Virtual & Augmented Reality in Veterinary Education

[This is a guest blog post I wrote for the RCVS (Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons) ViVet Expert Blog page. The original post can be viewed here.]
Anyone who has watched films such as The Matrix or the more recent Spielberg offering, Ready Player One, will be familiar with the idea of virtual reality and the potential of it to transform not only entertainment but many other aspects of our lives, including work and education.
Spatial computing, which incorporates both Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) – collectively referred to as Mixed Realty (MR) – is rapidly moving from the realms of science fiction into fact, providing those in healthcare with a range of exciting and interesting new tools. Whilst there are a number of case examples of MR being employed within the human medical sector, it’s use remains in it’s infancy within the veterinary sector, although I see that changing over the next few years.
According to recent survey data the level of enthusiasm for spatial computing as a potentially useful tool within the veterinary profession is high even though the level of practical experience with such technology remains low. Whilst VR has been around for decades it is only in recent years that the technology has advanced to levels that now enable a range of extremely useful applications and is gaining wider adoption as opposed to simply being the preserve of gamers and academics. Much of this drive in adoption has come from the advances in mobile technology. One can easily experience the magic of VR using a phone-based headset like the Samsung GearVR or engage with AR through their Apple iPhone, whether it be chasing after Pokemon or playing with dinosaurs as they run across a tabletop. The barriers to entry of truly high-spec VR are rapidly falling and it will soon be possible to experience full six-degrees-of-freedom VR, allowing users to directly engage and interact with a virtual world, without having to break the bank by buying expensive gaming equipment. Truly untethered, mobile headsets, such as those in development by companies like Oculus, will, I am certain, herald a wave of mass adoption of VR. As soon as more people get to try spatial computing for themselves the applications will start to be imagined and created, including many that will change how we, as veterinarians, train, educate ourselves and clients, and manage our professional lives.
I recently spoke at an industry conference in the US on VR in Veterinary, with education and training the most obvious areas for application at present. Human surgeons are already able to practice certain skills in VR, using programs like OssoVR, and the evidence supports the view that immersive systems that provide practical training scenarios do translate into effective learning. The airline industry has used VR systems to train pilots for years. Why not use the same principles to ensure that our surgeons, both of humans and animals, learn, practice and refine key skills in a safe, repercussion-free environment before they apply those same skills to real-life patients. If I had been able to graduate from vet school having carried out hundreds of (virtual) bitch spays – a feat that would simply not have been possible in the real world – even if the virtual scenarios only modelled very specific aspects of the experience, then I think my confidence as a new graduate and my progression as a clinical practitioner would have been significantly greater. Practical CPD in the future is highly unlikely to involve groups of people huddling round a single-use physical model or hard-to-source cadaver but rather take place in the infinite bounds of the digital environment, where specific training scenarios are but a virtual menu selection away and there is no limit to the ‘practice models’ available.
We are, I believe at the very start of this spatial computing journey in the veterinary profession, with many questions yet to be both asked and answered. I, as with many others, look forward to the day when donning a pair of smart glasses or a VR headset will be seen as a normal part of our professional experience.
How do you envisage us learning in the future? Can you imagine using Virtual or Augmented Reality to learn new skills or improve existing ones?

Diving into VR

(NB: this was written a little while ago – just rediscovered it in my ‘posts to, well, post’ pile 🙂 )

With my VR system now set up and ready it was time to start exploring the limitless world that VR promises. We are still in the infancy of VR, with mass adoption still a way off, and so the number of really good VR titles, games, experiences on offer is still relatively small. There are some that I knew to be must-haves, from Google Tiltbrush, the 3D drawing environment, to WeVR’s theBlu, an amazing visual and sensorial experience that helps to really convey the magic of VR. Others include The Lab, a fun series of mini experiences and games that help to introduce VR users to the principles of what is possible, and indeed normal, in VR. For example, one of the simplest experiences sees you standing atop a high hill – you could, for example, be somewhere in the Sierra Nevada range – complete with soaring eagles and incredible vistas off into the distance. The next thing you become aware of is a small, robotic dog running around your feet. My instinctive response was to crouch down, gesture for robo-pooch to approach me, which he/ she duly did and then to stroke and rub it’s belly as it rolled over in exactly the same way a real-world dog would. Whilst I knew I was holding a Vive controller and could see that I was, the experience was such that I felt I was genuinely stroking the dog and so had much the same emotional response with a natural smile spreading across my face. The next thing that dawned on me was that there was a small pile of sticks close by. Whilst not immediately obvious or signposted, thoughts of “what if” popped into my head and so I went over and leant over to pick up a stick. Lo and behold that was exactly what I was able to do and within seconds I was playing fetch with my new robotic dog atop a glorious hilltop. Magical! Simple but magical!

 

Other experiences in The Lab included entering a strange, creepy shop run by a stooped elf and home to all manner of odd artifacts and creatures, including one that looked like something from David Bowie’s film, The Labyrinth. Even though it clearly wasn’t real, seeing this strange creature react to me, my movements and follow my hands as I moved a light source around it was incredibly powerful. It is this reactivity of elements in VR to your position and actions that really adds to the immersive power of the medium. To an onlooker I was simply stood in a room, mask on face and waving a set of controllers about in mid-air but as far as I was concerned I was exploring and interacting with a creature that simply could not exist in the real world but in a manner as though it was physically there. That is a deeply engaging experience and one that conjures up all sorts of imaginative applications.

