The slot is secured and the target set. So what now? What path will see me go from being a competent yet not outstanding runner to one who finishes a monumental endurance challenge like the Eiger 101 in a decent time?
The first important step, as was the case when preparing for my Ironman races, was to enlist the advice, guidance and self-pressure application that comes from having a professional coach on your side. I wasn’t certain if Trace, who expertly guided me to becoming an Ironman, would want to take on the tangenital task of training an ultra-runner, being a triathlon coach with a busy client-load and a packed race calendar, but was pleasantly surprised when she reacted really positively to the idea of taking on something new. It looks as though this experience will see both of us push our respective boundaries and learn something new.
Having an interim goal in the form of an earlier race is always a sound idea for any long-term training plan and so we looked at the upcoming races here in the Middle East and opted to focus immediate efforts on the Urban Ultra UTX-50, a mixed trail race on the 8th December that will see runners cover 50km of sand, trail and wadis, with some climbs thrown in for good measure. As a test of where my endurance running is and how my training is progressing this should be a telling event. The distance no longer scares me after doing the 72km Wadi Bih race earlier this year, although I feel as though I should be going into this race significantly fitter and better prepared than I was in February. As such, I am hoping to record a decent time and enjoy the day. The mainstay of my preparation has been to head out to Wadi Showka each Friday morning in order to hit the trails and steadily increase the mileage, with 28km being the furthest I have run this season, a significant way off the 101km of the Eiger but a decent start to my campaign.
With the temperatures finally dropping as we emphatically move from the oppressive heat and humidity of summer into winter (aka the ‘pleasant season’), there is less imperative to start runs at stupid o’clock as running in daylight no longer coincides with guaranteed heat exhaustion as it does in the summer months. There is, however, something incredibly exciting and satisfying about witnessing dawn whilst out on the trails, in addition to it actually being excellent training in head-torch use and running with just the light from several LEDs to illuminate the path. That was one of my most recent purchases: a new head-torch, as my previous one was quite frankly feckless, barely lighting the way ahead. My new lamp, in contrast, practically recreates daylight such are the number of lumens that it hurls out. Lovely!
Anyone who has ever put themselves through an endurance event, such as an Ironman race or a marathon, will recognise the description of the (often) many moments during the event when thoughts inevitably turn a little dark and take the form of “why, oh why, do I do this to myself?! What made me sign up for this hell?! That’s it! This is the last time…. never again!” Then, as one crosses the finish line, how those very thoughts pretty much instantly transform into ones of elated euphoria and a wry smile as you tell anyone who asks if you’ll do another, “well, never say never, eh,” meaning “yes, almost certainly yes.” It is the biological shot in the arm and natural high from endorphins and the incredible sense of achievement that follows completion of a really tough athletic challenge that sees us return to the endurance pantheon and continue to push ourselves on and on, higher and higher, harder and harder. Time and time again.
I’m no exception to this apparent rule and so it seemed almost inevitable that following the completion of two iron distance races, and two solid years of equally relentless training, my thoughts turned once again to event options. I had tried the whole ‘training just to keep fit for fitness sake’ thing and it really didn’t work – I NEED a specific goal and that invariably means an event to train for. One thing I realised from long course triathlon was that I was neither a natural nor an enthusiastic cyclist whereas the running I did enjoy – a fact that really saved both of my iron distance races given that the run came at the end. As such I decided that I wanted to focus more on running as I moved forward and in probably a very cliched way I looked to endurance options, namely ultra-marathons.
I first heard the term ‘ultra-marathon’ whilst at vet school as one of the farm residents, a great guy by the name of Ben, was known for running them. The prospect at that stage of running even a normal marathon seemed extreme and so I considered those who went well beyond that to be, well, a bit mental. Fast forward many years and having become well and truly initiated into the endurance sport world the idea of ‘going long’ was no longer an alien concept. In fact, it sort of felt like the natural progression.
