In the overall arena of contests and endeavour, the Polkerris Biathlon doesn’t loom large. A 1.5km swim, followed by a 6km run – for some isn’t that far. But for me it was and it underlined five simple truths about why I love to GetOutside.
Completing Not Competing
“Are you competing?” said the guy pointing people towards registration.
“Yes”, I said automatically.
“No”, said my friend at the same time. “We’re taking part”.
And she was right. This wasn’t about speed and race positions. Yes, we were here to challenge ourselves and step outside our comfort zones – but it was more about finishing and having fun.
This is the face of someone who is really very nervous. I love sea bathing, but I’m not a speed or distance gal. 1.5km would be the furthest I’d done. At my painfully slow swimming that’s 45+ minutes in 13 degree seas (in a wetsuit). Worse still it was a blustery day with a four foot swell – from the beach it looked an awfully, awfully long way … Luckily I had two good friends to tell me I’d be fine. Could I do it? I kept wondering, eyeing a very bouncy sea. Their answer, always: “of course you can”.
Trying Something New
If the sea was off-putting, the transition zone was baffling. Great advice from the organisers saw me equipped with a washing up bowl (to rinse sand from your feet before putting them into trainers for the run). And friends had advised on how to dress (a bra under the swim suit was a top tip) but how to best arrange the gear was all very unclear. It adds to nerves when you can’t quite envisage how things will pan out. And everyone else seemed to know just what to do …
This is the route (marked up on OS Maps). While the swim worried me, it didn’t remotely phase my friend. While the run didn’t worry me, that was her bug bear. We could have chosen to do the event as a relay. But we wanted to help each other around. As I plugged away, horribly slowly on the swim, my buddy kept me company – encouraging, chatting, being chilled and calm. She could have swam four times as far (at least), but instead chose to help me. Eventually we made it (yay!!) and we headed onto a sometimes hilly and slippery course. It was now my turn to go a little slower than I could (note: not much slower), as we chatted our way around, taking in the views.
“Failure” & Success
Because of that determination to finish together – to match the pace of each other at our slowest, we came very spectacularly last. But you could also say we triumphed. Not just because that last place – and the spirit in which it was ‘achieved’ – netted a bottle of Prosecco each. But it was a kind of triumph because we’d been bold and stepped outside our comfort zones. Because perhaps the only failure is not to try.
We were there not to compete, but to complete. And we did that in fine style.
Fancy trying something new?
The Ordnance Survey has lots of good ideas on how to GetOutside in its Beginner’s Guides section.
The Polkerris Biathlon was run by the excellent Mad Hatter Sports – they have plenty more events in Cornwall this summer, over a wide range of distances, for you to try.
Let me know how you get on …
When heading off to GetOutside for a day out or an adventure, what’s your default mode of transport? If you’re going camping or even climbing, how would you get there – hop on a bus or walk? Perhaps, although most will load up the car. But could you get to your destination by train?
Camping, by train? What about all the kit?!
For some this simply won’t be an option. But it might work for you. The bags in this photo contain all the kit I recently took when heading off camping. Yep – all my gear. So that includes: tent, sleeping bag, roll mat, stove, cutlery, mess tin, wash kit and towel, thermals, layers, full waterproofs, hat, buff, gloves, clean tops, etc. As I was going climbing it also included climbing shoes, harness, helmet and chalk bag (but not ropes & gear). As I’m a writer and blogger, it also includes iPad, GoPro, notebook and solar charger. And as, bizarrely, I was going onto a posh do in London, it also includes my version (!) of evening smarts. It seems hard to believe, but it is all in there. So is it worth considering what you need to take, what you want to take and whether you might like to leave the car at home…?
But what about the convenience – with a car I can go where I choose!
It may be driving is the best route to your destination. But it might not be. Britain’s train companies can get you very close to (or into) our wild spaces. Perhaps research ways to get to your favourite slice of the great outdoors by rail. I travelled from Plymouth to Sheffield, courtesy of CrossCountry. From Sheffield, the hills and crags of the Peak District are within easy reach. For example, the market town of Hathersage, is 15 minutes from Sheffield by local train – from there you can walk to campsites and climbing crags. The Lake District, Snowdonia, Northumberland, Brecon Beacons, Yorkshire Dales and Moors, Cairngorms, New Forest, Dartmoor, South Downs – various train firms are lining up to take you there or at least very near.
But driving is quicker and cheaper!
It might be. But not always. My Plymouth to Sheffield leg took 5 hours by rail. Driving would have taken around 5 hours too. If you buy early enough (tip: set a diary reminder for when the really cheap tickets go on sale), a single rail ticket can cost around £60. Depending on petrol consumption, you could pay a similar amount to drive the 300 miles. If there’s a group of you, piling into one car will probably be cheaper. But if you’re driving alone, it may be comparable – especially once you add parking fees. And then there’s your time – as a self-employed writer, time spent driving is dead time, but if I go by rail I can write, communicate, plan. You might like to take environmental factors into consideration too.
To be clear: I was lucky – this trip was courtesy of CrossCountry. But that’s not why I’m singing the praises of taking the train – normally, if I can walk, get a local bus, or get there by rail I do. I often find leaving the car behind is a bit liberating – it makes me feel like I’m on holiday. So it’s a thought – it may not suit, it may not be your thing, but is it worth considering whether you can GetOutside by train?
It was a challenging, exhilarating three days in the snows of the Scottish Cairngorms. There was leg-testing, wind-blasting and snot-streaming (sorry, but it’s true). But it was an unforgettable place to GetOutside.