 

Another simple yet profound experience within The Lab was the robot repair lab, where I was invited to pull open a malfunctioning robot in a bid to repair it. Whilst I was never going to be able to fix the machine – the experience is geared towards a dramatic close – the experience of being able to physically expand the machine so that it’s component parts were levitated in mid-air allowing me to manipulate, examine and otherwise interact with them was highly instructive as to what the educational applications of VR are. I know that there are already VR programmes that allow users to pull apart and explore the human body in a similar fashion, and it does not take a leap of imagination to extrapolate that to veterinary educational use. I have visions of being able to digitally recreate the animal barn at the vet school in Southwell Street, Bristol, where I trained, and being able to step inside and learn all levels of anatomy on a variety of species through direct interaction with digital renditions of them. There would be no limits on the number of times I could visit, no time constraints and the ability to be able to relate the internal anatomy to the external topography of my subjects by simply expanding and contracting them with the use of my hands would, I am certain, reinforce learning outcomes in a way that books and other real-world modes of instruction would never be able to match.

 

In terms of pure fun, the Minecrafty, arcade-esque archery experience that saw me take on the perspective of a lone archer atop a castle tower and charged with defending the castle’s gates with my bow and arrow was pure gold! Another physical, fun experience was provided by Audioshield. This simple game involves picking an audio track, with a number pre-loaded, and seqentially blocking a series of light-meteors as they hurtle towards you from an origin in the distance. With three different colours: blue, which you have to block exclusively with the blue shield being held in one hand; orange, which you block with the opposite shield; and purple, which comes sporadically and is blocked by bringing both hands together to create a single, purple shield, the experience is a high-octane, clubby, aerobic workout, which left me flushed with the glow of being both physically exerted and mentally stimulated and entertained. It easily feels like VR’s Tetris – simple yet highly addictive! One of my housemates, whose first time it was experiencing VR, innocently selected the ‘elite’ setting and within a minute was dancing about like a man possessed as he fended off volley after volley of high velocity light-strikes that were fired towards him in a torrent of dance-beat driven insanity. It was as entertaining watching him from the real world as it was for him playing the game himself.

 

One of the striking takeouts from these initial VR experiences was the fact that VR involves interacting with and manipulating data in very different manners to that in which we are accustomed with non-spatial, screen-based computing. For example, instead of clicking on an icon to load up and ‘enter’ an experince in The Lab, I simply ‘walked around’ the room, browsing the various options as though I were in a shop and then to engage with the one I wanted all I had to do was pick up the sphere representing it and place it to my face, as though I were peering into it. Simple. Effective. Intuitive. It is exactly what one would do were they browsing the same thing in the real world. This entirely new, yet naturalistic approach to interface design and interaction is exciting as spatial computing heralds a totally new, yet at the same time instinctively familiar, way of interfacing with our digital tools. This will help to further blur the lines between our digital and physical world lives such that computing augments our abilities and experiences in a manner that does not seem alien. Novel and magical at first, yes, but once we are all familiar with this technology it will feel bizarre that we ever lived without it.

VR & AR in Veterinary

The presentation above is a recorded version of the same one delivered at the 2018 VR Voice ‘VR in Healthcare Symposium’ held at Harvard Medical School, Boston, USA.

Please follow the link below to access a PDF version of the full paper from the above presentation, including the results of the survey conducted on the experiences and awareness of VR and AR within the veterinary profession.

Click link below to access paper

VR & AR in Veterinary_White Paper 2018

Eiger 101 Post 7 – The City of Runners: Boston

I love to run in new places as it is often one of the very best ways to get to explore a new location and observe those little details that make it fascinating. I have already had the pleasure of running in Spain recently and so it was with excitement that I packed up my running gear once again, including the much needed cold-weather layers, and jetted off to Boston, USA. My primary purpose for a visit to the city was to speak at a Virtual Reality conference, specifically on the subject of VR in Veterinary, but I extended my stay for the week in order to explore it fully. It has long been on my list of places to visit, appealing as it does to my inner nerd, what with such prestigious landmarks as Harvard and MIT representing the epitome of geeky culture. It is, of course, also the setting for one of the premier running events of the calendar, namely the Boston Marathon. As such I knew that it was bound to be a runners’ city and I was not disappointed.
During the planning phase of the trip I looked into both suggested runs in the city, with the classic Charles River loop coming out on top, and also sought out some groups that I might be able to join for one or two runs, thus injecting a little social experience into my pavement pounding. The group that caught my attention was the Heartbreak Hill Runners, an enthusiastic and, as I soon discovered, large group of runners of all levels that meet for regular sessions, congregating out of one of the group’s several shops. The session I joined in with was their weekly Saturday morning long run, which happened to coincide nicely with my own training schedule mandated long run. Bonus! Getting out to the start point was a bit of a mission as it was located in the suburbs of Boston, specifically Newton, and for some reason the metro that morning was on super duper slow mode, with a replacement bus having to be used for part of the journey. Instead of being super early, as had been my intention, I ended up having to jog from the final metro station to the shop, although we didn’t actually set off for a little while longer.
Situated on a corner, the Heartbreak Hill Runners shop was modest in size but packed with not only an impressive array of running merchandise but was crammed with people! I had not expected there to be quite so many in attendance and was even more impressed when I was given a wristband after registering – this apparently entitled me to make use of the aid stations that were put on – and had the option to leave my bag in a secure part of the store while we all ran. All very organised indeed. After a briefing from head coach and owner Dan – most people there were in the final weeks of training for the Boston marathon – we were encouraged to shuffle outside, find our respective pacers and to get going. I was expecting just a casual small group run but what it seemed to be was a very well organised mass event – this truly did seem to be the city of runners, an impression that was further reinforced by the fact that there were clearly lots of other groups out training as well, in addition to loads of other aid stations, complete with cheering spectators and supplies. I couldn’t help smiling at the thought that even the supporters seemed to train for the Boston marathon!
The looped course took us up Heartbreak Hill, along the edge of the nearby reservoir and past Boston College, before taking in another long, steady climb and a relatively flat, fast return to the shop. Many of those running were due to do 3 hours of continuous running, meaning multiple loops. As tempted as I was to join them in this pursuit I only had a half marathon distance pencilled in and so after scaling Heartbreak Hill and reaching Boston College for the second time I about-turned and returned to the shop. Feeling buoyed by my efforts and loving the general atmosphere of the shop, the team and the whole morning I felt compelled to purchase a couple of awesome T-shirts, designed there in Boston by a couple of runners, snapped a couple of pics and even had the honour of making it onto their famous wall of mugshots 🙂
Having experienced the feeling of being a runner in Boston on a normal week I can only begin to imagine how electric the atmosphere must be for the annual marathon. Who knows: perhaps I shall be back someday to find out first-hand.