Having made the decision to focus on running, and specifically trail, last season I got involved by joining Dubai’s Desert Trail Runners, headed up by running machine, Lee Harris, and closed out my first winter by taking on the famed Wadi Bih 72km race, which you can read more about here. As with most races, the lingering thought following completion of the event was “I wonder what I could have done were I to train harder?” It was this thought that drove me to look at race options and to find a really special event for which to train. The Eiger 101 was that race.
As soon as I found out about the Eiger I was smitten. For a start I love the mountains, a fact that was a major draw for me doing the Lake Tahoe Ironman in 2015, and the views that runners are blessed with during the Eiger 101 are legendary. Secondly, it is regarded as a tough race. A very tough race. Who wants easy, right? The difficulty factor applies not only to the actual course but also to actually getting a slot, with only 600 starts available for the 101km race, all of which sell out very quickly. I had tried to register last year in 2016, for the 2017 race, but was too late and so this year I was determined to do all I could to maximise my chances of a slot.
With the 31st October firmly penciled into my calendar and my credit card details at the ready, I was sat at my computer as the clock crept towards the 10am (Swiss time) mark. Tick. Tock. Open. Cue the kind of frantic clicking and typing that is normally reserved for efforts to secure Glastonbury tickets, coupled with the intense frustration that came with getting repeatedly booted out of the reservation page and/ or having the page fail as I was headed into the final payment screen. Twenty fruitless minutes later and I was no closer to being registered AND was now expected to actually start some work, having cheekily blocked out my first appointment of the day so as to be able to focus on the race booking. I was convinced that once again my efforts had been thwarted as I was presented with a screen that said something akin to “you’re in a digital queue,” before that became, “sorry but booking is now closed.” Grr! Twenty minutes of my life, nada to show for it and the prospect of the very race I had started training hard for having moved firmly out of reach. Needless to say I was peeved.
That was until an email pinged into my account that seemed to be telling me in no uncertain terms that I had, in fact, secured a place and I was duly invited to pay for it. So I did. How a day can about face and turn 180-degrees in a moment! So that was it….. I was in. I AM in. Awesome! But wait……that means I now have to run it. 101 kilometres. Up and down serious mountains. Holy s*$t! What have I let myself in for?!
The Eiger 101 – What Exactly Is It?
A run. A very, very long run. Up and down some of the most majestic mountains in the world. The first event was held in 2013 so it is still a relatively young race, with options for shorter distances on offer alongside the 101 km event. The route takes runners on a roughly – very roughly – circular route starting in the Swiss village of Grindelwald, high up in the Alps, returning after taking in the best of the surrounding mountains, meadows and forests.
From what I can glean from the various blogs (see below) I have scoured since securing my slot in 2018’s race, the fastest times for the full distance come in at about 12 hours, with the cutoff being 26 hours. It would seem from what I have read that a fit amateur could be very happy with a time of around 20 hours. That’s a long time out on your feet and up in the mountains – certainly a lot longer than anything I would expect to face in an Ironman race. As such, I look forward to a very different approach to training for this event – this will be as much a cerebral challenge as a physical one. Bring it on!
Click here to visit the Eiger Ultra website & learn more about this epic event.
Some of the great blog posts I have had the pleasure to find & read since signing up to the Eiger 101, with some of the key take-aways summarised:
- Felt long – closer to 120km based on his watch
- Very vertical!
- Use poles
- Don’t go in with any mental baggage
- Did it in about 18 hours
- Views are just breathtaking!
- Tough race – a full THIRD of the 600 runners who started DNF’d!
- Lots & lots of mental toughness required!
- Injinji socks – NO BLISTERS
- Take a camera
- A real sense of ‘togetherness’
- Lots of concentration required – high alpine trails & not well groomed
- Electrolytes important
- Harder than the UTMB!
