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40 days to 40

This is the post excerpt.

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There is a milestone in my life coming up shortly and I had considered letting it slide by unnoticed with no real celebration. Not that I feel ‘old’ or I’m unhappy about my life, things couldn’t be further from the truth.

However further reflection caused me to reassess my attitude. So I’m going to meet that number 40 head on and celebrate my life and its many varied and wonderful facets. I’d like to invite you to join me in my countdown starting today. I’ve set up this blog and I will share something different every day for the next 40 days – it may be an experience, an opinion, an event, a hobby, an interest, absolutely anything really. I’ll be looking backwards and forwards and promise to add some photos.

Come join me in my celebration.

Every ending is a new beginning (1 day to go)

I’ve reached the end of my 40 days countdown to my 40th birthday as it is tomorrow. I’m still not ready for it! When I set out on this project I had some ideas about what I wanted to write about, but others came to me as I progressed. It’s been really interesting to undertake and I wouldn’t have completed it without my good friend, Google for confirming the finer details of mountain heights and reading around for a bit of inspiration, particularly some of the quotes I’ve borrowed. It was a time consuming exercise and I wanted to share personal experiences. I’ve been meaning to put in words some of my experiences and encounters for a long time and this method of declaring I’d do a countdown gave me some accountability and pushed me to do it. I may not have stuck rigidly to my goal, but that’s ok. Something I’ve learned in my life so far, often pressure we pile onto ourselves which only comes from living up to our own inflated expectations or what we believe others expectations of us are. I’m not pompous enough to think that someone was waiting each day for my blog post and noticed when it didn’t come. So I flexed the rules, knowing that I’d definitely get the 40 posts done before my birthday one way or another.

So it’s been exciting to relive the adventure, the ups and downs and truly reflect on what I’ve done and where I’ve come from. Now I need to take the best parts and make the next decade as exciting and fulfilling as the last four. I hope you enjoyed it and it would be nice if you’ve got this far and you did like it to send me a message. I can see people have read it and some of you have already kindly commented or ‘liked’ and I thank you for that – it kept me writing. I think I may still keep writing but less frequently than daily! I’ve still a lot of adventures to share and in trying not to write an entire book on some topics I’ve missed out quite a lot of detail that I would like to set down.

Before I sign off I wanted to share a nice story I found about winter solstice and why evergreen trees remain green. My birthday falls on winter solstice and when I was younger I didn’t like that it was the shortest day in terms of light and one year my parents granted me a half year birthday party so that I could have a summer party in the garden (yes they really are the nicest parents). I’ve since learned that you can look at anything in a positive light even if at first it seems not to be so. Now I like the fact that my birthday marks the end of darkness and the start of the light coming back into our lives. That’s how I’m approaching my milestone birthday; you can count the time you’ve had and that is important, but look to the time you still have and use your life experience to make that time even better for yourself, and the world and everyone around you.

The wonderful legend about winter solstice and why evergreen trees remain green when everything else has died.

The story goes that the sun decided to take a break from warming the earth, and so he went on a bit of a hiatus. Before he left, he told all the trees and plants not to worry, because he’d be back soon, when he felt rejuvenated. After the sun had been gone a while, the earth began to get chilly, and many of the trees wailed and moaned in fear that the sun would never return, crying that he had abandoned the earth. Some of them got so upset that they dropped their leaves on the ground. However, far up in the hills, above the snow line, the fir and the pine and the holly could see that the sun was indeed still out there, although he was far away.

They tried to reassure the other trees, who mostly just cried a lot and dropped more leaves. Eventually, the sun began to make his way back and the earth grew warmer. When he finally returned, he looked around and saw all the bare trees. The sun was disappointed at the lack of faith that the trees had shown, and reminded them that he had kept his promise to return. As a reward for believing in him, the sun told the fir, the pine and the holly that they would be permitted to keep their green needles and leaves all year long. However, all the other trees still shed their leaves each fall, as a reminder to them that the sun will be back again after the solstice.

Put tha’ best foot forward (2 days to go)

“Every journey begins with a single step.” Lao Tzu.

A sign in Yorkshire dialect.

Putting one foot in front of the other is such a basic human instinct and for me is one of the most meditative things I can do. I derive such pleasure through trekking, even if I’m carrying a heavy rucksack. In the past 5 years alone I’ve completed many walks from The South Downs Way in England to the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. A list of them is included at the end. This year I completed the Coast to Coast or C2C in England and I’d like to share some details about that journey.

I had been meaning to complete this walk for several years and this year I had the opportunity to do so. I only planned it 10 days before and because I was going to do it solo I pre-booked my accommodation as I wanted to be sure that I had somewhere to stay and I could leave contact details with my parents. I also decided to carry my own stuff as I wanted to be able to say that I walked from one coast to the other unaided in any way.

