Tuesday 29 May 2012

Back to the old routine

Running in the sun
     It's felt good to be back to old haunts, old routines and running familiar routes in a minimum of clothing. I'll admit to being a sun worshipper. There's nothing I like better than running the hills in a pair of shorts and trainers, exposing my ancient body to warm sunshine and cooling breezes to gain a healthy tan. A sprightly neighbour approaching her 80th birthday intimated we're both a little vain, and she could be right.  But body awareness and active lifestyles has meant we've stayed young at heart, minimised the wrinkles and kept us within healthy BMI limits. Though I say it myself, neither of us could be taken for octogenarians.
     Whilst commuting today, and for want of something better to do other than gaze at passing landscape, I checked my pulse.  At first count it was only 38 which must have given me a bit of a shock because it immediately shot up a few beats to the mid forties. For some years now my average resting heart rate has been 42bpm. Anything less than that and I start to wonder whether it's due to extreme fitness, or whether it's slowing down ready to stop.  I always tell myself it's the former of those two options, but it can be worrying!
     Four runs last week resulted in another 24 miles being added to my training diary. I was feeling so fit after tripping through bluebell woods and over windswept hills I tried to enter a local off-road half marathon this coming weekend. Unfortunately, entries have closed and there are no entries on the day. So, I'm currently like an expedition with nowhere to go.
Suicidal sheep?
     On Sunday my wonderful partner persuaded me to accompany her on a wild walk over God-forsaken moorland in scorching heat where even the sheep appeared to be having suicidal tendencies. As we passed Wig Stones, a rocky outcrop far from the madding crowd, around ten of the woolly creatures were stood on high ledges while possibly contemplating the idea of throwing themselves head first into the abyss. We left them to their fate and set off across burnt heather and oozing bog in search of a parish boundary we'd previously failed to locate. We were amazed to find a line of new fencing stretching for miles along the boundary which, according to our compass, pointed in the precise direction we'd planned to go. Without that fence we'd never have found our route in such featureless terrain. I'm told it even confuses Google Earth!
     Anyhow, whether or not I'm now officially categorized as an old man, it doesn't yet appear to have cramped my style. Well, not much, but watch this space!

