Saturday, 13 April 2019

Cycling through five countries in one day (April 2016)

Article from the Camcycle Newsletter 130, Feb. 2017. Der deutscheText ist hier zu finden.

I enjoy long cycle rides, and last year I found myself looking for a challenge combining technology (route planning and bike tech), sport and local culture. I am a keen traveller and was attracted by the thought of demonstrating what is possible with lower-impact transport, plus my love of languages and geography made crossing natural and national borders very appealing. So, I thought, why not set a cycling record in this context?

When browsing cycle-touring records in the Guinness World Records database, I found that at the time the record for the number of countries visited by bike in one day, held by Glen Burmeister from Leicester, stood at four. A look at the map of Europe indicated that it would not be impossible to cycle through five countries in a day. But that would be more than just a record that, the challenge would also be a test of the virtual and physical cycling infrastructure, such as cycle-paths, maps, and route-planning applications.

I decided to make my attempt on 22nd April 2016, which would also be Earth Day, the annual global day of support for environmental protection, and would also be the day of the signing of the Paris Agreement on greenhouse gas emission limitation.


Equipment

Since the tour would only take one day, it would be possible to travel light. I would ride my lightweight hybrid bike, which over the last ten years had been used for commuting, shopping, distributing Camcycle newsletters and pulling bike trailers. It had been tested previously in the Cambridge Touring Club Cambridge 200 km Audax. It was fitted with a luggage carrier, mudguards, and puncture-proof tyres. It also had a triathlon bar, something that I had learnt to appreciate on my longer commutes outside Cambridge, and which would protect against 'pinky numbing' (or Guyon’s Canal Syndrome). Generations of parts that had nearly worn out (or been damaged when a minicab crossed my path in London) were replaced, wheels, brakes, chains, gears and saddle. My front derailleur had been faulty for years, reducing the powertrain to a seven speed and preventing the option of shifting between the three front sprockets with the fingers. With regard to tools and replacement parts, I took only those necessary for very basic repairs/adjustments, such as fixing a flat tyre.

To track the route, I planned to use a GPS receiver, and a tri-bar mounted camera for photos (and occasionally films) of the road.  Originally I had planned to produce a time-lapse of the whole tour, but this was far beyond capacity of the camera’s battery life, so instead I decided that I would take photos manually every few minutes. 

During my planning stage I also tested Cycle Tracks GPS, a free Strava-like tracking app for my smartphone, but this wasn’t suitable as it drained the phone’s battery within three hours. I also took with me a small portable power bank and a hand-cranked charger to recharge my gadgets if necessary.

Route planning

The starting point of the journey was clear from the beginning, it would be the 'Three Countries Point' on the Vaalserberg near Vaals, where the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany meet. After a few optimisation steps with Google Maps, I selected Évrange as my finishing point, somewhere not too far from Vaals, with overnight accommodation available and acceptable railway connections close to the French/Luxembourg border. I then added the local centres of Vaals, Aachen, Eupen, St Vith and Luxembourg City onto the map for food, shops, bike repair (if necessary), and people to witness my tour, e.g. in town halls and tourist information. All of these places are more or less connected with the motorway called European Route E421.

The detailed planning of my cycling route used the web-based applications Cyclestreets.net and the cycling mode of Google Maps. On Cyclestreets.net, the ‘fastest route’ included roads designated as ‘hostile’ to cyclists. Both the ‘quietest’ and ‘balanced’ routes, as well as Google Maps, favoured unpaved forest tracks over quieter roads, but these would add too much time to the overall ride: over 15 hours versus 11-12 hours for the fast route. Fortunately both apps were also able to find the car-free paths of the RAVeL network. The RAVel (Réseau Autonome de Voies Lentes) is a Wallonian long-distance path network similar to Sustrans that converts disused railway lines to car-free travel paths. It connects with other cycling networks, such as the LF(Landelijke Fietsroutes) in the Netherlands and Flanders, and EuroVelo (especially routes 3 and 5). My planned route was about 180 km long and would lead over Belgium’s highest point, but I also planned a second, less exposed but slightly longer route through the Ruhr valley in case of bad weather. Altogether, I used a combination of Google maps and, for the most part, the ‘fastest route’ of Cyclestreets as a guideline, since I would be using the ‘hostile’ roads out of peak hours.

