Friday, 27 June 2014

It's Not About the Bike

Today's song is a children's classic.  Everyone knows it and everyone has some way of interpreting it.  Puff the Magic Dragon has been sung by us all I suspect and like lots of my songs has no place on a blog about the Arch to Arc (not that this blog has that much to do with the Arch to Arc).  Basically, it's here because Puff the Magic Dragon lives by the sea.  So taking that into account as his residence he probably knows a fair bit about things of a nautical nature, and may have seen a few swimmers, although I have always believed him to be a solitary character.  When Little Jackie paper fails to show, I get the impression that Puff has few other friends to share his time and his life with.  When I was little I felt so bad for Puff, and today, at this moment in time I feel very much the same. We all need some friends.

Much has been written about this song being about drugs; Puff = marijuana, Jackie Paper being rolling papers.  Listen to it and you realise that is a nonsense interpretation.  Puff the Magic Dragon is a piece of imagination.  Jackie Paper is a boy who grows up and, as we do, loses his imagination and we see a reversal of reality as the fantasy (Puff) watches the reality (Jackie) disappear.  Even today the line, "A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys" makes me nod my head in sad recognition.  If only that didn't happen.  Being grown up is bloody difficult if you ask me.  

And if you still think there is a hint of drug use, check out this video from 1965.  Are you telling me that Peter, Paul and Mary were really rolling up backstage?

Having got that off my chest, I am struggling to make a link with that and the Arch to Arc. Maybe the Arch to Arc is my little fantasy and it offsets real life.  Yes,  there is a lot of  truth in that.  When you read this blog the natural end is the moment of the event itself.  But for me the hardest part of all this is having a long lead time to the start of the event and trying to negotiate the life that one leads whilst trying to get to the start point.  Every time life hits me with another brick I have to take the knock and carry on.  Since I signed up for the Arch to Arc, so many things have happened in my life and when I look back and look to the future I cannot comprehend how I can carry this project through without at some point being knocked off balance. My fear mounts and I am scared that the voice inside me will cry "enough's enough" and make me stop.

But it's very close now and with two and a half months to go, I just need to hold my nerve and keep going.  The Arch to Arc has become a place of escape and meditation.  The endless hours in the sea or running have been my place to chew over life's problems.  Not  that I think very deeply.  I can spend 50 minutes thinking about someone who pissed me off at work in 1989 but at some level it is ridding me of some of my more recent stresses.  And I need that at the moment. Yes, I really need that.

You will notice that I refer only to running and swimming.  I rarely, if ever, mention the bike leg of this event.  I think we should get this into context.  The bike from Calais to Paris is 180 miles.  Even by Tour de France standards that is longer than any one day stage that they will cycle.  But set against the depleting effect of an 87 mile run and the technical, physical and mental stamina needed to complete the swim the cycle ride is a the least frightening of the stages I need to tackle.

The cycle is a such a crucial part of any triathlon, but definitely plays third fiddle on this event.  I am used to some monstrous cycle rides - I have done a couple of 200 mile + cycle rides and on one, never to be forgotten event, managed 336 miles.  Just to pause for a moment, I cannot describe how glorious it felt to get my arse off my bike saddle after a 336 mile ride. I have always liked cycling.  Travelling long distances under your own steam is immensely satisfying.  But training on the bike is really time consuming.  When you are looking at the training needed to go above 200 miles it takes a lot of time out of your day, especially if you are a "so-so" cyclist like me.  I used to be off at 5.30 am and not back until Midday and still feel I hadn't achieved much.

On the other hand learning to be a Channel swimmer has certainly taken a lot of time up but it is only recently that the mammoth swims have really begun to happen. 6 hours in the water is a mammoth swim whereas it's not such a long time on a bike. Well, obviously it is, and it could be time better spent learning Spanish or how to bake cakes, but relatively speaking is what I'm talking about.

I can't project. I would love to tell you my dreams of how it might feel to cycle into Paris with the rest of the event successfully completed.  But I don't want to do that.  Sadly, I am now an adult and my fantasies have made way for realism and self doubt.  Where are you Jackie Paper?  Come back!