Eiger 101 Post 6 – Running In The New Year

The beauty of running is that it is possible to pretty much do it anywhere. The equipment requirements are essentially very simple: a pair of decent running shoes and some suitable athletic apparel, because lets be honest no one is going to be heading out for a training run wearing their travel suit, are they?! When preparing for a race such as the Eiger 101 it is important to keep up the training regardless of where I find myself and whether or not I am on holiday. So it was the case at Christmas as I headed out of Dubai and flew to Spain – specifically Granada to start – for the week encompassing Christmas itself and including my dad’s birthday. With triathlon I would have fretted about the logistics of being able to get in some bike training and finding the closest pool so as to keep up the swim programme. Not so with running. All I needed to pack were my runners, including my trail shoes because, who knows, perhaps I’d find some good off-road options, and a couple of slightly warmer layers more than I’d normally don for Dubai-based training. Simple and it meant that the ‘athletic endeavours’ compartment of my packing took up a tiny corner of my suitcase as opposed to needing to lug around a bike box!
Worth the climbing. Epic views in Granada, Spain
So what of the running in Spain itself? Given that it was December and we were up in the mountains, on the fringes of the Sierra Nevada range, it was cold. There were, however, just two days when one could describe conditions as wet and so the bulk of my running was conducted in chilly crisp air with bright blue skies and sunlight, making me very grateful that I packed the trusty Oakleys alongside leggings. Granada offered a feast of options, both visually and physically as I had the option to run flat, following the river in both directions, with landscape painting quality views of the distant snow-capped peaks as a backdrop, or take to the steep climbs up into historic neighbourhoods, or barrios, like Albaícin or the climb up to the famous landmark of la Alhambra, the medieval hilltop fort that is Granada’s enduring image. With steps, pedestrians, narrow streets and generally lots of little features of interest to pay close attention to, road running in Granada did have more in common with a true trail run than a plodding, steady road run, with the need to vary pacing, stride length and effort regularly. This made for both physically and mentally rewarding runs. Being able to head out at any time of the day due to high temperatures not being a concern was also a welcome blessing.
Snow capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains made for an epic backdrop
One of the most memorable runs I completed was towards the end of my stay in the city as I struck out along the river, following the path as it left the main city, becoming more and more rural and eventually transitioning to a narrow trail. I opted to turn back once the path became both too narrow and too muddy, retracing my steps into Granada before taking a right that led me through the centre, weaving between strolling pedestrians on their morning commute, before climbing steadily toward Albaícin. I love those runs when you just feel so good that the thought of sticking to ‘the programme’ and bringing that feeling of flow to a premature end seems wrong, disrespectful almost, and so it was this thought that drove my legs and body up and up right to the top of the hill on which the small church of Ermita de San Miguel Alto was situated. Due to it being a fairly cold and damp morning I was one of only three people present and so was able to enjoy the panoramic view out over the city unobstructed and in peace. Well worth the climb up!
From Granada I parted with my parents at Malaga airport, them returning to the UK whilst I flew up to Madrid, where I spent New Years with my girlfriend and other Madrid-based amigos. The running in Madrid is as good as that in Granada, and once again, I was blessed to be able to run at any time of the day without the fear of heat exhaustion or sun stroke, and with both the city to explore and the expanses of the various parks, such as Parque del Retiro, and the huge Casa de Campo, I was in runners’ nirvana!