With the Skydive Dubai desert dropzone closed for the scorching summer months and being a relative fledgling in the sport with insufficient jumps to be a Palm-bird I had to consider dropzones further afield in order to obtain my freefall fix. Yes, skydiving, as anyone who does it for fun will confess, is an addiction. A powerful one at that. The lure of open skies and thousands of feet of void to flip, slide, track and fly through is a tough one to resist.
Cue the search for potential skydiving holiday destinations. A few web searches, blogs and a Facebook Messenger conversation later I had my selection: Skydive Balaton, just outside the lakeside town of Siofok in Hungary. The main draw of this dropzone, other than the fact that the pictures and videos I had seen were amazing, was the fact that they jump from helicopters. Not just any heli though. No. Decommissioned military Mi8 choppers! After confirming that the forecast for my intended week was good – Eastern Europe, it seemed, was enjoying a very well timed heatwave – tickets were booked to fly to Budapest, the night shift finished and my bags duly packed. Freefall here I come!
Budapest, which I chose to spend a few days exploring at the start of the trip, was stunning and despite having an unfortunate start to the week after my laptop was stolen I found the city to be charming, full of history and, much like Prague, where I had been fortunate enough to visit with my father a few weeks prior, had incredible views at each and every turn. With my tourist mental checklist satisfied and hire car secured, I left the urban confines of the city and struck out into Hungary’s countryside, driving the one and a half hours out to Lake Balaton and the skydive complex, nestled at the Southern end of the runway.
I was immediately impressed with the set up there. Manifest was well organised, with my first point of contact, Krsytina, running it like the tight ship this place clearly was, and a great system whereby newly registered skydivers were issued a personal card, with this being used to self-manifest electronically, scanning in and collecting a paper ticket from an automatic machine just prior to the jump itself. Seamless, easy and sophisticated. So far so impressed. The complex itself was superbly serviced, with a number of individual hangars that groups of jumpers could make use of to pack and hang out in, a fantastic cafe and outdoor seating with panoramic views over the landing area. Skydive Balaton also has a range of really great accommodation options, from small two bed cabins, to more extensive lodgings, and, of course, the option to camp, with clean, serviceable showers and other facilities. The on-site restaurant, Aviator, served amazingly delicious food and, of course, refreshing local beer! It was easy to see why the centre played host to a number of boogies during the summer, with one actually coming to an end as I arrived.
One of the beauties of the sport is that it is wonderfully social and it wasn’t long before I was introduced to a great group of guys and girls, making the hangar in which they’d spent the boogie week in my base for the few days I was there. Welcoming, generous and fun they made my time jumping there even more awesome than I knew it was going to be and although several of my jumps were solo affairs – great for quiet contemplation and time to enjoy the expansive views of the lake and beyond – I was also able to do several jumps with other people, which is always more fun! The options for fun that come from jumping out of the back of a helicopter are almost limitless. The choice of HOW to exit is just the start. Run out? Fall backwards? Hanging drop? If you can think of it then you can pretty much do it from a helicopter. One of the funniest exits I was able to do was to hang from the rope out the back by my feet before dropping towards the earth below head first. The group jumps were hilarious, from a nine-way ‘Hot Dog’ jump to celebrate Luke’s 200th jump, to the ‘Cat’ jump that I got to do with Chris and Kim, in which we linked end to end before tracking, Chris then dipping his head to the ground causing me to fly up and over, catapulting across the sky! Epic jumps every single one. Even the journey to altitude was magical and I couldn’t help but feel as though I was in some kind of epic action movie, sitting with my legs dangling from the rear of this master of the skies as we hurtled across the grass before climbing like a colossal metallic dragonfly and revealing the lake and surrounding country far below.