Monday, 9 June 2014


Okay this week's swim song is a total shocker, but it's title couldn't be more apt. It's 10cc's Channel Swimmer, which I think was a B-Side to one of their hits.  You have to hand it to Godley and the other fella in the band, they went to great lengths to fit a single conceit into a song - the idea of "crawling back to you" - front crawl - geddit? As a potential Channel swimmer I can't help getting cross with the lack of swimming knowledge displayed by members of a 70's soft rock band who were touring the world, taking drugs, earning vast amounts of money and driving fast cars.  You think that they would have had some time to do a little research into Channel swimming.  Honestly, like anyone would try and swim the Channel putting backstroke above crawl. (Maybe I'm missing the point in my small minded way...) Where they do get it right is the line "Who's be a Channel swimmer? Only a fool like me.".  Now that I do relate to.

Last weekend I was at the Enduroman long distance triathlon championships, helping out with a bit of marshalling and lap counting.  You have do to a serious amount of lap counting because at the championships you have a 200 mile run, a 100 mile run, a double iron distance and for those who really suffer from a  chasms in the soul;  a triple iron.  It was here in the New Forest that I have cut my teeth over the past three years taking part in both a double and triple distance triathlons.

As I was driving up I was telling my mate Rob about what a great bunch of people he would meet (Rob, you may remember is my running friend.  18 months ago he had never run more than a couple of miles and I went out running with him and briefly patronised him, by saying things like "You can do this Rob",  "Dig deep" and "not far now" as we built up his mileage.  He now leaves me trailing miles behind him, and although he is a lovely, lovely bloke I secretly harbour intense jealousy and a bit of resentment at how hard he has worked.). I really meant that.  This festival of ultra running is not what one might expect. The people who rock up for a weekend of extraordinary feats of endurance are very normal, very self effacing and so supportive of one another.

If I go to a traditional triathlon it is a different atmosphere altogether.  At the start line you are confronted with a wall of chiselled featured middle aged men, eyeing the water with a steely determination. (There are women and other age groups, but look at the demographic breakdown of any established triathlon and it is predominately male 35 - 49.  Together we can change this, folks).  There is very little banter and humour and the atmosphere is charged with testosterone.  At the start of the swim people will swim over one another to get a better position and the ensuing melee has sometimes given me panic attacks.  These very "nice", polite middle aged men turn feral once they hear the starting gun fired.  God knows what they are like in the boardrooms up and down the country.

Avon Tyrrel is a different atmosphere altogether; the swim start to the ultra triathlons is the utmost in politeness with competitors shaking hands, hugging and letting other competitors get in the water before them.  During the cycle sections and the run, we happily chatter, share food and drink and give lots of encouragement to one another.  I am still in touch with the guys from the year of my Triple Iron and many others from this strange clique.

Why the difference?  All of us came through the alpha male supercharged triathlon route, yet none of those aggressive attributes can be found when we race at endurance level.  My theory is that it is all about humility.  No one can approach any endurance triathlon or a 100 mile run with anything but humility. (By the way, Rob gets this.  He came second in his 100 mile run in the New Forest.  I have managed to avoid speaking to him ever since.)  When you know you are going to swim 7 miles, cycle 336 and run 78 miles you give those distances the utmost respect.  You know that you are attempting something that may allow you to compete, but could spit you out at any time.  For a short period of your life you find your hold on finishing an event to be very precarious.  You don't know if your amazing body (we all have an amazing body - please treasure it) will allow you to do this.  You don't know if distance will grind you to a halt.  You don't know if your mind will just stop supporting you and will suddenly, and it is very sudden, make you stop.  This stuff is way bigger than me and I just trust that today may be my day.

I have a magnificently huge ego.  I am now persuaded that I don't make the sun come up or go down at the beginning and end of the day.  I know that there are some things that are bigger than me.  One February I had picked my way across Striding Edge on Helvellyn and I stood at the base of the final steep climb up to the summit plateau.  Nothing hard or technical.  But at that moment in time as I stood on my own looking up at the track ahead, I felt so infinitesimally small, so insignificant - a fleeting visitor who was briefly allowed safe passage on a mountain. And so it is with ultra events.  I am like a guest at a party way out of my social comfort zone.  I won't be able to stay for long but if things go well, I may have a glass of orange,  a quick dance and make a few friends.  I hope the Arch to Arc allows me to briefly join with it. I hope it smiles on me in September.  I am only asking it to look out for me once.  I will give it the utmost respect.