Eiger 101 Post 5 – UTX 50: Running out of 2017

People often describe life’s journey as a rollercoaster. The same can absolutely be applied to an ultramarathon as one most certainly experiences fabulous highs and descents into lows before almost as quickly ascending to new heights. So it was for my last big athletic push of 2017: the UTX 50, organised and staged by the fantastic Urban Ultra team.
The day started as most do when you’re into weird things like running very very long distances for fun: in the dark and far earlier than most humans would consider sane. With my race pack having been picked up a couple of days before and the requisite bits of mandatory kit acquired, nutrition and the various items of clothing I may well have needed during the day were carefully packed into my car before I started the long, somewhat hazy drive out towards Ras Al Khaimah and the pin-pointed location of the race setting. Thank goodness for Google Maps is all I can say as without it I sincerely doubt i’d have made it to the start line. As I followed the digital line on my phone’s map display off the main highway and onto an altogether narrower, more sandy roadway I soon became grateful for the fact that the organisers had remembered that not everyone in the UAE drives a 4WD. Having said that I reached a point where it became clear that to proceed may well have meant risking getting stuck in the very soft sand that the road had transitioned to, especially as I had already seen one runner do just that after taking the wrong one of two options at a forked junction. The race site, I was informed by a couple who had opted to camp overnight, was just a hundred metres on and thus easily walkable.
One thing that many people find hard to get their heads around, especially after the stifling heat and relentless humidity of the summer months is the fact that in winter it does actually get pretty darned cold, especially out in the desert. As such, getting changed into my running gear was a nippy affair and I was glad to be able to don my snood and Patagonia base layer before grabbing my CamelPak, with nutrition stowed away, and head torch before making my way over to registration. Quite a few people had, it turned out, managed to drive to the main site – the road into camp was actually passable by normal cars; these things often only become apparent after the fact – and when I arrived the music was pumping, lights were on and the inflatable arch of the start and finish line was clearly visable, with registration just to the side of it. Signed in and with at least forty minutes to go until the start I opted to head back to the car and hunker down with a book rather than freeze by standing around idly. I’d have more than enough time to spend on my feet come the actual race!
The trail and ultra scene out here is a relatively small one and so the same faces tend to pop up at most events, which makes for a really nice, familial or collegiate atmosphere. So it was as many of the Dubai Trail Runners, including head honcho, Lee, filtered into the start line huddle, exchanging greetings and comments on how chilly it was, before we were given the briefing and placed under starters orders. “5, 4, 3, 2, 1….FOGHORN!” We were off, with the eventual race winners striking up an impressive pace from the get-go whilst I found myself comfortably towards the front but in no way pushing for any kind of heroic lead. Not in this race and not generally in this sport – I respect the distance too much and recognise my own limits at present. Besides, we first of all had about 3km of sand and dunes to traverse before the more traditional trail running ensued and based on my limited experience of dune running I know how tough it can be and so wished to conserve energy as much as I was able. One thing that fairly rapidly became clear was that I could easily have done without the base layer as within about five minutes of dune-climbing effort I was well and truly ‘warmed up’ and would have jettisoned it early on had I been ok to stop. Instead I elected to push on at a steady pace before making the final breathtakingly beautiful descent down the last big dune, with the sun now making an appearance and illuminating the dunes and mountains of the area, and stopped at the bottom, where the hard track started, in order to pack away my base-layer, sand gaiters and lamp and catch a much needed breath before the main section of the day kicked off.
I can’t really say that I had any real strategy for the day other than to remember not to push it too hard in the early stages as tempting as it may have been, and to remember to remain hydrated and adequately fed, both of which are surprisingly easy to forget to do, especially in cooler conditions. I had intended to listen to some music as a way of ‘zoning out’ during the race but found myself foregoing that option in favour of simply enjoying my surroundings, brief conversations with fellow runners and to pay close attention to both the trail – an important way to reduce the risk of stumbles, falls, ankle twists and all of the other ridiculously simple to occur happenings that can befall a trail runner, especially when tired – and my general surroundings, both of which were beautiful. The first section of trail after the dunes took us out of the ‘countryside’ and into an area of housing, meaning a section of paved road running, where we came upon the first aid station – I elected not to stop at this as still had plenty of water and was feeling in a good flow state so wished to capitalise by continuing on. After that the trail took us into a narrow section of wadi before opening up into a wider, more isolated, or wilder area of proper wadi where we found ourselves for about the next 10 km. I found the initial 20 km to be comfortable and was able to maintain a steady pace that saw me overtake a few people, although I also had several people pass me in turn. My feet were feeling good and I once again thanked good fortune that I had discovered Injinji and their incredible socks as they seemed to be my saving grace as far as looking after my feet was concerned.
After the second aid station, which was positioned in a picturesque little farming village and at which I did make a stop, enjoying the orange slices on offer, I did start to feel my legs a little more and on the steeper sections of short climbing elected to walk. I also stopped for a few minutes, not out of fatigue but because the narrow path that climbed up behind and between some buildings had on one side stables and out of two of the open windows popped the heads of some stunning horses. I couldn’t ignore them and so stopped to say hello, enjoying the interaction with my new equine buddies, only spurred on by the voices of another two runners scaling the path behind me. From there the road wound up and down and around the farming community, with cute little stone buildings surrounding cultivated and terraced fields of lush green crops flanked by the razer tipped peaks of the UAE mountains surrounding us. The start of the final descent of this section was marked by a rusty iron gate and once through it was a knee-pounding run down towards a long, straight, somewhat demoralising stretch of main highway running that seemed to coincide with the start of the day’s heat. I was ok for about the first half of this particular section but then felt myself hitting up against a bit of a wall before caving in to temptation and choosing to walk for a bit. A short walk was soon extended at the next to a longer walk and if it were not for the heroic efforts of one runner, Elliot Lewis, and his words of encouragement as I then ran the next twenty or so kilometres with him, I would have had a truly miserable experience and succumbed to the spectre of walking most of the rest of the race. Ultra marathons mess with your head. They’re long enough that to get through them in one piece does require constant thinking, reassessments, personal pep-talking and it is so easy for those voices of doubt to start creeping into your head before screaming at you to ‘just take it easy for a bit’ that they become hard to ignore. It may have been that some decent, motivational music would have helped at this stage, but I had a better option: another runner to keep me motivated and going. That’s another thing I do love about this sport – very rarely do you encounter a selfish athlete who is just interested in themselves and their own race. Most runners genuinely look out for their fellow race-goers and do what they can if they see someone struggling. Did my companion sacrifice some time in order to run with me? I don’t know but the point is that instead of silently cruising past me and leaving me to trudge the trails alone he made the decision to step up to the mark and be the guardian angel that I needed at that particular moment. For that I humbly thank him.
From the prospect of another thirty kilometres of painfully dull trudging in the heat I was instead in the much better position of finding myself approaching the final aid station, just 10km out from the finish, and at this point I felt strong enough to start to up the ante and pace. With the blessing of my running companion for the last 20km I struck out on my own once more and soon found myself rattling along at a blistering pace. What I should have recognised, however, was that it was too fast to be sustained and crushingly after about 5km I found myself hitting yet another wall and once more reduced to a walk-run regime as I gritted my teeth and willed the final few kilometres to pass. Those final few K’s were tough and there were several moments when I found myself talking out loud, admonishing myself for being arrogant and pushing off too hard from the aid station. If i’d maintained better control then I would have found a steady, sustainable pace and been able to at least run the entire final 10km. Still, one learns with every event. One thing I was determined NOT to do was walk over the finish line. Nah! Not going to happen. I was absolutely going to run that and so with the final 1.5km to go I dug in, willed my aching and leaden legs into action and focused on thoughts of the end. The trail entered an area of dunes and so I knew I was close, in addition to the fact that my Suunto told me the same thing, and then out to the right, in the distance I could see the runner ahead of me, Scott, turning into what I knew must have been the finishing chute, a narrow gully between two rocky outcrops that funnelled us to the end. That was all the motivation I needed to be able to punch the metaphorical biological nitrous button and sprint! It’s always amused and frustrated me in equal measure how no matter how done in you are during a race there always seems to be that small reserve of energy that is kept back especially for sprinting to the finish line. A little like always being able to find space for dessert. I could see Lee up on the rock and gave him a thumbs up as I rounded the final corner, saw the archway and locked in. It was done. 50km of running was over and another ultramarathon notched up. I gratefully took receipt of my wooden medal – a nice environmentally friendly spin on the usual metal offering – and waddled over to the gazebo where I earnestly accepted the offer of Coca Cola and some delicious soup! Just what was needed after nearly six hours of being out pounding the trails.
With some sustenance on board and my pack laid to rest I felt significantly better, joining the other runners to have finished in cheering our fellow racers across the line and enjoying the plentiful photo opportunities. One final group pic snapped, with the Urban Ultra goat taking centre stage, and it was back to the car and ultimately Dubai. My best laid plans of a relaxing evening of movie watching and feet up leisure quickly became a case of falling asleep on the sofa and thus marked the end of yet another fun filled yet tough day out on the athletic scene here in the UAE.
FINAL RESULT:
Finished in 5 hours, 38 mins and 9 seconds
17th place overall and 12th in my category.
(The winning time was 4’14”59! Staggeringly speedy!)
Team photo at the finish
Left: Elliot & I / Right: Louise, Pascal & I

