Two of my favourite cycling videos. The first chases a solo rider downhill on the ride of his life, his flamboyant skills matched only by the increasingly hysterical commentary.
The second catalogues the participants in this year’s national hill climb championships, ticking off a series of skinny introverts who battle elements and inclines.
Blaise Castle estate, another great location for a multi-terrain race. I was looking forward to running in the third and last of Westbury Harriers’ Blaise Blazer 2013 races for a couple of reasons: first, my knowledge of the estate’s winding paths and trails could only be to my advantage; and second, I’d be running for Southville Running Club, who I train with on Tuesday evenings, and who would be defending the Blazer Challenge Cup they won in 2012.
Next time, I’d try not to arrive so early. It took a while to register everyone. Eventually, over 120 runners toed a wide starting line on the field looking down towards the mansion.
We charged across the grass to A hitting the path at B. I must have been about 20th at C, the foot of the first climb, and picked up a few places by H, where we switched from a well-surfaced path to a woodland trail. Matt, Mike, Mark and Tim — all Southville runners — were ahead, but not too far ahead. Climbing I, J, K, a treacherous uphill track, I passed Tim. I took the muddy descent from O to P carefully. Mike pulled away on the flat, Q, and somehow I was pulling away from Mark and staying in contact with Matt. Maybe I could have done more on the final climb to the castle, R, S, T, but maybe I didn’t know the paths quite as well as I thought.
Either way, I was glad to finish and cheer in the remaining runners.
Half an hour later we were back at the Westbury Harriers club house and half an hour after that the results had been logged and checked. Southville retained the Challenge Cup, hooray! I finished 10th, the first MV40, in a time of 24:17.
I’m not a member so I had to fork out a 50% premium to enter. For £6 I got:
- a cup of tea
- a toasted tea-cake (help yourself to butter and jam)
- a route description
- a protective cover for the route description
- a brevet card
- two cups of squash
- a chocolate flapjack
- 100km of cycling, to include 2400m of climbing and some of the finest scenery in south Wales
- another cup of tea
- a ham roll (help yourself to salad)
Oh no, not another puncture!
Happily I recovered from flu in time to line up for the start of the Wrington Woodland run. 100 or so of us queued on the footpath just outside Cleeve listening to a well rehearsed pre-race briefing: this is going to take 5 minutes so don’t stare at me, I won’t go any faster, a special announcement, Jim and Alfredo are running 10km a day every day this year so like them on Facebook and when you shower check yourself for ticks, you’re unlikely to have any and they’re unlikely to be carrying Lyme disease, which can usually be treated, but if you do and they are and you aren’t … conditions downhill are fine but uphill watch out for tree roots, loose stones etc. Honk! We were off!
The path climbed steadily up Cleeve Hill. Matt hung behind the leaders then eased away hitting a pace I couldn’t follow. Andy passed me when the path levelled off. A tall runner from Weston AC bounded downhill on elastic legs. Hey, maybe I was still the first veteran runner on the course? If I was, I wasn’t for long. I felt weary on the climb up Wrington Hill; Andrew Malloy (V40) and Adrian Noble (V50) overtook. At last the track levelled and zigzagged downhill back to Cleeve. I clattered over a narrow wooden bridge and cleared a stile and ran on wobbly legs across one last field to the finish.
Well done Matt for winning! Jim and Alfredo ran on through the finish, the route being a few metres short of 10k. Prize-giving was held in the Lord Nelson skittle alley. How we cheered!
The second race, the Burrington Blaster, found me in better form, which is just as well: the route took us from the Burrington Inn right up to the top of the Mendips in one long climb. The view at the summit was spectacular and although the urge to stop and admire it was strong I pushed on through gusting winds and boggy footing. 4th place was mine if I could negotiate the treacherous descent. I couldn’t, falling a short way from the finish when my feet slid on loose stones. Nothing damaged, but physical and mental momentum destroyed. A couple of red and white vests — Bristol and West — passed. I held on for 6th.
I fancied my chances in the third race, the Purdown Pursuit, my former training ground. When I lived in Cobourg Road, on Sunday mornings I’d head out along Boiling Wells Lane and past the telecoms tower, attacking a selection of Purdown’s short sharp hills before passing the UWE campus to head under the M32 and back through Frenchay and Snuff Mills. How could they fit 10k into Purdown, I wondered? The answer turned out to be a double loop; the first short circuit had me wondering how I’d hang on for the second longer loop, this one covering the full length of the down, Stoke Lane to Muller Road and back again. Hold on I did, passing a pony-tailed Nailsea runner who took a wrong turn through the woods, and losing a place to Andrew Malloy (again!) on the final downhill swoop. I collapsed at the line.