The Trip starts

To get to the Netherlands, I used the 'Dutch Flyer' offer, which covered train travel from Cambridge via the overnight ferry from Harwich to Hoek van Holland, to Heerlen, the railway station at the other end of the Netherlands closest to the tri-countries point. My bike also a £4 ticket for the ferry, where there were about a dozen or so fellow cyclists, and for the Dutch (and Belgian and German) trains, where the bike storage areas provide a nice meeting space for cyclists.

I set off from Heerlen in my rainproof cycle jacket and jeans (unfortunately the lycra had been forgotten at home; thankfully all parts remained intact). I cycled past deserted border posts to the former Imperial City of Aachen, where I admired Charlemagne’s cathedral and enjoyed the street life and, to a lesser extent, the sulphurous smell of the thermal springs. I then crossed back into the Netherlands and cycled up the highest hill of the country (Vaalserberg, 322 m). It is here the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany meet (in addition to observation towers, there is also a maze there, but entirely on Dutch territory – imagine a maze crossing multiple borders without knowing!). Before World War I, this would have been a four countries/territory meeting point, as it would have also included the Neutral Territory of Moresnet, for which there were once plans to make Esperanto its official language. It is now part of the German-speaking part of the French-speaking part of Belgium through which the first half of the tour would take me. After a rapid descent of the Vaalser serpentines, I soon arrived at the Grunebempt B&B in Gemmenich, Belgium where I stayed overnight.

The Challenge

At 6.09am, shortly before sunrise, I began my journey from Gemmenich in Belgium. The weather conditions were very good, with 15° C, only a little sun and wind, and no rain expected until the next day. I traced my way back through Vaals and, via some excellent ‘Dutch Roundabouts’, then on to Aachen. Cycling on the verges of a rural road I travelled to Eupen, where I dropped into the town hall and was briefly interviewed by the local newspaper ‘Grenzecho’.

South of Eupen, the route climbed up the Ardennes into the desolate-looking, somewhat Siberian, landscape of the Hohe Venn/Hautes Fagnes (meaning ‘high fen’ in German and French). It is in fact a bog: the granite rocks underlying this plateau prevent rainwater draining away, leading over the millennia to the formation of peat bogs of sphagnum moss. The Ardennes have been a classic cycling region for many decades and a handful of racing bikers were on the road over Belgium’s highest point, the Signal de Botrange (694 m). This has a concrete staircase at its peak, which increases its height to 700 m, but I did not attempt that final climb by bike!



After the rapid descent I crossed the Robertville reservoir, followed a fast and very pleasant ride on the Vennbahn cycle-path, part of the RAVeL (Ligne 48). However, near St Vith, I met a dead end-due to construction work on the RAVeL (in hindsight I should have consulted the RAVeL website which has construction updates).


To make sure that my trip stayed something of an adventure, and to stay aware of the local environment, I had decided not to rely on GPS for navigation outside the towns, but instead followed a map and local signposts. This worked well on country roads, but near Oudler unfortunately led me onto gravelly forest paths instead of the Vennbahn cycle-path. After emerging from the woods, I crossed the unnoticeable border into Luxembourg and cycled up to a field where a half-readable plate identified it as the country’s highest point (Kneiff, 560 m).  Then once again I accidentally chose an alternative route, this time the E421 motorway towards Luxembourg city. Thankfully cyclists were well respected; in fact during the whole journey, I was only honked at twice (and once sprayed with windscreen wash, by a Stag Tour with UK number plates). Finally, near Erpeldange a sign commanded errant cyclists off the motorway and onto the more scenic route through the more densely populated valley of the Alzette towards Luxembourg.

The city of Luxembourg is situated above a dramatic gorge but happily by then the shops were closed and commuters were at home so my crossing of the high bridge over the Pétrusse was rather uneventful. I continued south along already very French-looking avenues, lined with trees in bloom, towards Thionville. When I approached the French border, the dashcam which I had set up to record the final approach ran out of battery. Undeterred I used my hand-cranked charger - it was very rewarding to generate such important electricity with my own hands. (Of course, this method is not as elegant as using bike dynamos for charging mobile phones as has been done in Africa for decades; I may invest in a hub dynamo when I buy my next front wheel).  With the camera once again active I crossed the border into France at Évrange around 8.45pm, just when the sun went down, and stopped for a photoshoot at the church.



As I searched for someone to officially witness my arrival in Évrange, I heard music coming from a nearby school. I went in, and was greeted by volunteers who were having a party whilst preparing for a charity event for the next day; a motor bike rally where riders go from door to door selling roses in aid of a local cancer charity. I joined them for a while before retiring for the day at the nearby hotel.
In total, I had taken 14 ½ hours for the journey. I had been in motion for about 8 ½ hours, and spent the rest of the time collecting signatures on the official witness forms, buying and eating food and generally just enjoying looking around and taking photos.



