their brains ready to regurgitate at will during the course of an exam or nine.
Granted there are also practical elements to most of these programmes, whether it be dissection, physiology labs or animal handling, but the bulk of the training has always been delivered in much the same manner: didactic instruction. For some this approach works and they go away retaining everything that they have heard. For most, however, myself included, it represents a dated and unbelievably inefficient method. Hence the need to condemn weeks to tedious, stress-induced revision before the big assessments. I always found it much easier, way less stressful and frankly more fun to learn by actually doing, seeing, touching or otherwise interacting with the subject matter at hand. Most of what I recall from anatomy training, for example, are the random little moments in the dissection lab when I recall physically holding a specimen and examining it. I can’t for the life of me easily recall a specific moment when I turned to a textbook page and had a piece of knowledge stick in perpetuity.
Whilst it is acknowledged by many educators that practical instruction has better outcomes in terms of understanding and long-term knowledge and skills retention, the fact of the matter is that preparing and delivering a lecture is significantly cheaper, quicker and easier to achieve, whilst the results of that labor can be shared far more widely than a practical session. In terms of resources, acquiring digital photos, videos and other screen-based media is far less costly and labor intensive than drawing together and delivering a tangible, practical learning tool, such as an anatomy specimen. Some of these barriers, I believe, are now finally being lifted and the costs, both in terms of time, effort and direct financial outlay, are narrowing between the old and the digital new. The implications for education and training at every level of schooling, from kids’ first school experience right through to professional CPD (continuing professional development), is profound and I wish to explore why I believe that to be so.
Mixed Reality & Virtual Reality
I first experienced both mixed reality and high-end virtual reality in 2015 and again in 2016 when I volunteered at the Augmented World Expo in Silicon Valley. The power of both technologies to fundamentally change how education outcomes are achieved and training delivered was clearly evident and left me convinced that the future of medical, including veterinary, education was in the application of these new immersive tools.
In 2016 I was fortunate enough to be at one of the conference parties where someone happened to have two Microsoft HoloLens headsets and was demonstrating them to the small crowd of curious nerds that had gathered around him. Well, I was one of those nerds and before long had the pleasure of donning one of the sets and so was introduced to the wonders of true mixed reality.
Much like a small welding mask, in both look and feel, the HoloLens is essentially a set of transparent screens that sit in one’s field of view by means of the headstraps that keep the device in place. Whilst not especially comfortable and certainly not something anyone is going to ever be in a rush to wear out in public on account of looking, frankly, ridiculous, the experience that it delivered was compelling. With the use of a simple gesture, specifically an upward ‘throwing’ movement, a menu popped into view suspended perfectly in mid-air and crystal clear as if it were right there in the real world in plain sight of everyone around me. Of course it wasn’t and the only person able to see this hologram was me. Selecting from the menu was as simple as reaching out and ‘touching’ the desired option and within seconds a holographic representation of the Earth was spinning languidly before me. I could ‘pick up’, ‘move’ and otherwise manipulate the item in front of me as though it were a physical object, and if I did move it, for example off to the right, out of my field of view, that is precisely where it remained and where I found it again when I turned back round. The human body application was similarly cool, as I was able to explore the various layers of anatomy through interaction with a highly rendered hologram. Whilst comical for onlookers not wearing a HoloLens, as I appeared to apparently be pawing away at thin air like someone suffering a particularly lucid acid hallucination, the thrill of what I was actually seeing and engaging with myself allowed me to ignore my daft appearance.
What are the medical education applications for such mixed reality technology? Whilst holographic visual representations of anatomy are, at first, a magical phenomemon to experience and a pretty cool party piece, it is the fact that mixed reality sees realistic holograms merged, or so it appears to the user, onto the real world, in contrast to virtual reality, which replaces the real world experience with an entirely digital one, that lends itself to unique educational applications. Anatomy instruction by being able to accurately overlay and track in real-time deeper layers onto a real-world physical specimen, enabling students to understand the wider context in which various anatomical structures sit is a far more compelling and useful application of MR than a simple floating graphic. Similarly, surgical training involving holographic overlays onto a real-world, physical object or combined with haptic technology to elicit tactile feedback, offers the potential to deliver programmable, repeatable, easily accessible practical training with minimal expense and zero waste on account of there being no need to have physical biological specimens.
Imagine: a fully-functional and resourced dissection and surgical training lab right there in your clinic or home and all at the press of a digital button. Imagine how confident you would become at that new, nerve-wracking surgical procedure if you had the ability to practice again and again and again, physically making the required cuts and placing the necessary implant, being able to make the inevitable mistakes that come with learning anything new but at zero risk to your patient. Being able to step up to the surgical plate for real and carry out that same procedure that you have rehearsed and developed refined muscle memory for, feeling the confidence that a board-certified specialist with years of experience has, and all without having had to put a single animal at risk – that’s powerful. That’s true action-based education at it’s most compelling and it is a future that both VR and MR promises.
I predict that the wide adoption of graphically rich, immersive and realistic digital CPD programmes, through both VR and MR, will result in a renewed engagement of professionals with CPD training and ultimately lead to more confident, skilled, professionally satisfied and happier clinicians. I, for one, know that were I able to complete practical CPD by simply donning a headset and loading up a Vive or HoloLens experience from the comfort and convenience of my clinic or home, all whilst still being able to interact in real-time with colleagues both physically present and remote, my CPD record would be bursting at the seams. That has to be a great thing for the profession, our clients and society in general.
After learning as much as possible about all things VR over the past couple of years I finally took the plunge and invested the significant sum required to become ‘VR Enabled.’ This involved purchasing both a high-end VR system, requiring the decision to be made between two competing devices: the HTC Vive, which sits on the SteamVR platform in terms of content provision, and Facebook’s Oculus Rift, the original poster child for VR and with its own online VR content store. I had visited Upload VR in San Francisco back in June 2016 fully thinking that the Oculus Rift was the device I wanted but was totally won over by the Vive, especially once it became clear that the Vive was able to do room-scale VR whilst the Oculus was only offering a seated experience and had not yet launched the Touch controllers.
The three experiences I enjoyed with the Vive (Google Tiltbrush, Universe Sandbox, and WeVR’s The Blu) had me grinning from ear to ear the moment I donned the headset and I spent hours crouching, circumnavigating, exploring and generally loving the immersive world into which VR had placed me. It was easy to forget that I was still stood in a room next to a PC and not in each of the magical playgrounds that I sequentially jumped into. You can read about my experience at UploadVR here.
I would’ve rushed out immediately and got myself set up with a VR set were it not for the considerable outlay of mullah that doing so requires and so I did what any good procrastinator does when it comes to making big decisions: I procrastinated and analysed the shit out of it!
So what made me finally decide to make the investment and jump into VR? A number of contacts I have made in the VR community over the past two years have all said the same thing: to truly understand VR and it’s potential it is important to actually experience it and become familiar with it. One VR expert pretty much told me to get a headset and spend 100 hours minimum in it! Like anything in life, whether it be language learning or training for a big sporting goal, full immersion is usually the best way to learn, grow and generally get good at whatever activity it is. Coupled with reading an advance copy of Robert Scoble and Shel Israel’s book, The Fourth Transformation, which focuses on the rapidly growing sectors of virtual, augmented and mixed reality, this collective advice made me realise that if I truly wanted to understand VR there was only one thing I could do.