Something different! Race four, closing the series, the Dundry Thunder run, started at the top of the hill. A prolonged spell of hot weather had broken into storms during the week and I wondered if the thunder would be more literal than alliterative, but the evening turned out just fine, clear, not too hot, as we gathered on the downs at foot of the radio masts. You could see all of Bristol, city and suburbs, the Clifton bridge, and beyond to the Severn estuary spanned by another suspension bridge and the angular second crossing. I warmed up, running the wrong way along the finishing straight, skipping over thistles and cowpats. The start was delayed whilst a local resident trimmed his hedge, destroying some route markings in the process.
The race was a double loop: starting with a jostling descent down Littleton Lane towards Winford. Determined to hold something back for the second loop, I watched the leaders stride away from me. Behind a hedge, the sound of gunshots. We turned off the lane and looped back through fields up the hill to Dundry, negotiating uneven ground, gates and stiles. Skittish cattle stampeded across the course. I pulled back a couple of places on the climb and sped up when we reached the level section along Crabtree Lane, vaulting a gate at the same time as a Weston AC runner tried to open it. We waded through a field of oilseed rape, the heavy pods slapping our legs, then past another radio mast. The second extended downhill cut a diagonal through a barley field. More gates, stiles, streams. Now we were back on Littleton Lane for a final drag uphill to the finish. I was tired but the runners around me were too, maybe more so. The tall runner from Weston AC was walking. I went past. Further on, I passed Matt. Briefly I nosed ahead of Andrew Malloy but that spurred him to up his pace and pull away again. One last momentum-sapping stop-start through a gate and I could see the line. Was Matt on my heels or 50m away? Now would not be a good time to look back. I blundered through thistles and cowpats and crossed the line exhausted but in control. The 5th place I thought I’d got turned out to be 4th. Result!
Summary: in the WW, BB, PP and DT races I came 9th 6th 5th 4th with times of 39:45, 37:11, 42:52 and 42:32.
Many thanks to the TACH team for organising such a great series of races with good humour and efficiency. I’m looking forward to next year already. Four pubs did well to serve drinks to all those thirsty runners but I guess they did well out of it too. Thanks to Matt for transporting the Swansea Harriers team. Thanks also to Rachel Foyle and Emma Postlethwaite for allowing me to use their fine photos here.
When I heard Matt Burns would represent Southville Running Club on the Drovers Arms leg of the Welsh Castles Relay, the race’s queen stage, I had to ask Gary, the Swansea Harriers team manager, if I could run it too. He warned me:
Stage 14 is a nightmare, the road zigzags up the mountain, not for the fainthearted!!
Zigzags and mountains don’t scare me. What does scare me is bright sunshine and that’s what we had on Sunday. I slathered on sunscreen and lurked in the shadows in sunglasses waiting for the stage to start.
Confusion at the briefing. An illegal rave at the top of the mountain: police had closed the road. We’ll finish the stage a mile early, the race official said. We’ll see what we can do. We’ll try and get you through.
Earlier, there’d been talk of a vintage car rally coming down the mountain at the same time as we we ran up it. No rally, apparently; instead, a rave. I guess anyone holding a 20 stage road race over a summer weekend has to think on their feet.
We were off. I settled into a steady pace. There’d be plenty of opportunity to burn energy later. The rolling route left Builth Wells on the A483 heading west, hills rising ominously to the south. Supporters offered wet sponges and water. Thanks!
At Garth we turned and ducked under the railway line and then the climb started. I was passing runners now. For the first time I could see Matt, not so far ahead of me. At the side of the road a sun-burned and dreadlocked girl huddled against the crash barrier.
Gary had warned me about the false summit. You get to the top and then you’ve another couple of miles to go. Except today we hadn’t and there, at the top of the first climb, suddenly, was the finish line. Oh.
The views were spectacular. I felt uncomfortably fresh, especially considering I’d just run the best part of nine miles the last two which had been uphill. We set off to follow the next two stages of the race. Rob had the top of his BMW down. It took a few tense minutes to negotiate the road past the Drovers, reduced to a single lane by vehicles on the verges. Team vans were trying to head in both directions as the music throbbed and pulsed and ravers staggered around in the sunshone. Down the hill the police were methodically pulling over and questioning people.
Over a period of several minutes on the run into Brecon we overtook the stage 15 runners. Mark Roberts, one of Swansea’s finest, was near the front; ahead of him some seriously good athletes from Altringham, Port Talbot, Les Croupiers, Hare and Hounds tore up the road. On the way out of Brecon we passed by stage 16, the mountain stage I’d run in filthy weather two years earlier.