Sunday 20 May 2012

Stepping into my ninth decade

Our holiday resort - Los Cancajos
     In the past, even throughout my seventies, birthdays didn't bother me in the least but, as I've said before, I wasn't looking forward to my 80th. Eighty sounds OLD and if I allowed my brain to believe that then I'd probably start to FEEL old.  I looked upon eighty as an age when people OFFICIALLY become old men, or old women, and have great family parties to mark the transition before tentatively placing one foot in the grave. Maybe that was expected of me. Bottles of whisky arrived from well meaning friends, to maybe aneasthetise my decrepit brain and deaden all the aches and pains associated with latter years. I was having none of it. All I wanted to do was to get as far away as possible, far from the madding crowd, and do my own thing, like I've always done. 
With my wonderful partner at Roque de los Muchachos
     My understanding partner was with me all the way.Together we flew to the beautiful island of La Palma, reputedly the most mountainous inhabited island in the world relative to it's size, where we could climb and walk, run and swim, and celebrate the first steps into my ninth decade in glorious sunshine. It seemed to work for I came home feeling no older than when I set off. If anything, a little younger and a little lighter. Time flies backwards when you're enjoying yourself!
Jacaranda tree at Las Nieves
     Many months ago I'd decided exactly where I wanted to spend my birthday - at the highest point of the island on the Roque de los Muchachos which we'd failed to reach on two previous holidays to the area. Well, we finally made it, and in glorious weather. At 2,426m the Roque is almost twice the height of Ben Nevis and affords incredible views across to the other Canary islands of Tenerife, La Gomera and El Hierro. But the most vertiginous view lay beneath our feet, a staggeringly deep drop of around 6,000ft to the floor of a massive cloud filled 10km wide cauldron, the Caldeira Taburiente. Jay, our Thomson tour guide back at the hotel, reckoned it rivalled the Grand Canyon, and he's stood on the edge of both.
One of the huge Observatories at the Roque
     Also up there are a string of Observatories for viewing the night sky which is said to be clear on approximately 350 nights every year. There is very little pollution on the island, the only real industry being a necessary Power Station. Aircraft must land and take off over the sea. None are allowed to fly over the island - helicopters being the exception. Telescopes are absolutely enormous, the largest having a mirror measuring 10.4 metres across.  These aren't your common or garden telescopes where you stick your eye to an aperture and look through. Images from giant mirrors are fed into computers for nocturnal astrophysicists to study and analyse data on large screens. Their range and accuracy is phenomenal. As an example Jay told us that, were it not for the curvature of the earth, that amongst a great multitude of men in Red Square, Moscow, many thousands of miles away, these telescopes could locate one holding a candle in his hand.  The mind boggles. Well, mine does!
Dakota Jones arrives at the Roque
     We were up on the Roque for a second occasion on the day of the Transvulcania race, a hard 83 km route that began at Fuencaliente in the south of the island at 6am, followed the undulating GR 131 trail up the spine of the island, over several volcanoes to the Roque, dropped 7,000ft to the seaside village of Tazacorte, then climbed back 1,000ft or so to the finish in Los Llanos where thousands of people had turned out to greet each and every runner as they joyously ran the red carpet amid all the cheers, shouts, music and razzmatazz. It was a sight to behold, hair-raising, spine-tingling that brought a wee tear to the eyes of this old has-been who is no longer able to do such things. 
Anna Frost on the 7,000ft descent
     We stayed on the Roque until the three leaders had passed over (an American - Dakota Jones; a Spaniard - Killian Jornet; and an Englishman - Andy Symonds) then jogged/walked down 6,000ft of the race route to the Mirador El Time where we caught a bus into Los Llanos. The heat was intense. Across the water on Gran Canaria it reached 39ÂșC that day and some tourists died of heat exhaustion while out walking on Tenerife. It's a miracle these runners coped with the conditions, though more than one collapsed at the Finish - including Killian Jornet, the very experienced runner who finished third. Dakota won the race in a course record time of 6:59:07 with Andy Symonds 2nd in 7:00:34.   Anna Frost of New Zealand won the lady's race, also setting a new course record of 8:11:30.  Both winners are members of the Salomon racing team.
Jogging down the stony trail to El Time
     Our own morning runs were limited to a mere 4 miles which we ran on eight mornings straight after breakfast while it was reasonably cool - on days when we weren't setting off to walk the hills. All routes from our hotel involved some steepish uphill sections, our 4 miler having 384ft of ascent. My fastest time was a little over 37 minutes - finishing with a faster ½ mile of 3:25 which, try as I might, I could never improve upon. Maybe it was the encroaching heat, or running on a full stomach, but I was a little disappointed with my slowness. Back home I've run a bit faster than that. Maybe my Garmin was struggling with the heat too?
On Pico Bejenado
     Our forays into the hills involved thousands of feet of climbing up zig-zag paths and ancient donkey trails, some of them quite vertiginous. Our ascent of Pico Benjenado was one of the more memorable days, though another absolute scorcher. An email from a local lady said it was going to be colder so we only packed a half litre of water each. Lesson: never take notice of other people. Always use your own judgement.  However, an early start meant we reached the summit at 1,854m before the real heat of the day. From the summit I scrambled down a rock wall and walked to a Trig point at the end of the ridge to take photographs of the incredible Barranco de las Angustias - the Gorge of Fear. 
"They shall mount up with wings like eagles" (Isaiah 40 v31)
Staring into Barranco de las Angustias - or the 'Gorge of Fear'
     Back at the cairn we signed the Visitor's book before settling down for lunch amidst a multitude of lizards demanding to be fed. They climbed up my back, ran over my feet and tried to sneak into our sacks. They love chocolate biscuits!  Heat and humidity hung among the trees as we staggered down through the forest of Canary pines that can not only withstand heat, but forest fires that completely decimate their foliage. Their burnt trunks will blacken your hands if you touch them yet, after a few months, sap begins to flow through their branches again and green needles re-appear. Below the forest we walked a long exposed stretch of tarmac to the Visitor Centre where we refilled water bottles before catching a bus back to our village.
Banana plant with its gaudy flower
      Apart from it's amazing mountainous features another thing we love about this island is its wealth of flowers and vegetation that drench the landscape with a patchwork of colour. Even the bare volcanic tops are gaudily tinted with blues, reds, slate greys or orange according to different mineral deposits.  Banana plants too have bright flowers that give way to huge, heavy bunches of fruit.  Notice, I called them plants, though they're as tall as trees.  Like other plants they only have a year-long lifespan. However, such is the climate that crops can be rotated throughout the year meaning that, if a farmer has a thousand plants, around twenty can be harvested each week. These are 'proper' bananas, filling and flavoursome, as opposed to our local supermarket varieties.  We ate them every day.  
Flowering cactus
     Oranges, lemons and avocados are also grown whilst on upper slopes well tended vines provide grapes for the local wine industry.  The sub-tropical climate and sunny slopes are ideal for cultivation of tobacco plants used for making cigars that are said to rival the more famous havanas from Cuba. From a well stocked stall at the hippie market in Puntagorda I considered buying one to smoke with the birthday bubbly, then thought better of it.  It would have looked good on the photos though. 
     So, all in all, celebrations of my 80th year on planet earth went down pretty well, lasting for a couple of weeks and getting me away from all the hype and horrors of great family gatherings people seemed to expect. Sorry if I disappointed them. Maybe on my 90th, if they're still around!