Heading home

Getting out of bed the next morning was easier than I had anticipated! Through the drizzle, which thankfully had held off the day before, I cycled back to Luxembourg railway station.  I dutifully sourced the local drinks and confectionaries that I had promised to export and then caught a train to Brussels, from where I took the Eurostar to London. The Eurostar also transports bikes, but for a price of £25, and they need to be checked in at the station (if you wish to cycle this route then follow the EuroVelo 5 Route). During my challenge I had travelled through regions that had changed hands several times and seen many bloody battles, reminders of which can be found throughout the area. Watching Calais whizzing past made clear that borders can still be a deadly reality.


Back in Cambridge, I overloaded the Guinness World Records website with hundreds of photos, videos and GPS tracks (I used the free GPiSync software to geo-tag photos via their timestamp). When I was checking for updates in June, I found out that my record had already been broken by the audacious Michael Moll who had cycled through six countries in a day, crossing the Alps, which I would not have considered possible – at least not with that powertrain. Not that this mattered when my Guinness World Record Certificate arrived in the post in September, and anyway, what is a record compared to the experience of a day when rider and bike had worked so well together in relation to their environment, so well in fact that despite all the physical effort I really had felt no exhaustion whatsoever.


Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Introducing the Multi-Endurance International Award




Cross-training not only benefits the well-rounded sportsperson, but different means of movement help to see the world from different perspectives. It is even more interesting if the course and the mode of transport are determined by the environment, instead of a given distance imposed on the terrain. It is the social being that determines consciousness, not to mention that international challenges should promote international friendship and cooperation.

Therefore I decided to come up with the Multi Endurance International Award (MEIA). It can be awarded to everybody who has (proven) completed international challenges in four or more of the different endurance sports disciplines listed below. As this list of international challenges here is by no means comprehensive, I would be excited to learn more.

1.     Road Running (Marathon Country Club, Marathon Globetrotters, World Marathon Majors Six-Star)
2.     Trail Running (Europa-Cup Ultramarathon, Skyrunner Ultra Series, Ultra-Trail World Tour, 4 Deserts)
3.     Walking (International Marching Federation Master/European Walker, IVV-Cups)
4.     Cycling (International Super Randonneur, Granbrevetto Randonnée Europe Challenge)
5.     Skiing (World-, Euro-Loppet)
6.     Other endurance sports, such as Swimming, (Ice-)Skating, Kayaking, Snowshoe Running or Rowing
7.     Multisport (e.g. National Sports Badges (or Audax Complet), Triathlon, Pentathlon)

For the different para-sports disciplines, the challenge, if it doesn't exist officially (there is a World Marathon Majors Wheelchair Series for example), can be defined by comparable criteria to the non-para challenge.

The events should be at least as long as a standard long-distance for the respective discipline (e.g. 42.2 km run=Marathon, 200 km cycle=Randonnée).



 At the moment, I do not know of anybody who could qualify for the MEIA, which would make it exclusive enough to be interesting. If you think it would be something for you (or somebody else), please share and contact. The award is free, and the first five finishers will receive a free badge. The challenge is not necessarily sport: it’s not about winning, but trying and ideally finishing (of course, every participant does it on their risk). The route is the goal!

Friday, 28 September 2018


A marathon runner's glory is transient (if only medals is what you are looking at)

Over the christmas holidays, I was sorting my race medal collection, neatly stored in a wooden box. To my mild horror, I found that some of my bronze-coloured medals were decaying, being covered with a greenish-white crumbly salt, for which the term patina would be more than flattering. Moreover, something was chewing away tiny pieces from the edges of my tin medals! It’s not only the body that gets older.

So I sat down to think and research what might have happened. Many of my medals were made from bronze, a mixture or alloy of mostly copper (around 90%) with a few percent tin and often small amounts of other metals, mainly zinc. Other medals are made from brass, which is a mixture of copper with zinc only. Anyway, both alloys are mostly made up from copper. Copper is a noble metal, which means that it should normally not rust in air or water like for example iron does. However, when an alloy containing copper comes into contact with chloride (present in common salt) in a wet environment, corrosion will inevitably occur. This is also called bronze disease, and this is what happens:

1) Oxygen from the air oxidises the copper metal (Cu), which means, it takes an electron (e) away from the copper atom and transforms it into a positively charged ion
Cu → Cu++ e

