Monday, 26 October 2009

Blenheim 10k: 25 October 2009

Laura sprints to the finish

Gary's impish mind was consistently whirring to flatter, bully and cajole his friends into accompanying him on various ludicrous exploits. This was very positive for me: it introduced me to a fabulous group of people, brightened my life, and opened up possibilities and adventures which I wouldn't have dreamed up my own. Some of these exploits were full-blown excursions complete with costume and theme, such as the Tour of Buckinghamshire. Others were simple, focused goals aimed to improve body and mind - such as reaching a personal best in the marathon and opening oneself up to the discipline and suffering required for success.

We're all keen to keep doing things together, and very soon after it all happened, Laura suggested that we do a 10k in the majestic surroundings of Blenheim Palace. It was great to have this to look forward to, and although I didn't do nearly enough training, it encouraged me to keep my running ticking over so that I would be fit enough to do a half-decent time.

I suggested we turn up an hour before the race - which was really rather too keen. When me, Julia, Laura, Chris and Matt (another one!) turned up in a taxi we were relieved to see that they had at least finished putting up the portaloos. There were also some lean and hardy types already there, busily greasing up their parts in that shameless way that is suddenly acceptable in a pre-race context. Anyway, this left us more than enough time to pick up our numbers, empty our bladders (several times) and (in my case) gaze blankly at the course map.

I was just savouring the scent of crushed-grass-mingled-with-tent characteristic of the amateur road race when Emma and Matt DJ appeared from the car park, with positive but resigned expressions. They were closely followed by Jackie, who had just flown in from a week-long trip in the States and thus feeling a little weary. The complications of safety pins overcome, we made our way over to the start, after having burdened Chris (our supporter) with our wallets, jumpers and phones.

It was a mild day for October, but a bit breezy, and it was chilly waiting for the start in our variously minimal outfits. To make matters worse, a rather verbose woman insisted on informing us about the race charity. I'm sure the cause was worthy, but we were cold, and we'd paid, hadn't we?! Eventually we were released from the agony. I instantly felt the pressure of the bladder but hoped that somehow the liquid would be reabsorbed into the body and used when I was thirsty. I don't know if this does happen in the human biology, but it should.

So we were off. It was a glorious Autumnal day, and the bright low sun was perfectly positioned to light the red, yellows and browns of the leaves. Not long after the start we crossed the bridge over the lake - an inspiring sight, and a cheery stranger exclaimed to me 'How beautiful! This is fun!' I'd started off slowly, but soon sped up a little, and left the main body of our group. Matt was up ahead and hoping for a time of about 42 or 43 minutes. I was hoping for (at the very least) under an hour.

I really enjoyed the route which went right up to the palace, and skirted the lake (including some nice wooded areas bordering the water). It wasn't a busy race which allowed for plenty of space (which Nina likes) and I love a hilly race. I find that going up the hills occupies the mind, and going down provides an opportunity for speed. As I'd started near the back I had loads of people to pass and I wasn't doing too badly. But I have really lost a lot of stamina - my legs tired half way round and I really struggled towards the end. One feature about this race (which usually I would curse) is that two sections doubled up (so you could see faster runners coming back as you were going up). In this case I liked it because I spotted most of the group either ahead or behind me and was able to wave! This kept the mind off the feeble legs.

I managed a reasonably fast finish and was able to hold off a couple of stealthy sprinting males (the kind who, previously passed by you, creep up in revenge at the finish line). I then rejoined Matt and Ben (who had finished in about 43 and 58 minutes respectively) to cheer the others in. Everyone finished really strongly - Laura got a PB and beat several keen competitors! Jonathan, who was sadly unable to race due to a clinging virus, took a photo to prove it, and got nearly all of us crossing the line.

After we'd caught our breaths we met up with Rich who'd cycled all the way from Kings Sutton. We then popped into a local pub ON THE A44 JUST NORTH OF WOODSTOCK (as we kept having to tell the (lost) taxi driver on our return). We may or may not have usurped another party's table, but we enjoyed a series of tasty roasts. How satisfying it is to stuff oneself after strenuous activity! We ate heartily and discussed our various approaches to the race.

