Family Holidays – Part 1 – No Longer An Endurance Event

This blog is two weeks (and a day) late…I know…I’m sorry. And I say I want to be a writer!

I have mentioned before that I am a lifelong procrastinator, and I will write an article about my woes in that department, one day…

Spoiler alert: I love my family. I fully admit how lucky I am to have them (for the most part).

That said, this huge chunk of unbroken time together each summer (AKA the family holiday), used to be far more akin to an endurance event than what I grew up thinking of as a holiday.

In the early days of family life, although I never dreaded the run up to a holiday – of course, it was an escape from work at least – by the end of each trip I felt like I needed another break just to recover!

Making the switch from the facade of “mature professional” to the equally foreign “family man” used to be exhausting and frustrating. I would struggle to change gears i.e. switching from discussing the Big Bang and the fate of the universe, to Big Bird and the fate of Elmo. Quite a change of pace – a bit like mental interval training!

Well, I don’t feel that way anymore, for a number of reasons…

the kids are older

I am not what you would call, “child friendly”. The little gits seem to sense this and gravitate towards me. “What? I don’t know what you want? Get your mum to translate for you…” (actual transcript of a conversation between one year old Ralph and me).

I wholeheartedly admit to keeping them at arm’s length for the most part, but now they can tell me what they want/need, I don’t mind as much. It’s far less scary and stressful – I would say even exciting? So maybe it’s not children…maybe it’s just babies/toddlers?

Anyway, I’ve gotten much better at recognising that anxious look that Robyn gets, or the dance that Ralph does, when they need the toilet. I routinely ask them before we go anywhere, to use the loo to avoid accidents, embarrassment, or the worst: having to leave the front of the queue for a theme park ride you have waited for an hour to get on.

they are so much more interesting

Babies are cute…I suppose…on a YouTube clip, when they’re not crying…but my God they are dull. Puppies win in my opinion.

Those baby years are long gone, and for quite some time now, my 6 year old Ralph, has been a practical-joke-playing, outdoor-activity-loving, Nerf gun assassin….basically the son I’ve always wanted.

And recently, on a two hour car journey with my 9 year old daughter Robyn – which I thought would be silent except for the sound of her Kindle Fire – she asked, “So dad, once humans are extinct, what’s next? What comes after us?” Mind. Blown. And a can of worms opened!

Now, there are some cons to this. I do have to remind myself “no head shots” during Nerf wars with Ralph, and I may have to explain to Laura where Robyn’s recent nightmares about Artificial Intelligence and aliens have come from – but I know which stage of parenting I’ve enjoyed most so far!

I AM READY TO ADULT

Robyn beat me to this…I am now playing catch-up. As long as I stay ahead of Ralph, it’s fine.

The point is, that despite being 21 in my head, and admittedly an immature parent, if my body were a breakfast cereal, it would be Rice Crispies i.e. it snaps, crackles and pops with every move. This is not the only signal that I’m getting older, but it’s the hardest to deny. That daily, dad-strength, physical reminder, is the slap my adolescent brain needs.

Perhaps the mindset I’m developing through endurance training is transferable – and I am learning to just embrace the pain? Being able to tolerate lactic acid seems to have increased my ability to handle responsibility and self-sacrifice. Better late than never-never.

the short window

I listen to a lot of podcasts, one of my favourites being hosted by the awesome Tim Ferriss.

Two topics he has discussed which really resonated with me were:

Developing the ability to distinguish between “opportunities to be seized” versus “temptations to be resisted”. I feel I’m getting better at this, and seeing these holidays as opportunities to be seized, whilst resisting the various temptations that get in the way of being a good parent, has made me far happier.

Career progression, material gain and winning the Joneses Olympics might appeal on a primitive level, but I can jump on those treadmills at any age. Whereas, whilst I understand that I’ll always be a parent, they need me most right now…and not for much longer.

Bringing me to the second related topic. Ferriss talks about an article written by Tim Urban entitled The Tail End. To simplify and focus on the part most relevant to me: by the time our children finish their Sixth Form education and are off to university, they will have spent up to 80% of their in-person time with us, their parents.

I’m halfway through the majority of my time with Robyn, and I’ve got only slightly more time with Ralph. Their childhood is therefore most definitely an opportunity to be seized and other than the temptations I’ve already listed, I need to resist believing the lie that they will always be here at home, wanting my time and attention.

Do we have your attention?

My Oxbridge place and Olympic medal windows closed long before I even realised they were an option, but I think I’ve woken up soon enough to make a go of this parenting lark. Hence, my training takes place early in the morning while they are still asleep. I do what I can with them in the evenings and at the weekend. And holidays these days…I do my utmost to make them enjoyable, and not just endurable.

the end

But after procrastinating on writing for so long, I’m on a roll now, so I’ve written about some of this summer’s highlights (so far).

CAMPING – MALDON

I absolutely love camping. I would even go as far as to say that I love camping as much as I love running. I am incredibly grateful that, although my wife isn’t quite as enthusiastic about it, she will accompany me with the children – without complaint. She even plans a lot of our camping trips, packs the car, books it all up, etc. Last summer we camped all the way through Germany and Austria to Lake Garda in Italy. How lucky am I?

Lake Garda mornings, run then swim, beautiful!

I know that camping is like Marmite for most people, but for me it is the “system restore” my mind and body needs, at least 3 or 4 times a year. No TV, laptop or email. My phone goes on flight mode: it’s now for photos only, and any tip-of-the-tongue answers cannot be Googled – I’ll just have to think that little bit longer. I occasionally give in to this temptation, and Googling will be followed by the premature posting of holiday pictures, increasing the likelihood of us returning to a burgled home. More on this later.

Tense situation – it didn’t end well for the 6 man tent!

Earlier this year we lost our 6 man tent due to camping in Maldon during THE most versatile day (in terms of weather) that I have ever experienced during my nearly 39 years on the planet. The poor tent did OK with the bright sunshine, showers, heavy rain, wind, sleet, hail and snow – all in the same 6 hour interval – it was the thunderstorm and mini-hurricane overnight that finished her off. We woke up in a sort of, fibre glass birds nest, leaving us no option but to dispose of the wreckage – once we had wormed our way out.

But did I stress out? No. I can’t control the weather. The previous weekend had been the hottest of the year so far, so this freak climate change reminder was out of my hands.

It was disappointing that our tent didn’t last as long as our previous one – two seasons is not great value for money – but I had seen it coming. In my haste to up-size, I had bought an inferior brand (Skandika) and over the past two seasons I had paid the price, deservedly, with ripped zips and cracking fibre glass rods, etc. I have vowed to buy the Vango equivalent next season.

Sitting down prematurely – gazebo wasn’t up yet!

So for this summer we are down to a 4-man pop-up tent which is a joy to erect (oo er missus), and goes down just as easily (enough said). OK, it is smaller, but the speedy set up means drinking can commence that much sooner (another highlight of camping).

So we are camping, yet again in Maldon, on the hottest day of the year. Before you wince – let me correct the image in your mind’s eye. I’m not sweating in a hot tent, covered in insects. I’m sat outside, in the shade of a gazebo, my feet in a ice cold paddling pool and a beer-filled cool box at my side. There’s even a bit of a breeze coming off the estuary. The kids – sufficiently slathered with sunscreen – are running around like lunatics with water guns – in sight, but mostly out of earshot – everyone’s a winner! What more convincing do you need that camping is fun!

Water fight!

Once it cools down, and after my siesta, I play football, cricket and willingly become a target for those bearing water guns. I make repeated attempts to make Robyn laugh throughout, but she’s practising being a teenager, so whereas poo, bum and willy are enough to have Ralph (and his dad) in fits of laughter, Robyn’s giggles are harder won.

The evening is spent in conversation with some lovely people, eating barbecued meat and drinking red wine – campers and glampers all getting along – and the kids are off being kids, with the minimal need for conflict resolution and reminding of manners.

Then out of nowhere, a storm hits, and everyone scurries back to their own abode – in our case, minus the gazebo, which like our last tent, has not managed to weather the storm.

Does anyone else see a giraffe bowing, Lion King-style? Gazebo or gazelle?

outdoor activities day – GRANGEWATERs

I am not the biggest fan of theme parks. I enjoy the rides, but waiting in queue after queue – which is inevitably in the pouring rain or sweltering heat – is not my idea of a great day out.