Sunday 13 May 2012

Too busy to Blog

I'm currently over the hills and far away, celebrating my 80th birthday in style in the wonderful Canary Islands, so not much time for posting anything much on this Blog. For the time being, here is where I am and what I'm doing:

Found this bottle of bubbly in our hotel room when we arrived back from our day
 in the hills, courtesy of the management. We'll come here again!
On top of the world, 2,426m up at the Roque de los Muchachos, La Palma
I'm told they have clear skies here on 350 nights per year for star-gazing

A more comprehensive report in a week's time. Meanwhile I'm too busy enjoying myself,
 running, walking, swimming and soaking up the sun.

Tuesday 1 May 2012

Peaks and troughs

Race venue and Penyghent - first of the three peaks
     It's a couple of weeks since I last posted something in this Blog but rest assured, I haven't stopped running. Well, not quite.  With all the vile weather we've been having lately (reputedly the wettest April since records began in 1910) my mileage has slipped a little but, with 368 miles under my belt this year, I've still maintained a planned average of three miles a day. This tends to fluctuate a little due to various commitments, but I'll be quite happy if I can notch up a thousand miles for the year.
     My knees appreciate my running on softer ground - but not the ankle deep slutchiness of waterlogged fields and trails as it has been over the last two to three weeks. Lately, after each run, all my clothes, and often my shoes, have gone straight into the washing machine to get rid of mud and grime. Some people, as I noticed in the Three Peaks race last Saturday, can race through the filthiest conditions and come out with hardly a splash or a stain.  I'm not one of them. 
Winner, Joe Symonds, arrives on Ingleborough alone
     Fortuitously, the rain stopped and the sun peeped out for the annual Three peaks race, though it was bitterly cold. We walked from Horton to the top of Ingleborough to cheer runners over their third and final peak. With all our layers of clothing we were absolutely perished yet, in spite of being warned of freezing temperatures on the tops, many of the runners wore only skimpy shorts and sleeveless vests. Brrrr!  Of the 744 starters, 103 failed to make it to the finish.
     Joe Symonds, the eventual winner in 2:55:58, arrived on Ingleborough with not another runner in sight whilst the newcomer, Sarah O'Neil, won the ladies race by a good 15 minutes in 3:28:43.  Both winners are members of Hunters Bog Trotters, a club based in Edinburgh. 
Afraid I wont look like this
for much longer!
     After watching the elite men traverse over Ingleborough I ran the five miles back to Horton as fast as my little legs would carry me to escape the biting wind. Back on the race field I wallowed in nostalgia, recalling the days when I too was one of those mud be-spattered runners with cramped legs running joyously towards the Finish line amid scalp-tingling applause from an appreciative crowd of supporters. The odd tear still escapes me to see the expressions on faces of happy finishers who have obviously given it their all in this greatest race of all.  Of all the races I ever ran, none ever compared to the 'Peaks'.
     This may well be my last Blog entry as a spritely septuagenarian. Next Sunday, 6th May, I'll officially become an old man - and I can't say I'm looking forward to it.  I keep imagining my hair turning grey overnight, my skin becoming horribly wrinkled, legs bulging with varicose veins, arthritis creeping into my joints and, worst of all, not being able to run. As I jogged by the River Wharfe yesterday, where swallows hawk around the tree tops and sand martins skim the surface of the water, I spied an elderly gentleman stood motionless by the bank with a fly rod extended over the water. The thought crossed my mind - maybe that's what my undecided loved one should buy me for my birthday, a nice willowy fly rod and all the fishy accoutrements that go with it. Then again, maybe not!