Laura was well pleased with her PB, and recce of Blenheim (which will be the site of her debut triathlon next June). Jackie had got round in an admirable time with just one run in a year and jet lag fatigue. The new Matt was pleased with his time given the hills and wind. Emma and Matt's knees had held out, and the only obvious injury was a slight scratch to an ankle in a discreet dive into the bushes. Chris hadn't run off with our credit cards and kept mumbling something about 'getting into training seriously'. Julia had survived brilliantly on minimal training, and her appetite for tea, which was flagging worryingly the previous day, had returned. And Nina was well trained for her Argentinian 15 k 'fun run' in the Andes.

I had a wonderful time, Laura, thank you.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Working in the reed beds

I've recently been volunteering with The Parks Trust once a week on some of their practical conservation projects. One of these is the management of the reed beds surrounding Walton Lake.

These are an important habitat in Milton Keynes - I think they are the biggest reed beds that we have in the local area. Martin also mentioned that last winter we had a couple of bitterns overwintering here from Holland or Germany. (Unfortunately it's unlikely that they will breed and boom, because the area isn't big enough to allow them to feed. They are fussy eaters and, unlike the omnivorous herons, won't eat anything but fish! ) The reed beds also provide habitat for reed warblers and water rails - and I have also observed lots of frog and toad tadpoles as well as caddis fly larvae of two different kinds, dragonflies and damselflies. A while back I went down to the reed beds in the early morning with Gary and Nina, and we listened to the sparkling, varied, 'pouring' sound of the warblers (which have now gone back to Africa). Gary wrote about it here.

Anyway, the RSPB recently gave The Parks Trust some advice on how to manage the reed beds - and they felt that we needed to reduce the willow and alder carr around the beds to prevent them from gradually becoming overtaken by woodland.

It seems terribly destructive to be removing trees - but I guess the ideas is that we're trying to manage the habitat to allow a diversity of species to survive. And, added to this, the reed bed habitat is very distinctive. I hadn't realised that you can go into the area but you can, and it's like another world in there! The reeds (phragmites communis) are well over 6ft tall. The picture above shows us going in for the first time. We needed to use scythes to cut a path through.

Working in the reed beds is hard, because the area is boggy. It is also difficult to pull the felled trees up and out over the banks. In addition to this, we're coppicing at waist height, so that a contractor (who is being brought in) can see the stumps in amongst the reeds and treat them to prevent further growth. Coppicing at such a height means that the branches of the felled trees catch in the stumps.

However, it's immensely satisfying doing physical work - both physcially and emotionally. I love being active, working with the others and learning about the habitat. It's great to see the physical progress made in just one day. It's also very rewarding learning new skills: I'm trying hard to use the bow saw in an efficient manner and watching the others' technique.

The next task in the reed beds is to cut paths through the reeds. The aim of this is to create little waterways for the birds and fish, and to provide a good place from which bitterns can feed (they like to hunt from the edges).

At the end of each day I'm adding to a log of practical conservation work to build towards a possible career change to environmental education (at some point in the future).

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Sewing, knitting, craft circle!

Over the past year we've been having the odd craft evening now and then - but we're now trying to establish something a little more regular. The first of these involved Melissa, Emma, Christina, Shasha and me - and although we probably did more eating of crumble than sewing we did get somewhere!

  • Shasha started customising a jumper with peppermint sequins. They look really effective.

  • I sewed up another musette as a souvenir for people who'd helped in the ToB

  • I reminded Emma and Christina of how to cast on. Knitting samples were made!

  • Melissa started a bead ring.

We had a great chat and crafted until late, discussing our future projects and what's going on in our lives. Session 2 is tomorrow at another member's house - we're swapping venues each week. It's lovely being in the company of creative people - I need inspiration!

Monday, 5 October 2009

One for sorrow

Macabre, you may think, but look at the beautiful green on the tail and the blue on the wing.

Friday Night Ride to the Coast

I've always biked everywhere to get to places (due to lack of driving abilities) but the experience of cycling with Gary has inspired me to try longer rides with a road bike (rather than tootling about on a Brompton). The recent Tour of Buckinghamshire has spurred me on, and brought me into contact with other enthusiastic cyclists and other possibilities. I'm not quite up to the standard of an 80-mile sportif (the likes of which Iftkhar keeps sending me links to), and I definitely can't keep up with the hard nuts who go out from the OU at lunchtime. But Clive (one of the ToB team leaders) has introduced me to a more approachable way of extending the miles - the Friday Night Ride to the Coast.

The fnrttc group meets at Hyde Park Corner in London, on nights when the moon is at its fullest. You have probably guessed it, but they then cycle to a bit of coast - this year the list has included Southend, Brighton and Whitstable, although next year the list of destinations looks to be growing. This Friday's ride was to Southend, and I chose to go on it as the gentlest, shortest ride (55 miles).

It was an unusual and inspiring experience. We got the train just after 10 and then cycled to Hyde Park. Cycling in central London is a bit hairy - especially for a non-driver with only a vague sense of the highway code - but it was exhilarating. I just copied the bike in front while trying to keep my brain engaged. Arriving at Hyde Park I was confronted with the biggest array of luminous jackets I think I've ever seen (sort of like coming home, as I usually live in mine)! We set off just after midnight, under a cloudy but relatively bright moon, and whizzed past some of the most famous London sights illuminated - Big Ben, The London Eye in resplendent purple ... it was an experience to remember. It was particularly 'disengaging' (in the sense of giving you a sense of separation from reality) to see all the clubbers and general revellers of London doing their thing as we did ours. And the clubs offered snippets of soundtrack to our ride. Anyway, I'd started chatting to the lovely Bernie at Hyde Park corner, and we stuck together throughout most of the journey encouraging each other and chatting away (it was B's first time too).

The cycle was very well organised and the waymarking worked like clockwork. Various experienced riders held back and signalled the way, and then whizzed back to the front to carry on. I particularly enjoyed seeing the chaps on recumbents speeding back and forth - they looked like daredevil beetles with bobbing heads. It was only about three-quarters of the way through that I realised that there were several people on bikes with no gears! There was also a chap on a Brompton, and I sort of wished I was on mine. It would have been doable - the pace was very manageable, and it felt very free and easy. I wondered why, and then someone told me we had a following wind all the way.

We stopped half-way at a service station to refuel and caffeinate ourselves, which was another surreal moment. As we piled all our bikes inside, I realised I had dropped in on this station before in a car! I'd never have thought that my next visit would be like this.

The service station!

Setting off again after coffee and cake was hard, but we soon got the legs going. It was liberating cycling on empty roads, zooming around huge roundabouts without a care, watching the stream of lights and reflective jackets sweep by in an arc.

After a while we left the big roads and ended up on some unlit hedge-edged roads. Here I felt I needed to be more cautious, and kept a firm eye on the road surface. I was amazed to see the fearless recumbents cycling on the wrong side of the road, around bends and so low down, to overtake the general stream. It was at this, the darkest point, that one of the group had a puncture, and as we stopped to wait, I employed all my layers (wool base layer, hat with ear flaps, full gloves). I felt quite smug that I had actually chosen just the right amount of clothes to bring.

That said, the early hours of the morning were definitely the hardest. The mind started to wander and thoughts of loss panged in. Sometimes even the craziest of diversions just can't distract.

At East Tilbury we had a diversion and a short cultural talk from the ride leader, Simon. He explained the history behind Bata Town which was interesting, but which was also a ploy to ease out the ride length a little further, as we couldn't get into the cafe for breakfast until 7 am!

We also stopped at a point to admire the lights and the view over what was probably the sea. By this stage the physical energy was there but the brain was beginning to fade, and I felt almost like falling asleep while freewheeling down some of the hills. I had to wake myself up by sprinting up a hill - which had me coughing for the next five miles.

Pausing to look at the lights

Gradually the sky began to lighten, and we stopped again to look at the sea, before cruising along all the 'No Cycling' signs along the promenade. The wind grew stronger, and the folded sails of the boats whistled and knocked insistently against hundreds of masts. The sea gulls' cries mingled with the wind rushing through sea grass. It was a melancholy but intriguing soundscape set against vast mud flats backed by grey-violet light.

As we came up to the cafe, past the gaudy signs of 'Adventure world', I was looking forward to refreshment. I was truly exhausted, mentally if not physically, and my eyes kept closing as I sat waiting for breakfast. It eventually came in the form of fried bread, egg, beans and mushrooms, and a cup of tea AND coffee and several packets of sugar. Immediately I felt much perked - and ready to find the station back to London and then MK. Some crazies on fixies and recumbents were cycling back to London!

In the cafe at the end

I thought I'd sleep on the train but chatted about cycling and running all the way back. I must have been a bore. I hope I can make the next one. It was a fabulous experience. Going without sleep for a night needs to be done - it gives you a new perspective on time and the limits of your endurance. I didn't sleep on Saturday, either (save for one hour) but went to bed at nine. Yes, I slept really rather soundly.