Eiger 101 Post 4 – Excited by….. Socks?!

Following on from my previous post where I mentioned that I had placed an order for my very own set of Injinji trail socks, such were the incredibly positive reviews that seemed to be emanating from the wider ultra-marathon community when it came to the subject of blister prevention, I excitedly took delivery of the package that duly arrived from the US, where the company is based, and could not wait to head out for a run and test them out.

Getting in Touch with my Inner Ape

The first thing that really struck me about the Injinjis was the obvious fact that they have individual pockets for each toe, giving them the appearance of literally being a glove for the feet. Once on board and reconciled with the weirdness of their appearance – a simple side-effect of having always used and thus been pre-conditioned to ‘normal’ socks –  I proceeded to don them, finding it a little fiddly to ensure that each toe made it snugly and individually into it’s respective Coolmax polyester, Nylon & Lycra enclave. Given the relative fiddliness and additional time required to make sure they are fitted properly I doubt I’d be reaching for this type of sock for an event such as a triathlon, where my ability to transition quickly is already laughable. They were, however, very comfortable and, in my opinion, looked stylish with their orange and green colour combo!

Did They Work?

Whilst at the time of writing I am yet to really test them to the extreme at full ultra distances, over the shorter training runs that I have been out on the results have been convincing enough. Now maybe my feet have simply toughened up since I wrote last and the introduction of ‘posh performance socks’ has had zero impact but I suspect that protecting each toe individually and preventing that annoying toe-on-toe friction, especially toe-nail on toe that I was prone to, has made a big difference. My feet have exited my running shoes looking unscathed – a far cry from the blistery horror scene that seemed to greet me just a couple of weeks ago. I think if my feet could speak, which I guess technically they can on account of being attached to, well, me, they’d be saying, “good find bro!” So yeah, I guess it’s official: I am, or at least was, excited by socks. Ah, the headonistic rock and roll lifestyles of the ultra runner, eh!
You could say I am impressed
To get your own pair just head over to their website (nb: I am not in any way commercially connected to the company and have written this solely because I a) like their product, b) like writing and ultra-running, and c) like the thought of being able to help even just one other runner if and where I can): https://www.injinji.com/
(However, should anyone at Injinji HQ happen to be reading this and feel like they need a new brand ambassador then I’d throw my hat – or should that be socks – in the ring 🙂 You can, after all, just pay me in socks!)