Ordering…… then Waiting
Decision made. Credit card in hand. Where and how to get hold of my own VR set up? As much as the Oculus Rift has come on leaps and bounds, especially since the launch of the Touch Controllers, which are, according to the reports, much better than the Vive’s, the fact that the HTC Vive comes as a complete package and does room-scale VR straight of the box, in addition to knowing about some of the applications available for it, I headed to the Vive site and attempted to place an order. Unfortunately there was no way to order easily from Dubai and the only way to order directly from Vive was to have a US credit card. So no go there unless I could persuade a US friend to do me a huge favour. Amazon, however, saved the day as I was easily able to order via their international site using my UAE credit card, and arranged to have the order delivered to me via the Aramex Shop & Ship courier service. One concern I had after placing the order was whether or not I had inadvertently been duped and perhaps purchased a convincingly presented fake. I had visions of taking delivery of a cheap, knock-off and the headaches of having to then get my money back. Thankfully I need not have worried as the genuine article duly arrived about a week later. Stage 1 complete and about $800 plus delivery of $160 in expense. Now all I needed was a computer capable to powering the device and I would be on my way.
Sadly neither of my Apple computers are even close to being up to the task of powering a high-end VR system, so I knew that I was going to need to fork out for a PC with a powerful graphics card. I had already looked around the stores in Dubai and found some pretty impressive machines on offer, all with equally impressive price tags. Convinced that I would be able to find a similar offering online, albeit significantly cheaper, I began doing some research. This is where I found the difficulty in being able to make a decision: what do I go for that would enable me to experience VR and that would be relatively future-proof without going insane and spending many thousands? I am not a gamer and so have no real experience or knowledge of what makes for a decent gaming PC. What I did know, however, was that Alienware was a brand that I had heard of and knew were big in the gaming world. I soon discovered via their website that they are part of Dell and so set to exploring the models on offer.
One of the first questions to answer for myself was whether I wanted to opt for a laptop versus desktop. I knew that I wanted the portability of a laptop so that I would be able to take the system into work, or to friends’ houses, but knew that desktops offered a much easier time of it in terms of expansion in the future, in addition to generally being cheaper to purchase. After much thought I did eventually opt for a laptop, going for the compact yet graphically very powerful Alienware 13” R3, with an Intel i7-6700 Core processor (a very powerful one I was informed) and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1060 graphics card. With added anti-virus software and UK VAT (I ordered via the UK site after clarifying with online customer support that I could a) use a UAE credit card and b) have the order sent to me via a UK routing address, Shop & Ship again), the total cost was about $2180. Unfortunately I was also liable to pay UAE Customs when the laptop arrived (eventually) from Dell. I did question whether with all the extra costs it might have just been better to buy a similar machine here in Dubai but came to the conclusion that it was still more cost effective to tread the path I did.
One note of caution for anyone looking to order overseas and have their computer delivered to them is to bare in mind that there might be unexpected issues. In my case the issue was that in spite of clarifying at the order stage that I was able to order using a non-UK card and to have it sent to me via a courier routing service, I received an email shortly after confirming — and paying for – the order from someone in accounts urging me to contact them within the next 24 hours as I had to confirm this, that or the other. This is where Dell fell down badly as trying to get in touch with the person in question, in spite of the urgency of their message, was impossible. I did eventually manage a stuttered email exchange, with the message being delivered to me being that my order was not able to be finalised as I could not verify the delivery address. I politely but pointedly highlighted the fact that I had asked right at the outset whether any of the specifics of ordering from out of country were going to be problematic and was assured that they would not. Now I was being told they were. How to frustrate and piss off a customer! Long story short I tried to get further clarification on the matter, advising Dell that if it was an issue then they simply had to refund my payment, cancel the order entirely and I would either find another option for ordering from them or buy said computer locally. Thankfully I was able to get some kind of clarity via a very nice customer service rep who chased up my case and eventually confirmed that my order could, after all, proceed. Fast forward a couple of weeks and I had confirmation that my order had left China, where it was being built – ?! why then was I a) paying UK VAT, and b) having to have the item delivered to me via the UK when it more than likely touched down in Dubai on route to the UK anyway?!
Still, I was now, finally, in possession of the necessary tools to enable me to enter VR.
One of the very best parts of living out here in Dubai is the opportunity to engage in a plethora of incredible sports, enabled in large part by the reliable weather – warm, sunny and generally perfect during the winter months; less so in the summer! The other main factor that drives the opportunities for adventurous leisure pursuits is the fact that Dubai invests and does so in a big way if it is something that they take a keen interest in. Skydive Dubai is one such example and the truth is that it has very much made a mark for itself as one of the premier skydiving destinations on the planet, a truth that was evident during the recent Winter Festival.
I love the fact that my days off get to start with questions of the nature,”what fun outdoor pursuit shall I engage in today?” Should I scuba dive? Climb? Trail run? Maybe kitesurf? Or what about skydiving? So many options and all within a sensible distance of the city itself. One of my key activities is skydiving. I have loved the sport ever since giving my mother grey hairs by signing up for a tandem when I was an 18 year old Gap Year student travelling in New Zealand. Fast forward 12 years and I had the pleasure of gaining my solo skydiving licence in the US, training at Skydive San Diego, and putting my new found skills to use at various drop zones in the state of California. It was, truth be told, the promise of skydiving at Skydive Dubai and jumping over the Palm that finally made my mind up as to whether to accept a position in the Middle East and to make the move to become an expat. I was seduced by the sky! I had experienced the sport in the UK and came to the conclusion pretty swiftly that I was very much a fair-weather skydiver – sunnier, hotter climes and bluer skies beckoned.
One of the highlights of the skydiving calendar here in Dubai is the annual Winter Festival, that generally runs from Boxing Day (26th December) through to New Year’s Day, with full on days of epic jumping with a plethora of visiting skydivers from all over the planet. I was able to jump for just two out of the seven days this year but really made the most out of that time, with back to back loads each day that saw me focus on formation belly jumps and the ultimate goal of nailing a two-point 8-way, one of the required skills for the USPA C-licence, and something that a number of my fellow sky-buddies had their sights set on too. One of the key advantages of attending the Winter Festival is that we get to jump repeatedly with coaches, something that would normally cost significantly more during normal weeks. This not only offers a really fun way to get to know the professional skydivers here and hang out with them as friends but also leads to some seriously accelerated improvement in our skills in the sky. Planning a jump, doing it, reviewing it with a coach who really knows their stuff and then going back out and doing it again and again leads to exponential improvements and was, I am sure, the prime driver of us collectively achieving our goal of securing 8-way success.
In addition to getting to do loads of really fun jumps with interesting, vibrant friends, both new and existing, there were plenty of other reasons to hang out at the drop zone during the festival. Each day ended with dinner, a great opportunity to review the day’s jumps and think ahead to the next, followed by the ‘video of the day’ screened around the desert campfire. I even had a win in one of the daily raffle draws, thrilled as I was to receive a voucher for five free jump tickets. The glider was a feature during the festival as well, going up again and again to give others the same incredible thrill of being ejected as I had experienced previously and one that everyone raved about.
One of the really incredible features of pursuing adrenaline sports as a pastime is that pretty much all domains become big playgrounds. From playing at being a fish and exploring the other-worldliness of being a scuba diver to the sheer thrill and exhilaration of freefall as a skydiver, I love the constant stream of ‘new’ that such endeavours present.
When I saw that there was an aerobatic glider parked on the runway at Skydive Dubai’s desert campus, and knowing that they were offering something special as advertised on social media, I was intrigued but otherwise didn’t think too much more about it. That was until we were all sat around chatting after a couple of early morning jumps and the topic of the ‘glider jumps’ came up. As fun as it sounded I still wasn’t especially sold on the idea, especially given that the one and only previous time I had been in a glider was a couple of year’s ago when I ended up feeling really quite queasy whilst crammed in next to my dad. The price also seemed a little steep, representing several standard jumps – ones that would get me closer to my current goal of 200 – and so I somewhat mentally parked the whole idea. That was until Shunka, one of the most experienced instructors at the dropzone described how even after 15,000 jumps under his belt, his glider experience was among his top three jumps of all time! SOLD! I trust what he says and if he was saying that it was an awesome experience then I had to see what the fuss was all about….