Talking of generosity, I was extremely grateful to the guys, especially Aaron and Paul, who took the time to help refresh my memory of how to pack my own rig, a skill that I had long neglected in favour of simply paying for pack jobs in Dubai. There was a part of me that didn’t really feel like a complete skydiver not knowing how to pack myself and I ended the weekend confidently packing myself and living to tell the tale! In fact, I am pleased to report that my chute opened seamlessly on every pack that I did on my own, which is always reassuring! That’s another element of this sport I love: there are very few airs and graces, with most of the people you meet being down-to-earth (ironically) sorts with a sense of humour and a generous spirit. We all look out for one another and you’re guaranteed to have friends wherever you choose to go in the world. For that I am super grateful!
The weather gods were certainly smiling on us during our time there, as the day I left the winds picked up. As I drove away, back towards Budapest and my flight home, I had the satisfied grin and the aching muscles that signal a great few days of jumping, already plotting my return. If you’re looking for an amazing dropzone to visit then this is one for your list.
“So this is where the magic happens?” These were my words as I stepped over the threshold of Pedago’s office and got to see for myself where the Smartly online MBA is created and run from, in addition to getting to meet members of the team who are responsible for not only me, but many many others, being able to study for and achieve a top-class MBA education without having to cripple ourselves with life-altering debt.
As I found myself in Washington DC for a speaking engagement I took the opportunity to pop over to Pedago’s Georgetown offices and say hi. I didn’t expect to see that most of the office had opted to stay back late in order to meet me and so was honoured and a little taken aback when I was met outside by Alexie and then welcomed into a conference room where the team were assembled, including more joining by video. Quite the welcome!
- Alexie Harper
- Allison Harper
- Valentina Navarro
- Tiffany Chen
- Matt Schenck
- Brent Dearth
- Daniel Mintz
- John Pella
- Skylar Neil
- Ellie Di Berardino
- Oli Ratner
What a great day checking out the VR/AR Association startup zone at #IOTX in Dubai. Great ideas, great products, great people, such as Shujat Mirza (VR/AR Association Dubai Chapter President) & Clyde DeSouza (VR Filmmaker) – Spherical Image – RICOH THETA
AWE (Augmented World Expo)
- Seeing how much bigger the event has become, even over the last three years. One could really get a sense of VR and AR starting to be embraced by the mainstream and the energy during the event certainly felt like it had been etched up a notch from the previous year.
- Getting to speak. I was one of several speakers who took to the stage on the Life track and thoroughly enjoyed being able to deliver my vision of where I see VR in Veterinary currently standing and where I see it going in the future. I believe I am correct when I say that I might have been the first veterinary surgeon to speak at the event so representing the veterinary profession in such an exciting and rapidly advancing industry was truly an honour.
- Checking out Lllama Zoo’s HoloLens dissection experience. Charles and Kevin from the company had made the journey down from Canada and both my friend, Deborah, and I were privileged enough to be given a live demo of their augmented reality canine dissection tool, using the Microsoft HoloLens. With each of us wearing a headset, we were both able to see a high resolution holographic image of a set of lungs and heart floating in midair and move around it viewing it from different angles, remove layers and learn about the specific anatomy of this part of the body. The image quality was superb and I was not aware of there being any flicker or issues with the hologram staying fixed in position. A very compelling demonstration and a real glimpse at the future of anatomy teaching in vet and medical schools.
VR in Healthcare Symposium (VR Voice)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
What do you do when you find you have an unexpected week off work? There are a hundred and one ways that I could have easily occupied the time in Dubai and yet I also feared that I would probably fail to truly maximise the time and so turned my thoughts towards doing some exploring. But where?
Since arriving in the Middle East, a perfect jumping off point for the Far East, all of my trips have basically taken me back West, something that I have realised on numerous occasions feels like a missed opportunity. So, my thoughts headed east and specifically to both Singapore and Hong Kong, where I am fortunate enough to have friends in both cities. For a short period I did consider playing out the true jet-set image by taking in both during the same trip, especially as I was keen to visit INSEAD’s campus in Singapore, but concluded that the schedule would be too crammed and the additional time spent in transit a poor use of a limited number of hours that could be better directed to actually exploring and relaxing. Given that I had visited Singapore once before, albeit many years ago, and had never been to Hong Kong I opted for the latter and so booked the flights. Decision made.