I caught 3 trains to get to the start, St Bees in Cumbria and checked into a lovely B&B. The next morning after a proper English breakfast I was on my way to Ennerdale YHA 19 miles away. The first 5 miles merely go up the coast line with no progression in land at all! I saw Sellafield nuclear plant and the Isle of Man as it was a great clear day. Enjoyed the night in the youth hostel at Ennerdale with no TV, WiFi or phone reception. Bliss.

Day 2 was a wet affair through the Lake District to Borrowdale, but Day 3 brightened up. I was enjoying walking by myself, and occasionally chatting to others, sometimes walking a little while with them. On the evening of Day 3 I met two Englishmen, Rob and Mark, in Patterdale in the drying room at the hostel who were trying to dry off their very wet tents from 2 nights before. They were from Warrington and we had a quick chat. It wouldn’t be our last. I later encountered them again in the pub with a third man, Steve, and after a few beers they were talking about getting a ferry somewhere so they would have less distance to walk. I said it was up to them but they wouldn’t then be able to say they’d walked from coast to coast. The next morning at breakfast they looked a little less than fresh, but I’m happy to say they decided to walk. I arrived in Shap at the end of Day 4 but the three men didn’t arrive until hours later, seems they’d got lost! They brought with them a fourth man, Stuart and the light of my life for the rest of the walk, an adorable Labrador called Emmy.

Day 2: The Lake District in the mist

On Day 5 having set off after the 4 men and Emmy dog I caught them up and decided to walk with them. It was a super hot day and we were so pleased to come across a shed with cold drinks and food available with an honesty box. In the second half of the day we met a couple more men and walked the last 7 miles together in one big group. It was lovely and I was cruising along and feeling great. Day 6 I set off after the others as I made a trip to a chemist for contact lens solution but soon caught them up trying to find their way across the boggy moors of the Pennines. We had passed the halfway mark now and were into North Yorkshire.

Day 5: a hot 20 miles from Shap to Kirkby Stephen

The following two days were great walking through the Yorkshire Dales with Mark, Rob, Stuart and Emmy dog (Steve retired through a foot injury) and I was so pleased to have met these guys and we became a walking family. It’s amazing how quickly you can bond with people and we would while away the time playing quizzes and the miles would fly by. At the end of Day 8 I stayed in Richmond and the rest stayed further along the route in Catterick.

End of Day 7 in Reeth. Adorable Emmy dog who always made us smile no matter how tough it got. She was a little tired here.

On Day 9 I endeavoured to catch them up but firstly I had the immense pleasure of coming across two wonderful ladies from the USA. They were unsure of where they were going and as I came along the path they asked if I knew the way. I directed them and when I told them my name they said they’d already heard of me from other American walkers who I had met in a pub 2 nights before. Who knew there was such a thing as trail news? I then spent the morning walking with them. Two nicer ladies you would struggle to meet, and before they knew it we had reached their destination for the day. I however had twice as far to go to catch up with my walking family. I did 26 miles that day and I was exhausted.

Day 9: Me with Springy and Mimi, the two lovely Americans I met

Day 10 was a wet and long one of 19.5 miles to The Lion Inn, a very exposed pub and one of the highest in England. I stayed in a tent in the field next to the pub and I’m surprised it was still standing by the morning. It blew a gale and I didn’t sleep at all with the tent roof flapping into my face all night. Emmy dog managed to though, she was snoring away next to me. Day 11 was my worst day. Thankfully it was a short day, only 9 miles but I was in terrible pain with my toes continually cramping. It rained hard all day and we were cold, wet, windswept and miserable. We arrived at Glaisdale and went to the house of some friends of Stuart’s. They greeted 4 wet souls and a dog with hot drinks and food and even put all of us up for the night. The kindness and warmth of strangers throughout my trek was something I shall never forget and reconfirmed my faith in humanity. They also had two French bulldogs and Bert was beautiful. I almost put him in my rucksack to steal him away.

End of Day 11: Beautiful Bert

Day 12, our last day and we were all upbeat and ready to eat the final 20 miles.

Start of Day 12: Stuart, me, Rob and Mark all ready for the final 20 miles

Apart from some boggy fields where we all ended up with wet socks and boots it was a great final day heading into Robin Hood’s Bay. My parents greeted us at the end along with Stuart’s lovely wife, Caroline who had been supporting the men throughout the trek.

Me, Mark, Stuart, Rob and Emmy dog celebrating at the end in Robin Hood’s Bay. 190+ miles done in 12 days

Doing the C2C made me realise that you don’t have to travel to the ends of the earth to have a great adventure, you can meet amazing people in England. I started out by myself but made several friends and it was great to become part of a team. It also allowed me to appreciate what a beautiful country I live in.

Walks since 2012:

May 2012: UK National Three Peaks Challenge: climbing the highest mountains in each of Scotland, Wales and England; Ben Nevis, Snowdon, Scafell Pike in 24 hours

On the way down from Snowdon, the last mountain in the national 3 Peaks challenge.