Swansea Harriers were 11th overall, 2nd in the vets category just 16 minutes behind Bath. It’s the fastest time we’ve completed the route in for some years. Thanks to Rob Falconer for providing a lift, the photo, and for putting in a storming run on stage 13. Thanks again to Gary Irving: as manager of a veterans’ team I think he accepts and expects a few injuries will upset his plans, but four people pulling out in the final week, that’s tough!
About time I recorded some of my race results since the WCR, 2012.
My next race was the Gwent League opener at Newbridge Fields, Bridgend. I ran this same course the year before on a cold, blustery day, sheets of rain swirling. This time, the weather turned out unseasonably warm. I came 78th with a time of 38:22, an improvement of 26 places and 3 minutes over my previous outing.
Soon after I ran closer to home in the West Glamorgan League at Llanmadoc. Although the rain held off on the day, it hadn’t over the past weeks and the track out to the lighthouse comprised a series of ponds linked by mud. I made a mistake lining up for the start some way from the front of the field and ended up jostled and sodden by the time the race stretched out and settled in. After, I hooked up with Ifan for a warm down; we ran the full route a second time.
Blaise Castle, Bristol, for the 3rd fixture in the Gwent League. Isobel and Alex ran too. I tried to keep up with Eamon but he pulled away on the second lap. In the closing stages I looked over my shoulder to see Raul storming towards me. I had enough left, or he timed his surge for the line too late; either way I finished ahead of him, but I can’t see that happening next time we race together.
And that was it, my cross country season over. I was supposed to run the Welsh regional cross country championships but didn’t make it.
Last night I ran the first of four alliterative TACH races, the Wrington Woodland run, which I thoroughly enjoyed. The course started in Cleeve with a long but gradual climb up a woodland track. After a few dry weeks the surface was rocky and rutted. Matt (who I beat in the 5K, remember?) strode ahead a few minutes in, clocking a pace I couldn’t follow; and, as it turned out, noone else could either. As we crested the top of the climb Andy overtook me. On the descent to Wrington another runner bounded past. I wasn’t feeling too fresh by Bullnose Lane, the second uphill section, and settled on trying to hold my place rather than catch anyone. Even that proved optimistic and a couple of runners pegged me back before the final descent back to Cleeve.
I was pleased with 9th place. Congratulations to Matt on his well deserved win! A diet of interval training and competitive racing have honed his form and after a series of top ten placings in recent events it came down to when not if.
Last year I ran a mountain stage through heavy rain and into the wind. This year I ran a flat stage, well, flat for Wales, and — despite news reports of flooding and dams bursting — the weather was just fine: overcast, a light wind, not too hot. We gathered in Navigation Park, Abercynon, just off the A470. For “park” read “industrial estate”. After waiting a few minutes after the scheduled start time of 14:25 for the Turner Broadcasting runner to (not) appear, we were off.
The route climbed over the A470 and curved around to point south. After the usual initial shakeout the race settled down and I could see 7 runners ahead of me; within distance, but ahead. After a brief diversion through the Rhydfelin Housing estate we hit the Taff Trail. I’d been here before, on a bike. It’s a disused railway line, straight, level and shaded by trees. Cow parsley and nettles towered in the muddy verges. Insects hovered in the humid air. I was running alongside a Sarn Helen runner and could see two runners ahead. Then one pulled up. Over the course of a couple of steady miles we hauled in and passed the other. I looked back — mistake — and saw a Vale Royal AC runner approaching fast.
Leaving the Taff Trail we doubled back on to the Old Nantgarw road, a country lane heading sharply upwards. Ifan had warned me about this and now the marshalls at the bottom of the climb warned me again. About a mile uphill, it does get easier, look out for cars.
This was my chance. I’d lost sight of the runner ahead of me but I used the slope to push ahead of Sarn Helen and Vale Royal. Dig in, don’t look back. Hills suit my legs. A couple of off-road motorbikes bowled down the hill. More marshalls stood at the turn on to Groeswen Road. I’d drunk enough water but grabbed a sponge and wrung it over my head.
The climb sets the stage finish up, that’s how Ifan had described it, and he should know: he won this stage last year. It’s all downhill, lots of turns, all the way to Caerphilly. As the road swerved and tilted I saw the castle, a crumbled pile of stones, far away, further than I’d hoped. Now I looked back — no sign of anyone. I lengthened my stride, letting gravity swing my tired legs.
Swansea Harriers were marshalling the finish of the stage so I got some welcome support on the run in. You’re going well, said Gary. How far now? I asked Kevin. About a mile.
A mile! As good as a miss. Vale Royal had me in sight, blue and yellow squares. Luckily it was a short mile. I turned a corner and suddenly there were flags and people. Is that the finish? I sprinted for the line. My time was 01:12:08, 4:09 behind the stage winner. 12 seconds later Vale Royal appeared and another 27 seconds behind him, Sarn Helen. I came 5th, the first runner from a veterans team, but the runners ahead of me were veterans running in the open category. Anyone over 35 counts as a veteran, which makes no sense in endurance events: Haile Gebrselassie knocked 27 seconds off his own world marathon record at the age of 35.
I didn’t hang around in Caerphilly. I wanted to catch the finish of the next stage — leg 20, the final stage — which was scheduled to arrive in Cardiff at 16:00. The car was where Ifan had said it would be. I put my foot down. Djokovic and Nadal slugged it out on the radio. But a car is no match for a runner approachng the capital and by the time I’d negotiated roundabouts, traffic lights and ticket machines the race was done.
Studying the results later I discovered the first two home were separated by 14 seconds and 30 years! With Paul Hammond’s permission, here’s the culmination of 20+ hours of racing over 20 stages and two days. Andrew Greenleaf pips the veteran — who, at twice the younger runner’s age, truly is a veteran — Andrew Greenleaf in black pips Martin Rees in white to the line.
The castles relay offers lots of prizes in lots of categories. The grounds of Cardiff castle are a fine venue for an extended awards ceremony. I drank sweet tea from a thermos flask and munched garibaldis and shook my legs to stop them seizing up. My team, Swansea Harriers veterans, came second in their category, some way behind the Les Croupiers vets. We were monarchs of the mountains, collected first veterans team in a couple of mountain stages, and Matthew Gurmin won stage 17.
My thanks to Paul Hammond for allowing me to reproduce here some of his superb photos of the event. The versions here are low resolution copies. The originals are on Paul Hammond’s Flickr site. I also want to thank Gary Irving for his immense effort getting the team organised.
About time I posted these old race reports …
Welsh Inter-Regional & Masters Championships, Builth Wells, December 10th 2011
I did say, at the Fairwood race, I was invited to represent West Wales in the inter-regional championships? Well, the day had come, a chill December morning. White frost coated the meadow at Parkmill.
Ifan took the scenic route through Llandeilo and LLandovery … I sank back into the passenger seat and watched the hills roll by. We parked outside the showground and crunched across ice and gravel to the race HQ where the tarpaulin they’d laid down on the floor was already rucked and muddy. Red and white tapes zig-zagged up the hill, marking out the course.
I collected my West Wales vest. When you get a heavy course, like today, one which includes sections of concrete and tarmac, Ifan said, use longer spikes here and shorter ones here, under the ball of the foot.
With just over an hour to go we jogged a warm-up lap, starting with an extended climb through the woods. You can push on here, he said, as we emerged from the trees and passed a static caravan, still climbing, it’s downhill for a while after this. At the summit stood an enormous speaker, part of the showground’s PA system. I could see the Builth Wells showground now — the timber-clad buildings, the neat field, the high boundary fence — like a stage in the centre of the immense ampitheatre formed by the surrounding hills.
Sunlight poked through the clouds as we lined up at the start, shivering, edgy. One short lap and two long ones. I found my place and settled in. On the first climb my way was blocked by a tall runner. I moved left to overtake. He moved left. I moved right. He moved right. I passed him by the caravan and extended my lead downhill. Briefly, our route intersected the U15 girls’ race and I was dodging elbows, legs, pony-tails. On the long flat section round the playing fields the tall runner pegged me back. I let him go.
Approaching the climb for the second time, the ground had softened. I went past a couple of runners who’d gone out too fast. I dug in as the path steepened, skeetering wide through tree roots, leaf mould and brambles to pass him. I was clear now but there were two more in front to aim at. I remembered Ifan’s advice and stumbled over the top on empty, relying on gravity to recharge my legs on the descent. I bounded down a final rocky path, arms flailing, and held on till the line.
West Glamorgan League, Margam, January 8th 2012
I arrived at Margam at eleven in time to see the race start without me. Lesson being, the West Glamorgan races are organised differently. The sight of all those humans on the move had animated the park’s deer herd. I watched them hurtle round their own short course. I ran the route anyway, slowly, and very boggy it was too. Next time.
Cardiff Cross Challenge, January 15th 2012
The McCain Cardiff cross challenge, held just north of the city centre in Blackweir Fields, is “one of the most prestigious Cross Country events in the UK”. Isobel was running. Last time she’d run, in the Gwent League, around a foul course in filthy weather, she’d failed to finish, so it was a crucial event for her. We arrived in good time and registered. She’d be wearing her Afan-Nedd-Tawe vest. I’d be running for Swansea Harriers.
Today, the going looked fine. The sun was out, the wind was down. The course was flat, dry, sheltered. Isobel had a solid run, finishing strongly.
Certainly, they’d fine-tuned the schedule, overlapping races, closing and opening routes through the parkland, somehow without any runners getting trampled, confused or impeded, and so it was that the senior men’s event, the last of the day, would be starting just an hour after Isobel had finished. With 5 minutes to go I made my way to the starting pen. Where was everyone? Suddenly the elite runners appeared, peeling off thermals, shaking long, elastic legs. We’d be running four times round. I realised I was in danger of getting lapped.
Happily I avoided any such ignominy. The course seemed tame — where were the hills, swamps, trenches, wild animals? Isobel injected some welcome variety, appearing at random positions to cheer me on, and her encouragement helped me maintain my pace and place. I did pass one runner on the final lap and pushed hard to close the gap on the next, a tall lad in a black vest, but, closing in on the finish, he kicked away.
Welsh Cross Country Championships, St Fagans, February 18th 2012
Torrential rain and wind during the morning made for very difficult conditions on an already tough course for the 108th running of the Welsh Cross Country Championships. While the junior races were run in these treacherous conditions, the rain had stopped by the time the senior athletes were on the starting line; the damage to the course, however, was already done. — Welsh Athletics race report
Hats off to Isobel for getting round this one. She lasted longer than the inflatable start and finish markers, which were swiftly deflated and packed away before the wind ripped them up. After, she went with Gail and Alex to visit the National History Museum.
The rain had indeed stopped by the time the men’s race started but the course was brutal. I slogged my way round one, two, three, four laps, and was glad when it ended. I pulled my bag from the mud and squelched back through the field to the road-side, texting Gail to collect me.
What a treat, to be back at the zoo education centre for the launch of Geraldine Taylor and Dru Marland’s new book, The Secret Blackbird — the alarming case of the missing birds! The book investigates the summer-time absence of garden birds, but before considering this central mystery Geraldine posed some other puzzles.
Why do herons fly overhead when a ground mist covers the downs?
Why do more long-tailed tits fly out of a bush than flew into it?
Why do pied wagtails run in circles round lamp posts?
I’ve never counted birds in and out of bushes but I reckon I know the answer to the second one: by the time you notice a tit fly into a bush there’s probably a few others in there already; and you watch them all fly out. Geraldine suggests the discrepancy is always one — the lone anchor bird which discreetly reconnoitres the bush before giving the others the OK to proceed. So you see, the mystery is all about point of view.
The same goes for herons. When the downs are covered in mist Geraldine looks up more. Have you noticed, she added, the way wood-pigeons dive in and out of the mist, like a dolphin? Why do they do that? Lubrication, to stop their wings creaking!
The pied wagtails in our garden do run in circles but not around things and not right now, they’re too busy feeding five hungry fledglings. I’d assumed it was a courtship display. Geraldine had no definitive answer either. By now, the audience was involved: where do swifts sleep, and what happens to swallows in winter? The swifts fly up high in the evening and wake lower down in the morning, still on the wing. The swallows conglobulate together, by flying round and round, and then all in a heap throw themselves under water, and lye in the bed of a river.
Dru read a haiku. Deborah Harvey read two poems from Communion.
The birds, it turns out, aren’t missing, they’re moulting. Low on energy after the nesting season and barely able to fly due to lack of feathers, they lie low, avoiding predators. In the summer of 2010 Geraldine watched a blackbird — the secret blackbird — go through this process, and now she retold the story, reading from her book. Dru signalled the part of the bird using a set of semaphore flags.
Some more poems, the final one acted out with a soft toy and a star.
It’s a very fine book indeed. Dru has surpassed herself with the illustrations, which mix avian character studies and cartoons.
This bird stands in judgement outside the main gallery at the Royal West of England Academy. The glass on the bar once contained bourbon whiskey — look closely and you can see an empty Wild Turkey miniature.
The turkey’s by filthy luker. He works with pigeons too …
… and monsters!
Right now filthy luker is artist in residence at the RWA. Also in residence at the RWA — just outside, on the balcony, where those tentacles were — is Damien Hirst’s outsize collection box, Charity.
What I mean to say: the RWA is Bristol’s finest exhibition space and it puts on Bristol’s finest exhibitions. The juxtaposition of classical architecture and urban art works well. Classical paintings fit in superbly too: last year’s Robert Lenkiewicz retrospective was stunning.
It costs to get in though. It cost £4 last year and now it costs £5. That’s quite a lot for a show you’re not sure you’ll like. Often the shows you’re not sure you’ll like are the ones worth seeing, and seeing again. That’s why I’m a Friend. I work around the corner and can head over whenever the computer screen makes me dizzy.