2) The cuprous ion (Cu+) reacts with the chloride ion to form an insoluble white salt, which is called cuprous chloride. 
Cu+ + Cl → CuCl

3) The cuprous chloride reacts with atmospheric moisture and another oxygen molecule to form a green salt (cupric chloride). The fuzzy white/green salt is a mixture of the white cuprous chloride and the green cupric chloride. And some hydrochloric acid is also produced (HCl):

 4 CuCl + 4 H2O + O2 → CuCl2·3 Cu(OH)2 (green salt) + 2 HCl

4) Another copper atom is oxidised by air to the cuprous ion, which reacts with the chloride ion from hydrochloric acid to form even more of the white cuprous chloride.
Cu+ + Cl → CuCl + e

… and the circle of copper oxidation continues repeats from here! We have a chain reaction, helped about or catalysed by the chloride ions, that speeds up the corrosion of copper..
But where does the nasty chloride come from? Now, a medal is what someone hangs around your neck after you have produced quite a bit of sweat. When you exercise and sweat, your body loses salt (mostly sodium chloride) in your sweat, in which there are ample of chloride Ions around.

Now what happened next and why is the tin medal corroded as well? As said before, copper is a "noble" metal that prefers to keep its electrons to itself. And if necessary, it takes them at somebody else's expense, in this case snatching it from a less "noble metal" in direct contact. Like the tin (Sn) medal it was lying on top of (Sorry Tegla!):

Cu2+ +2 e → Cu 
Sn  → Sn2+ +2 e 

This process is called bimetallic corrosion and can happen wherever there are two different metals in direct contact which each other. So basically what I had built involuntarily was a copper-tin battery (though a very expensive one)! If you put together a pint of sweat, a copper and a tin medal, you can easily build your own and generate electricity.

But what could be done next to rescue my medals from decay? Firstly, remove the chlorides (the green-white-fuzzy salt), by giving medals a thorough clean. The same goes for after wearing them. Secondly, take care to keep the metals in a dry environment. My storage in wooden boxes was probably not optimal in the moist North-Western European climate, so now they are in a metal box. Thirdly, take care not to put copper and tin in direct contact. Or in general, don't store treasures where moths eat them and rust destroys them.
 
Bronze disease of the bronze medal on the right, and corrosion on the tin medal on the left.
Sorry Tegla!


Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Zagreb to Čazma Supermaraton

Since I had never run a race in Croatia before, and the race date is quite suitable for an Easter holiday, at some point I thought I would have to take part in the Supermaraton from Zagreb to Čazma. At that time (2008), this run still had the homepage supermaraton.com, an impressive domain name (another supermaraton domain leads to a race in Romania)! Nowadays, the contact to the race organisers is made via the homepage of the town of Čazma. You were able to sign up from abroad simply by e-mail, because there were, and still are, no starting fees to be paid (but there is a time limit of seven hours for the 61.35 km of the course, which might deter some). The Supermaraton was first organized in 1976 to celebrate Čazma's 750th anniversary (Tito was still president of Yugoslavia then), and the inaugural event had only three starters (the initiator, Boris Kozar from Varaždin, was the first to reach the finish). As one of the oldest European Ultras, it could already be considered a classic, even in the most recent runs there were virtually no runners from beyond the Karawanks Alps on the starter list, so it remains relatively unknown abroad. 

Jelačić Square

 The starting point is located in the middle of the Jelačić Square, a central meeting point of the Zagreb near the cathedral, which is easily accessible by tram at any time of the day. The name "Do Kaptola ad Kaptola" probably refers to the two "capitol hills", on which the main churches of Zagreb and Čazma are located. The starters check in at the tourist office and get a starter T-shirt. Starters hailed from Croatia (including the mayor of Zagreb Milan Bandic), and from the neighboring countries Slovenia, Hungary and Bosnia, including the famous transcontinental runner Dusan Mravlje with his daughter Neza. A bus from Čazmatransport stood ready, for the luggage transport to Čazma and the return journey of the runners.

The race started at 9:00 in the morning in front of the equestrian statue of a sabre-swinging 19th century national hero Josip Jelačić. It should not be forgotten, however, that at two o'clock in the morning on the last Sunday morning in March, the clock will move forward by on hour, also in Croatia! It helps to remember: In SPRING, the beer benches are put BEFORE the pub to accommodate thirsty revelers, and in AUTUMN, they are put BACK in the shed. The initial third of the run led along the road 41 out of Zagreb, which was constantly busy with cars, but fortunately a track for us runners was kept free. Supply station with water, energy drinks and fruit (sponges and salt were added later) were set up every five kilometers. The first section has a flat profile, but with its mixed residential/commercial areas at the outskirts of Zagreb, is is certainly visually not particularly interesting. 