Its strange that in spite of living in an age of ample online sources of information, including video footage and Google Maps data, my imagined ideas of the place and what I actually experienced in person were so different. I took an overnight flight, relishing in my luck at having an entire row of seats to myself thus affording me some – but not enough – sleep as I headed east and landed at Hong Kong’s airport, perched at the far end of Lantau Island, a 30 minute metro ride from the city itself, and built upon reclaimed land, a technology that has revolutionised and transformed Hong Kong over the years. With a return airport express ticket in hand, facilitated by the incredibly helpful attendant who I swear spoke better English than I do, I boarded the train all the while amazed at just how few people there were. Anywhere. I told myself that I must have simply arrived at a bizarrely early hour and that the city was yet to wake as I had been expecting to grapple with throngs of people from the moment I arrived.
It was especially overcast and cloudy as I arrived and the first glimpses of Hong Kong were dark, dreary views of construction over the bay, and nondescript high rises as we approached Kowloon. Views of the famous skyline itself would have to wait as we went from Kowloon station to Hong Kong station, my final stop and from where I was advised to grab a cab for the short journey to Wan Chai and the SPCA, my home for the week and where my friend Matt, a fellow vet, and his girlfriend, Thea, lived. The first thing that struck me was actually how relatively small, geographically speaking, Hong Kong truly is. The island of Hong Kong, and the city that everyone knows, starts at the edge of Hong Kong bay, approximately 1km narrower now than it once was on account of the degree of reclamation that has taken place, and quickly climbs steeply to hills covered in lush vegetation before sweeping down to the opposite coast, where small coves, bays and exclusive settlements like Stanley are situated. The fact that Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated places on the planet is thus down to the engineering miracle that is the high-rise, with impossibly tall buildings clinging to slopes that would make some ski resorts giddy. Just how some of them were built amazes me!
In spite of grand plans to grab the day by the horns and make the most of my time in the city, I confess that my “quick nap” turned into an all-day snore-fest and it was the early evening, once Matt had returned from work, that I emerged bleary eyed and ready to sample some of the local cuisine. Food plays a big role in Hong Kong and it is delicious, with a classically local dim sum joint being our destination, after a couple of cheeky beers in one of the many bars. Matt had advised me to pick up a pre-paid 4G SIM card for my phone and a quick stop at one of the small street-side vendors saw me instantly connected to the network and thus able to function as any digital citizen of the city.
Determined to make up for the loss of the previous day, although I clearly needed the sleep, I got up relatively early the next day, starting out with a run that saw me weave through the neighbourhood of Wan Chai, through and around Victoria Park, a short distance from the apartment, around Happy Valley, the famous racetrack, and back along the waterfront, stopping off for some delicious BBQ pork buns for breakfast Hong Kong style. Feeling somewhat reenergised and taking the advice of Thea, I packed up a few things in a daypack, hailed a cab and headed up to Parkview and the start of a hiking trail known as the Wilson Trail, and specifically a section of it that took in the Twins, two peaks that ultimately brought me down to Stanley on the other side of the island. It was a very overcast day and as we climbed into Parkview, we entered an eery world that felt almost dreamlike such was the effect of being up in the clouds. The hike initially involved a steep ascent of multiple stone steps before winding along a narrow hilltop track that saw me above the cloudline and, as such, without the views that I knew would have been spectacular. I did have sounds though, with various birdsong intermingling with the distant clang of construction, growing louder as I approached Repulse Bay, the source of the building din. Being in China I could not help imagine that the bangs, grumbles and clatters were in fact a giant dragon, hidden from view by the cloak of cloud that kept its presence secret.