And the fact that my two children are still too vertically challenged to be allowed on most rides means that theme parks are probably something we will enjoy more at a later date (especially if I’m loaded enough to fork out for fast passes).

Anyway, what I’m saying is that there are far more appealing alternatives, one of which being outdoor activity days.

So we spent the day rock climbing, on “the leap of faith” (or as Ralph likes to call it, “the leap of death”, which does nothing to relax those participating or watching), paddle boarding, kayaking, sailing, doing archery and being pulled in a dingy by a speed boat!

Robyn took to paddle boarding like a pro, and made up for her reluctance to climb. Ralph was fearless throughout, scaling walls, leaping from a narrow pole to grab to trapeze a good 10 meters off the ground, shooting arrows with Hawkeye-like precision.

Ralph Hood – brother of Robyn.

It was as awesome a day as it sounds, and hardly any queuing involved. The staff were so enthusiastic and friendly – it was a lovely day out. But why they haven’t got a cafe baffles me?!? Four out of five stars! A coffee and muffin away from five stars!

CARAVAN – CAMBER SANDS

I have got great memories of Camber Sands, as my parents would take my brother and me to Pontins when we were kids. The betting shop has now gone (much to my dad’s dismay) and been replaced with a Pie and Mash shop (much to my brother’s delight).

Major diet deviation, but worth every calorie!!!

Here the diet goes to pot. Laura forgot my Nutribullet blender beaker, so my morning smoothie is missing…so as if in some sort of tantrum, I go full “fish and chips, ice cream, cream teas, cake” mode…undoing my efforts from earlier in the summer. No biggie right now. But grams mean seconds, kilos mean minutes…I’ll never go sub 3 until I can stay disciplined ALL SUMMER. Next summer I will have to give this a better go, as my Berlin marathon sub 3 hour attempt is at the end of September 2020 (I’ll be 40 years old).

When the tide goes out, the beach there is one of my favourite places to run. Just not with a mobile phone full of holiday photos! I did my utmost not to drop the phone as jogged along, then took it out for a selfie, sweated on it and the whole thing crashed! Deleting weeks of snaps I had yet to download onto the laptop for the family album. I had posted some on Facebook, and had some more on my SLR camera, so all was not lost.

One positive outcome from this tragedy, was my realisation of how much time I had been spending on my phone since camping! Not at the expense of the kids, but I admit I retreated into my phone as soon as Laura wanted to talk about buying a caravan, getting a new carpet, or anything remotely “adult”. I have since disabled Facebook on my phone, and after this week I’ll only be using Instagram at the weekend (lets see how long THAT lasts!!!). Laura has postponed divorced proceedings – and I have since talked her out of buying a caravan.

The kids are not so into running yet, unless it’s away from me when they (read Ralph) have done something naughty, so instead we brought some kites and a dingy.

The kites – the price of which I will not reveal, as it says more about my stupidity/guilt than it does about the only toy shop in Rye – were great fun. Other than the momentary loss of one of the fibre glass rods, and the much longer period spent untangling the kite strings.

The dingy was more of a concern. It doesn’t look it, but when they first got in the sea was quite choppy, and the current dragged them along the coast. I kept having visions of being on the news, cold, wet and shaking after having been rescued mumbling, “I thought we’d be OK, we were only close to the beach, and then…”

It did calm down eventually, but not before one wave threw Robyn out of the boat, causing her to scratch her arm on the sea bed.

I used to worry that I was not vigilant enough with the children around water, and maybe I have been lax with swimming pools, but not with the sea. Every seagull is a dorsal fin, every wave is Jaws launching his attack. Needless to say, if I ever do complete a half iron man or full, or any other kind of swimming challenge, it will be in a pool, river or lake! Kona is out!

conclusion

While the kids are in school, and they get six holidays – October, Christmas, February, Easter, May and the summer – we need to make the most of these. I don’t need a bigger house, better car, more toys, but I admit I need to make enough money and take enough time off work to enjoy these holidays.

This is our 80% time (if Tim Urban and Tim Ferris are to be believed) so I will act as if that is the case. Of course, I’m secretly hoping that this is a worst-case-scenario, and that we will have plenty of time together even after they have both flown the nest.

Summer’s Here – Goodbye Will Power?

Recovery week

I know, I know…this post is late. I normally post at 06:00 am every Monday morning, but now I am officially on holiday. That probably means that the next few posts will also be late – well, better late than never!

After last weekend’s Spitfire Scramble, it took until Wednesday to say convincingly that I felt physically fine….well, as “fine” as I had been before the Spitfire Scramble! My lower back still ached if I sat down for too long and I was in desperate need of an intense massage, stretching and spinal manipulation of my neck and back.

Instead, of those productive “post race” measures, I ate and I drank. I just couldn’t find it in me to be merry!

In the morning, instead of my usual healthy green smoothie – which was far too much effort to make – I drank what remained of my Lucozade sport and protein drinks – despite the promise to myself to reduce my sugar intake (if I remember rightly my exact words were, “I am never eating or drinking that s*** again!”). “I need to stay hydrated”, shouted the devil on one shoulder, “what’s wrong with water FFS!” whispered the angel on the other. “Electrolytes”, was the devil’s response.

If I managed to get into work on time, I ate a fried breakfast before my morning meeting.

I drank copious amounts of black coffee to stay awake and focused (read, semi-functioning) at work…and more than a few chocolate biscuits were consumed, also in the name of “productivity”.

Lunch was whatever sandwiches were left on offer, and some sugar-laden desert to follow.

In the evenings, after a carb-laden dinner, red wine was my poison of choice. Half a bottle – nothing excessive, not for a drinker – I on the other hand, not being a drinker, become a bit of a liability i.e. I get the kids too excited just as my wife has settled them for bed (did somebody say NERF WAR?!?!?), or eat anything and everything in the fridge – forgetting my usual 7 pm eating deadline. Will power? Gone. Fitness? Decreasing. Body fat? Increasing.

By Friday night I came to the conclusion that, recovery week was over and a long hard look at myself in the mirror was necessary. Thankfully, I’m part of gen X and not some melt who doesn’t believe in a bit of “tough love” as and when needed. I also have some reliable people around me to give me a slap or kick up the arse if that fails. Here’s what came out of those conversations.

reading

I normally read, or at least listen to an audiobook every day for at least 30 minutes. I couldn’t bring myself to do that after the race. Instead I put on the radio, but invariably ended up skipping from one channel to the next, never listening to a song the whole way through. There’s so much crap on there now – I can’t stand the adverts, or the DJ waffle, or “the news”. I have a shockingly limited CD collection in my car…another thing that needs remedying.

Anyway, I’m committed to making reading part of my daily routine again – especially over the summer, while I have so much time. I need something life-affirming or inspiring, so I’ve downloaded Atomic Habits by James Clear. Using one technique from this book, Implementation Intentions, my goal is as follows:

After waking up, I will read a book (or listen to an Audible audiobook) for at least 15 minutes every morning in my chair.

meditation

I know why I stopped this temporarily. I just could not focus – or I ended up nodding off! The last race took so much concentration, “one more step – you can do this – one more lap,” over and over again in my head – not to mention the sleep deprivation. I just didn’t have it in me to follow my breath for a minute or do a longer body scan – which is a great shame, as it’s exactly what I needed.

So as well as reading, meditation is going to once again be part of my morning routine. Even if (like Chade Meng Tan in Search Inside Yourself suggests) it’s just for one breath, maybe I can extend that to one minute, and build back up from there.

After I have read, I will meditate for at least one minute every morning in my chair.

writing

My journalling has been reduced to daily to-do lists and body fat percentages. Considering that these journals are meant to be left for my kids to read, I wouldn’t be surprised if they found their way into the bin shortly after my departure. There is plenty going on in my head – even if I’m emotionally flat-lining right now – and I function far better when I get most of that mess out of there and onto a page! It would be far better for me to brainstorm these weekly blog posts rather than write a stream of consciousness…but more time consuming (I felt the weight added to the task by making it too laborious).

I have ideas for two novels, whole plots, characters, titles…but I have yet to commit, even to ten minutes, of writing these stories down.

I think “writing” could be replaced with any creative endeavor, any attempt at story-telling. It’s understandable now that the band has folded, that I want to blog, vlog or write a book or two. I need that creative outlet…but maybe starting is just a bit overwhelming? I know, I know, “break it down…” but even that first word, “break” sounds like a lot of effort! To read. Really, writing, seems an insurmountable task.