Out of Zagreb, escorted by the timekeeping vehicle

Then the route branched off to the right after Bojzakovina, now onto a less traveled road along which thinner settlement density, with the runners now facing southeast, which means in the morning, continuously towards the sun. In this area, the route passed mostly fields, and from time to time a wooded area and occasionally a horse-head oil pump. Shepherds moved their herds through the landscape (luckily for the runners not across the street). In the middle of a field, not far from the village of Kloštar Ivanić, a huge stainless steel sculpture gleamed in the sun, presumably having something to do with the nearby train station. Numerous people, especially dark-black-clad old ladies, just left the local church when the marathon mark was passed.

Supermaraton passing through Kloštar Ivanić

The last third of the route had the most beautiful scenery, and offered many diverse viewpoints. Of course, this goes along with an increasingly hilly profile and leading through villages with small farms, where Wartburg Pickup trucks were still in use. Though many local people live in traditional wooden houses, there are also many new homes under construction. Although the kilometers are not individually signposted, one can estimate by waymarks how far it should be to Čazma. The runners were constantly accompanied by organizers, police and supervisors (race marshals moved around in a heavily tuned VW Beetle convertible, sometimes overtaking the runners, then meeting them driving in the opposite direction, coming back again, being overtaken by the runners and vice versa). An ambulance vehicle was also patrolling the course to keep an eye on the runners. When I fell back into walking while climbing a hill, they were getting ready to pick me up (were they happy to finally treat a casualty?). But I signaled by putting all available thumbs up that this was not necessary, whereupon they waved and turned off. At the end of March, of course, all the weather phenomena are possible, but in 2008, spring had just begun in time and created ideal conditions: temperatures of 10-14 ° C, dry and mostly sunny.About six kilometers from the finish, the church of Čazma can be spotted for the first time. The last kilometer, however, is particularly impressive (breathtaking by all means), because Čazma is located on a hill, crowned by the church, where the run finishes. As Čazma is a small town of about 3000 inhabitants, the Supermaraton provides the occasion for a folk festival (there will also be a car rally, fortunately on a different route).


Of 74 participants (including 6 women) in 2008, 56 arrived in Čazma running. Three-time winner Janos Zabari of Hungary won the men's 3:49:52 h ahead of compatriot Ferenc Biri and Aleksey Belosludsev from Russia. For the third time in a row, Marija Vrajic from Croatia became the overall winner (4:33:17 h), ahead of her compatriot Mirjana Kolar and Vanja Nastran from Slovenia. The local hotel provided a number of guest rooms, where the participants could take a shower, and a hearty runner meal was handed out afterwards. At the award ceremony in the beer tent, every finisher was congratulated in person and awarded the medal, not to mention the rich endowment with memorabilia: This included a finisher T-shirt (looks exactly like the starter T-shirt, but in size XL), souvenirs from Zagreb (another T-shirt, a cap, and a small local Gingerbread heart), and a funny stuffed animal (a mixture of beaver and squirrel, of course with a Supermaraton T-shirt on). The Supermaraton is a small, and cosy event in a not that much "discovered" corner of Europe, and organized with great hospitality. On the return trip we could exchange runners with us about the running possibilities in the respective home countries (even if there were some language barriers). And to conclude an ultra-marathon day, a coffee house is an ideal place, and Zagreb has always a lot of them open.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018



The Cambridge Boundary run is somewhat of a home game for me, and in 2018 I would run it for the eleventh time. This created an interest of the story of this race, which is organised by the University’s Hare and Hounds cross-country running club. It is a low-cost and low-key event, but the course is marked, and now there is even a finisher medal (but no prizes given). The beginnings of the Boundary Run are hidden deep in the mists of time and the fens, but it is believed that it was first run in the spring of 1924 (half a year earlier than Europe’s oldest continuously run marathon in Kosice, Slovakia). I don’t know if it harks back to the ancient tradition of walking along the boundary of a town or parish and beating the boundary markers with a stick (the markers made from stone, of course, not the people marking and marshalling the course). This “Beating the Bounds” is probably as old as feudalism, having been already practised during the times of King Alfred of Wessex, and continues into the present day, also in Cambridge (see photo on Mill Lane by James Yardley/geograph.org.uk).