Cash handed over, I was summoned to manifest where I met Tony, our glider pilot, and was taken through the briefing of what to expect, what to do and all I could think was “wow!” The description of the anticipated experience was intense enough and that was whilst standing safely on terra firma! When it came to my turn I strapped in and just started grinning from the moment we started rolling. I was going to do this crazy thing and I didn’t even fully know what that thing was even going to be!
As we climbed, higher and higher, towed by the plane just up in front of us, I appreciated the intense sense of freedom and presence that being in an uncovered seat on a glider that is flying affords someone. The view out over the desert, the dropzone and the surrounding properties and landscape was crisp, detailed and in full technicolor. I was able to appreciate features of the area surrounding the desert campus that I just hadn’t really ever been able to closely notice in the main skydive plane. The ride up alone was worth taking up the challenge!
At 4,500 feet we detached from the plane and started truly gliding, swooping in and out of the isolated banks of cloud that were our companions and spotting the current load of skydivers as their canopies popped sequentially into view. We completed a few fairground-worthy manoeuvres, including a full inversion to leave me dangling in my strap, head pointed directly towards earth, and the ‘practice runs’ of the main move in which we dived steeply before banking sharply skyward, placing us on a fully vertical steep ascent. After the second of these trial runs I was given the nod to do several things in sequence: a) undo my seat-strap – something that emphasised the reality of what was about to go down and the fact that I was putting my full trust in Tony; b) bring legs forward, with knees clearing the console positioned directly in front; and c) place my hands on the side of the glider, both in anticipation of the main event and also to ensure that it went as smoothly as possible. Only one thing left to do and that was grin from ear to ear as we dived one last time before pulling up into our steep, vertical climb. When the glider shifted it was the strangest feeling, even though I was fully expecting it to happen: the glider and I simply parted ways!
“I felt myself continue to move up!”
Whilst climbing at 100mph, Tony simply moved the glider in a quick fluid motion away from my relative position, the effect being to essentially eject me from my seat and the aircraft entirely. As I did so I felt myself continue to move up! The completely wrong direction! All whilst still moving in synch with the glider itself. The effect was one of simulating complete and utter weightlessness – a very powerful and difficult to fully imagine sensation. As both myself and the glider reached the apex of the ascent, the rush of air quietened to complete silence as we both sort of hovered in place for a split second before starting the downward phase of the arc, driven of course by gravity. After all, what goes up generally must come down. As I started to fall back to earth I remembered the advice I was given not to rush deployment but to a) continue to enjoy this most bizarre of experiences and b) to wait until I had sufficient speed with which to establish normal stability for correct pilot chute deployment. So it was and as I felt the rush of terminal velocity return – by now a familiar feeling – I waved off, threw out the pilot and waited for my parachute to open before surveying my airspace for the glider as it started to swoop and circle me whilst I flew under canopy. Being buzzed by an aircraft, especially one that makes little to no sound other than a rapid swoosh as it soars past, was akin to sharing the sky with a giant bird and the next few minutes of flight were like something out of an extreme sports movie.
Every piece of GoPro footage I have seen to date from those who have completed the same experience ends the same way: landing followed by a holler of delight at how utterly awesome the jump was. I was no different! I touched down, was buzzed at practically touching distance by the glider one final time – a pass-by that I was not expecting – and proceeded to whoop and holler like a man possessed. The entire experience was electrifying and had it not been for needing to get back to Dubai I would have been very very tempted to sign straight back up for another go. Wow! Every skydiver has to try this out. It was nuts!
“Solar Hill is like a religious experience!” With claims like that how could any self-respecting triathlete not want to race Challenge Roth at least once?! I had long been aware of the legend of Roth, Germany, the home of Challenge and one of the longest running races on the calendar, for a number of years, being the stage for multiple incredible records in it’s history and considered by many to be their favorite race ever.
I had attempted to secure a coveted spot for 2015’s race but missed out by seconds – the slots sell out in moments so one has to be ready and waiting online as soon as the site goes live, much like trying to get tickets for a major rock festival! Having learned my lesson and hearing even more tales of how memorable the race was I was determined to have another go, fresh as I was off the back of my inaugural Ironman in Lake Tahoe and clearly having forgotten the punishing training regime and discomfort of the actual race, such is the nature of both time passed and memories of the endorphin high above and beyond the pain. I had, like many before me and I am sure many after me, claimed rather unconvincingly that “one would probably be enough” as far as iron distance races went. No-one believed me and, rather predictably, it wasn’t long before the lure of the long course whispered to me again, the focus being on getting, first, into Roth and then, second, fit for Roth.
Having learned my lesson the year before I was ready and waiting, credit card details primed and finger on the mouse as the entries for Roth went live. As Sod’s Law would have it I actually secured two places this time around and had to forfeit one as that was all I needed. I was in. Cue the requisite training, working again with Trace Rogers and her new GroWings team, as we worked on building the fitness that I had honed over the previous two years. I will be the first to admit that my preparation for Roth was nowhere near as intense as for Tahoe, in part on account of work demands and schedules and also, quite honestly, because I felt significantly less pressure for this race. In my mind Roth was to be enjoyed above and beyond any other goal. It was also, logic dictated, meant to be a less physically demanding race compared to the high altitude course at Tahoe. Add to that the fact that I had established a pretty decent base level of endurance fitness, which all meant that I suffered less guilt if the odd session were missed or curtailed. That’s not to say I didn’t train: I certainly did. Hard and enthusiastically. Just not as hard as in previous years.
Fast forward several months and I was one of several Dubai-triathletes who jetted out, leaving behind the intense heat of summer for the kinder climes of Europe and specifically Bavaria. My parents were, once again, eager to join me in this iron adventure, being my staunch supporters in Tahoe and providing even more justification to tack on a decent holiday afterwards. Our first few days were spent in Nuremberg itself, starting our stay, quite by chance on account of some channel hopping in our apartment, by watching a BBC documentary “How To Become A German,” which was actually filmed in the city and provided some entertaining facts by which to start our experience. For example, we now had an official pork and beer consumption figure to aim for to truly feel German! Nuremberg was a beautiful city to explore, full of history, some of it dark but important to acknowledge, but more importantly now full of wonderful people, incredible culture, stunning architecture and food and drink options that satisfied our appetites very well. I even found the time to enjoy some of the city’s training infrastructure, joining an early morning swim session at one of the very modern, clean and popular indoor pools and running around the huge park close to our accommodation, which was part training run, part historical tour.
A couple of days before the actual race, we moved closer to Roth itself, although getting from the city to the race would not have been an issue or even taken very long, choosing to stay with a wonderful lady, Hanne, in her family’s fairytale cottage just outside the classically beautiful town of Schwabach. It was there that we had the good fortune to meet a Munich first-time iron triathlete, Dirk, and his family, all of whom reinforced the main memory of the trip, that being how incredibly friendly, fun, interesting and caring the Bavarian people are. Hanne and her husband, for example, made sure that all of us were fed the most exquisite meal of spaghetti bolognese the night before the race – our very own ‘pasta party’ – and were waiting by the door at midnight after the race, full breakdown of each of our races and a congratulatory beer in hand! As far as hosts went, they were truly champions of the art.
The first thing that becomes evident when entering the town of Roth, and Hipoltstein, where the swim takes place, is how into the event everyone truly is. Its as if the entire area comes out to welcome triathletes and their families, with signs everywhere and references to the race set against the backdrop of Disney-esque castles, postcard streets and rolling countryside that could have come straight out of the Hobbit.
The race village, expo and stadium, where the fireworks and finish were to be found, was a short walk from the centre of town and one was immediately reminded of the importance and pedigree of the race on the approach, with a series of displays showing details of past races, their winners and amazing photos. We arrived relatively early to register and even then the place was packed and buzzing with excited activity. Registration was straightforward and I left the marquee officially branded a ‘Participant’ and with a nice new backpack for my dad to accompany his Ironman Lake Tahoe one. The obligatory stop at the official Challenge store – surprisingly small it must be said, although this is based on a comparison to Ironman events, where it seems everything imaginable is available for purchase as a branded product – where a new set of caps were procured and some last minute shopping for essential items, including spare CO2 canisters, a race must.
I chose to join the Saturday morning practice swim such that I could check my bike in afterwards, and joined a crowd of similarly neoprene-clad “loons” (my mum’s observation) in testing out the fresh but thankfully not utterly freezing waters of the Main-Donau Canal, the famous stage for Challenge Roth’s swim, with it’s straightforward single loop, out and back course that promised a fast swim time and unprecedented levels of spectator support as onlookers cheered from the banks in clear view. The water itself, whilst refreshing, was certainly not clear and I was advised to do my best not to swallow any of it, especially given that several people suffered GI issues and one person I know had developed an ear infection following the swim last year. The fact that the weather in the week leading up to the race had actually been unseasonably cool lessened the risk in 2016 as I guess the bacteria levels in the canal were probably expected to be lower this year.
A few relaxed lengths and the obligatory spot of in-water photography later I was satisfied that the swim would not be too daunting an experience and so joined mum and dad for some “kaffee und kuchen” by the banks, watching others enjoy the water, before filling the time between the swim and check-in with sightseeing down the road, exploring the charming little town of Hipoltstein and scaling it’s castle for impressive views out over the surrounding area.
Bike check-in is always an exciting part of any race, especially the big, key events, as it is truly the moment at which it all gets real and the nervous trepidation starts to ramp up. What was hours before an empty green space with multiple pallets lined up in rows was rapidly transforming into a collective dream-park, each pristinely cleaned, tuned and individualised bike representing that person’s arrival on this very special stage. Bike racked and a couple of physical walk-throughs of my planned journey from the swim through transition and to my bike later I collected my parents, dropping off my run bag with the Challenge team and then navigated the crowds off the site and headed back to Roth in time for the race briefing.
The weather during our first week in Germany was, it would be accurate to say, changeable, lurching from cloudy and chilly to brilliant moments of bright sunshine and an equally impressive jump in the temperature. From initially worrying that race day might be “dull, cloudy and cold,” which would “suck” I soon started to change my tune, hoping that the day would, after all, remain somewhat cool given how fierce the sun seemed to be when it did make an appearance. That’s still the one element of everyone’s race that we can’t influence: the conditions. They simply are what they will be on the day and it is our job to suck it up and adapt/ cope as best we are able. One of the main bits of advice I took from the rather hot, stuffy and, frankly, protracted race briefing was to wear some arm warmers on the bike, as it was predicted to be pretty nippy the following morning. I am glad I took that advice and promptly added a pair to my kit collection as they did actually make a good deal of difference to my ultimate experience of the bike leg.
With the briefing complete and bike checked-in all that was left was to head on home, get some decent food on board, try and get some sleep – who actually ever sleeps properly the night before a big race?! – and remind myself that I was as prepared for the day as I could hope to be and that I should probably set two alarms, just in case.
One of the many differences between Ironman and Challenge, in my limited experience at least, is the fact that Challenge provide really professional race number tattoos for athletes whereas Ironman usually just involves getting your race number scrawled on in permanent marker. Getting to feel even moderately professional as an athlete is really fun and can help get you in the right head space pre-race, with even the application of the numbers providing a moment of quiet, concentrated reflection on what is to come. I like that. Alarms pre-empted, as much breakfast as my nervous stomach could manage – and what a spread! Hanne had once again surpassed herself – and mum and dad roused from their own beds – the price of being an iron athlete supporter and reliant on the same athlete to drive. Given that this was my first year racing, it was not simple for non-driving supporters to get back to Roth from Hipoltstein after the swim and I frankly didn’t fancy trekking back over there to collect the car after the race, we opted to park up in Roth, where mum and dad remained for the entire day and I availed myself of the athlete shuttle bus to get to the swim. Seeing the huge tailback on the approach to the swim start whilst the bus sailed past everyone I told myself that I had made the correct decision even though it did mean my parents missing out on one of the highlights of the Challenge Roth experience.
The atmosphere on site was electric and it was a pleasant, clear, slightly cool morning as I finalised my bike preparation, taping on my main drinks reservoir as I had seen others do – they clearly knew something I didn’t! Track pump borrowed, my tyres received their final check before I dropped my bike transition bag in place and paced the route from the swim exit, through the bag area, into the changing tent and out to my bike. Satisfied I knew the route well enough to ensure a smooth transition from the water, I made the obligatory pilgrimage to the Chapel of the Nervous Triathlete to make my donation, along with all of the other pilgrims, before finding a quiet-enough corner of the bike park in which to sit and wind down before I needed to properly wind up. I was joined at this point by fellow GroWings athlete, and first time iron-distance triathlete, Alex, who had chosen what was effectively his home race with which to pop his long-distance cherry. I offered a little, hopefully, helpful reassurance but knew from personal experience that at that stage the preparation was complete and the best thing to allow was quiet contemplation. The time was fast approaching and so the wetsuit was half-donned, shoes relinquished to the day bag, with this being dropped off with the Challenge team and representing the final ritual stage before the race itself. Now all that was left was to wait my turn and race my race.
I made my way towards the holding area for the swim and given that I was in one of the later waves to set off, found a spot from where I could view the swim start and watch the athletes before me. There I met fellow Dubai athletes Lynette, Vicky and (whilst technically now resident back in Germany, he is still considered a Tri-Dubai’er, especially as he was sporting the team colours) Florian, all of us quickly agreeing that our choice of ‘prime viewing’ location came with one drawback, that being the fact it was directly behind the portable loos! Sucking in lungfuls of other peoples’ anxiety was perhaps not the most advantageous – and certainly not fragrant – preparation one could make. Still, the view was good and the stinky wafts infrequent enough to see us remain and watch the pros, including the unstoppable Jan Frodeno, and Kenny head off, with all of us involuntarily jumping as the cannon went off. That was it; the race had officially kicked off and before long the age groupers were off and out, wave after wave kicking off to rapturous applause and the beautiful sight of hot air balloons rising from the misty of the fields on the opposite bank.
I had been expecting to spot my bosses during the week, both of them returning to Roth for what was their third (?) start, but had thus far alluded them. I did, however, spot Monique as she walked to the swim start, each giving the other a good luck hug and discovering that Malcolm was in one of the much later waves to go. My wave eventually came around but not before I had the chance to witness Frodeno sail past on his homeward leg, moving through the water like a graceful otter and minutes ahead of the rest of the field. With a start like that his chances of breaking the course record were on good footing. Go Jan!
And then it was my turn. The Challenge team did a sterling job right from the word go with rousing the crowd and getting the athletes primed, and we entered the water to the sounds of some epic rock anthem before swimming the short distance to the start rope. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I actually had some personal space in the water in spite of being in the second row from the front and as the gun finally sounded I was able to immediately stretch out and get some good strokes in. Whilst always aware of other athletes around me and only having to stop swimming at one point on account of an absence of spotting from one enthusiastic racer who cut across me, I really enjoyed the swim, finding the water refreshing rather than freezing and appreciating the distance markers on the bank. As I traversed the turnaround buoy I was pleasantly surprised at how civilised the swim was so far, quietly congratulating Challenge for opting for a wave start as opposed to mass. The waters got a little busier on the return leg, as sections of it did feel narrower and I found myself catching up with and passing earlier waves, always a bit of a confidence boost in any race. The crowds started to build once again as we neared the finish, although there was the slightly frustrating experience of having to swim straight past the exit and continue for what, it must be said, felt like a lot further than was expected, before making the final turn and powering on towards transition. Once again, the Challenge team were on hand to make life a little easier, as teams of volunteers were stood, waist deep in the water assisting athletes to their feet and sending them off up the ramp into transition. Stage one complete.