Anyway, each day I am committed to writing “something”. A blog post, a scene in a novel, a song (blimey, that’s been a while). Something.

After training (triathlon in 8 weeks) and breakfast, I will write for 30 minutes in my journal or on my phone or laptop.

family photo albums

Every year I put together an album of our year, September to August. It’s a time consuming activity, but the reward is worth it. Laura loves that I do these each year. We normally have plenty of great memories to look over, and we’re onto our 11th album this year I think?

What photos do I want to take this August?

What photos do I want to see in next year’s album?

This is something I need to be working on each day – photo album 2018-2019. Taking photos of our family holidays, sorting through the masses of blurry and ugly pictures, selecting the best for the finished product. No Photoshop. No filters. Not as standard. Not to date anyway.

After the kids have gone to bed each night, I will complete one page of the photo album on my laptop.

Family photo albums – an annual summer project for me

sleep

This should probably be goal number one. I’m turning off my 4:30 am alarm. At least for a few weeks. I’m going to try to get to bed by 9 pm most nights, but that is definitely harder when there’s no work the next day – the temptation to stay up watching Netflix is much stronger without an early morning commitment.

If I want a nap in the middle of the day, I will bloody well take a nap (but not after 3 pm or that will mess up my 9 pm bed time plan). I can’t do without sleep like I used to. I don’t want to go without sleep, like I used to. I no longer see those all-nighters as heroic or worthwhile feats of endurance and will only participate in these in the rarest of circumstances i.e. seeing old friends, or suddenly being inspired to write (not just to meet a deadline).

I will go to bed at 9 pm and wake up no later than 6 am.

diet

As I’ve said on more than one occasion, my weight is not a concern. My body fat percentage and how much (little) of that weight is muscle, is something I want to monitor though. And not just monitor, I want to have some goals in this area – like being 70kg (ideal running weight for my height) and sub 15% body fat.

I no longer want to be He-Man or be considered for a role in The Expendables, but I’m not willing to submit to dad bod mode (just yet). I admittedly suffer from being skinny-fat, and my diet is one reason for this current state of affairs.

I have a sweet tooth, love carbs in all their incarnations (rice, pasta, potatoes, bread) and add to that beer, red wine or whiskey and the likelihood of me consuming even more carbs to excess is 99.9%.

I will restrict my carb/refined sugar and alcohol consumption and increase protein intake to reduce body fat percentage and maintain muscle mass. Ideally I want to be 70kg and sub 15% body fat – I’m currently 75-ish kg and 21-ish % body fat.

20th July 2019, 75.7 kg (PM weigh in), 21.9% body fat

exercise

My third and final (this year) triathlon is in just 8 weeks, and it seems a sensible goal to get closer to the 2:45 mark this time around. It’s a goal…it doesn’t get me excited or fired-up, but it does give me a reason to do some cardio every day (swim, cycle, run).

It’s a more immediate target than the Berlin marathon, which is over a year away…or my second Spitfire Challenge, which is a little less than that – but it’s a triathlon. I’m still a runner at heart.

I am more excited about improving my swimming technique, and finally committing to adding some strength training into my weekly routine. Cardio alone is not going to improve my skinny-fat situation.

I will train (swim, cycle, run, strength training) every morning after reading and meditating, and before eating breakfast.

1500 m swim, 42.4 km cycle, 10 km run – must fuel my training, and work more on technique.

play

A close second to sleep, is PLAY! Ralph has just started to learn how to play chess, Robyn is into magic tricks…these are tiny windows of time that I need to make sure I don’t miss. Ralph asked me to go Jump Giants with him yesterday, after he had been with Robyn – and I am grateful that I’m fit and well enough to do that. If I was older or in worse shape, I might not be able to. Robyn wants to go to an escape room with me, and is still hooked on Rebecca Zamolo YouTube videos. I need to put together another treasure hunt for them. While they’ll still enjoy that sort of thing. They both want to do mini-driving lessons. They will both enjoy camping over the summer.

I want to be present for these experiences with them, capture as many of them as I can without losing that presence for too long, and I want to drag myself away from whatever else I’m telling myself that I would rather be doing.

I’m sure Laura has fun things she wants to do as well, and I want to be a willing and enthusiastic party to these (Saturday’s Tribute Festival was one such example).

summer schedule

And so, despite not being at work, I clearly need a routine. I’ll need to flesh this out a bit – the devil is in the details – but so I don’t completely waste the next few weeks, this is what my days are going to look like.

  • Sleep 6-9 hours
  • Read
  • Meditate
  • Train (swim, cycle, run, strength training)
  • Write (journal, blog, novel)
  • Diet (clean, low carb. high fat/protein)
  • Play (whatever they want e.g. chess, tennis, football, Jump Giants)
  • Photo album (once they’re in bed or otherwise occupied)

summer goals

  • Refreshed and rejuvenated – not hungover, stressed, dreading the return to work
  • Wiser – doing some things differently, being more effective and efficient
  • Calmer – less type A, still motivated and goal-directed, but with less urgency
  • Triathlon-ready
  • A few chapters of my novel written
  • No more sugar binges and an added bonus would be 6 pack abs due to lower body fat %
  • Great memories of fun with Laura and the kids
  • Great photos of our year, complied in an album, delivered for our birthdays

Spitfire Scramble 2019

A Reluctant racer

To be perfectly honest, I was not looking forward to this challenge. I have been in a bit of a funk for some time and this has resulted in little enthusiasm for, or consistency with training. This could just be a bit of “sporting burnout”, or maybe it’s work, diet (poor recently), sleep, hormones? I’ve got my suspicions, and have put corrective measures in place to dig myself out and get back on track.

At my best, I run 4-5 times a week, cycle once or twice, and swim once. If I’m really on fire, there will be a body weight strength training session or two thrown in for good measure (this happens as frequently as the proverbial “blue moon”).

My training leading up to this event was sporadic and of poor quality. I lacked the mental discipline to stick to a MAF pace, as I knew there was so little time to prepare for the event. I just chose to focus on getting a few 10 km runs in wherever possible (all morning workouts are fasted – I earn my breakfast).

After the triathlon on 16th June, most of my time in the gym has been spent stretching and doing core work – but I did manage a few runs in the build up to the Spitfire Scramble.
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Open water swim with Hadleigh Plungers

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Apart from this event, having booked myself up for a triathlon on the 15th September, I have managed a 22 mile cycle into work (and done the same back) once – and I’ve been open water swimming twice since Windsor. I have completely plodded along at my own pace with these – no speed in mind – just happy to be doing something other than running.

weekend of the event – 24 hours of thinking “how does jack bauer do this?”

It’s Saturday morning and despite the lack of training in the run up, I’ve got an inkling of what could be called “excitement”. I have woken up at my usual 04:30 am, despite not needing to wake up until 07:00 am at the earliest.

I use this extra time for a last minute trip to Tesco for spare head torch batteries and food supplies. I also take advantage of a 2 for £8 book offer (Billy Connolly’s new book and something on serial killers – just mixing things up). It dawns on me that I’m probably going to look pretty unsociable reading a book during a team event with 4 other blokes, but I pack them nonetheless. There’s bound to be a quite moment, I tell myself.

Laura and the kids are just planning to drop me off with my massive cool bag and the camping beds borrowed from a friend of one of our team (weirdly, that friend lives literally just around the corner from me, same side of the same street, but 37 doors down). But then, we’re informed that there may be spaces for the kids to sign up to do a mile race! Robyn isn’t interested, but Ralph is all over it! He absolutely smashes his first race ever – and I am so proud that despite almost stopping, he didn’t even walk ONCE! He ran the whole thing, and paced himself much better than his spontaneous “Dad, I’ll race you” efforts.

27th out of the 59 children who ran! At 6 years old! He didn’t stop to walk once!!!

the course

The course is 5.75 miles of off-road trail running. There are some paved sections, and gravel paths, but you also have some woods with precarious tree roots (marked with illuminous paint) and slippery grass sections like at the 3.75 mile mark as you run past/through the campsite. The worst part of all for me – Ingrebourne Hill – a short bit of incline work right near the end of each lap. If you’re not worried about your time, then this is a great place to stop for a selfie with its amazing view of London at night.

3.75 mile mark. The first lap was SO HOT!

The TEAM

So the running order is Gary, me, Kieran, Liam and finally Noel (no, the Gallagher brothers are not running this event), kicking off with a first lap in the midday sun. The heat you feel as you pass through the open fields, is uncomfortable enough (apparently, it was 10 degrees hotter last year!) but there are also a couple of awkward low bridge gates to negotiate. You get some shade as you wind your way through the woods, but then have to stop yourself from tripping over the raised tree roots as you whizz down the steep-ish decline (all fine during the day, but during the two night laps, this is the part I’m most concerned about).

Kieran has been the driving force behind organising the event – for this I am both grateful and resentful, in varying percentages throughout the weekend. Liam has provided us with a tent – which took up all of his weight allowance on his flight in from Glasgow! Noel has a nifty little notebook, which he uses to make a note of our start/finish/lap times in…which is great, until he goes for his run…and we realise that none of us were looking at the clock (that may have happened the second time around – I’m pretty sure we were all on point during the first lap – but my mind has turned to mush).

12 hour clock, 24 hour clock, block capitals, mixed case…it’s far less consistent than our lap times!!!

We slap a high-vis wrist band onto the next runner’s wrist at each lap – easier to carry than a baton for this relay I suppose – although I still see some fails i.e. people missing the next runner’s wrist, or the next runner holding out their hand to take it instead of the “slap and roll” technique.

By lap 3 my back is in agony and my right knee injury has reappeared to haunt me. A 15 minute massage gets me back into some sort of running condition, and I manage to run laps 4 and 5 as a double lap, in the dark. Before laps 4 and 5, I drench myself in ice cold water from a 2 litre bottle, and change outfit. Cleanliness and new clothes…WHAT – A – FEELING!!!

Running at night is weird…without a swag bag, or the police giving chase…it just seems strange. Maybe it’s some prehistoric part of my brain kicking in and reminding me that unless I’m being chased, or I’m chasing potential food, I should be conserving energy in a safe little hovel somewhere? The quiet, apart from my panting and the crunch of gravel beneath my swollen feet, is definitely part of that strangeness. The world disappearing each time my head torch refocuses elsewhere must also contribute. Maybe under less sleep deprived circumstances, it would all seem far more normal.

I sleep* for a while after my double lap, and really don’t think I’m going to be able to do any more – but I can’t let everyone down, or miss out on a medically supervised chance to push my body to run 34.5 miles in a 24 hour period! (*when I say sleep, I mean “pass out”. Only regaining consciousness to 1) the realisation of how cold I am, covered in cool sweat in the sleeping bag or 2) the high pitched buzzing of a mozzy in my ear. My body is now covered in bites).

Apart from some sanity saving banter (tellytubbies, toilet lice, and suspected sex tents) as sleep deprivation takes its toll, I am cold, damp, angry and feeling very pessimistic. I have not trained enough mentally, forget physically, for this event. I am disappointed with my lack of resilience. My whinging. MAN UP!!! I take a last minute vow of positivity, and limp along for my 6th lap. I’m done, spent, finished. I’m praying that the pain will go away and that there won’t be any lasting damage.

We all end up running 6 laps each, except for Gary who heroically pulls a 7th out of the bag! LEGEND. We end up in 3rd place, winning ourselves a trophy each, on top of the medal we’ve already won.

An amazing effort, by a great group of lads – but that 3rd place is a BIG PROBLEM. Knowing that none of us had trained optimally, or dieted, or restricted our alcohol consumption in the run up…it begs that inevitable question: What if? What. If?

Like a successful bank robber…I’m out…I’ve done my last job…I’m off to live on my ill-gotten gains somewhere sunny, and drink Sangria (out of a third place trophy). But I’ve read too many of those novels, and seen too many of those films. I know that when the call comes, closer to the time, about that ONE LAST JOB…as hard as it is to imagine right now…I will find it hard to resist. I know me. I’m shaking my head at myself already.

Suggested improvements to the event:

  • Live music – the DJ was great and the music selected was enjoyable, it would just be even better if the recorded music was broken up with some live local acts. I’m sure some young bands would be willing to play without needing payment (we played T-Fest for free each year).
  • Mosquito/Gnat warnings and deterrents – it would have been useful to have had that warning in the starter pack. I go camping a lot, but there was a particularly high number of blood suckers at the campsite. Some citronella or spray on sale somewhere could be a good money earner for them.
  • Bring back the Spitfire flyover. I was informed that it is too expensive to do, which is a shame. I was looking forward to the event’s namesake flying overhead at some point.
  • No ball games after 19:00 KIDDIES!!! They were only slightly less annoying than the mosquitoes! We had all escaped our own children, only to be annoyed by someone else’s!!!

Things I would do differently:

  • Bring multiple changes of clothing, i.e. socks, pants, shorts, t-shirts, and a towel
  • Use their shower shuttle service every second lap
  • Use their massage service very third lap
  • Run multiple times a day in training (try a three 10 km run on a Saturday or Sunday)
  • Eat little and often. Protein (20-30g) straight after each lap. You want nutrient-dense food, not big, bulky, hard-to-digest, “make you feel sick while you’re running” slop.
  • Carbs two hours before your next lap. Drink some coffee for it’s laxative effects and later, skip rope for a few minutes, if you’re keen to “unload” before your next lap
  • Have a 20 minute power nap, straight after your protein and before your carbs
  • Take gels or cliff blocks on each lap
  • Bring your own food. OK as the noodles, burgers and chips were, they’re more of a spectator food – but also quite pricey
  • The Spitfire Scramble t-shirt is the only “team t-shirt” you need. Other than that, wear whatever you’re comfortable it and this again, keeps the cost down
  • NO DOUBLE LAPS!!! Not unless it’s my last two. Stopping and starting is a killer, but I’d still have recovered quicker from a 6 mile lap than a 12 mile lap!
  • Toothbrush and paste. My mouth felt disgusting my the end.

Left to right: Kieran, Liam, Noel, Deano (me) and Gary. Legends, each and every one of us!!! HA HA!!! What if…?

Knowing Thyself – Dealing With Post Race Blues

Blues, NOT “D”

Writing is hard! Keeping this up on a weekly basis is no joke. This will be brief and I will be looking at my schedule to make sure future content is of better quality!

Before I begin my weekly blog post, let me just be clear – I am not a doctor or mental health professional – I can only speak from personal experience and I am purposely using the word “blues” as opposed to the “D” word. This is not to belittle anyone else’s experience – but to put my own low mood into perspective, and in the right position on that spectrum of emotion. It’s also not “advice”, it’s just what I do, for me. You do you, is basically what I’m saying.

I have a tendency towards “Darkness”, in mood, humour, superheroes (Batman rules, sorry Iron Man), and at times this makes the “9-5, 2.4 kids, yes sir, no sir” kind of life quite challenging – but I can get myself out of bed each day (usually on time) and into work (usually on time) and I am generally sufficiently productive, despite a lifelong procrastination habit.

Coincidentally? I wear a lot of black, grey and blue (mainly because I’m colourblind and there is less chance of a colour coordination disaster), and I don’t feel compelled to wear the trendy summer colours. I do own purple suit – but I bought it believing it was navy blue ( I deserve a parking badge, this is definitely a disability). I have been told that red looks good one me, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to purchase an item of clothing in that colour – as it would probably be green or brown anyway. Also, red = anger, aggression, etc. and like Dr Banner, I try to distance myself from these. Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.

Anyway…post race blues…I suffer from this, despite kidding myself that it is NOT A THING, or that only weak people experience it. I have read plenty of “how to” articles on avoiding or overcoming this experience with actions such as “booking your next race” – which works by the way, to an extent, but most of what I’ve read seems a bit like the “hair of the dog” advice to someone with a hangover. Maybe with good reason.

THE SUDDEN VOID

Whether you have trained for 6 or 16 weeks, you have dragged yourself out of bed or to the gym after work, with your race in mind. You want your performance on the day to be your best (yet) and you want as few excuses or nagging self-critiques as possible when you cross that line. As you look over your splits, or analyse your Garmin report online, you don’t want any regrets about the training sessions (missed or half-halfheartedly completed) before race day. “I wish I would have….” or “I wish I hadn’t…”.

So far, despite my none of my performances being impressive in the big scheme of things, I’m incredibly proud and satisfied with my progress ( I was 36 when I ran my first half-marathon and full marathon, so I’ve been an endurance athlete for just 3 years). I haven’t had these negative thoughts, post-race, because I have trained as well as I could have – in spite of work, family, injury, etc.

But even without these kinds of thoughts post-event, after any effort lasting more than 2.5 hours I have too frequently found myself physically, psychologically and emotionally empty on Monday morning. Part of it must be down to the recommendation to rest and recuperate, which I’m sure my body appreciates but my mind rebels against. My mind misses the routine. It misses having a target. An objective. A follow-up mission. A reason for getting out of bed. My sporting ikigai. I think the repetition acts in a similar way to meditation, where the chaos that is my inner psyche is calmed before the day ahead.

Our mind can be our own worst enemy though. It’s not always to be trusted. So my plan of action is as follows.

3-4 Events per year

I need to rest after an event. This needs to be planned just as thoughtfully as my training.

If I wake up full of energy, I am allowed 10 minutes of cardio maximum, to flush the lactic acid and get me mobile – but that’s it. I can spend half an hour stretching – but no more.

That way I’m out of bed, maybe even at the gym before work. But my body gets the rest it needs, without breaking the mental routine.

Last year I ran 3 marathons in one year – each 4 months apart. Obviously that’s no big deal when people like David Goggins or Eddie Izzard have run that distance day after day…but anyway…3 events like that was plenty (if not slightly too much for me).

But I do love a challenge…at least the idea of one…so I followed the marathons up with my first sprint triathlon, and a week later my first Olympic distance triathlon. I and have now passed the point of “too much” and it’s not over.

Next weekend I will be running the Spitfire Scramble, as part of a five man team. It basically consists of 24 hours of running 10 km laps of a country park.

This will be followed by the Olympic distance triathlon, Season Finale on Sunday 15th September. And a few weeks later, I will complete the national 3 peaks challenge in 24 hours. That’s it then. I’m done. No more…for a bit!

I messed up this year. I have taken on too much, in an effort to avoid the void. I’ve over-committed myself. It puts unnecessary pressure on my mind and body…but what is the alternative?

Waking up with no goal? No purpose? No immediate reason to train, or to be disciplined with my sleep and diet? No reason to abstain from weekend binge drinking or binge eating? No reason to do any more than the bare minimum – which I don’t think will be sufficient any more to achieve those highs that have kept me exercising.

PROMISE TO MYSELF

In September I’ll be 39, and it is definitely time for me to be a bit more sensible about these things.

3-4 events is a maximum, and the longer those events are, the fewer I should be doing, and the more spread out they should be. Recovery is key now I’m getting older.

I have two marathons (Rome and Berlin) in mind next year, which will mean short triathlons if I do any.

I must become more fat-adapted, as I’m sure the sugar I consume during these races is another reason for the post-race hangover.

I must not be greedy. I just need enough of an objective to keep me training. I don’t need to race more than 3-4 times a year. Yes I would love the new PB, I’m not so bothered about the medal, and I do like the goodie bag at the end! But enough, is enough.

Signing up to these events feels good. But before I purchase my ticket in future, or agree in a drunken stupor to some insane challenge, I will have to pause. Stop. Wait. It’s not just about whether I can afford the event financially or whether my calendar is clear that weekend. What about the time commitment? What about the energy? What about the mental space it fills up?

Life itself (marriage, parenthood, career) is THE overarching endurance event, the one that I have to have enough in the tank to PB in each year. All else is a distraction.

This article should have been entitled “Pre Race Dread” as I’m 99% certain I will be booking another event straight after the 24 hour Spitfire Scramble this weekend! Unless saner heads prevail!

I am dreading this run. I love running. I love camping. But if I wasn’t part of a 5 man team, and it wouldn’t be letting them all down, I would definitely be pulling out of this weekend. I just don’t feel up to it psychologically. I’m sure my legs will cope and recover well enough. I just need to find that mental carrot (or stick) that will keep me going.

Next week’s post will be all about my experience of the Spitfire Scramble…and as you can see, it’s going to be a challenge for me – if not physically, then in every other way!

Late Bloomer?

Some musings on time going by…

Nine years ago today, on the 30th June, my daughter Robyn was born in Romford, Essex – just as I had been (albeit in a different hospital), almost 30 years before that. I think it’s natural to make comparisons with our same sex parent, and my dad having me at 27 was yet another sign that I was behind.

July 2010 – Petrified: “You must be kidding, but I’m just a kid myself.” How Far We’ve Come, Car Boot Tetris

Hours after her birth, and massively sleep deprived, I was at a job interview in Canterbury, Kent.

I got the job, which was a relief as my wife Laura was now going to be at home with our daughter – making me the sole breadwinner. We were DINKs no more (Double Income No Kids).

We had only got our mortgage and moved into our first home a few months before the birth, so it really did feel like a baptism by fire. Like I’d been catapulted from bouncing around from job to job, or rented room to rented room, to suddenly….”No! Grow the f*** up, you’re 30 in a couple of months, and now there’s 2 people depending on you!” It all seemed a bit too…mature.

OK, I managed to keep some semblance of youth and independence, by starting to play guitar in a band, but it definitely felt like the rest of “youth” had been ripped away – pretty viciously.

Like with these sporting events I’ve recently started to participate in – I had gone up an age group – but without seeing it coming. Our marriage, mortgage and daughter had all been planned…none of it was an accident, or unwished for…but the reality of how “adult” it all was didn’t really hit until I was in the thick of it.

My job was hard work as it was new, but it would cover the mortgage and bills so that was compensation enough – even if it meant only seeing Robyn awake at the weekend. I heard her at night, but Laura was what Robyn needed as she believed, “breast was best” (no arguments from me)!

I admit to feeling like a complete impostor at work and home – and still do to a large extent. Not because I’m trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes, or be all style without substance – it’s just that it has taken me a long time to figure ME out, let alone LIFE or anyone else. In fact a three year psychology degree was nowhere near long enough…I barely scratched the surface. What I did see on the surface, was pretty disappointing, and that was when I acknowledged one of my biggest fears.

I could ignore, and probably had ignored for the first 29 years, disappointing myself or other people I didn’t have much respect for. But here were two females, dependent on me – I had dependents – and although I might have had plenty of verbal encouragement and reassurance from them (oh OK, it was mostly Laura as Robyn had yet to learn to speak), I had a nagging feeling that THIS was the thing to avoid at all costs. Disappointing them. Being a disappointment. Less than. Not – good – enough.

I thought that by the time I had children I’d already be successful in my career, financially comfortable, have the body of a Greek God, a PhD, and have a song publishing deal and be a best-selling novelist. I thought I’d be rich, be in better control of my emotional states and feel confident about who I was and where I was going.

I had checked some other things off of my bucket list i.e. got my degree, travelled the world, lived abroad, learned to play guitar, learned to speak Spanish, written stories, screenplays and songs…but when I looked at it all, none of them had been a rip-roaring success by anyone else’s standards.

I kept telling myself, “I must just be a late bloomer, there’ll be some hidden talent inside you that will make an appearance any day now – and you’ll be saved.” Saved from mediocrity, from being average, from being a disappointment.

“Maybe I’ll win the lottery, then none of it will matter. Money will buy me love (or pay off my disappointment debt) via presents and holidays, and I’ll get a personal trainer to get me my Greek God bod…!” was a frequent fantasy on the train to West London each day. *Greek God bod syndrome comes from being given He-Man action figures most likely…SEE girls, it’s not just Barbie that’s the problem LOL! #metoo

I never had any serious thoughts of “not going home”…I might have been a bit of a loser, but not a selfish loser. I am fearful person by physiology, but I’m no coward – I don’t run to escape. I confront, I chase (mostly marathon goals these days). There were plenty of tears and tearing into punchbags when the opportunity presented itself, which wasn’t often as my work was all-consuming, time-wise at least.

If I think logically about how much has happened since 2010, “of course it’s been that long,” I tell myself. But the right half of my brain feels differently – it’s gone by in the blink of an eye. Robyn is growing up…FAST…another 9 years and she’ll be off to university or starting some other journey without us. It’s scary…and exciting.

9 years served…

I’ve often wondered how I’d spend my time if I was ever incarcerated (for a crime I didn’t commit of course), and I’ve come up with the following:

  • I’d make sure I read a lot
  • I’d write loads with no interruptions
  • I’d get in the best shape of my life
  • I’d save any money I could earn while inside
  • I’d help anyone I could – it might serve me when I got out
  • I’d see family and friends during visitation, and be as happy as I could be while they were there – share stories, have a laugh, ask how they’re all doing (but I’d be gutted when they left, and I had to go back to my cell alone)

So when it’s all put in perspective, my work is not actually as bad as a prison sentence. I get to come home each night – eventually. I get to do all of the positives that I would do in prison and don’ t have to face the scraps, showers, screws or solitary confinement. I have been here to watch Robyn and Ralph grow up so far, and I wouldn’t want to miss any more of that than necessary.

For that reason, my answer to the hypothetical question “would you commit a financially rewarding crime if you could walk away with X amount after X years in prison,” has changed over the years. As much as prison itself doesn’t scare me, disappointing my family and missing out on them growing up is enough to keep me on the straight and narrow. It’s certainly not purely out of a desire to be a “good citizen”, not when so many get away with so much, without consequence.

June 2019

Anyway, I digress. I am currently thinking a lot about the next 9 years. Robyn will turn 18, Laura and I will be nearly 48 (OMG)…and I feel optimistic.

I have some fantastic role models around me, and no shortage of encouraging friends and family. I still haven’t found “my thing” at 38, but I have a lot more useful energy and confidence than I had at 28, and some money saved for when I finally do find it.

Someone asked me my age last week, and I seriously had to stop and think about it…I had started to say twenty-…then I remembered I’m almost out of my thirties. F***! Was the next thought. I really don’t feel/believe I’m that old. Maybe that’s something I need to hold on to for as long as possible?

A famous old person once said, “At my age, you judge success by how many of the people you love, love you back.” Apart from embarrassing Robyn with my dad dancing at her 18th birthday party, I hope she’s proud of the rest. I’ve got 9 years to make sure that’s the case…but I won’t kid myself into thinking that 9 years won’t whizz by. Time to start blooming.

The Family

The Sound of Silence

My unremarkable music “career” – 1995 – 2019

After 24 years of singing, writing songs and “playing guitar” (10 years of those years in a band), it seems as though that part of my life is coming to a bittersweet end. As I’ve taken this week off of triathlon training and running, this blog post is a short reflective piece on my almost quarter of a century as a wannabe musician. It’s just a quick overview, but feels right/important to share something about it all before I forget!

EARLIEST MUSICAL MEMORIES

Memory is fallible ladies and gents, but I wouldn’t make this (often embarrassing) s*** up!

Born in 1980 and raised Roman Catholic, I’m subjected to a lot of hymns – which I remember thinking from a very early age, “the music’s alright, but why are they trying to fit so many words in – it’s so awkward. I can do better than this. I’ll have a word with the priest.”

That lyrically challenged music is balanced out with some great 1980s parties, surrounded by drunken adults who love a good sing-song, even before karaoke was a thing. At a couple of those parties, spoons, a harmonica and an accordion make an appearance, and there’s singing, dancing, and plenty of Irish madness.

Dad’s a big Rod Stewart and Billy Ocean fan, mum seems more ABBA, disco and motown.

Sadly, those parties and the revelers who attended them, dwindle, and are now mostly a distant memory.

SOME MUSICAL FIRSTS

First 7 inch records – 1986 – “Somewhere out there” from An American Tale (my party piece at age 6 was singing this to my family over the record…cringe)

1988 – “Opposites Attract” – Paula Abdul (don’t ask – there was a dance routine and everything)

First cassette albums – 1988 – “Jive Bunny and the Master Mixers” and “Martika” (my first album with lyrics on the inlay cover – this is a revelation. How can I have got the words soooo wrong?)

First LP album – 1989 – “10 Good Reasons” Jason Donovan

First CDs – 1994 – “Big Ones” Aerosmith and “Crossroads” Bon Jovi (“1994?!?” I hear you scream…yes, I clung to cassettes for as long as I could – I loved my Walkman). These are both compilation albums, so no words in the inlay cover – and I am yet to discover the disdain REAL musicians have for those without the original albums. Whatever…!

And then it’s 1995 and I’m a 15 year old Year 10 student, sat in a circle with my classmates in the drama studio. A long-haired boy sits hunched over his guitar, lit by the coloured spotlights above. In my memory, these lights have a blueish tint and there’s dry ice all around the young musician. We are all spellbound by the voice, the emotion, the sounds of the single electric guitar filling the room like an orchestra. I’m glad that there’s no video footage of this occasion, because in my mind, it is one of those iconic, life-changing memories that I refuse to have altered.

Chris circa 1994. What I’ll aspire to be…one day….

The boy, later became the man, Christopher Macaree of the band Decaydes – do check them out.

Decaydes – go see them live!!!

The moments that follow that performance include the decision: I must learn how to do that! The days that follow include a guitar lesson from Chris, and my first page of box chords, to the first guitar song I learn to play – Oasis’s, Wonderwall. Before you groan – think back to if you have ever given a busker some change after passing them playing this song. I know several of you must have, because I later became that busker, and that very song pretty much paid my rent on more than one occasion.

By the following summer I have bought my first three quarter size acoustic guitar from Argos, with money from car washing and a paper round, and I get to work on building some finger callouses! Not difficult with the action on those strings – they’re a full finger height off of the fret board! (I wish I had started with a classical guitar, as the nylon strings would have made practicing less painful).

In 1996 my mum takes me to a music shop in Ilford, Essex. As a Christmas present, I pick out a red Fender Squier Strat and a small practice amp, with dreams of becoming the next Richie Sambora or Slash. The action is far better, and I love the sound of it…but I still can’t play for toffee.

I continue to suck at guitar, refuse to use a plectrum, but that doesn’t stop me from picking it up sporadically, when I should be studying for my GCSE exams, and trying to learn The Beatles songs from a library book.

My party piece has now gone from 6 year old, singing a ballad on a stool, to 16 year old strumming his three chords while everyone sings along (for the first two verses anyway…I never managed to learn the bridge…but everyone’s singing by then, so it doesn’t matter, I tell myself).

My first attempt at forming a band comes in about 1999, when Bryan Adams becomes some sort of descendant of Nostradamus, as one of his songs basically predicts our experience:

Was the summer of ’99, me and some guys from college, had a band and we didn’t try all that hard, Pickford quit, Walker got plastered, should’ve know we’d never get far.

Anyway, when I look back now…OK, I’ll stop – something good definitely came out of it though i.e. I was introduced to a far greater repertoire of music (and bagged myself a hottie). Had it not been for our mini-jam sessions, I would still be listening to Bon Jovi and The Beatles ad nauseum.

Laura and me circa 1998.

In 2006 I am leaving Spain where I have been living for the past four years, when the universe sends two more signs that I should give this music thing another go.

The first is that while walking along a street in Marbella, a gypsy tries to sell me an acoustic guitar which was stolen from my apartment the previous year. Yes, a gyspy tried to sell me back my own guitar. How I’ve not written a song about that, I don’t know. I wave down a passing police car, have an argument with the fence, and get my guitar back.

The second is that some travelling professional Italian musicians (The J.C Band – J.C Cinel and Jacopo Deflini) take up residence in Marbella, and I get the opportunity to sing, play guitar and have a few wild nights with them. After drunken conversations with them I decide to get to a level that I can perform in public – but I need to learn the chords (all of them, bridge included) and the lyrics.

My next move is to return to England and audition to be a London Underground busker (with my stolen guitar). It is one of the best jobs I ever have, while Carling are sponsoring the scheme, but I lose interest after that, as booking pitches becomes a bit of a nightmare.

I start to use a plectrum or “pick” as I need to make the acoustic guitar loud enough to be heard above the trains and commuters. I resort to using a coin on a number of occasions as using my fingers results in blood and skin everywhere…gross but true.

I’m what’s known as a “strum and dumber” – no real talent or musical knowledge, but I’m learning chords and keeping rhythm well enough to sing along to.

I realise that certain songs suit my voice more, and earn me more money, and try writing a few to fit those criteria. I start listening to a lot more male singer-songwriters and especially love those with soulful voices like James Morrison, Paulo Nutini and Ray LaMontagne.

Deano, the London Underground Busker. It was brilliant until Carling stopped sponsoring it.
Playing in 2008 at our engagement party, on a guitar signed by the Gypsy Kings, which I brought back from Spain for my cousin.

I enter the UK Songwriting contest for several years in a row, but never manage to write a winning entry. I know that they are good songs, but just not what they are looking for. It’s frustrating, but I’m not writing songs to win competitions – it would have just been a bonus.

UK Songwriting Contest Certificates…got as far a being a finalist, but no cigar!