I know that Hong Kong is a very humid, and thus wet, place but it seemed that I had elected to head out during a particularly wet week, although Dubai didn’t fare too much better as it turned out. As such, in addition to getting soggy via the humidity and exertion required on the hike, I also found myself caught in a thunderstorm. All told, I arrived in Stanley feeling as though I had walked there via a hot, steamy shower! My initial plan had been to do a training swim in the sea off Stanley’s beach but given the rather grey day, the fact that I was actually pretty tired and keen to return to Hong Kong itself in order to make the races and the fact that I had read all about the sharks that do populate the waters around the area, I opted to keep my soggy feet on dry land.
Refuelled and souvenir in hand, I hopped on one of the minibuses heading back into the city and enjoyed views of Clearwater Bay, Repulse Bay and Ocean Park, a theme park nestled up on a headland opposite Repulse Bay, before we drove through the Aberdeen Tunnel and emerged back into Hong Kong proper. A swift turnaround back at the apartment and it was off out again, this time with brolly in hand, to grab some dinner and check out the races, a hugely popular activity on Wednesday night in Hong Kong.
The Happy Valley racecourse sits in, well, a valley and was actually named somewhat tongue in cheek on account of the fact that when it was first settled, the marshy environment, and the legions of mosquitoes that came with it, meant that many of the settlers died, with the area being turned over to numerous cemeteries, gravestones visible as they climb the slopes like dull, grey, geometric creepers. Once inside the racetrack, the mood was one of a much more jovial nature, with throngs of racegoers all enjoying the food, booze and music on show, in addition to waging a fortune on the outcome of the various races being run that night. Apparently more than $100M is bet each week alone, if the book I read is to be believed. A staggering amount of money that makes the Jockey Club one of the biggest contributors to the city coffers out of anyone. I, for one, am not that keen on betting and so after watching one race, I headed out and toward a nearby hotel where I was certain I would be rewarded with a stunning elevated view of the entire course, in addition to it being dry. Randomly, during the walk from the track I passed Vernon Troy, of Austin Powers’ Mini Me fame, out for an evening with his friends. Dubai, it seems, is not the only place for random celeb-spotting.
Thursday was spent closer to home, and took Matt and I over the bay via one of the very many ferries that zip around the harbour to Kowloon, with the New Territories and China beyond. We checked out Chungking Mansions, a labyrinthine multi-level building of stalls, restaurants and many other services alike, before taking in the Hong Kong skyline from the harbour. Much like in Dubai, construction is everywhere in Hong Kong, with the city constantly growing and changing. The energy is one of high velocity growth and optimism and feels so at odds with what I experienced during my brief visit back to the UK.
Returning to Downtown via the incredibly efficient metro, we headed up to Lan Kwai Fong, the (in)famous bar and restaurant region of the city, where Matt suggested an awesome Brazilian grill for lunch. More walking, including checking out the awesome Mid-levels escalator – yes, Hong Kong actually has an escalator that goes up the hill! That is just THE BEST! With Hong Kong being so dense it is actually pretty straightforward to explore much of it quite quickly and with this sense of curiosity I headed off independently for the Peak tram and to see whether the views would be kind enough to come out and play. They did and they were worth it!
The tram that takes visitors from Downtown up the incredibly steep slopes to the Peak, and the 360-degree viewing platform, was well worth the ticket price, with the clouds thankfully clearing for my visit and permitting spectacular views over the city, the bay, Kowloon and beyond. Any visit to Hong Kong simply has to include this on the itinerary and once I had exhausted my inner photographer I took advantage of my 4G to Skype the folks back home and share the experience and view with them. A great day of touristy fun all told and topped off with a fantastic Chinese meal with my hosts and a variety of their friends at a Wan Chai restaurant.