June 2012: Parish Walk in the Isle of Man. The full walk is 85 miles in 24 hours. My friend David and I opted to stop halfway at 42.5 miles in a time of 11h16m. We would each have needed a personal support car to accompany us further, which neither of us had been able to arrange.

September 2012: 100km (62.5 miles) Thames Path Walk event from Putney to Henley on Thames completed in 23 hours.

Finish line of the 100km Thames Path Challenge

December 2012: Annapurna Circuit in Nepal – a walk with a group over 3 weeks which covered 145 miles (230km), some of it at high altitude reaching an elevation of 5,416m.

Sunset on New Year’s Day on Poon Hill on the Annapurna Circuit

April 2013: South Downs Way in England from Winchester to Eastbourne. 100 miles+ over 4 days solo in sub zero temperatures and strong winds.

May 2013: London to Brighton, another 100km walking event I did solo taking 22 hours. I got pretty sick after 80km and was held at the medical tent for nearly two hours whilst my blood pressure and temperature reached acceptable levels. They had plummeted due to an upset stomach and my lack of food intake! I zipped through the last 20km however. I shall never forget the sheer number of stiles on this walk, which become increasingly harder to clamber over as the miles ticked by.

Striding out towards the start of the London to Brighton 100km Challenge

July 2013: Race to the Stones, yet another 100km event starting in Chinnor near Oxford along the ancient chalk ridgeway to the Avebury stone circle. Solo in less than 20 hours.

August 2013: GR20 in Corsica. Purportedly the toughest trail in Europe crossing 180km (113 miles) through the rugged rocky terrain in the middle of the island. I did this with a group over 12 days.

Posing in Corsica

Jumping in Corsica

September 2013: 50km Thames Path Walk in 9 hours. I was due to do the full 100km and for once I listened to my body and stopped halfway. Five triathlons including a half iron man, the GR20 and two 100km walks in less than 5 months over the summer of 2013 had left me running on empty!

September 2015: walking the north rim to the south rim of The Grand Canyon over 4 days: see Deep into the great unknown post for more details on this trek.

December 2015: walking up and down volcanoes in El Salvador on a group trekking trip for 2 weeks.

Climbing through deep vegetation up a volcano in El Salvador

May 2016: 32 mile circuit round the island of Manhattan, NYC. Started solo and met a lovely lady from Ireland after a few miles and we finished together in 10 hours.

My certificate to show that I walked all the way round Manhattan

June 2017: backpacking 4 days in Yellowstone, USA where a bear came to greet us at camp one evening. Quite scary!

Emerging from the wilderness of Yellowstone National Park

July 2017: Coast to Coast in England. 190+ miles from the west to the east coast in 12 days across three national parks; The Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and the North Yorkshire Moors.

September 2017: Yorkshire 3 Peaks. 24.5 miles climbing a total of 1,600m up and down Yorkshire’s 3 highest peaks, Ingleborough, Whernside and Pen-y-Ghent. A lovely day when the sun shone and there weren’t too many walkers out.

On the Yorkshire 3 Peaks with the last climb awaiting, Whernside behind me in the distance

I’ve done separate posts on mountain climbing which intersperses all of the walking! See Reaching Summits Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Toilets, no laughing matter? (3 days to go)

Going to the toilet. It’s something we do every day multiple times a day, yet it’s not a subject we discuss much, particularly women and their ‘number two’s’. It’s interesting how it is a taboo subject but I’m going to relate some amusing stories, but don’t worry they’re quite ‘clean’. Through my travels I have experienced many different types of toilets and had some amusing encounters.

When trekking in Norway back in the last century I got lost going to relieve myself in the middle of the night. I left the tent torch in hand and walked for some distance to be away from the other tents which were all really spaced out as the ground was not great. I did my business next to a well positioned rock upon which I placed my torch. As I finished the torch light went out. Batteries had gone. I couldn’t see a thing in the darkness, in the middle of the Jotunheimen National Park there are no light sources. It was cloudy and there was no moonlight. I sat on the rock for 10 minutes but my eyes were not adjusting whatsoever. It wasn’t warm and eventually I decided I’d have to take some action otherwise I’d be there all night. I wandered round and round for a long time and eventually tripped over the guide ropes on my own tent. Waves of relief ensued.

When cycling solo from London to Paris in 2012, in the afternoon of the second day I desperately needed the toilet. Unfortunately unlike the UK, northwestern France doesn’t have any hedgerows or stone walls, it is one flat plain as far as the eye can see. I cycled and cycled thinking that at some point there would be a tree or something I could squat behind. Eventually I came across a village which had a set of business type buildings with a warehouse and there was a wall. At last something I could use as cover. I dismounted, walked towards the buildings and was in the process of pulling down my cycling trousers when I heard a whirring noise behind me. The warehouse shutter door began to open and it revealed a man standing behind it. I smiled, rushed off and rode away. Imagine if he’d opened the shutter several seconds later! If I’d had my wits about me I’d have asked to use a toilet but I was so shocked that all I could think to do was get away. I came across a small town about 30 minutes later with a public toilet.

I have never seen or had the privilege to use such a high tech toilet as the one in the Langham Xintiandi hotel in Shanghai in 2014. As you approach the toilet the lid raises automatically, although there were a couple of occasions when it didn’t quite happen, perhaps I approached the toilet in a too stealth like manner and fooled it. I’d have to retreat and approach in a more aggressive manner and the lid would then raise. If you tried to manually raise it it emitted sounds to express that it wasn’t happy! Then once you sat on the toilet you’d feel a warming sensation on your behind, and no I’m not afflicted with piles but the toilet seat was heated. For me it was a little too warm and appeared to get warmer the longer you sat, perhaps it was a warning sign to remind you to stop doing whatever you were doing (reading, playing with your phone – yes I’m sure you’re all guilty of this) and get on your way. I’m also not convinced you need a heated seat – room temperature is just fine with me, so unless this toilet was situated outside in the Arctic I’m perhaps missing the point. I’m definitely a cool toilet seat kind of gal.

The toilet then had what can only be described as a a computer panel on the wall which had buttons with the following options, “hard clean”, “soft clean”, “pulsating”, “cleaning wand”, and “drying”. Despite my usually adventurous spirit I regret to inform you I didn’t try any. This is mainly due to an unfortunate incident that happened when I was working in the Jakarta office in Indonesia on a short 2 week visit a number of years back. They didn’t have the high tech type toilet (perhaps they do now) but I was to find out that they do have functions that toilets in the UK do not have. Well I pulled a handle which I thought would flush the toilet only to be sprayed in water. Clearly I was facing the toilet and I was wearing a pink blouse which had now become completely see through! The facilities didn’t have any type of hand dryer either so I did my best to “dry” myself with paper towels. Not very effective so before I could return to the meeting room I went and stood outside for several minutes with my arms folded in front of me as I left the building. The heat soon dried me!

I’m very used to relieving myself outside in nature. I got used to it after a couple of months living in a hammock in the jungle in Belize. Usually when trekking one has to dig a hole several inches down, do your business in it and then fill it back in. Not so at very high altitudes as what you’ve left behind will never really decompose. So up Aconcagua in the Andes at above 3,000m and with a temperature of -20C not only is it not a pleasant experience to bare your bottom to the elements, but you have to do it on newspaper, roll it up and put it in a bag and carry it with you! Nice.

So now my stories have hopefully amused you there are a couple of serious messages to get across. First some facts about toilets and sanitisation. It’s alarming that in the world today that 1.1 billion people defecate outside in fields and forests, rivers and streams etc and poor sanitation is estimated to cause 280,000 deaths a year. Secondly an increasing number of people are suffering from irritable bowel disease (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis) and up to 250,000 people are estimated to suffer in the UK. This illness is very tough as nobody wants to talk about bowel movements and it can really affect how people live their lives, worrying about not being too far from a toilet. It is not obvious that people are suffering and so just remember not all disabilities are visible.

i products and e words (4 days to go)

I found myself sounding like my own parents recently when relating to my much younger fellow masters students how digital technology had changed so significantly in my lifetime. I told them how I was very excited to have my own first electronic calculator. It had no special functions, it performed basic computations and that was it. I’m sure everyone feels the same way but I think for those of us who straddle the digital age it really is a marked contrast. For the generations older than me even more so.

I do feel blessed that I had a childhood that whilst not technology free wasn’t technology-centric. I was lucky to have the freedom to go out with my brother and friends and agree to be back at a specified time and the world was our oyster. The long summer school holidays seemed to go on forever and we lived only 5 minutes walk from playing fields and only 15 minutes walk from a recreation ground, or the rec as we called it, with swings and climbing frames. We hung onto rope swings across the river, made dens, played games, rode our bikes and only occasionally got up to mischief. My parents were forward thinking and we did have a computer at home, a BBC Master, but sadly it didn’t even have a floppy disk drive just a cassette tape player with which to load games. It took so long that you’d need to plan your simple game of bat and ball and come back to play it later. It astounds me that someone born this century would probably have no idea what either a floppy disk drive or a cassette player is! We’ve all seen those videos on the internet of 10 year olds being handed a Sony Walkman and not having a clue what to do with it. Reminds me of a time about 5 years ago when l I overheard a young girl who was walking along the Strand in London say “Mum what are those red things for?” as they passed by the telephone boxes. It took me by surprise. I guess it shouldn’t since things change all the time and it’s no different to me visiting a Victorian schoolroom museum as a child and seeing the chalk and slate as novel yet defunct.

The computer game of bat and ball that I used to look forward to playing when I was a kid! For those that have never played it, the aim is to control the horizontal line (the bat) across the screen so that you can hit the bouncing ball which pings across the screen and deflects off the sides. Hours of fun!

The internet is almost 50 years old. To be exact its predecessor the ARPAnet is 48 years old and the World Wide Web is younger, it went live on 6 August 1991. The disruptions that have ensued since have changed every aspect of our personal and working lives. Imagine a world without email, e-business, e-banking, social media, and Apple’s world of ‘i’ products. We have the ability to Google anything online on any subject under the sun (and also not under the sun too). We have access to more information than ever before and yet it doesn’t necessarily mean that people are better informed. Our busy lives seem to have made us lazy critical thinkers I believe, subscribing to a sound byte media where only the headline and a couple of sentences are read. It seems we’re all more challenged when needing to focus for any length of time to read a reasonably lengthy article, me included! Our brains could truly be rewired by our use of technology. This Guardian article refers to a book and research that suggests we are less focused, less creative and the fleeting and temporary nature of what we do is hampering our ability to think deeply. Certainly I can empathise with this as I find I’m constantly distracted when trying to read a lengthy technical academic article and really have to resist the urge to dip into social media or read an email that is not important.

Technology is fantastic and I cannot knowledgeably speak about even a small fraction of what it can do for us today and it will continue to reap great benefits for society. I hope that the fourth industrial revolution that we are supposedly in now can harness technology to improve people’s lives and look after the natural environment too. However I think we have to think more carefully about its possible negative effects on us as we harness it.

Broadening the horizons (5 days to go)

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page” St Augustine

I start writing this whilst I am watching the sun rise this morning over the temples in Bagan. I love to travel and I’ve already written a post on places I’ve been: A to Z of travels, but it didn’t get to the heart of why I travel.

I still get a huge sense of excitement when I arrive in a new country. Two days ago I landed in Yangon in Myanmar (formerly Burma) in darkness at 5.30am. I jumped in a taxi to my hotel. It was a Sunday and so it was not too busy, I sat and watched the city come to life as the orange ball of the sun rose above the horizon. People were already in church singing, the birds were chirping in the trees and I felt a sense of both calm and excitement for the next adventure that awaits. That feeling never leaves me and I hope it never does.

Travel opens your eyes in so many ways and also makes you appreciate your life. When was the last time you got up early to watch the sun rise? I don’t mean you saw it rise as you were busy doing other things, but you simply sat and watched dawn and the beautiful changing colours in the sky for the sake of doing so. Most trips I do involve a special sun rise viewing and this morning I woke at 5.30am to take a taxi to a viewing point. Watching the sun and appreciating an event that takes place daily that one usually takes for granted allows for reflection.

Sunrise in Bagan, Myanmar, December 2017

I also love to read books associated with the place I am visiting. To this end I’m reading Burmese Days by George Orwell who spent time serving with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma in the 1920s. It helps me to get a better sense of a place and its history and brings the book to life. In Patagonia I read In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin, in Botswana When Rain Clouds Gather by Bessie Head, in Cambodia First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, by Lung Ung, rafting down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon Down The Great Unknown by Edward Dolnick, and in India The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga and Passage to India by EM Forster.

I’ve done a great deal of solo travel and it teaches you a great deal of independence, self-reliance, flexibility, quick thinking and patience. Flights and buses get delayed and even worse cancelled. Once on a night bus in Peru, it didn’t stop to drop me off at my desired destination (I was asleep) and I was then left at 4am a couple of hours away from where I needed to be. I had to get there as I had a flight in a small plane booked to view the Nazca Lines. I got a taxi that took me to a bus station where I pushed my rudimentary Spanish to the limits by trying to explain that I caught a bus the night before and it didn’t drop me off and the bus company needed to get me to where I should have been. A lack of assistance by the man at the counter resulted in me repeating my little speech several times, each time in a slightly louder voice. Eventually we sorted it out and he got me on a bus to make my flight. However it wasn’t until I was speaking with some other travellers in a bar a couple of nights later did I realise the error of my ways. The verb ‘coger’ meaning to take, as in to take a bus, also means to f&£k in Latin America. So I had been repeatedly saying rather loudly in the bus station “last night I f&£ked a bus…”. No wonder it elicited looks of confusion!

I’ve also learnt that you can carry what you need on your back and survive. We really do need very little possessions which does allow you to question why we (including me) feel we need such overly materialistic lives when at home. There is so much stuff we hardly use or wear and we continually add to it. I find it clears the mind to travel with few belongings, although should any of those few belongings become lost or stolen it is a challenge.

Experiencing different climates, from mountains to jungles allows me to see the different and innovative ways that people adapt to their environment. From the floating islands made out of reefs on Lake Titicaca to the houses on stilts in Cambodia to the terraced farming in Nepal. Humans truly are marvellous beings, but no more marvellous than nature’s other creatures who continually adapt too, particularly to the challenges that humans throw their way. I’ve been so lucky to see much of the world’s natural life; leopards in Namibia, elephants in Zimbabwe, bears in Yellowstone Park, whale sharks and manta rays in Western Australia which I got to swim with, condors in Patagonia, llamas and alpacas in Peru, crocodiles in Australia, and my favourite: penguins in Antarctica.

Whale sharks in Exmouth, Western Australia, May 2009

As I finish this blog I’m stood watching the sun set behind the temples having cycled around the temples all day. Taking the time, soaking in the beauty and knowing how privileged I am to be able to travel the world as freely as I do and to be able to appreciate so many breathtaking views makes me feel alive. I do recommend travel to everyone at any age, it truly does broaden your horizons in so many ways.

Sunset in Bagan, Myanmar, December 2017

Releasing the inner child (6 days to go)

“Children have neither past nor future; they enjoy the present, which very few of us do.” Jean de la Brueyere

In the middle of the extremely cold NYC winter of 2014/15 I was doing my best to keep warm and positive. I struggle with January, after the festivities and for me the usual end of year travel and adventures, the winter feels like it will never end. There’s still as many weeks to go as weeks endured and so I often try to plan exciting things for later in the year. Scrolling through Facebook I saw a sponsored advert for a summer camp for adults. My initial reaction was to discount such an event as I thought it would be a drinking and meeting up for singletons fest and that type of holiday has never appealed to me. I was never interested in a Club 18-30 type holiday in Ibiza with the usual multiple ‘s’ words: sun, sand, sangria and shenanigans and others I won’t mention. Don’t get me wrong I’m up for fun and frolics as much as the next person as some of you will testify to. Only I like the primary purpose of my trips to be different ‘s’ words like skiing, sport, swimming, sightseeing or saving the planet. The partying is then a bonus on top.

I was intrigued and investigated further. It was called Camp Bonfire and it was going to run for the first time. The philosophy of the two founders, Ben and Jacob, who met at camp when they were kids was to recreate their childhood experiences for adults. The camp is based at a boys summer camp resort in the Poconos in northern Pennsylvania with a similar distance to both NYC and Philadelphia. There was an option to get a bus from Manhattan so I signed up for camp and the bus ride.

We received more information about camp and two things resonated with me:

1. There were going to be lots of activities available over the weekend including a good mix of physical ones and artsy ones, and there was a pool and a lake. Also there would be a big bonfire, a talent show and a dance party.

2. Camp would be a chance to be unplugged as it was to be a technology free zone.

I was so exited at the prospect of going. I had watched all those US films and TV programmes when I was a kid where summer camp featured highly and it always looked such good fun, well apart from if you were the kid that was bullied I guess. From an early age I loved going away on school trips to youth hostels and didn’t succumb to any type of home sickness ever. Even at the age of 9 or so I loved adventure and going to new places, being in the outdoors and trying new things.

June eventually arrived and I made my way to the western side of Manhattan with my sleeping bag, pillow, swimming kit, fancy dress and the usual weekend getaway stuff to meet the bus. Imagine my delight when I saw the bus was a proper yellow school bus.

I’d actually ridden on yellow school buses before when I spent several months in Belize doing volunteer work in 2000. There they are old buses purchased from the USA for the public bus service that connects all the towns and villages together. I had vivid memories of riding along with the local people surrounded by live chickens and sacks of corn en route to market and bouncing up and down on the terrible springy uncomfortable seats which are exacerbated by the poor road surfaces and potholes. Anyway this bus had just the same type of seats and had the same level of uncomfortableness, but I didn’t care as I was on an American yellow school bus on my way to my first ever American summer camp.

Straightaway the people on the bus were so friendly, someone had been tasked with buying water and snacks for us and we were soon getting to know each other. After 3 hours we arrived at camp which was hidden away in a forest in the middle of nowhere to be greeted by the energetic camp counsellors. We checked in, I surrendered my purse and iPhone and was told which cabin to make my home in. I made my way to the basic wooden accommodation with bunk beds which suited me down to the ground and gradually my cabin buddies began to arrive. I truly cannot have asked for a nicer group of women, and we didn’t stop having fun or laughing until we parted on Sunday afternoon. First up was a briefing and setting out some ground rules, lighting the inaugural bonfire and then we were able to go off and do our first activity. I went off to archery not having done it for many years and managed to hit the target thankfully.

Then it was cabin Olympics. We had prep time beforehand as the first round was for us to make our grand entrance onto the playing field in our cabin groups. We’d all dressed up in sparkles and face paint and our team name was Grrrrrrrr! and we had some sort of dance that I cannot (or perhaps choose not to) recollect the details of. Other rounds of cabin Olympics included trivia, an epic rock, paper, scissors tournament and running as far as you can on one breath. In a matter of hours in this inclusive fun atmosphere where nothing mattered but being in the moment, the hustle and bustle of my daily life in New York City evaporated away.

The rest of the weekend’s activities involved swimming and canoeing in the lake, playing hide and seek in the woods, having quiet time, playing volleyball, going on the high ropes and the zip wire, making a bracelet, playing a huge game of capture the flag, watching others shine at the talent contest, wearing fancy dress to the dance party, singing and most importantly connecting with people surrounded by nature.

When I first moved to the US I wasn’t sure how I was going to react to the upbeat nature that most Americans seem to be born with which only increases exponentially when they’re in a big group. Americans this is not meant as a criticism, I love you dearly, but for me this ‘over the top cheeriness’ doesn’t sit well with my relative understated British reserve. There are things one can get appropriately excited about just not all things all of the time. I exaggerate of course, but I recall a cringeworthy moment for me at the beginning of my American adventure. I was at my work induction event in an airport hotel in Atlanta and at the end of one of the sessions we were requested to stand up in a room full of hundreds of new experienced recruits and say “We feel connected” twice. I mumbled the words whilst exchanging aghast looks of concern with the German guy next to me. What had we done? Had I inadvertently found myself on an episode of The Office USA? Anyway I think during that weekend at summer camp I understood the ‘upbeat positivity thing’, embraced it and a little part of me was changed forever. Let’s call it my American epiphany.

I came back to the office on Monday and was not able to articulate the joy I’d experienced over the weekend and what an impact it had made on me. It’s like I’d hit the reset button. Our cabin had exchanged contact details and it seems we were all having the same withdrawal symptoms having journeyed back to our real lives. It had even hit me Sunday evening when we arrived back into the concrete jungle of NYC and I wanted to ask the driver to turn around and take me back to the sacred place. Other campers started sharing ways that we could bring the Camp Bonfire experience to our daily lives, including:

  • Treating everyone equally and with respect regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, age, religion, culture, or political affiliation,
  • Taking the time to know people and I don’t mean the usual asking where they come from or what job they do, where and what they studied, but really making a genuine deep level connection. Asking questions about what their passion is can be a useful starting point. Amazingly none of my cabin knew what job I did until after the weekend, it just never came up in conversation
  • Having fun and not taking yourself so seriously all of the time
  • Taking time out to focus on yourself and to relax, preferably off the grid.

Such a short but special time and truly one of the top highlights of my time in the US. That is high praise indeed given the multitude of other experiences I was fortunate to have. I went again in 2016 and reconnected with those I’d met the year before and met a whole host of new people too. I was surprised that again it was the same magical experience. Whatever Ben and Jacob did to attract the same calibre of quality campers and make it work all over again I have no idea, but if you could bottle it up it would be priceless.

Thank you Camp Bonfire and all of the amazing staff and campers you will always be in my heart. This post doesn’t do it justice, but I’m not sure any words ever could. I’ve attached photos below, mostly courtesy of Hazel Photography and for those that want a more in depth look here is a link to a video based on my first year at camp: Camp Bonfire 2015.

Tri, tri and tri again (7 days to go)

In an earlier post on open water swimming: Open water adventures, I mentioned that despite having a traumatic swimming experience in my first ever triathlon, a sprint in 2012, that I then continued both with the open water swims and the triathlons. Well in 2013 I went full on. I will confess to having a slightly obsessive personality that combined with strong determination (my parents may have used the word ‘stubborn’ a few times in my younger years) means that if I am going to do something I’m going to really go for it and endeavour to do it well.

I started off in May 2013 with another sprint and had been doing a lot of fitness training so it went well and I felt ready to go to the next level, Olympic distance. This is the standard distance and usually the one used in major international competitions, it consists of a 1500m swim, a 40km cycle and a 10km run. I chose a reasonably easy course at Eton Dorney, the lake that was used for rowing and kayak events in the 2012 Olympics. The swim was in the lake, the cycle was two or so laps round the lake and the run was two laps of up and down one side. It was an unbearably hot day in July though, hitting 30C+! All good though and no issues. Sub 3 hours which I was pleased with.

I followed it up with another Olympic distance triathlon in Sutton Park in Birmingham which was pretty hilly. The bike course was on the paths around the park and they were in really bad condition so I really had to focus to not hit the potholes which can easily damage a carbon road bike. It was still sub 3 hours, but quite painful for me as the week before I’d participated in the inaugural Race to the Stones, an ultra endurance event where I walked (with intermittent running) 100km continuously in less than 20 hours. It started near Oxford and followed the ancient chalk ridgeway to the stone circle at Avebury so it was hard on the feet. That day was unusually hot again (still 29C at 7pm, this is hot for us Brits), and my feet suffered terribly.

I had blisters underfoot, under my toenails and on my heels. By the end of the summer of 2013 I had lost 4 toenails! I really do suffer from blisters badly, combination of very sensitive skin, a tendency to suffer from inflammation and a propensity to overheat and sweat a lot. I’ve tried all sorts of remedies, sought help with insoles, getting the right footwear and taken preventative taping measures. I think however if you subject your feet to walking 62.5 miles continuously on a hard surface in hot weather, then you’d be lucky to escape with no effect on your feet, however I do think I suffer more than most. I just suck it up and get on with it!

So back to triathlons. My next event was the London Triathlon Olympic event and I hadn’t been feeling well with an upset stomach (possibly I was overdoing it?) and almost didn’t turn up. I had the bad memories of the previous year’s sprint event in my mind as I entered the water. However my persistence with the swimming paid off and I had a great race. I finished in 2 hours 41 minutes 56 seconds which for a woman of 35 was not too shabby. Overall I finished 142 out of 811 women across all the age categories and I had the 60th fastest bike leg time! I was at peak fitness for me!

I had been building up to the big one; a middle distance triathlon. The name doesn’t make it sound as challenging as it is, it’s the distance of a half Ironman or a 70.3. It wasn’t an Ironman branded event though so I can’t legitimately use that term. So it’s a long event whichever term you use: 1.9km swim, 90km bike and 21.1km run. Or for those in the UK and US: 1.2 miles swim, 56 miles bike and 13.1 miles run. If you add the miles up you get the magic 70.3!

This event was in the Cotswolds and the swim was in a lake that was lovely and calm and that leg went like a dream for me. The 56 miles of cycling were manageable although it was a little hilly and part of me wondered if I could manage the run. Now my fitness was great, stamina good, but I had only ever ran a half marathon once before and that was 3 years prior! Since then I’d only trained up to Olympic Standard: 10km. This was twice as far. My feet were not my friend that day either as I’d recently had very expensive orthotic insoles fitted but they weren’t that well fitted (as agreed by the man who re-fitted them the following week!). After one lap of the run I had to stop and take some pain relief just so I could continue. Anyway I managed it in the end and the run (2h11m) nearly put me over my goal. I guess 2h11m is not so bad for a half marathon time, but bearing in mind this was also after a long swim and bike ride. So I finished in sub 6 hours which delighted me. Perhaps with some longer distance running training there’s hope for me yet!

The first year I moved to NYC in 2014 I did lots of running events and I did several triathlons; sprint and Olympic distance, and open water swims in New York and New Jersey including out on Long Island. They were very well arranged and I enjoyed them although my times were slower than the year before – NYC didn’t do anything for my waistline or fitness(!). The most notable difference to British events, aside from just about all competitors being American, is the obligatory singing of the Star Spangled Banner before the start of each event. I find this propensity to frequently sing the US national anthem at all types of events strange. Yes we sing God Save The Queen before international sports events and other important events, but I can’t imagine an amateur running event in a London park doing it! I ran in more than 10 races in parks in NYC parks, mainly Central Park and the anthem was sang at every one. Very patriotic.

Unfortunately over the last 3 years I’ve not done any more triathlons. I’ve kept up with the swimming, and I’ve done a lot of trekking, but not a great deal of long distance cycling and my running is well below par. I don’t want to do an event unless I know I’m ready for it. However I hear one calling my name in 2018 and I’ll be in a whole new age category! Watch this space.

I really recommend trying a triathlon at least once. The challenge of completing three different disciplines really gives a sense of accomplishment and if you’re not great at one leg, you can make up for it in the others. Or as some jokingly say “why be bad at one thing if you can be bad at three?” If you’re considering giving it a go I have five tips for your first event so it may go better than my first one:

1. Don’t go and buy lots of special kit for your first event, if you’ve an adequate roadworthy bike and helmet and sports clothes and running shoes, you’re almost there. Don’t start getting special cycle shoes or clothes etc you can make do with what you have. The only exception is a wetsuit. Most UK events that have open water swims require a wetsuit even in the middle of summer. You can hire or buy, and hiring may be better if you’re not sure if you’ll continue doing more events.

2. As for wetsuits, make sure you practice getting in and out of it before the event and more importantly actually go open water swimming in it. The swim technique is very different both because open water is not like swimming in a pool and the wetsuit changes your body position in the water and may feel it is restricting your arm movement.

3. Get to the event early so you can ‘rack’ your bike in the transition zone and organise your items well. Make sure your helmet is handy as you mustn’t take your bike off the rack until you’ve put it on your head.

4. Race against yourself, not others. This counts for all legs, but particularly the swim, stay back and have the time and space to do your swim at your own pace. It’s all too easy to start off swimming front crawl really quickly raising the heart rate too high, and then struggling to regulate your breathing. If you stay back you won’t be subject to thrashing arms and legs of your fellow swimmers.

5. Talcum powder is your friend. Place it in your cycling shoes and running shoes (these might be the same) making them easier to get on and they’ll soak up the moisture left over from your swim. I don’t wear socks but I guess you could do the same in your socks. No one wants to be towel drying in the transitions.

Go give it a try.

First Olympic tri at Eton Dorney Lake, June 2013

London Triathlon Olympic tri when I really zipped round on the bike with the 60th fastest time out of 811 women, July 2013

A photo of me running in transition at half Ironman distance triathlon, Cotswolds, August 2013. (I almost look like I know what I’m doing!)More of me cycling along the 56 mile route, Cotswolds, August 2013