You know those memes that fly around Facebook where they have the four pictures and captions such as “What my friends think I do… What I think I do…” etc? Well in my mind whenever I exit the water in a triathlon I imagine myself to be this pumped, super focused all-star athlete powering up the runway before expertly grabbing my bag and seamlessly hitting transition, all in one superbly fluid motion of grace. What I actually become is the equivalent of Bambi having a hypoglycaemic episode, legs absolutely not listening to the instructions being sent to them and my efforts to stay on the correct channel to pick up my bag failing miserably. So, an unintended hop to the left, recovery, return to the correct channel, spot my bag, fumble for it and somehow pick it up before beginning the rapid scan of the transition tent for a space where I could make the shift from amphibious creature to terrestrial one. That is how I would describe my Challenge Roth T1 experience.
Once inside the changing tent, a huge open plan affair, it became apparent that it was true what people say about Germany, this race and nudity – it matters not. What would be utterly banned in Dubai simply isn’t an issue in Bavaria, as naked butts and full frontals, both male and female, flapped around merrily without a second thought to who was able to see. The volunteers must have literally seen it all that morning – I certainly did! Still, everyone had just one thing on their mind and that was to get out to their bikes as quickly as possible.
I am not famed for my rapid transitions – just ask my exasperated coach – and Roth was no exception. Whilst Frodeno made it out in seconds, I took about ten minutes ensuring I was as dry as possible, before changing into cycle – and, by default, run – gear, ensuring to grease up generously and slap on the sunscreen, as although the sun was yet to put in a meaningful appearance, my experience up to that point of it’s power during the trip was that it would come out with teeth. Arm warmers on – with some serious assistance from the nearest volunteer – and I was about ready to grab my bike and make like a real cyclist for what I hoped would be a maximum of about 5.5 hours….. How little I knew of what was in store at this stage!
I was feeling good from the outset, quickly accelerating off from the start and overtaking several other athletes before the first sharp left hand turn towards Roth and off out onto the cycle route. My bike had been serviced and cleaned (although I was not impressed that it had been packed away sopping wet! Cue rust…. not cool) prior to being packed up, and there had been no issues that I was aware of from a mechanical point of view. Anyway, I had spares and enough CO2 to keep me going in the worst case. It wasn’t long, unfortunately, before that case descended. And descend in spectacular style it did.
A flat less than 10km out?! Seriously?! The first I knew of it was that I felt that foreboding sense of acute deceleration and looked back to see the back tyre blown. A small expletive was uttered before I hopped off and quickly set to replacing it – after all, what else was there to do?! Of either of the tyres to get a flat in the rear is the worst as it is just a bit more of a pain in the arse to take the wheel off, disengage the gears and chain and generally get it all fixed up, but it had to be done. Anyway, cue looks of pity from fellow racers as they zoomed past and I put into practice that which I had not had to contend with in any previous race. Thank God for those YouTube viewings!
Before too long I had a new tube in place, after ensuring that there was nothing sharp or loose hiding in my tyre, and set to inflating it using one of the many CO2 canisters that I was carrying. Whilst the pressure wasn’t quite as good as I would have liked, I was back in charge of a functional bike and so back on the road and into the race. I knew there were bike stations at a few of the aid stations so was confident I could always just top up the air if necessary when I reached the next one. At least, I thought, I had gotten my one bit of bad luck out of the way.
Cue second bit of bad luck for the day, and the one that I honestly thought meant the end of my race and history repeating itself in so far as “year one = warm-up; year two = complete the race.” As we started the first of the real climbs of the day I shifted gears and suddenly heard my chain pop off. Looking down I saw that the chain had been dumped over the main ring, forcing me to stop for the second time in the race so far and less than twenty clicks out of transition! I replaced the chain but then noticed the bigger issue…… the rear derailleur was engaging the spokes of my back wheel meaning that it could not rotate properly! Shit! Not seeing any good reason for why this might be the case and recognising it for what it clearly was – a race-ending mechanical issue – I uttered my second expletive of the day, this more heartfelt than the first – and desperately wracked my brain for possible options. That’s when the first of the day’s superhero spectators came to the rescue. Seeing I was in strife, a guy came out of nowhere asking what the issue was. I explained in pigeon German to which he gestured for me to follow him a little further up the hill. There he and his friend diagnosed the issue – the derailleur was overextending on the highest gear, meaning that it dumped the chain and hit the rear wheel – and so the solution was to simply NOT move to my highest gear. This had never been an issue before and this was the second point at which I questioned the value of getting my bike serviced so close to an actual race – had the gears been adjusted thus leading to this issue? No time to really dwell on the question as I was back on and with a little push to get me started, accompanied by enthusiastic shouts of “Danke! Vielen Dank!!” from me, I was off again. Surely that had to be it for the day! Any more issues and I was surely going to be looking at a disappointing end.
As I exited the first aid section I spotted a spectator with a track pump and so stopped, asking to use it quickly to get my rear tyre up to a correct pressure. It was almost a laugh out loud moment then when I felt the by now familiar sensation of my rear tyre rapidly deflating a short distance from the station and at the bottom of a nice downhill section that set everyone up perfectly for a lovely flat straight. Cue third, louder expletive, this time uttered in German, and a fourth as I reached inside my bike pouch to find no spare tube! WTF?! I could have sworn I had at least two! I had to have another one!!! But I didn’t. I was without a spare but very much with a flat. Shit indeed. Hmm… wait for the bike tech, not knowing where it was, or start walking towards the next aid station, hoping to be met en route by the techs? No question really. And so walk is what I did. The only silver lining to this event was that it meant I was able to witness the full glory of Jan Frodeno sailing past like a rocket on the bike, an experience that whilst awe-inspiring did drive home just how far I still had to go myself, especially as it was Jan’s second loop and just the start of my first!
A couple of clicks down the road, and by now easily able to tell spectators in German that I had a flat, for the second time, and no spares – “Ich habe einen platten! Es ist das zweite und ich habe keine mehr Schläuche!” – the bike support quad roared up, enquired what the issue was and then disappointingly said they didn’t have the right wheel, before tearing off again. All I could do then was keep walking. The next team to catch me were the athlete minibuses. “Was I out?” was the question. “Not if I can help it,” was my quick answer. I must admit that I had to consider the option of throwing in the towel when they told me that it could be up to four hours before I either got to the bike station or was met by one of the teams(?!). Something told me that it was still worth continuing and so I simply quipped that it was a nice day for a walk and if anything a great way to see some of the countryside before continuing my stroll.
My faith was relatively quickly repaid as I entered yet another village and was greeted by a concerned spectator who told me he was a fellow triathlete and had a spare! Hooray! Feeling like Lewis Hamilton in the pits, him and his family set to getting my bike roadworthy again and I was, once again, back on the road! Legends, absolute legends! You tell me where else in the world and at what other race one would find that kind of spectator support, and in the arse end of nowhere to boot?! Acutely mindful of the time deficit I had suffered so far I felt compelled to put my head down and really put in some serious effort, overtaking a number of others in the process, which went some way to making me feel a little better about the trajectory on which my day seemed to have been placed. I realised that given the considerable delay my target goals for the race were going to have to shift and evolve. No longer was I a contender for a sub-11 hour finish and so having made peace with that fact I resolved to aim for a 12 hour finish, or thereabouts. The temptation to overpush it on the rest of the bike leg was one I had to actively suppress, especially given that my heart rate monitor had failed to work from the moment I switched it on and, not training or racing with a power meter, all I had left was to race paying attention to perceived effort.