Anyway, in March 1924, three men and one dog completed a non-stop run around the city boundary, which would be the first recorded boundary run, but certainly not a race. It did not seem to catch on in the following years, but a quarter of a century years later, to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of the initial boundary run, James Hasler and Derek Shorrocks revived it, with now around 15 runners taking place. Although originally an irregular event, the run became annual between 1959 and 1985, and had a recorded length of 25 imperial miles (Note: This would have counted as a marathon distance before the the distance was extended to 42.2 km, or 26 1/5 miles due to a start at Windsor Castle at the London Olympics of 1908). After a hiatus of some 20 years, the Boundary Run had its next incarnation in 2006, and since 2008, it is a full marathon, and therefore generate higher interest in the running community, as it had previously been primarily a club event.

Since 2015, the run starts at the then newly completed University Sports Centre in the west of the city and circles the city anti-clockwise. After crossing muddy Coton Country park, Newnham, passing role players at Grantchester Meadows and Trumpington, it passes the new developments around Addenbrooke’s Hospital, which luckily including a well-developed path along the guided busway. Nine Wells reserve. On Coldham’s Common, were runners greeted by a bagpiper, before finishing the half or going for the full, turning towards Fen Ditton and then on a towpath along the river Cam, where rowing boats train. The Cam is crossed on Baits Bite lock near Milton. The grimmer, muddier parts up north (between Girton and Madingley) are reserved for the runners of the full marathon, but after the American War Memorial in goes downhill towards the finish.

The race is a good indicator for a season’s form and a good test for upcoming spring marathons, such as London. Though my training was the worst ever, my finishing time was surprisingly good this year, though probably paid for by a longer recovery time. Favourable weather conditions might also have played a role, as exciting weather can be expected at this time of year, and a week earlier or later, the weather would have been severe. 


For a bit of statistics, I have plotted my Boundary Run speed (blue) against my season’s best (orange) marathon speed. My slowest time in 2016 was partially run against a breeze blowing from the northwest, and my fastest time was run in 2013, when I actually did some training, as I would run for the Hare and Hounds in the London Marathon. I am looking forward to the Boundary Run Centenary in 2024!

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Marathoning in the Faroes in a Paramedic anorak

For two years, I have been active as a voluntary first aider for St John Ambulance, which means I get the opportunity to help out in case accidents happen at local events. I have also covered a number of smaller and bigger runs, including the London Marathon. London, which I had run twice, is a hotbed for costumed marathoners, who try to collect funds for the charities of their interest, and among the starters are bobsleds, Darth Vaders, toilets, and deep sea divers, not to mention the large number of Elvis impersonators. So why not running a marathon in a costume myself? Dressing up as a first aider would be straightforward and more or less authentic, as I already had my uniform, consisting of green shirt, trousers and belt, and I would add a hi-vis anorak and boots. I could not find a world record for the fastest marathon dressed as a first aider in the Guinness book, but I would get a chance, though as a paramedic. Anyway, except for the job tag, the uniform looks quite the same. I had already planned that my next marathon would be in Tórshavn, the capital of the Faroes, in June (when it would hardly get dark at all, or hot anyway). Islands in the North Atlantic would probably be not the worst place in the world to run with an anorak on, and with an exotic uniform on, I wouldn’t be mistaken for a local first aider on duty.

The Faroes (Faroe Islands would be redundant) are a group of islands between Norway, Scotland and Iceland. They are a constituent nation of the kingdom of Denmark, but with an autonomous status. The Faroes got their name from the sheep that thrive here since the settlement in Viking times, and wool or knitwear pullovers are great souvenirs, be it high fashion or from charity shops (though fish are the biggest export). On a tour through the islands, the towering bird cliffs of Vestmanna were admired, but also the spectacularly situated and inviting town of Klaksvík.

Chickens in Klaksvik
Being an exotic and very accessible marathon at the same time, Tórshavn attracts runners from far afield, and Marathon Country Club Members and/or Globetrotters accounted for quite a large fraction of runners. The Marathon is a part of Tórshavn’s annual culture day, including many events, such as free visits of the local museums.

International Participants 
The largest exhibit in the National Gallery is an artwork by the local sailor, sculptor and adventurer Tróndur Patursson. It consists of the inside of a shipping container covered with mirrors and glasswork on all sides. This piece conveys a sailor’s experience of being beneath kilometers of atmosphere and above kilometers of water.