Eiger 101 Post 3 – Happy Feet

I am on a bit of a rest week on account of being on the night shift. This essentially leaves little time for anything other than ‘work, eat, sleep, work again’ for a full seven days. I have, under instruction from Coach Trace, shoehorned a few very short runs in, which has probably been better for me than I realised at the time on account of ensuring that I at least get a little dose of vitamin D.
One of the perks of being on a less intense training week is that my feet have had a chance to recover, with my toes starting to resemble a normal person’s digits once again. Blisters, something that I never really suffered that badly with in the past, have been a pretty constant and unwelcome companion for the past few weeks, and has seen me scouring the web for advice on how best to reduce the risk of developing them and how to deal with those that do occur. Anyone who has suffered blisters knows full well how much they can scupper a good run and the last thing I want is to face the prospect of 100 km of unhappy feet – prevention is surely way better than a cure in this case.

Blister Treatment:

There are loads of really excellent articles available, many from seasoned ultra runners, that go into incredible detail on how to manage and treat blisters whilst out running and I intend to get myself stocked with the recommended supplies to add to my pack.
BLOG POSTS ON BLISTER/ FOOT CARE – the top 3 Google results for ‘ultra running, blister care’ (30th Nov 2017)

Blister Prevention:

This is what I am more interested in as I would rather not have to deal with pesky foot problems at all if I can help it. One piece of advice that seemed to crop up again and again in all the blog posts and articles I read about ultra-running was to invest in a pair of Injinji socks. The theory is that by encasing each toe in it’s own individual compartment there is less risk of the damaging toe-on-toe rubbing that so often occurs with normal socks. So, with thoughts of content feet I duly punched in the credit card info into their website and am, at the time of writing, awaiting delivery of four pairs of these apparent wonder garments. Lets see if they prove to be as awesome as reports suggest.

The Force In Dubai – Film Festival Premiere of Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Wednesday 8th December 2017 finally saw the culmination of a good week’s worth of personal effort as I finally got to don my Sith cloak, fire up the lightsabre and walk the red carpet with plenty of other local Star Wars fans here in Dubai. The 14th annual Dubai Film Festival closed this year with the regional premiere of the much anticipated latest instalment of Star Wars, with this year’s hot release being The Last Jedi, that picked up from precisely where The Force Awakens left off.
As soon as I saw that they were screening it at the festival I knew that I wanted tickets but had every expectation of it already being sold out, such is the usual demand for not only a Star Wars release but also a closing night gala screening. To my incredible excitement and surprise there were tickets up for grabs and grab a couple I did. To add to the sense of anticipation and occasion the organisers stated that they were encouraging fans to attend in fancy dress: magic words for me. I love fancy dress and if it’s a theme that involves a sword, whether standard or laser, as in Star Wars, then I am all over it! This was demonstrated clearly back in my uni days when I actually spent two weeks working closely with the head of the physics department workshop to create a real set of Trojan armour, including authentic brush helmet and sword, for a veterinary party weekend. That’s how into fancy dress I get.
So, with a little under a week to get a costume together, and with the stakes elevated by the announcement that there would be prizes on offer for the best, I set to thinking of what to go as and how to piece it all together, including the major question of what to do regarding a lightsabre. My first decision was to go as a Sith, as I tend to think that the darker characters are usually the most interesting and seem to have the best costumes. But who? Kylo Ren was the obvious choice and I figured that loads of people would be opting for him, in addition to his costume not actually being that interesting. Sure he has a badass helmet and a slightly more interesting lightsabre but there just wasn’t that ‘wow’ factor that I wanted. I then considered Anakin Skywalker, as he embraced the dark side. The costume looked simple enough, with the base looking to be a black, or very dark brown, martial arts suit, paired with a large central belt, some fancy looking leather strips that hung down over the shoulders and, of course, a Sith cloak and hood. I would also be needing boots, or be able to fashion something that looked like boots. Some intial sketching and web research revealed the basic design and I even considered a wacky idea to augment the costume, and add to the overall theatric effect, by rigging up a small Yoda soft toy on the end of a clear length of plastic tubing, or the like, and attach it to my wrist somehow so as to appear as though I was making Yoda levitate by way of the force! I imagined the effect would be quite striking as well as being relatively simple to pull off.
As is often the case with creative pursuits one tends to tumble down the rabbit hole and new and more interesting ideas sometimes spring up where the previous ones were fulminating. So it was that as I was researching ‘sith costumes’ online I came across an image of Darth Revan, from the Old Republic series. In an instant I knew that he was the character I wanted to replicate: a bad ass, mask-wearing ninja-style warrior complete with his awesome cloak and lightsabre. Done! Now I just needed to figure out what to get in order to achieve the most authentic look possible.
Darth Revan (middle)

MASK:

Darth Revan’s mask is quite unique, as can be seen from the pictures. Whilst everything I needed could, in principle, be ordered online I simply didn’t have the time to wait and, besides, there is way more pride to be gained from actually making something as opposed to simply buying it. Several video tutorials ran through how to construct a costume version and so equipped with a supply of craft foam, spray paint, elastic (recycled from an old Emirates airlines eye mask), a hot glue gun, superglue, black plastic and imagination I managed a pretty decent job if I do say so myself. The only thing I would change were I do make another is to either find some less opaque pastic for the visor or cut some very thin spaces through it so I could see more than just shadows. The visual effect was awesome but I couldn’t really see a damned thing!