Spotting a small bike station at the top of the next hill, I stopped to request a spare, paranoid as I was now that my rear tyre and I did not have the same level of commitment to this race and so wishing to hedge my bets by having a spare on me. Although, lets be honest: one flat is just unfortunate, two annoying and extremely unlikely. Three? Well, that would have surely been unheard of and a sign, if it had happened, that something was fundamentally wrong with my wheel?! So, I started back out feeling a little safer but still paranoid given what had gone down so far.
The bike leg of Challenge Roth sees athletes complete two loops, before a short final section takes them back into Roth and onto the run. The loop is, it would surely be agreed by all, breathtakingly beautiful as we got to cycle through some of the most classically attractive European countryside there is. Rolling green hills, fields of varying crops, dense deciduous forest, cute villages and towns with architecture and a sense of history of another era, all underpinned by some of the best, most smoothly and well-maintained roads I have ever cycled on. The support from locals, who were to be found at even the most out-of-the-way locations in addition to being out in force in the main villages and dedicated ‘hot spots’, was electric and it was impossible not to feel the surge in motivation, effort and energy that arrived with being met by the wall of loud, enthusiastic support that greeted us at regular intervals. One such example of the unique and enthusiastic support on this race was the old guy who was dressed in full clown outfit and who stood on the side of the road in a part of the course that was extremely rural. Not only did I see him on my first loop but he was still there on the second, continuing to wave and applaud as we all trundled by.
The first of the really meaty climbs was also such a spot and the fact that so many people were on hand to cheer us all up the gradient made it so much easier to bear. Talking of climbs, the legendary Solar Hill was everything that I had heard it was: spine tingling and I was simply unable to suppress the childish grin that spread automatically across my face as I powered my bike up the steep climb, with hoardes of supporters screaming support, waving flags and rattling clangers all the way to the top. Incredible! Once up Solar Hill you know that you’re close to the end of the loop, and so I knew that I was a little under 50% of the way through the bike leg. So far so good as far as inflated tyres as well! Although this was not for long as I got to, no word of a lie, virtually the SAME point that I happened to puncture the second time. I’m pretty certain I both laughed, cried a little and definitely painted the air blue at what was now officially my third flat of the day. The novelty and “fun” factor of having a flatty during a race had most certainly worn off by this stage and all I could think was “No! I have come too damned far to quit now! I WILL finish this race!” But, I thought, it is ok because I had the presence of mind to pick up a spare tube on the first loop. How clever I am! So, tube was removed and, thankfully, I first checked that the new CO2 canisters that I had previously purchased actually fitted my adaptor – why oh why I had not thought to do the same back when I purchased them at the Expo and before I had started the race is beyond me but hey ho – and would you believe it, they did NOT fit! Aaaaaarrrrgghhh!!!! So back to walking it was, this time nearly as far as the little station where I had picked up the spare in the first place, with the last few metres assisted by some filler foam that one of the guys from the station had cycled down the road to meet me with. Convinced, and super paranoid, by now that there was clearly an issue with my back wheel I felt little confidence as I headed back out on the road and simply spent the next 75km praying to the bike Gods to be kind to me. All I now wanted was to get to the run because as long as I had at least 4-4.5 hours (the extra was mentally allowed on account of the fact that I was expecting to be broken by the time I reached it) then I could still make the 15 hour cut off and beat this thing! I did still find some pleasure in the stunning scenery, exhilarating downhills and the, by now lessened but no less heartening, support on the course. What gave me real pleasure, however, was finally seeing the turn off towards Roth at which point I did punch the air, and then the piece de resistance: T2!
The sight of the banners stretched across the road and that signaled the entrance to transition and the end of my seven and a half hours out on the bike course came like a beautiful vision and I actually found myself thanking the universe as I rounded the corner, un-clipped my pedals and shakily dismounted. I had made it! Handing my bike off to the volunteer I vaguely recall telling them, in all seriousness, that they could keep it as I tottered round to the changing tent now acutely aware of some serious chafing and the good sense in putting spare 3B cream into my transition bag – seriously, that stuff is a lifesaver! Again, the volunteers were so incredible and before I knew what was happening I had been generously covered in sunscreen and was off out onto the run course, with the sun now very much in attendance.
I’d love to say that I enjoyed the entire run but that would be a massive lie as the first 10km at the least were pretty wretched, and Monique will testify to how much that showed on my face when we passed each other at the 4km marker – my 4km I hasten to add; she was significantly further along by that stage. The run was a fairly simple course, heading out of Roth and out onto the path running alongside the Main-Donau Canal, the same one we had swum in further upstream, with the vast majority of the running literally being a straight line up and down said path. I was grateful for the presence of aid stations about every 3km and soon settled into my plan of ‘run 3km at 10km pace followed by a 1.5min walk through the station.’ It is safe to say that my pace between the stations early on was certainly not my usual 10km pace and the walks may have been a little longer than 90 seconds, but the cold water sponges, water and coke were all absolutely welcome, with the sponges especially helpful as I refreshed them at pretty much every station due to it actually being really quite a hot day by then. I did, however, soon remember the hidden dangers of over hydrating and thinking that I could cool myself by drinking, when in actual fact this was only going to hinder my run. I was glad that I had the presence of mind to do so as my tactics changed and I started to find my legs. Hitting the 11km mark in the first hour made me realise that I could aim for a four hour marathon and salvage something good from the race. This represented a turning point for me.
Without a working HRM I just had to trust in my pacing and rate of perceived effort to guide my running. This worked pretty well and my second 11km felt significantly smoother, so much so that I even felt able to share a little joke with one beer drinking spectator that a beer right at that moment would have been awesome! So there they were: my running legs! They were back with me and with them a new sense of confidence. As I passed the 26km mark, heading down the second leg of the canal, I actually felt amazing and quickened the pace a little, enjoying the thrill of sailing past runner after runner, only stopping very briefly at every other aid station and primarily doing so to simply swap out the cold water sponges that had fast become essential to my comfort. The final section through the woods and looping back over the canal before switching back on ourselves was tough, with a long, steady uphill to contend with and tired legs whispering to walk “just a little.” Seeing other runners getting a massage at the 30km mark only made this whispering louder and so it was just a matter of gritting my teeth and pounding on, all the while thinking of the end game and that line.
As I hit the 32km mark I made a decision that I was absolutely going to run in under 4 hours and so planned to quicken the pace over the penultimate 5km, increasing it to shy of a sprint for the final 5km. Amazingly I did just that, although must confess that I came so incredibly close to a walk at the 38km mark that it was almost a different story. Stubbornness, however, won out and as I re-entered the town, running down into the historic centre and the scenes that I recognised from the previous year’s You Tube footage I knew that I had barely 2km to go. “Head down, eyes straight, keep a good form and breathe.” I was going to do it if I kept up this pace. Run, run, run. The park was close. Run, run, run. And then the carpet appeared and the track narrowed, spectators lining the edges. Thankfully I had some time in the bank as I was unable to pass a few runners who had slowed to greet family members, although thankfully they did eventually step aside and I was able to crank up the pace into the main stadium but only after passing my father who, as with my Ironman in Tahoe, I barely recognised in my race-weary state as he shouted out and I caught a fleeting glimpse over my shoulder. Now was not the time to stop!
The stadium was an experience and a half and in hindsight I wish I had given my parents my 360-degree camera to hand to me before I entered it as recording those final few steps in full immersive glory would have been amazing. As I turned the final corner I heard the announcer mention my name and the welcome into the Challenge Family before there it was: the finish line! I had never been so happy to see a finish line than at that very moment and I hope the pictures do that sense justice. I felt I had beaten the odds and clawed back the race for myself when it looked as though it was doomed to be a disappointment. Why do we do this to ourselves? What is it that compels us to put ourselves through this kind of arduous trial in the name of leisure? I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that on the day, when its all on the line, we are capable of digging into parts of ourselves that we didn’t even realise were there and are able to scoop up just that little bit more grit, determination, will to make it to the end and with our heads held high. That was what Challenge Roth was for me. It was supposed to be a bit more of a leisurely race after the challenges of racing in Lake Tahoe, and I was fully expecting to come in with a significantly faster time as befitted the terrain and course. What I got instead was what was printed on the race number: a challenge, and I feel, weirdly, that I am now the better for it.