Jason Lane made the bird on the card from scrap metal. I’m not sure what type of bird it is. An archetypal mix of hornbill/stork/flamingo maybe? In the gallery behind the turkey are more birds, owls, by Ivor Abrahams, along with his interesting 2½ dimensional sculptures and some tiresome garden things.
I quite liked the show until I read what he had to say on the “interpretation panel”.
The sculptures, collages, prints and drawings of Ivor Abrahams occupy a very particular place in British 20th Century art. No other artist has attempted to do what he has done — to create an entirely new kind of polychrome sculpture which operates effectively between painting and sculpture — and achieved such a catalogue of notable successes in the process. Essentially subversive, Abrahams has also gained a reputation for a wicked wit and a generally argumentative demeanour. Nothing is sacred, particularly the established names of the past. As he has admitted: “I always enjoyed the pomposity of academic sculpture, the grandiosity and rhetoric. The edifying or inspirational nature of the art has always led me to treat it with the greatest of disrespect.” That irreverence has fuelled his career, and helped him make of the sum of destructions a newly-constructed vision of his own work.
Alongside, and by contrast, are a number of paintings and prints by David Shepherd. They aren’t to my taste but they most certainly were when I was younger (the animal ones, not the trains and planes). I can’t argue with his attitude either.
David Shepherd paints every day of his life. Now aged eighty, the famed wildlife, aviation and steam train artist describes his life as ‘a series of disasters’ — David Shepherd’s career has been shaped by serendipity. Rejected by the Slade School of Art, David planned to train as a bus driver. A chance encounter with artist Robin Goodwin resulted in a three-year apprenticeship — a first for Goodwin, who revelled in the challenge, and a life-changing opportunity for Shepherd.
Goodwin taught Shepherd commercially as well as artistically. “Throwing paint at the wall and ‘expressing yourself’ doesn’t pay the bills”, taught Robin. “Artists, like everyone else, have to work eight hours and more a day, seven days a week, to meet their responsibilities.” These words have informed Shepherd’s work, and he is now one of the UK’s most financially rewarded artists.
What a gloomy day! In need of colour I decided to revisit the wildlife photography exhibition in my lunchbreak.
I used to think there must be two wildlife photography exhibitions, they come round so frequently, but now I understand there’s only one; it’s just that it stays on display for so long. It stays popular too, with good reason. I wish they’d print larger versions of the photos though.
The photos come with the tales of their capture. Here’s how Joe Bunni snapped a polar bear:
After three days on a small boat looking for polar bears in Repulse Bay, Nunavut, Canada, Joe got lucky. ‘We cruised at a distance, so we didn’t disturb the bear. Once we were sure it was relaxed with our presence, I slipped quietly into the water with just a mask and fins, attached to the boat by a rope.’ The polar bear now started to swim towards the boat. It didn’t appear to notice Joe, and for 20 minutes he was able to take photographs from the water. But then the bear caught sight of its own reflection in the dome port and swam up to Joe. ‘It’s amazing when a huge, powerful animal comes beside you.’ It came so close that its nose touched the housing, startling it. The second after Joe took this shot, the bear reached out and touched the dome with its paw. Then it turned and swam away, leaving Joe with an unforgettable image - symbolic ‘of the power and elegance of a wonderful creature struggling to survive in a fast-changing climate’.
Unforgettable indeed! If I were Joe I’d have prioritised my own survival and admired the power and elegance at a distance.
Bristol museum’s own polar bear has disappeared, making way for a new lift which is being installed just beyond the room holding the Assyrian reliefs. The reliefs remain on display — at least, I could see them today — but they’ve been separated, strapped, and mounted on shock absorbers to reduce the risk of damage from vibrations whilst the lift works go on.
The assembly of ancient stones and modern fixings looked like a conceptual artwork. I tried to imagine the history of the reliefs, how they’d been quarried, manoeuvred, carved, lifted, shipped — how 8 tons of granite had ended up here in Clifton.
Sunday 4th December was the 3rd of 5 league cross county fixtures at home in Singleton Park where all the ideal cross country ingredients were available, rain, hail, long steep hills and thick muddy bogs, very many congratulations to everyone who competed on one of the toughest cross country courses around. — http://www.swanseaharriers.co.uk
Not many Swansea Harriers had turned out for the previous Gwent League event, held a month ago in Bath, and team manager Kevin Corcoran expected a good showing for today’s event — a home fixtur in Singleton Park. The going will be heavy, his email said, bring spikes!
Certainly we’d help boost the numbers. Alex would be racing his first race for the club, the novice boys at 12:06, to be followed immediately by Isobel in the U13 girls at 12:15. The Senior men’s race — me! — wouldn’t start until 14:50. Because of the time gaps and the wintry weather Gail decided to drive the kids, getting there in time to register and then head back with them as soon as they’d run. I’d travel independently by bike: a good way to warm up and cool down, I reckoned.
Rain spat as I started my journey. A fresh wind pushed clouds across the sky. Half an hour later I pedalled through the crowded car park at Bishop Gore school, locked my bike to the railings, then made my way to the club tent. Take it slowly to start with, I told Alex, save something for the finish. He doesn’t have running spikes and I had suggested he wore his rugby boots, but he wanted to wear his trainers. He doesn’t have a club vest either and was wearing a thermal top. There he stood, black top, black shorts, anxious, ready to go.
The route starts with a climb then loops around the park back to the start and climbs again to the finish. He was going well. Dan turned up with Fynn, Cai and Schnorbie. We cheered, Alex responded, passing four people at speed on the final muddy climb. Rain slashed down in a sudden squall. He crossed the line, exhausted, breathless, on the verge of tears. I wanted to get to him and get him warm and dry but he had to follow the finish-line protocol: waiting in line to collect his token, waiting again to hand it over to the team manager.
We bundled Alex into the tent and pulled dry clothes over the top of his wet muddy kit. It had been a tough race for him. Isobel’s race had already started — two laps for her. She was in trouble on the first climb, looking to us, shaking her head. She’s pulled out, Gail said. What? Never! Isobel’s already an experienced runner: she knows how to pace herself. But it was true, she was walking back, in tears.
I couldn’t breathe, she said. You’re not cross with me?
Of course not. I hugged her.
We made our way back to the car. I reassured Isobel. It happened. Now you know, and you’ll know what to do next time. It won’t happen again.
We don’t make her go to harriers, it’s her choice — what she wants to do — but the club insists its members compete. It’s not about keeping fit. One of the novice girls had lost a shoe, it stuck in the mud at the start, and she’d run up the hill wearing one shoe and carrying the other, had her footwear refitted, and gone on to finish, gaining points for her team.
My family had gone now. Two and a half hours until my race. I was wearing several layers of clothing and all of them were damp. The rain had stopped but the wind was tugging more clouds our way. My fingers and toes were cold. I walked the route. Downhill, the ground was waterlogged. The map showed the route fording something described as a spring, and what I’d pictured as clear running water turned out to be a trench overflowing with viscous mud.
I stopped to talk with a couple of marshals who stood dressed like fishermen in the middle of the park. They explained the route to me in some detail. There’d been a fault with the original version of the map, the one I’d seen online. It said the senior men would run three medium loops and one full one but we’d actually be running one medium loop and three full ones. The course could have been simplified, they thought, joining points together and eliminating whole sections. They could have overlapped events and had more than one group out at once. The U15 girls race had started now, and the marshals trudged into position.
Back at the start line I queued for a cup of tea from the Licensed to Grill van. It wasn’t hot enough or strong enough but it warmed my fingers. I ate a banana and one of the welsh cakes I’d packed. A mobile shoe shop had set itself up near the start line. My feet are short and wide. They had a good selection of of cross country spikes and the Adidas ones fitted perfectly.
I ran a short warm up with a couple of others then got changed. I wondered if Ifan was coming? At last the race started. I ran eagerly along the top section then let gravity lengthen my stride downhill. Oh, there he was, just in front. I checked myself slightly. Plenty of time to accelerate later.
Spikes feel different to the trail shoes I’m used to: lighter, less stable. Faster? Maybe.
Try and find firmer ground. Take muddy corners wide. Run closer to foliage — being shorter, I can duck under the tagged branches. Up and downhill I do better. I could improve on the flat and through mud.
Chris Fulcher came past at speed on the final lap but I couldn’t follow him. I was locked into my pace and my group and there I stayed.
I went to congratulate Ifan who’d finished 22nd. I was happy with 45th. They were filming him for some Vets 24/7 program which BBC Wales will screen next year. I did hear them ask, if he was a veteran runner and a veteranarian, did that make him a vet vet?
I returned to the tent and ate another welsh cake pulling layers of clothing back on. My lined cycling gloves are a real struggle to put on when damp. Rain hammered down. Cars queued to leave Bishop Gore car park. One which had parked on the field spun its wheels in the mud.
In 2008 Greater Bristol was chosen as England’s first Cycling City and received £11m from the Department for Transport to transform cycling.