By this stage I was getting into the tourist swing of things and so looked to check out one of the ‘Top Ten’ that a friend, Rosee, had suggested: the Giant Buddha. A relatively short metro trip back out west to the tip of Lantau island and the town just next to the airport saw me connect with the cable car that takes visitors up and over the hills to Ngong Ping, site of the Po Lin monastery and 34m high bronze Buddha that sits breathtakingly atop a hill. The more energised visitor has the option to trek up the lengthy trail, something I elected to pass on although would consider as an awesome training run one day if I ever return. The short stroll from the cable car station towards the Buddha and monastery took me through the somewhat touristy village, complete with shops selling various momentos, snacks and other paraphanalia, before passing through an impressive stone arch and onto a large, circular area, with the monastery to the left and, up a long flight of stone stairs, the Buddha himself.
The monastery was serenely peaceful, beautifully gilded, with incredibly intricate and ornate decorations adorning both the inside of the temples and the exteriors, and it was easy to find a sense of peace as I idly wandered around, with cows nonchalantly sidling past in search of a quiet patch to solemnly chew the cud and consider the tourists enthusiastically snapping away. I confess that I was one of those same tourists and all three cameras – Theta (360-degree), SLR and iPhone – were called upon to capture various aspects of the visit. Completely aware of the fact that I was playing the perfect tourist I slipped into one of the tea houses as I left, enjoying a delicious pot of jasmine tea and some almond cookies, before taking the chilly return cable-car back to the train and Hong Kong.
With Matt and Thea off on holiday that day, I had arranged to catch up with some other Hong Kong based friends over the weekend, meeting them at a rooftop bar at the International Finance Centre mall, with views back out over the bay to Kowloon. Our initial destination that evening was to check out the Taste food event, one of which is held in Dubai each year and, I believe, other cities around the world. As much as the small amounts of food I got to taste were undeniably delicious, I did rather find the event overpriced, overhyped and despite spending a reasonable amount left feeling just as hungry as I did upon entering. It may have been this lack of complete saiety that saw the rest of the evening unfold as it did, with the four of us piling into a taxi for a trip over to Wan Chai and the start of an evening of drinking and clubbing, culminating in me being the last to spill out of our final nightspot and find my way back to the apartment only after initially having to correct course as I found myself walking uphill as opposed to down towards the bay! I was certainly grateful that Hong Kong is fundamentally easy to navigate at that point, otherwise I have no idea where I might have ended up.
It is a sad truth that there must be balance in the world and so it was that a heavy and lengthy night must be paid for with the loss of the following day. The sofa was my friend for pretty much the entirety of Saturday, feeling as devoid of energy and drive to move as I must have surely looked. Through the collective will of the group and facilitated via the steadily growing crescendo of Whats App pings, a plan to meet up for some food was actioned and another evening commenced, this time starting at a delicious BBQ restaurant in SoHo. Bellies full and heads a little less swirling our evening took in a couple of the bars in the Mid Levels area of the city, with one serving the saving grace of the evening, Espresso Martinis, that saw us all make it through to watching the Six Nations rugby match between England and Wales. Another great evening in a truly energetic city.
One of the last things I did in Hong Kong, at the advice of my friend James, was to get up nice and early, head over to Kowloon and enjoy breakfast at the Ritz-Carlton hotel’s dining room on the 103rd floor of the International Commerce Centre. The breakfast was standard high-end hotel fare but the real attraction was the view, this time back across the bay to take in the entirety of Hong Kong island itself. Beautiful! Busy! Burgeoning! From this vantage point it is possible to appreciate just how active the bay is, with boats of all shapes and sizes buzzing along, zipping across each others’ paths as they headed off on whatever business they were on, whether it be collecting and delivering cargo or ferrying passengers around the bay and city. Hong Kong truly is a spectacle and testament to the engineering expertise of humans as well as our drive to keep growing and changing. It is a city that I had preconceptions of but found myself surprised by, pleasantly so. It is one that I could imagine myself living in, despite the fact that the summer months are just as hot and muggy as any experienced in Dubai, and for anyone seeking an exciting city escape, but with the option to head out into nature as well, then Hong Kong is the place to go.