LIGHTSABRE:

This was one of my proudest creations and whilst I could very easily have purchased a toy I wanted something that felt more realistic. Again, there were loads of online videos providing detailed instructions of how to make your own but all of them required a fully functioning workshop, electronics and more time than I had available. I didn’t need my lightsabre to make any noise or be so closely replicant of the ones in the films – all I really needed and wanted was something that lit up red and looked badass!
The answer came to me as I was browsing in Deira and a guy tried to upsell me on a torch that I really didn’t need. The shape of it – long, thin and black – suddenly looked to me like a pretty convincing lightsabre handle and when I inspected it, removing the head to discover that it had a powerful single bright LED at the end I knew that I had my base. All I needed to do was add a length of acrylic tubing and somehow create a red light instead of the bright white of the torch, and I would have a very convincing laser sword. But where to get the materials? My first thought was Ace Hardware in Dubai but after a previous visit to source some basic materials that did not leave me impressed I looked for alternatives. The answer came in the form of a company called Accurate Acrylics LLC based in Al Quoz. Seeing that they were open at 8am I popped over one Saturday morning before I was due to start work and was introduced to the manager, Sadyajit, who humored me as he listened to my mad cap request – the fact that I had the torch and pictures of what I was aiming to achieve surely helped. Lo and behold they were able to help and so an order was placed for a single length of 35mm diameter clear acrylic plus an end piece to seal the far end of the lightsabre. The cost? A mere 100AED. Sadyajit also arranged for it to be cut so that it would, in theory, slide snugly into place over the end of the torch base.
The basic design for my Sith lightsabre.
The piece was perfect, although I later discovered that I also needed to create a small hole on the reverse to enable the torch to be recharged once it was all put together, a minor roadblock that was overcome though application of a gas hob, a pointy-ended knife and time enough to slowly melt a hole where it was needed. For the color effect I used red packing film that I rolled several times and slid inside the entire length of the tubing, so as to diffuse the light produced by the LED into the desired level of red. A neat hint I gleaned from the online tutorials was to back the end disc with a reflective material, such as tin foil, so as to reflect back the light travelling up the tube, thus ensuring a realistic lightsabre effect. This was certainly a key design feature and really helped create the desired outcome. The final touch was to embellish the power button with some red craft foam, raising it such that I could switch the lightsabre on and off easily and adding some more color to the design. One of the advantages of constructing it the way I did was that it had a weight to it that really added to the impression of it being a real device, very similar to the Trojan sword that made part of my costume all those years before.

BOOTS:

I don’t own boots and couldn’t find anything that was either in my size or that wasn’t for women in Deira. What I did do was to pair a relatively cheap pair of black men’s zipped shoes with my horseriding calf-chaps. The latter I had to fabric paint black, a step that saw me go through an entire can of black fabric spray paint – leather, it seems, really does soak up paint well – and required a few solid days of drying before they could be worn.

BASE LAYER:

Most of the pictures I had seen of Darth Revan showed him wearing a dark full length tunic and I imagined that a very dark grey or black kandura would have substituted for the same perfectly. However, finding one in Deira proved to be incredibly difficult and after the umpteenth “no” and shake of the head from the vendors I spoke with I did start to wonder whether the reason they were claiming it wasn’t possible was that it might be somehow considered disrepectful to use one as part of a costume(?). My second thought, that being that an abaya would actually be even better, was quickly resigned to the mental “no way” file and so I decided to slightly alter the Darth Revan base by going a bit more Anakin Skywalker for that part. This essentially meant a trouser-tunic combo as the base, with the rest of the costume built around that.
I found a great Indian-style long sleeved top in Deira that had the classic look I was after and simply paired it with a loose pair of athletic training bottoms to give that combat effect. Darth Revan wears armour and if I had more time then I am certain that I would have found a way to create both the breast plate and wrist plates out of metal. Given the time constraints, however, I once again turned to the craft foam for their construction. The centrepiece of the costume was a central ring, that hangs from the main belt and that in turn has both a red length of silky fabric cascading towards the floor and a black length of similar material that wraps around the body. As I said before, the overall look is one of an ornately battle-dressed ninja, even down to the absence of any skin showing. This effect was achieved by wearing gloves and my black snood, that I wore up over my head such that when the mask was worn there was nothing but black showing. Very Sith indeed! In terms of where to get the central ring from I had initially thought to head to a plumbing store to buy a towel rack ring, as I imagined it would be about the right size. As it turned out what I actually found was actually a large seal for a a valve in an oil rig, or at least that’s what the guy in Al Quoz who looked very confused as he sold it to me said. Being bright red also added to its appeal as the flashes of red in my costume really contrasted brilliantly with the overall sense of black and paired brilliantly with the red glow of the lightsabre.

FINISHING TOUCHES:

As much as I had initially wanted to create my own Sith cloak and hood, even purchasing a decent amount of material in the process, the fact is I ran out of time to get anything tailored and so I bit the bullet and purchased a costume version. It did the trick and I attached it to my armor with the use of tiny climbing clips in much the same way that I saw it was in all of the pictures I saw of Darth Revan.
I knew that I was not going to wear the mask the entire night and so in the interests of paying attention to detail I decided to apply some dark side of the force inspired eye makeup, blacking them up and smearing it down my face. This lent me a haunted, dark look that was absolutely in keeping with the entire ethos of the costume.
Sith eye makeup added to the dark effect when the mask was not worn
The overall effect was, in my own estimation, pretty awesome and when I first switched on the lightsabre and saw it’s deep red, eery glow in combination with the entire costume I felt that thrill of excitement and satisfaction that comes from putting something awesome together.