In 2008 after getting married in Italy (with Jacopo, one of the Italian musicians, as a guest), Laura and I embark on a trip around the world. I get the opportunity to play and sing in a variety of countries, actually paying for our food and drink by playing each night at a bar in Laos. Then when we reach Australia I once again get a busker’s licence and try my hand as a street musician.

SCOTT-FREE

We meet up with friends (Scott and Lisa) in Sydney, just before New Year’s Eve 2008 and this is the start of Scott-Free (Scott, for…well Scott, and Free, because of my “Free Spirit” tattoo). Scott sings the main vocal, I play guitar and harmonise, and we split our earnings 50/50 as we busk up the East coast of Australia. We play a gig or two in bars as well – and attend our fair share as audience members too.

Warming up before my two-hour morning busking slot at Flinders Street, Melbourne.

THE BAND

When Laura and I return from New York in August 2009, Scott and I are keen to get a band started, and shortly thereafter, Mosaic is born. Our first rehearsal is at The Farm, in North Ockendon/Upminster.

It comes at the perfect time, as everything else in life is telling me to grow up and get serious. My first child, first mortgage and first real career all come in the space of months, so the band stops me from going completely insane and feeling like a complete failure (remember by this point I have been out of uni for 7 years, and while most of my friends are living successful lives, I have done nothing of note).

I start to learn lead guitar as well as rhythm, and I take a back seat vocally.

Scott, Gary and myself chip in towards a PA, monitor, speakers and stands so we can start doing gigs…at the time it seems like a risky investment, but it proves to be worthwhile, and pays itself off in no time.

Scott (vocals), Gary (bass), James (drums) and Deano (me, guitar) were Mosaic, Car Boot Tetris, Coversion…and a few others…but always the same four original members (bar one hilarious* attempt to replace James after a temporary departure).

*Hilarious for Scott and me, but probably not for Gary. It turned out that James’s potential replacement, had once had a fight with Gary at school and there was definitely some tension in the air still. There were other reasons he wouldn’t have been a great replacement, but thankfully James came back to us anyway so enough said!

Our first gig as Mosaic in Hornchurch.
My favourite incarnation of the the band, Car Boot Tetris. Great design by Gary.
Live and Unsigned…or Pay to Play, as I’ve come to think of it!
Live and Unsigned – one of their affiliates offered me a song publishing deal, which I declined after a bit of googling!
Some great bands have played here, so it was an honour to play here – even with the dripping ceiling!
2010
Same pose, years later. Room 4 was another potential band name!

Scott and the band organise for a whip round for my 30th birthday, so I can stop borrowing guitars from other people and get my own Fender Stratocaster. A wonderful gesture, and an awesome present…the guitar I’ve always wanted from PMT in Romford (which is sadly no longer there).

Just before our debut festival slot at T-Fest, I manage to drop my laptop bag, catching it by my little finger before it hit the floor – relief – but also breaking my pinkie oh no! I will play, in pain, removing my little plastic support only for rehearsals and the gig itself.

Car Boot Tetris playing “It Just So Happens” to hundreds of people at T-Fest!

In our ten years together, we make so many BAND memories on top of all the other major life events that occur: Garden parties…weddings…pubs…new year’s eve parties…birthday parties…playing in a boxing ring…a garage…a farm barn pyjama party…a trip to AMSTERDAM, camping with the band (Amy Winehouse’s death on the cover of NME the morning we left the UK, echoing American Pie, “the day the music died”).

We write some great songs, and play both original and cover gigs – fitting it all in around our busy lives. Turning down or cancelling gigs that don’t suit us for whatever reason – no pressure, no stress.

I only remember one heated discussion during one interval, and which is followed by a handshake straight after the second set. We are a tight band.

Our final gig ends two songs too early as my A string (I’m tuned down a full tone, so technically my G string…LOL) snaps!!! We shake hands, and I run off to get some sleep before my second triathlon 70 miles away!

Apart from the memories, I’ve also got a bit of tinnitus – seriously – and I lip read a lot. But it was totally worth it. It could have been far worse…but we were never THAT sort of band!

Our second from last gig…February 2019, The Fatlin, Hornchruch.
Ralph’s first electric guitar.
Our piano, £10 off of Ebay! My dad and a family friend helped get this back from Kent. Robyn now has lessons.

So now it’s time to pass the torch. Robyn and Ralph will grow up with music, like Laura and I did. They won’t be pushed into anything, but I’ll happily be their roadie if they decide to drop out of school and give music a proper shot, like I never actually did.

I have no real regrets, as let’s face it, if I’d been talented enough I wouldn’t have made it past age 27 anyway! Now I’m too old to die young, sober enough (most of the time) to have some great memories of it all, and lucky enough to have parted ways with everyone while still on good terms.

Fingers crossed there’ll be some sort of reunion at some point, but for now the Strat will sit in its case under the stairs. They’ve got my number!

I’m off to “get a real job” and enjoy my “sporting midlife crisis”.

Windsor – Rickshaw Redemption

Onward and upwards

With my first triathlon (Thorpe Park sprint) under my belt, I wake up on Monday morning exhausted – but elated – even with that horrible bike leg!

I keep telling myself, “you’ve done one now…what’s next?”

By Tuesday morning I’m back in the gym for an hour on the stationary bike (20.92 miles…once again…Sunday? WFT?!? 1 hr 8 mins to ride 13 miles!?!)

That same day I put my bike in the car and bring it to work for a colleague to have a look at. Before I put it in the boot, I give the front wheel a spin – and of course, it’s like a perpetual motion machine, defying the laws of physics! Will it ever stop? No rubbing, no noise. Like a trip to the GP where the ailment has vanished by the time the doctor sees you, I’m starting to doubt whether this is a reasonable explanation for my poor cycling performance at Thorpe Park.

Then I get the bike out of the car at work, and as I wheel it into my office…. fssss…fssss…fssss…the brakes are rubbing again. It’s hard to believe that such a small amount of friction had such a negative impact on my ride – but it was definitely a factor.

After speaking to Danny (tri-to-be-iron), I’m informed that completing my 750 m swim using primarily breaststroke probably didn’t do my legs any favours either! So maybe it was a combination of the two things?

When my colleague sees the bike, he systematically scans it and says, “well, THAT can go…and THOSE!” pointing at my seat cushion, frame bag and lights. I’m told I can also get rid of my bell and puncture repair kit as well, as I’ll just be putting on a new inner tube which I can store in the pockets of my tri suit.

To prevent any drama with taking off my front wheel and knocking everything out of alignment again, I order a bike rack for the car. I don’t feel guilty about this additional expense as I can put both of the kids’ bikes on it when we go camping later this year – two birds, one stone (or one score in this case – God bless Ebay)!

Cheap bike rack to save me having to remove the front wheel again!

I take it easy this week training-wise as work is crazy and family commitments prevent me from getting to Hadleigh for an open water swim. I do prove my resolve to work on this discipline however by ordering the Great Swim Local wrist band – although without a triathlon to train for, let’s see what happens!

The end of the week is double-busy, with work, then band rehearsals on Friday evening. Packing on Saturday morning, driving 70 miles to Windsor to rack up the bike, meet some family and drop Laura and the kids off at the hotel in Slough. Then driving back to Hornchurch for the band’s “last” gig (more on this next week), and then once the final song was played, driving another 70 miles back to Windsor to get 4 hours sleep before the race. Yes, that could have been planned a bit better…but the universe was conspiring against me on this occasion (perhaps)?!

That said, parked next to us was a friendly gent who began speaking to me the moment he got out of the car. After chatting for a while, about this being his first triathlon and my second, and how he had already signed up for an Ironman in Wales (really hard due to the hilly bike ride), he reveals that he’s from Hornchurch in Essex! We’ve both travelled 70 miles to an event where we’re parked next to someone from down the road! (Lee, I hope Windsor went well for you!). A man after my own heart, he has set himself that long-term goal that will keep him training and achieving smaller goals along the way – knowing that right now, there’s no way he could complete an Ironman. Very inspiring – so maybe the universe knew what it was doing after all?!

So I did this journey 3 times in one day…I asked Laura to drive home after the triathlon!

RACE DAY

So despite going to bed around 1 am and setting my alarm for 5:45 am, I find myself wide awake at 5 am. I really could use the extra 45 minutes sleep, but I’m not risking going back to sleep and waking up groggy. Or worse – waking up LATE!!! I manage a banana and some coffee, but not the granola I brought with me for my pre-race meal. I’m still full from the last minute tuna and pasta I uncharacteristically ate 5 minutes before bed last night (which was 4 hours ago, and which didn’t keep me up because I was so cream crackered).