One thing that my Lake Tahoe experience and Roth had in common was the fact that I felt utterly unable to eat much at all after the race, forcing down a couple of yogurts and a welcome glass of Erdinger alcohol-free Weissbier, which tasted like liquid heaven! The post-race amenities, services and food were pretty impressive and I just wish that I felt more able to take advantage of them. There were multiple massage tables, showers for athletes and a very eclectic and generous spread of food on offer for hungry athletes to tuck into, with everything from pasta to baguettes and beyond. I did not linger too long in this area however as my parents were outside waiting for me. Having zero real idea of where geographically the run-in actually was and not wishing to get lost in the crowds looking for them I headed to our previously agreed meeting spot at the entrance to the site. As the light started to fade it soon dawned on me that perhaps mum and dad had not recalled the plan and so I set out to search for them, thankfully bumping straight into mum and avoiding a frustrating search of the entire site. As such, the delay and the failing light did mean that post-race photos were not going to work and so we headed off to collect my bike before trekking through a long, very very dark and winding road that snaked through woods to find our car, seeing the final fireworks light up the sky as we reached it. A fitting end to a very very long day, both for me and my folks, who had been in Roth itself since 4am and can now confirm that nothing really starts happening in the town until about lunchtime.
Our hosts confirmed their utter awesomeness by being on hand to greet both me, my family, and the other family, who we met up with again in Munich the following week. Enjoying a well earned beer and recounting the events of the day with friends and family was the perfect way to round out an amazing Challenge Roth experience, and it was so heartening to know that everyone in this part of the world truly does get behind and excited about the triathlon, with our hosts even producing a detailed printout of both Dirk’s and my race statistics! Dirk was racing his first ever triathlon and had a great day, suggesting that he might well be back again in the near future. Once is truly never enough when it comes to long distance racing!
There are so many reasons why Challenge Roth is consistently voted as the best triathlon by athletes and to list them all would be an entire article in itself. For me the main attractions and experiences were:
The enthusiasm of athletes who have raced it before – I am yet to meet a single triathlete who has raced Roth and not loved it. No other triathlon really sees people get that effusive as with Roth, with most recounting the genuine goosebumps that result during the ascent of Solar Hill. The description of this part of the bike course as being akin to a “religious experience” was what spurred me into action in applying for the race and I can confirm that it is every bit as magical as reported. No other race, as far as I am aware, has such a fervour of enthusiasm and support as Challenge Roth and this alone makes it a must-do event for anyone intending to race at iron distance.
The stadium finish – no finish line that I have ever crossed has yet matched the overwhelming feeling of scale and celebration that Challenge Roth engenders. To experience tiers of wild cheering and enthusiastic applause from all sides in the final meters of a race is a feeling that is almost indescribable. As mentioned before I absolutely wish I had been able to record the experience in 360-degrees so that I could go some way to sharing it with others – it made the thirteen hours of grueling activity all worthwhile.
Roth and the surrounding area – in fact the entirety of Bavaria makes entering Challenge Roth a must-do as it is stunningly beautiful. Historical, charming, picture postcard, timeless, cultured, rolling – some of the words to describe this unique part of the world. We were fortunate enough to stay on in Bavaria for a further week of rest and recuperation after the race and loved every second of it. In fact, I would gladly move over to Munich in a heartbeat if given the chance such was the charm of the city!
The people – I was blown away by how genuinely hospitable, friendly, helpful and enthusiastic everyone we met in Bavaria was. If it were not for the genuine warmth, concern and enthusiasm of public supporters on the bike course my race would have ended painfully early on – I would argue that there is not a single other race in the world where you will experience that level of crowd support over every stage. It completely reaffirms your faith in humanity and helped spur me on to do what might have previously seemed unthinkable. We made genuine friends for life in the process and I feel a special sense of affection now for Germany and in particular Bavaria.
Special thanks to everyone who supported me pre, during and post race, especially my coach, Trace Rogers, my parents/ chief cheerleaders, and the entire Dubai and wider triathlon community, of which I am proud to be a part of.
Spatial computing, once a preserve of science fiction, is slowly but surely creeping into real life and whilst there are a number of companies working on industrial applications of Augmented Reality (AR), with true use of a headset/ glasses there is not yet a convincing consumer solution to herald in the age of smart glasses.
The promise of AR and of smart-glasses is to seamlessly overlay digital information onto the real world such that this information adds to the experience. There are myriad potential applications where such a capability might prove either useful or just entertaining. For example:
Video calls – speak with a person on Skype or FaceTime (other video chat applications available) as though they were literally standing/ sitting there in front of you, in realistic hologram form.
Educational experiences – visits to galleries, museums or even city tours would be so much more entertaining and interesting with the ability to see projections of artists, historical figures or scenes played out in front of our eyes as though they were happening live. A visit to a famous battle scene or, for example, StoneHenge would be a richer learning experience if the subjects of our learning were walking about around us. How much better would we relate to our history if we could see, with our own eyes, such histories played out on the current world? Would it lead to a greater sense of the important lessons of history and reduce the risks that we repeat the same errors, a concern that holds resonance at this specific time of political uncertainty in the world.
Navigation – whether it be in a car or walking about an unfamiliar city, staring at a screen has its obvious disadvantages. Contrast that with seeing clear directions mapped out onto the real world in front of our eyes, negating the need to take our focus off the real world. This will be further enhanced by the use of real-time translation, such that foreign road signs are automatically presented in their translated form.
What AR experiences are already available?
Most of us will have first heard of or experienced AR through social apps such as Snapchat, whose filters allow for some silly but otherwise fun effects to be added to live video, such as the addition of rabbit ears and a nose that respond and change in real-time with our faces. Others might have used an AR app to scan a physical marker in, say, a magazine and seen a digital object, such as a movie character, materialise on our screen but viewed as though they were there in the real world. Companies such as Blippar do the latter and have a thriving business in using AR for brand marketing.
Who is doing interesting things in AR?
There are a number of companies working on AR, whether it be via smart glasses or the screens with which we interact with daily, such as tablets and phones. As already mentioned, social media is likely to be one of the first experiences of true AR that many of us have and it isn’t just Snapchat playing a role. Facebook are also players in this market with their purchase, this year, of the AR start-up MSQRD, whose technology does much the same thing as Snapchat’s. The technology behind such whimsical entertainment is actually pretty exciting and you can learn more about it here.
Aside from marketing and social media/ entertainment, other major applications for AR are in both industry and education, with a few vet schools even dabbling with the technology.
Form Factor…. The Big Issue
As much as I am truly excited by the promise of AR to revolutionise how we interact with digital information, form factor is still, for me, THE biggest issue. Until we move beyond the bulky, cyborg-esque headsets, that feel akin to wearing a welders mask, to lightweight, stylish eyewear or, preferably, a completely off-body solution then wider adoption of this tech will be slow. At present, the most accessible and reliable method by which to engage with AR for the vast majority of us is via our phones and tablets. In other words, handheld screens with cameras attached.
Phones work in as much as they do some incredible things for us and work the same regardless of personal factors and are situationally flexible (i.e. they work much the same way regardless of whether you are at home, work or, perhaps, out and about in a sporting or outdoors setting). They also have the advantage of being discretely held on person if necessary, a feature that an expensive pair of smart-glasses clearly lacks. For example, in areas where openly advertising the fact you have a powerful – and valuable – computer on your person would be ill-advised, it is perfectly possible to keep a phone hidden and, perhaps, access necessary information via other, more discrete methods, such as a smart-watch. Obviously wearing a pair of smart glasses, especially in their current form, would create not only some degree of social stigma, as was seen with Google Glass, but also a personal risk from theft as one would effectively be advertising the fact that they were in possession of a very valuable piece of personal computing equipment.
What of the issues pertaining to eyesight? I, personally, need corrective lenses, whether they be in the form of contacts, which I personally can’t stand wearing for very long and that do little to really improve my eyesight anyway, or spectacles. What solutions do smart-glasses have in store for users such as me in the future? Will I be forced to have to wear contacts whenever I want to wear and thus use my smart glasses? Or will I need to make an additional investment to install corrective/ prescription lenses, instantly increasing the overall cost of adoption and complexity of the product, and making it more of a tricky proposition to resell the device when it comes to upgrading. I wouldn’t be able to easily share/ lend my device to others unless they too shared my prescription, unless they automatically contained technology that corrected for the current user’s eyesight – maybe that’s the key?!
Then there are situational factors governing ease of use. I can currently use, or otherwise carry, my phone in virtually all circumstances. The design and form of the technology gives it this feature. At work it can remain in my pocket and be accessed should I need to quickly use the camera, or search an ebook or perform an information search online, whilst during exercise, such as on my bike, I can easily carry it using a sports-pouch and enjoy music and other services, such as GPS tracking and metrics apps like Strava. Paired with a smart-watch I can also interact directly with the device, accessing key performance data, all in a comfortable manner that the device is designed to be able to cope easily with. Smart-glasses, on the other hand, do not seem to be as flexible. For example, I doubt that I would want to wear the same style of smart glasses at work, interacting with clients and colleagues, and with the constant risk of getting blood etc on them, as I would whilst training, when the need is for eyewear that is sporty, aerodynamic, lightweight, sweat-resistant and aesthetically totally different to other situations. Personally, I even keep different styles of sunglasses depending on the situation in which they are worn. My everyday, casual pair are totally different to my sports/ training/ racing pair. Would I need to have several different pairs of smart glasses to achieve the same result? I only have a single smartphone and can use that in all of the settings mentioned.
Then there is the issue of social stigma and resistance to smart ‘facial-wear.’ Nerds get why people would want to wear a computer on their face – I am one of them. But as Google Glass, when it was first released, demonstrated, the wider public are generally suspicious of and occasionally outright hostile to the idea. Is it simply that wearers of such devices look alien and so instantly stand out as different? Is it the fact that people know such devices include cameras and so fear the perceived invasion of personal privacy that comes with being surveiled, even though we all carry smartphones with incredibly powerful, high resolution cameras that capture content constantly and may well be recorded multiple times per day by other users without our even being aware? In fact, unless you live in a rural area then it is highly probable that you are already being constantly recorded such is the pervasive nature of CCTV. And yet we’re collectively fine with this whilst being instantly suspicious of a person openly wearing a recording device in the form of smart eyewear.
This will need to change before smart glasses become universally accepted as ‘normal.’ A really interesting historical point was made at this year’s AWE (Augmented World Expo) by one of the speakers who talked about how prior to the First World War, wristwatches were generally considered to be pieces of womens’ jewellery and men typically carried a pocket watch. Any gentleman thus wearing a wristwatch would have been stigmatised. That was until the war when, due to the practical constraints of the battlefield, having a timepiece easily accessible, lightweight and handsfree was a big advantage. As a result officers sported wristwatches and continued to do so upon returning from active duty. The comical comment was the suggestion that no-one in their right mind would have ridiculed a tough soldier for wearing a piece of jewellery and so before long tastes changed and the idea of wearing a wristwatch became the accepted norm that we know today. Will the adoption of smart eyewear follow the same path? Who will it be that leads the way in changing public opinion? Will it once again be soldiers, after perhaps first experiencing smart-glasses in the military, or sports-stars perhaps? Regardless of who it is that ultimately leads to a change in opinion there first needs to be a compelling reason for why smart glasses are a preferable option over sticking with the good old smartphone and it is this that I cannot quite yet see.
If No Smart Glasses, Then What?
If smart-glasses, in the typical spectacle form, are not the answer then what could the future of AR look like? To answer this it is worth considering our experience of AR in two different contexts.
Fixed Position Interface
As we have already discussed, AR is already experienced by many of us via traditional screens, with the augmented content over-layed onto the real world as long as we view it through the screen itself. As such, any context in which a transparent surface is involved lends itself to AR. Obvious case examples include driving, with our view of the world outside of the car/ transport medium being through such a transparent ‘screen.’ Companies such as BMW have already explored this idea, for example with the Head-Up Display that shows important journey and vehicle information ‘on the windscreen’ such that the driver need not take their eyes off the road in front of them to still benefit from such data. Navigation information is another very obvious application for this concept, with drivers ‘seeing’ the route mapped out on the road and surrounding world without having to divert their gaze away from the road and towards a separate screen. Imagine how much less likely it would be to miss that rapidly approaching highway slip-road if you could ‘see it’ in advance by a change in colour of the road in front of your very eyes. Once we truly herald the arrival of fully-autonomous driving then the very same vehicle ‘screens’ that previously kept us informed of important driving information will give themselves over to becoming entertainment or productivity screens.
Other settings in which screens (as in what we currently think of as windows or transparent barriers) are currently employed and which promise to provide AR interfaces in the future include places such as zoos, museums, shop windows, or even our very own home windows. Basically anywhere that a transparent ‘screen’ could be found.
Until we somehow come up with a reliable, safe method by which to wirelessly beam AR directly into our brains, currently the most obvious alternative to smart-glasses is the smart contact lens. There are groups working on such stuff of science fiction as this very thing, with Samsung having patented a design for the same, although the power and processing would come from a tethered smart-phone, making it more of a smart screen than anything. I have already voiced my own personal objections to contact lenses and cannot see how adding hardware, however small, to them is going to overcome their obvious shortcomings. Assuming for a moment that the visual effect is staggeringly compelling, with beautifully rendered digital content seamlessly added to the world as if it was always there, designers are going to need to solve the following problems before we all don contact lenses:
comfort – many people either find them out and out uncomfortable or can only really stand wearing them for short periods of time.
ocular health – in some professions, especially medical, ophthalmologists recommend daily disposable lenses as, on balance, they are a more hygienic option when compared to longer term-use products. Will smart contact-lenses be cheap enough, and will it be socially and environmentally acceptable or sustainable even, to dispose of our high-tech lenses each day? What of the potential health issues associated with having a heat-generating, signal transmitting/ receiving device actually in contact with our eyes? Do we know what, if any, health risks that might present?
cost – whilst not especially cheap, I do not get too upset when I have to sacrifice a pair or two of contact lenses in any single day, either because some debris makes it way onto the lenses and renders them uncomfortable or my eyes just need a break. I would be less quick or willing to whip them out, however, if they had cost me a significant sum to purchase, and if I were forced to then I’d be resentful of having to have done so.
tethering – whilst not a major issue, having to keep a smart-phone in close proximity for such lenses to work as desired does somewhat dilute some of the real magic and potential of a truly untethered AR experience.
Whilst the future is one in which Augmented Reality is definitely going to be HUGE, with companies such as Meta, Magic Leap and Microsoft (with the Hololens) creating some truly incredible technology and experiences that defy conventional belief and result in childish grins from anyone who tries them, there are still some significant and fundamental obstacles to overcome. Form factor is, I believe, one of the key issues that pioneers of this technology are yet to crack but when a compelling solution is found then, well, get strapped in and prepare for a technological shift the likes of which come around but once in a generation!