This helped bring about a strong cycling renaissance in the city. New dedicated on-road cycle lanes, new traffic-free routes, 3400 new cycle parking spaces, as well as cycling training and lots of other ‘softer measures’ projects encouraged thousands of people to saddle up.
Yeah, and I got a mug out of it, too.
This morning, though, I cycled from Screwfix in Bedminster to my office in Clifton. How pleasant to cycle through the middle of Queen Square on a track which, less than 20 years ago, was a dual carriageway. And how enjoyable to continue on across Broad Quay and the centre, which used to be one great roundabout. Pedestrians and cyclists get the best routes and the best views and that’s how it should be.
The bicycle parking area where I work is secure, free (in marked contrast to the car parking spaces), and recently doubled in size. It fills up, every day, even now winter has set in.
I agree: there has been a cycling renaissance but I think it’s down to a number of factors. Primarily, it’s lower incomes and the rising price of motoring which is getting people on their bikes. A secondary effect adds momentum: the more cyclists there are, the more people accept cycling, and the more cyclists there will be. The fantastic success of British cycling may have something to do with it, judging by the number of swish road bikes which spin round the Downs every evening. The government cycle to work scheme is a fine deal, though I suspect the main beneficiaries are people like me who’ve always cycled to work. And technological improvements, like electrically assisted bikes — I see plenty of cyclists who wouldn’t be cycling without these.
Cycling city? £11m! Transformation!?
It annoys me that “special” funding should be needed to provide for cyclists. Cycle parking spaces should be built anyway. Any transport planning should naturally prioritise pedestrians and cyclists. I don’t think £11m paid for the reworking of Queen Square and Broad Quay, yet these schemes have benefited cyclists far more than a new bike route from the Farm pub to B&Q. I would like bike theft to be eliminated. I would like to see car-free approaches to secondary schools in the mornings and afternoons. Get kids used to commuting on foot and by bike and they’ll continue as adults.
The Cycling City money wasn’t wasted but I’d say the initiative contributed little to the increase in cycling and it’s foolish to claim or think otherwise. Yes, there are more cyclists on the roads but there need to be far, far more. How can we maintain the momentum? The little things help, let’s keep doing them, but really it’s down to government policy, personal responsibility and intelligent transport planning.
I turned up early enough to register Isobel too — she’d compete in the first event of the day, the U13 girls, and I’d run the final event, the senior mens — and collected race number 6, not to be confused with 9. We were at the Swansea University playing fields, Fairwood, for the second race in the West Glamorgan cross country league, incorporating the West Wales championships.
It was sunny and fresh. Recent rainfall had soaked the ground. Perfect cross country conditions. Gail, Alex and my parents arrived in time to see Isobel start, but only just: they’d been watching Alex play rugby at Penclawdd, where the referee had extended the game because the home team were about to score a try.
The girls were strung along the far side of the field, the front runners striding out. Pembrokeshire Harriers had the first two places. We intercepted the route to cheer Isobel along the first and second fields — the up and down bit of the course — then climbed the bank to the finish line, by the observatory. She did well.
An hour to go before the men’s race. My family found a place to sit and Gail sorted them out with hot drinks and snacks. I got myself ready. I knew a few people from the Saturday morning runs: Ifan, the animal beast monster; Ross, the race-winning triathlete, who’d competed in another event yesterday and been training on the bike this morning; Raul, who couldn’t believe I wouldn’t be doing the Gower coastal half marathon next weekend; and Simon who asked if I was running, and then said, shame, he wouldn’t win. I laced my shoes tightly and double-knotted them: at Bridgend I’d almost left one stuck in the mud. I recognised a few more athletes from Bridgend and Brecon. Many have the look — skinny, long-limbed, elastic — but by no means all, and, even at the age of 47, I’m far from being the oldest: these guys never give up.
The tail-enders in the women’s race were finishing. Not long now. I jogged across the pitch and back, keeping warm. Go!
Some people complain about running laps rather than a single extended circuit, but, as someone new to the course, it suits me. I gave it more than at Bridgend, striding out on the downhills, digging in on the climbs. Ross came alongside me on the second lap. He runs so smoothly. Go on, Thomas! That was Gail. Mrs Smith, Isobel’s ironman science teacher, had finished the women’s race in time to take up a position on the second field and encourage everyone. Appreciated.
I picked up my pace on the final lap. Amazingly, Ross fell back. I’d dropped him. One last push to the finish.
Dr Hedydd Davies handed me a letter as I crossed the line: an invitation to run for West Wales in the inter-regional championships in Builth Wells!
I’m accepting, of course, but have two questions: what size vest? and should I get spikes?
My thanks to Chris Fulcher for allowing me to use his wonderful photos. More of his photos of the event can be found here.