While carbo-loading on the day before the race, I had to learn that the USA (or more precisely their president) threatened to leave the Paris Climate agreement. No one should believe that the effects of climate change wouldn’t affect. From the perspective of a runner, who knows if it will be possible (or desirable) to run a marathon in some regions of the world in some decades from now. And here the anorak comes in again: as a clumsy statement of solidarity with people affected by global warming. Actually, my travels to marathons have produced quite a bit of carbon dioxide: A cycle ride within Cambridge to the start of the Boundary Run would account for 150 g CO2-emission, and a flight to the Faroes from Edinburgh for over 400 kg. Altogether, my travels to and from 102 marathons in 33 countries have caused nearly 7.5 tons emission! Though the marathons were often not the main reason for a long distance travel, it is clear that offsetting this was the least I could do, but there is a lot more to think about.

On Saturday, 3rd June, the marathon (including half and fun run) was started in the central pedestrian zone, heading out to the port (all of my recent marathons in countries seemed to pass marinas). The course took a few turns through and around the city, and then went on along a spectacular undulating road around the Kaldbaks-Fjord towards the village Kaldbak and back. The well-kept road along new buildings (many cheers came from the retirement home) and a sea backdrop might even look somewhat Californian on some photos.

Along Kaldbaks-Fjord
But luckily for my body temperature, it was less sunny at about 10°C, and had lots of fresh air (maybe a bit too much of it in the form of headwind). And the best thing is, on the Faroes you are never far from a waterfall, which helps to maintain a cool head- the islands consist mainly of tilted layers of basalt, from which the rainwater flows down in many little streams. Actually, there are not only few trees, but also very few flat areas, and those tend to be boggy (no problem for the sheep). Because there wasn’t any suitable ground around, the national football team had to play their first international against in Sweden – and promptly beat Austria with 1:0.

On the road to Kaldbak
Finally, I made it into the finish in 3:58:17 h, a world record in paramedic apparel, and eventually got the record ratified by Guinness World Records. My run was way slower than the world record for Elvises (2:38:04 h), but still faster than for deep sea diving suit-wearers (six days). I got a medal with a ribbon in national colours and Thor’s hammer on it (he is the city’s name patron). My feet had become a bit thick from running in boots, and finally I could put them up and have some fish soup. Fortunately, the help of my first aider colleagues was not needed. But the next London Marathon is coming up, and after many tries, I surprisingly won a place in the lottery for 2018. Will I provide first aid there as well?

London Marathon Fundraiser for St John Ambulance

Friday, 14 July 2017

Manx Mountain Ultra - Learning Fell Running the Hard Way

Manx Mountain Marathon 2009


“To the Isle of Man? Why?” I have been asked in London. Well, I had not been there before, and crossing an entire island, including ascending its highest peaks, was definitely a fascinating challenge. Located in the middle of the Irish Sea, the Isle of Man, also known as Ellan Vannin or Mann, belongs to whatever is called the British Crown, but not to the United Kingdom, let alone to England. The Isle with about 85,000 inhabitants has a long history of autonomy in internal affairs, such as taxes, or Health-and-Safety regulations: Motorbike races are not forbidden on public roads, the Isle has taken the chance and has been hosting the Tourist Trophy since 1907. Not only have the inhabitants bred four-horned sheep and tailless cats, but also have their own Celtic language. The Manx language had become extinct in daily use with the death of its last native speaker (in 1974), but was preserved due to its ritual use at the parliament, the Tynwald, and is now undergoing revival, with presently about 1,500 speakers. The name Tynwald shows its roots as a Norse Thing, which has been convening more or less since the time of the Vikings and therefore stands among the of the oldest parliaments in the world, along with the ones on the fellow island countries of Iceland and the Faroes. On the sea promenades, the flagpoles do not fly the Union Jack, but instead a triskelion on red background - if it appears a bit unsettling seen from a distance, from closer one can see that the triskelion is actually made from three armour-clad legs running in a circle. Derived from the seal of the Isle, this symbol has been around since the middle ages.

The Isle of Man has a north-south length of 52 km, an east-west diameter of 32 km, and a number of peaks of interesting height, making it a perfect location to cross and scramble in a challenging, but not too crazy Ultramarathon to be completed within one day. Therefore, the Manx Mountain Ultra, initially named Manx Mountain Marathon, has been organized annually since 1970 (except for one cancellation due to a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak), which would make it to one of the ten oldest Ultras worldwide still in existence. The route crosses Mann diagonally, beginning at the seaside town Ramsey in the North-East, and finishing at Port Erin in the south-west, after having crossed 12 of the highest peaks on the island, totalling about 2400 metres elevation.