I had the common sense to pack my bags and lay out my suits the night before, so when the taxi arrives, I’m good to go – fairly confident that I’ve got everything. Laura and Robyn wish me well on my way out – Ralph is still in the fetal position, catching the ZZZZZs I’m craving.

I arrive at 6:30 am on the dot, and with my bike already racked up it all seems stress-free. I say my hellos to the two competitors I know, Danny and a work colleague (same one who fixed my bike). I lay out my towel, my flip flops, cycle shoes and trainers, my swimming hat, earplugs and goggles. I’ve arrived with my tri-suit on, so the wetsuit goes on next – still without lubricant. I need to get this for the next race – it goes on easily enough, but getting it off in transition 1 would be easier I imagine, with a bit of grease.

I notice several competitors with the exact same tri-suit and wet suit (Decathlon….you’re up there with Ebay)! There are also some pretty chunky bikes, which I start to think my basic road bike will fare better than during the race…but those thoughts are quickly hushed by the memories of last week’s cycling performance. The athletes themselves are all shapes and sizes, and just like the bikes, and I’ve already seen that this is no indicator of how they’ll perform. I mean, I look quite fit (more “Canvey Island” than “Love Island” than I’d like maybe), and yet…!

My wave isn’t until 7:45 am, but I’m zipped up in my wet suit and ready to go by 7 am. I decide to have a walk over to the coach station’s toilet block outside the transition area, and luckily everything has been timed just right. My body’s a little too keen if anything, thanks to the morning coffee…which increases the urgency for me to remove my wet suit and tri-suit. I make it. Just.

SWIM

The swim start is a fair walk away from the transition point, and as I make my way over with Danny, I notice his white hotel slippers! I’m trying to figure out the athletic advantage to such footwear but it’s later revealed that his choice comes down to them being disposable. I don’t know it yet, but this is the last time I’ll see my flip flops – they had a good innings. (Note to whoever picked these up: Please do not wear these. I am wracked with guilt about what your feet may be about to go through if you do so. My most athletic body part, my feet, have been fermenting in these flip flops for years. Dispose of carefully.)

I don’t believe that it’s so cold and yet my teeth are chattering and I notice the uncontrollable shaking of limbs. Danny reckons it’s nerves…I’m sceptical, as I feel quite positive about what’s to come, excited even. But I guess physiologically speaking, anxiety and excitement are similar, it’s just the mental reframe that’s saving me from throwing up or pulling out!

After a quick briefing, which I try to look focused throughout, but I’m too excited now, I just want to get started. I don’t hear most of the instructions, or if I do my brain isn’t retaining them as they pass through one ear and out of the other. I ease myself off of the pontoon into the Thames and my first thoughts are, “F*** it’s cold…I need a thicker wetsuit…” followed by, “acclimatise…blow bubbles…” and lastly, “where am I? Holy s*** I’m at the front of the pack, I’m gonna get pummelled!!! “

At which point I hear, “15 SECONDS!!!”, have the presence of mind to start my watch, and we’re off!

I take a few shots to my sides and my legs, but it’s nothing malicious. I keep touching someone’s foot and think about Mark Allen doing this to Dave Scott to wind him up. My tickling this person in front may or may not have wound them up – I’ll never know, as they sped up and left me in their wake quite quickly.

I manage to do a lot more frontcrawl this time and the water stays out of my nose, but I swallow a fair amount of the Thames as my breaths seem to come when sudden waves hit my open mouth.

There’s a smell of hotdogs and onions and ketchup as I am swimming and during my first breast stroke break I jokingly ask the kayak volunteer if he can get me one. He’s not impressed, or he didn’t hear me. Either way, no hot dog – and i suddenly feel ready for that granola I missed out on this morning.

I manage some more front crawl, but at one point, having closed my eyes, I punch a kayak which has cut straight across me in its mission to help a struggling swimmer. Later on another kayaker is looking at me like I’m in trouble, which worries as I feel fine. I give him the thumbs up and prove I’m fine by getting back on with some more front crawl.

I don’t stop swimming. Front crawl and breast stroke the whole time, and even so I suddenly see the next wave of coloured hats over-taking me. “I’m going to get pummelled for sure this time,” but again, apart from a few taps, no one’s dunking me and it even gives me a bit of a push to swim a bit harder. Not as much as seeing the exit does though!

I crawl out, the most ungraceful sea lion you’ll ever see, and run for the transition. I struggle a bit with my wetsuit but get there eventually and notice that Danny is already there in transition (meaning he overtook me on the swim despite starting later).

It’s a long run out of transition, especially in cycling shoes, but 400m and 7 minutes later I’m off on the bike ride and compared to last week, I’m loving it. I feel like greased lightning!

CYCLE

Suddenly I need to concern myself with overtaking and drafting! A clear sign that things are going well.

The rain starts soon after the start of the ride and I try not to think about how thin my tyres are or how I’d rather be on a mountain bike in this weather.

The one piece of advice I had gone against, was keeping my cycle frame bag on. I’ve got my spare inner tubes, CO2 and cliff blocks inside and until I get myself a seat bag, this will work fine.

I find riding a bit monotonous, unlike running, and I hate the feeling of my thighs burning, as the lactic acid builds up – this lasts for hours after a ride for me.

Danny had told me that the course was flat, so rather than suggest he is mistaken, I keep telling myself, “bloody hell, he doesn’t even consider these hills…I must be crap on the bike.” It turns out the course has changed since last year!

I get into a rhythm though, wolfing down Cliff blocks and water so that I don’t have to think about fuelling on the run.

Towards the end, a steward annoyingly turns his back on the riders giving me no indication of which way to turn off at the roundabout. So I go left, and have to turn back suddenly as a more awake steward catches me going the wrong way.

At the end of the ride I unclip my shoes and jump off the bike while it’s still going too fast. I skate the first 5 m of the transition, earning a small round of applause for staying on my feet and not dropping the bike.

RUN

As I put on my trainers I make a mental note to purchase some speedy laces – and to find out what “speedy laces” are actually called!

I throw my glasses down by a tree on the way out (some kind person puts these on a bike rack for me to find at the end).

The incline on the run is agony for me…I hate hills…like cycling with any sort of power, they make my thighs burn!!!

There is a lovely stretch on the run, through the grounds as you go away from the castle and then back again. I look forward to seeing the professional photos for this part.

I run straight past my family near the end of my first lap, so go back on myself, almost crashing into two other runners (sorry lads) to give high fives to Robyn and Ralph. I don’t want to disappoint them after waiting so long for me!

Stupidly, I start heading towards the finish line after just one lap and have to turn around – once again, against the current of runners – and get the other two laps done!!!

Three laps is almost too much – especially when you know what’s coming. I’m not a fan of laps. I want novelty. Anyway, I keep going…never stopping (except right at the start to redo my shoelace)…never walking.

I manage to cheer on other runners I know, although my face is numb from the bike ride, and when I go to cheer on the first person I recognise, I can’t say their name properly and I’m sure my face looks like Rocky Balboa’s. I raise both arms, smile and raise my eyebrows – just to check I haven’t had some kind of stroke.

During the last lap I really focus on my own race. I have my secret mantra while running, which helps me keep the rhythm of my breathing and cadence going.

As I approach the finish line, I have nothing left for a sprint finish which is just as well as I spot Laura and the kids. She is holding Ralph up and lifting him over the gate, so he can cross the finish line with me. So holding his hand, he whizzes ahead and beats me across the line before I hold him up for a cuddle. A very special moment for the Saunders boys!

I ask the steward to put my medal on him, and she not only does so, she also kindly gives me a second medal – which is fantastic as both Robyn and Ralph get one now!

Ralph, Danny and me.

RESULTS

I aimed for Sub 3 and achieved that goal…but I’ve been put off of the half Ironman for now!

I’m really happy with my time, but my form is sloppy as hell and the run up to race day was less than perfect. I’m sure I can do better and I’ve got no intention to quit now. I probably won’t race again until next season…probably…instead I have a lot of learning to be getting on with, and not just with triathlon.

Great presents and cards this year…but best of all was them being at the triathlon to cheer me on.

Massive THANK YOU to the family once again! It really was a Father’s Day to remember, and I’ve definitely redeemed myself on the bike!!!

Thank you also to Danny for inviting me to write a guest blog for tri to be iron.