The Show Itself

I really enjoy the Dubai Film Festival and have been fortunate enough to attend gala screenings on more than one occasion. The venue – just adjacent to Souk Madinat – is superbly glitzy and they always do a fantastic job of setting up the screening room, with this year being no different as the room sparkled, literally, and treated film goers to extremely comfortable seats.
I arrived relatively early and chose to jump out of my cab just before the venue, meaning that those driving along Beach Road were the first to see my costume in all it’s Sith glory. One thing I did discover quite early on was that I had to be careful walking, as the red sash was very easy to step on and I nearly went A over T a couple of times. If I walked a little like John Wayne then it seemed to be ok though. I caught sight of a few other cosplayers on the way in, with a guy in a tux and a Darth Vader mask one standout, as well as a couple of Jedis, a couple of Kylo Rens – obviously – and a few girls channeling Rey. Rather than go straight through and soak up the red carpet atmosphere immediately I waited a while for my friend, Kaiya, to join me, although when it became apparent that she was delayed made the decision to meet her inside rather than miss the big walk through.
I did realise fairly quickly just how little I could actually see through my mask’s visor as I trod the carpet and suspect I may have missed a few more interview and photo requests than I actually received. One guy, from Gulf News I believe, stopped me early into the walk to ask where I was from and who I had come as, in addition to taking a photo, which I took the opportunity to brandish my lightsabre for. I found the corresponding Twitter post a couple of days later, although it turned out that he seemed to have gotten his guys from the UK and Star Wars characters well and truly mixed up as I was reported to have been “Rob” from the UK and to have come as “Darth Vader.” Err….no, not quite mate.
One thing that I did end up feeling a bit bummed about was that because I was a bit late into the gala I ended up missing, or being missed, by those who were judging the costumes. This I surmised from the fact that shortly after the introduction speeches were given they announced the winners and not being arrogant or ‘owt but my costume was significantly more impressive than most of those that won, especially the eventual winner who – surprise, surprise – came as Kylo Ren. As much as it wasn’t all about the competition – just getting to attend and enjoy both the film and dressing up was awesome enough – the prizes were pretty great, with the top four or five each getting one of those awesome little Sphero BB8 programmable robots. Nice. Still, you win some, you lose some 🙂
The film itself, screened in 3D, which was actually brilliant, was one of the best Star Wars episodes so far and suffice to say that it was very well received, with the 2.5 hours running time flying by like a Poe Damaron piloted X-Wing. I won’t run into a full blown review of the film though as there are about a zillion online already and, to be honest, you’re better off just going to watch it yourself. Do make sure that you’ve seen The Force Awakens first though as it follows on immediately from that one.
One of the most fun moments of the evening was actually the slow walk out, as it was then that both Kaiya and I got to feel like film stars as we were asked to pose in various photos. Whilst I am an introvert in spirit, when I get a decent character costume on I am happy to enthusiatically play a role 🙂 We even got to be interviewed by a movie channel as our very final act before hopping in a taxi and bringing the evening to an end. The lightsabre, mask and cloak are now hung up for a year when I hope to dust them off, re-channel the force and tread the red carpet once again as a Sith.

Some more photos from the event:

We were interviewed on our walk along the red carpet
One of the joys of the premiere was getting to walk the red carpet

Eiger 101 Post 2 – Let The Training Commence

The slot is secured and the target set. So what now? What path will see me go from being a competent yet not outstanding runner to one who finishes a monumental endurance challenge like the Eiger 101 in a decent time?

 

The first important step, as was the case when preparing for my Ironman races, was to enlist the advice, guidance and self-pressure application that comes from having a professional coach on your side. I wasn’t certain if Trace, who expertly guided me to becoming an Ironman, would want to take on the tangenital task of training an ultra-runner, being a triathlon coach with a busy client-load and a packed race calendar, but was pleasantly surprised when she reacted really positively to the idea of taking on something new. It looks as though this experience will see both of us push our respective boundaries and learn something new.

 

Having an interim goal in the form of an earlier race is always a sound idea for any long-term training plan and so we looked at the upcoming races here in the Middle East and opted to focus immediate efforts on the Urban Ultra UTX-50, a mixed trail race on the 8th December that will see runners cover 50km of sand, trail and wadis, with some climbs thrown in for good measure. As a test of where my endurance running is and how my training is progressing this should be a telling event. The distance no longer scares me after doing the 72km Wadi Bih race earlier this year, although I feel as though I should be going into this race significantly fitter and better prepared than I was in February. As such, I am hoping to record a decent time and enjoy the day. The mainstay of my preparation has been to head out to Wadi Showka each Friday morning in order to hit the trails and steadily increase the mileage, with 28km being the furthest I have run this season, a significant way off the 101km of the Eiger but a decent start to my campaign.

 

Camels, UAE, trail running
The company on the trails is inquisitive.

With the temperatures finally dropping as we emphatically move from the oppressive heat and humidity of summer into winter (aka the ‘pleasant season’), there is less imperative to start runs at stupid o’clock as running in daylight no longer coincides with guaranteed heat exhaustion as it does in the summer months. There is, however, something incredibly exciting and satisfying about witnessing dawn whilst out on the trails, in addition to it actually being excellent training in head-torch use and running with just the light from several LEDs to illuminate the path. That was one of my most recent purchases: a new head-torch, as my previous one was quite frankly feckless, barely lighting the way ahead. My new lamp, in contrast, practically recreates daylight such are the number of lumens that it hurls out. Lovely!

Chris Shivelton Queen