Looking back towards Ramsey
Before running here, I did not know too well that this part of the world, "Mountain Marathon" does not simply translate to a marathon in the mountains, but actually describes the races of the longest distance within the sport of Fell Running, even including some multi-day races like the Original Mountain Marathon. Fell Running (related to the Nordic Fjell for mountain) is a variation of mountain running performed particularly in the North of the British Isles and combines elements of cross-country running, mountaineering and orienteering. Also, in contrast to other countries, the paths that leads a runner (or hiker) through the mountains are not defined, only occasionally outlined by flags, and the runners are expected to navigate their course independently. Completion of the route and the summits, is validated by electronic checkpoints, into which the runners insert a microchip, or “timing dibber” they carry along. In addition, it is compulsory to carry along map, compass, signal whistle, and emergency clothing, food and water. Also, road running shoes may not be optimal for the rocky and boggy terrain of course. As the environmental impact of these races needs to be limited, the number of participants in this type of races is also relatively low. Sometimes, Mountain Marathons can be somewhat more adventurous compared classical marathons in the Alps, because the course is not as tightly monitored: During the "Original Mountain Marathon" 2008 in the Lake District, 1700 runners were “missing” due to some of the checkpoints being abandoned due to severe weather – however, the runners themselves were still competing and unaware that anyone was concerned about them.




In 2009, the Manx Mountain Marathon was scheduled on Easter Saturday as a part of the traditional Isle of Man Easter Sport Festival (more recently, the race has been taking place in autumn). About 100 runners were registered for the full length course starting on the Market Square of Ramsey, and the same number for the Half-Ultra, starting from St. John’s, the centrally located village where the Tynwald convenes. The runner’s backpacks having been checked for emergency equipment and timing device, the race was started along the seaside front. Soon after, the track ascended, initially through a wooded valley, with the trees soon giving way to a heather vegetation sprinkled with lots of sheep’s droppings. Next, the runners scrambled up the flank of the North Barrule (565 m), the second highest peak of the Island. From this checkpoint, the whole Isle was visible: In front of the runners, the chain of soon-to-be-conquered peaks, including the Snaefell (621 m, not to be confused with the Icelandic volcano of the same name that features as an entry point for the Journey to the Centre of the Earth in Jules Verne’s novel). However, it is said, that in clear weather, the Isle’s highest peak offers a view of six kingdoms (Man, England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and the Kingdom of Heaven).

Crossing Snaefell

Though the weather conditions on racing day were excellent for this location, (10-15°C, sunny with some clouds, gentle wind), the differences in terrain and microclimate made adaptation to the environmental conditions somewhat difficult. The different ground compositions posed an extra challenge, of which running downhill demanded a lot of concentration, since for every step could meet a different response on rocky, overgrown, or boggy ground. After crossing the peaks Beinn y Phott and Carragan, and a slippery river bed, the Colden was climbed through a knee-high heather scrub, the path only marked by the flag on the peak.


Having passed the checkpoints on the following peaks on the ridgeway, the course descended along a former railway track, to St. John's, the location of the Tynwald in the heart of the island. At the exit of the village, one of the most exhausting passages began: a very steep ascent through a forest up the Slieau Whallian. After adapting to the chilly winds of the hills, I experienced the relatively mild and sheltered microclimate as almost unbearably humid and even resorted to a walking stick found in the forest. After the following checkpoint, the course finally went downhill, on a road through a desolate heath and past a closed-down mine. The long ascent to the last higher mountain to be crossed, South Barrule, could be seen from here. The top his peak offered a beautiful panorama of the final ten or so kilometres on the Southern tip of the island: Firstly along the sea cliffs cliffs, then around the bay, and finally into Port Erin, recognizable by its white Victorian Hotels at the promenade. The last climb on the bay was the hill viewpoint at Bradda Tower, from where the small island bird reserve known as the Calf of Man was visible in the South, and the Mountains of Mourne in Northern Ireland rose behind the Irish Sea in the West. 

Bradda Tower and the Calf of Man
A quick run downhill from the viewpoint and around the bay led the runners to the finish at the village green on the Promenade. The men’s race was won by Paul Thompson (Manx Fell Runners) in 5:04 h, the women’s race by Jackie Lee in 5:29 h. With the last finishers arriving after 10 ½ h, I was in the second half of the finishers with a time of 8 h, so a big respect for all fell runners who completed this race! The certificates and finisher shirts were awarded at the inclusive post-race dinner, a fine social event to conclude a very memorable race.