This, my first experience of the Scottish winter hills, led to an article for the British Mountaineering Council. It covers the safety issues, challenges, rewards and lessons learned. It also features how you too can get up into the winter hills. For that article click here.
For the story and pictures behind the article, read on …
Creag Meagaidh Range
This is us high the Creag Meagaidh Range. My friend, Ellie, is guiding us from Carn Liath, via Stob Poite Coire Ardair and The Window to Creag Meagaidh. It’s a route of around 20km with an ascent of 1080m.
As you can see, it’s beautiful. What you can’t necessarily see is that the avalanche hazard is Considerable on certain slopes. That the temperatures on the tops are -6C, with winds of 30mph bringing that down to around -18C.
Cold then, with a stinging wind (hence the snot-streaming), some energy-sapping slogging through shin-deep snow and sometimes-treacherous gusts.
Wind-blasted, tested and awed by this environment. I can still see these views …
Hunting for Homer’s Head
This is us, a few days earlier, high in the hills of the Glen Feshie range, gathered round Ordnance Survey maps.
You’ll notice the full winter kit, including crampons. What you might not realise is that we’re looking for Homer’s Head. Not Homer the ancient Greek philosopher; but Homer the cartoon character. Why? Well, because although OS’s surveyors quite possibly didn’t have it in mind when they plotted the contour lines, these brown wavy marks do bear a sneaking resemblance to the profile of Springfield’s bright yellow patriarch.
So why are we so set on finding ‘Homer’? It’s partly because Ellie, who’s leading us, wanted to do a micro nav exercise – when you navigate short legs in difficult conditions, when accuracy is key. But now we’re up here, it’s more than an exercise. Because, as expected, low cloud and snow now means dramatically reduced visibility. In fact we’re in the midst of a whiteout – where you can’t see features or the horizon. Today – you can’t see them at all.
And these hills are full of very real hazards, some of these slopes today carry avalanche risks. And as those contour lines suggest, some of the ridge edges here are pretty sheer. But, our navigator nails that circuitous micro nav route spot on; skill and prolonged concentration mean she leads us back to precisely the right point – the path we came up, where we can still make out our earlier foot prints in the snow.
The biggy is having the utmost respect for people and place: serious hills and serious conditions require serious preparation, equipment and skills.
For more on the specific lessons learned and the ways you could prepare to GetOutside in Britain’s winter hills, see my BMC article here. The Ordnance Survey website has a wealth of hiking tips and location guides – start your explorations here.
By the way, there wasn’t room in my article to discuss the best ever winter hill snack. I’m putting down a vote for peanut butter, banana and honey sandwiches. You?
What are your British winter hill walking experiences; your favourite places & tips?
A huge thank-you to Ellie, Taff, Sarah and Sally, who helped me get up into the hills 🙂
Tempted by the idea of a classic foreign train ride? What about those trips closer to home …
Why ride the UK rails?
Perhaps it’s because so many of us commute by rail. Or perhaps it’s because British train trips don’t somehow feel exotic – whatever the reason, you might not take a long UK rail journey for fun. But ever since a cross-Europe jaunt, I’ve hankered for a long-distance British train trip. Something to get your traveller’s teeth into.
Where to go?
So when plotting an adventure in the snows of the Cairngorms, I plumped not for the plane or an epic drive, but to ride the rails. All the way from Plymouth to Edinburgh (around 8 hours) aboard CrossCountry trains, and then onto Aviemore (3 more hours) the next day. It was partly inspired by this article in Telegraph Travel: The 50 Greatest Train Journeys on Earth – Aberdeen to Penzance is number 22.
The first section was familiar – from Plymouth through Devon’s hummocky hills to the scenic, edge-of-shore stretch at Dawlish. I always love this section (although I normally want to get off and swim); when heading west it signals heading home.
After Exeter came the route up to Bristol Temple Meads. No getting out here – I was in for the long haul. In fact, once aboard your biggest responsibility is remembering to get off. And knowing you don’t have to get off for six more hours is actually very relaxing.
The Long Haul
Those next six hours had a sense of sight-seeing as seat-viewing, of being static yet moving, of the country being rolled out for you to see. Station architecture became interesting: barrel roofs at Bristol and Darlington; ornate Victoriana at Burton upon Trent; subterranean modernity at Birmingham New Street.
There are fragments and fleeting, flitting images. Graffiti tags intrigue. Fields, factories, housing estates, trees and power lines speed past. Bridges, cathedrals and terraces glide by – glimpsed and gone. Your mind is free to be both idle and curious (houseboats – who lives on houseboats?!). This odd way of seeing Britain is strangely compelling; incomplete visits that make you want to return.
Passengers come and passengers go. They help each other with bags. The crew makes sure a disabled woman has everything she needs. There’s free wi-fi; I get heaps of work done. The sun comes out at York. It gets misty. Accents shift. Another crew change. Around Newcastle the sun gleams low on the horizon. By Alnmouth it’s pretty much set, which means glimpsing Dunbar in the dark. Finally, eight hours after starting, I emerge at gracious Edinburgh. It sparkles in the floodlights.
The Return Leg
And now? After three days hiking with friends in the snowy hills of the Cairngorms, of being wind-blasted, tested and awed by that environment – I’m chugging along that Dawlish stretch by moonlight. I’m coming home.
This journey from Plymouth to Edinburgh was courtesy of CrossCountry
Here’s where they run: