All Posts Filed in ‘Sport / Fun

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A Hike Up Bidean nam Bian, Glencoe

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I spent a lot of my late teens and early 20s hiking up the mountains of Scotland with friends and it’s something that’s stayed with me all these years since. I don’t get to go as often as I used to – I live in Yorkshire and the hills here don’t really compare, although the Lake District does have some proper mountains a couple of hours drive away – but I get out in the mountains when I can.

A couple of friends (including Scott, someone I’ve known all my life and is one of my original hiking companions) and I decided to camp in Glencoe (arguably one of the most scenic parts of Scotland) and tackle one of the mountains. I’ve been up all of the mountains around Glencoe (and in the case of the notorious Aonach Eagach ridge, I’ve climbed and traversed it many times) with the exception of Bidean nam Bian. So that was the plan. The guide book (I still have the same Munroes guide book from my youth) suggested a few routes and we chose one that should take just under 3 hours to get to the summit, then a little longer on the way back to make a circular route.

In my early 20s the time the guide book suggested was a target to beat. Turns out in my late 40s, in spite of staying in great shape, I was never getting anywhere near that time! My friend Scott has managed to stay about as fit as he was in his 20s so could have made the book’s time, although by his admission he’d have had to push it, but I wouldn’t have without requiring medical intervention at the top. So it was a case of going at our own paces and enjoying the scenery, which was no hardship!

We started out in unusually great weather conditions (I’ve not been climbing or hiking in Glencoe on many clear days over the years) and were treated to pretty much the perfect day in the mountains.

The walk up from the valley into the mountains is always a delight – you start off with flat ground and a loch before things get steeper and rockier. Our route took us up the side of a river with a path in some sections but others on some surprisingly steep rocky traverses (I’m assuming it’s not a popular route as we didn’t see a single person until we reached the summit).

But a real treat waited for us once we hit the ridge – a spectacular 360 degree view from the coast to Schiehallion (which as a really interesting history) far in the east to Ben Nevis and beyond north. Without a doubt the clearest view I’ve had on Glencoe having been many times over nearly 30 years.

The it was more up as we followed the ridge with amazing views in every direction (except for the Scotsman in the foreground).

And onto the summit of Bidean with an obligatory team selfie (with Cappuccino for all, I’d brought a Jetboil with me – not pictured).

The way back down was via another top and down the far side. Again not a popular route as there was no path for the upper third and some careful route finding was required – not that uncommon in the mountains of Scotland – you don’t often get signs and well marked paths which adds to the charm for me.

A long grind later (fortunately Scott being super fit had decided to run ahead and go collect the car to save a walk along the road at the end – he’s a top lad) and we were back down looking up at where we’d been. The summit is between the two tops you can see and behind what looks like a summit in the middle.

A real highlight of the day was when Scott and I went back to meet my other friend who was a bit behind so we’d finish together. We heard the familiar sound of a helicopter in the distance, but as it got closer it turned out to be a military chinook only a few hundred feet off the ground (you often see fighter jets flying low in the valleys, frequently below you when you’re up a mountain, but I’d never seen one of these out and about before). As it flew past us I could see a couple of soldiers hanging out the back, one of whom waved back as I waved to them – they must have had quite a view! There but for a bit of bad luck go I! 🙂

I’d done a few preparation hikes before to get my legs ready for it so felt pretty good the next day, but it’s certainly hard work at any age yet incredibly rewarding. And I think it’s about time I replaced my old guide book after 30 years – the directions are far too vague and the estimates completely unrealistic. At least that’s my excuse! 😀

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Staying Fit In Your 40s

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Up until aged 20 I was a pretty lazy guy. Then one day a switch flipped in my head and everything changed. I started running and literally managed to run for about 30 seconds before collapsing, exhausted. That made me keep trying until I was able to comfortably run a marathon distance with a friend of mine a couple of years later, just for fun (although it turned out it was not fun). I also discovered mountain biking and particularly the slog of pedalling up long, steep hills. In my early 20s I felt like I could run all day long. I’d spend my weekends hiking and climbing the mountains of Scotland until ultimately I passed (and then a year later failed thanks to the flu) Royal Marine Officer selection. After that dream was over I got on with my life but always wanted to stay fit and active.

I started playing football and as a result cut down on the distance running as the two didn’t seem to mix well. Eventually I tore my knee ligaments and saw a physio afterwards where I learned that if I wanted to keep playing I needed to incorporate strength work into my routine rather than just turning up and playing. I had to train to be able to play or my knee would start causing me problems (welcome to getting older). I adapted, bought a Smith Machine and started doing weights to improve my general strength and it worked well for some years.

By my mid 30s the niggling injuries started piling up and I’d take days to recover from a game. I figured my time playing football was drawing to a close until a physio suggested I try yoga to improve my flexibility. This was a revelation and I wished I’d started years before – my movement improved, my recovery times reduced dramatically and the injuries went away.

Fast forward a few years and I discovered P90X with Tony Horton (pictured below). My new life of fitness began.

Tony Horton is an American personal fitness trainer who is best known for his P90X workout programs (along with several others) that you could initially buy on DVD but as technology moved on became available to stream on the Beach Body on Demand service. It’s the sort of thing if I’d read about – some annoying American fitness trainer guy – I’d not have been remotely interested in. Yet as soon as I started doing the P90X program I was hooked. His charm and humour along with doing the workouts with 3 people who show different modifications for each exercise made it fun and highly addictive.

I thought I was well above average in terms of fitness when I started but I suddenly felt like I had a long way to go – it was a new level of fitness I’d need to get to and I loved the journey. The program spans 90 days (hence the 90) and you do blocks of weeks with different workouts each day ranging from cardio to upper body to legs with weights and so on (lots of pull-ups and pushups too). Oh and yoga! They’re the kind of workouts you can do at home with bands or a few dumbbells or in a fully kitted out gym (watched on your phone over bluetooth headphones) and the results were quite dramatic to my fitness levels. There is structure and recovery built in that meant I felt like I was getting fitter and stronger every week and I was able to do many more pullups than I ever thought possible (among other things). I loved P90X. But it turns out I loved P90X2 even more. And this is the training program I’ve spent most of my time doing over the past few years.

Whereas P90X was a great way to get fit using a variety of different workouts, P90X2 is athletics training. If you’ve watched any documentaries of professional football teams like All or Nothing: Tottenham Hotspur then it’s exactly what they do. Rather than focussing on muscle building or cardio, it’s all about introducing instability into workouts so that you use your core. The simplest example is doing any standing exercise with dumbbells. Try doing arm curls or shoulder presses on one leg. Suddenly as well as the muscles you’re working you have to work much harder with the rest of your body to balance. You’ll have to reduce the weight for starters, but in time you’ll work a lot more than one muscle group.

Another example is pushups. Easy enough, but try doing it where each foot and hand is on a separate med ball that can move around independently. Suddenly your entire body comes into play to balance as well as do the actual pushup. It took me a LOT of practise to be any good at them.

P90X2 is full of such exercises using balance balls and med balls. There are gymnastics pull-up moves and some workouts I could barely do initially. The program is well designed in that each major muscle group gets a sufficient amount of rest between workouts, the warmups and cooldowns (including good use of foam rolling) meant I didn’t feel stiff and beaten up afterwards and always felt like I could give it my all pretty much every time.

The key words are: functional fitness. Rather than working one muscle group alone it recognises that in the real world every movement requires a collaboration of a group of muscles. The training focusses on improving that collaboration. If you want to run and quickly change direction (like when you’re playing football) then a lot of muscles combine to make that move, so it’s the complete movement that matters rather than an isolated one. You involve pretty much all the muscles in your body combined with a strong core – and I noticed week after week my movement on the football field was improving. There was no such thing as simply “leg day” – sure you’d have workouts more specific to the legs, but it was never just about working the legs and leaving the rest of your body alone – everything is connected. It was a different way to think about exercise but one that clearly works for elite athletes as well as guys like me in their mid-40s.

I stuck with it and when I got to the end of the program, despite supposedly being past my peak, I was the fittest I’d been in my life (although I still couldn’t do levers first time around). It was amazing! I’ve never exercised to look good, always to perform whether it be hiking, biking or footballing. But I was quite surprised how good my body looked. When I’m a really old man I will look back with pride for sure. Here’s the obligatory before and after photos (being Scottish I don’t ever have much of a suntan so apologies about that).

My girlfriend and I did P90X2 in a public gym and the people watching must have thought we were crazy with some of the things we were doing. But very few of the gym rats we saw would have been able to do what we were doing by the end – it’s high level athletics exercise and to be able to do it in our 40s made us feel very proud. We’ve continued doing rounds of P90X2 and it pushes you no matter how fit you are. It’s all thanks to Tony Horton. He literally changed our lives.

While my own fitness benefits have been clear to see (I’m still in the shape of my life), my girlfriend decided to change her career from being a business analyst to a personal trainer. She knocked down her garage, built a gym, did her personal trainer training and qualifications. She then started training clients remotely during lockdown and in person afterwards and hasn’t looked back! Here we are posing after a workout in her gym with Tony hovering on the screen above.

You can read all about her here. She’s fitter than I am and highly recommended!

Tony has done several other workout series (P90X3 I’ve done, although it was more aimed at the masses so wasn’t as challenging as P90X2) and recently he’s started his own venture – Power Nation Fitness. He’s built a new program based on his decades of experience along with hosting some other trainers workouts in the app. I’m 4 weeks into his Power of 4 programme and really enjoying it.

He’s 63 himself now yet is still in far better shape than I’ve ever been. While you can dye your hair, administer botox, lots of makeup and fake tan, the one thing you can’t fake is a lean, fit, muscular, flexible physique like Tony has. There’s no secret pill you can take or magic formula to make it happen. You’ve got to put the work in the right way, eat properly, recover and work on it all the time. You have to change your life and never go back. And as long as I can get breath in my lungs that’s what I’ll continue to do with Tony Horton’s workouts as my guide. As he often says: just do your best and forget the rest!

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You Play Football Long Enough, You End Up Being The Old Guy In The Team

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I’ve written in the past about my footballing (ok a long way in the past – my peak was probably around 15 years ago) and while I would never have made it as a professional or even a semi-professional, I was still able to play to a decent standard by being able to pass the ball. This sounds simple – have the ball at your feet at Point A and kick it to Point B.

But in fact there are a lot of moving parts. Everybody is moving, so you want the person you’re passing it to to be able to receive it knowing that when you kick it they’ll be in a different position by the time the ball gets there – so you pass it to where they’ll be. You also have opposing players who want to stop you passing. And the person you’re passing to also has people trying to stop them. And the opposition can read where your player is moving to so your player might fake where he’s going and you have to anticipate that. And the opposition know you want to pass it so anticipate that. Even though it takes a fraction of a second, when you play with and against clever players, you have to try and stay one step ahead. And that was about the only thing that I could successfully and reliably do and so play to a decent standard. Or maybe I was just lucky with my passing, often it was like my feet knew what to do and they just did it themselves.

Then a few years ago I was telling my brother about still playing football in my late 30s and he said “so are you the oldest guy in the team then?”. I was about to say “of course not” but then I thought about it and realised that indeed I was, and by quite a few years. How the hell did that happen?

Up until pre-coronavirus I was still playing indoor 6-a-side football once a week with one guy my age and a bunch of people in their 20s. While I could no longer do surging runs like I used to, I could still do alright, read the game and pass to the quicker and better players. Although it was damn hard physically to keep doing it. My left hip seemed to be the weak link after a niggling injury I’d had years before but I was keeping fit and flexible with Tony Horton’s P90X2 program (I really should write about that – and I wish it had been around 20 years ago) so I was able to keep going. But I knew my time was coming to a close. Nothing last for ever. Lockdown came and I figured that was my playing days done. I’d had a good run!

Then during one of the breaks between lockdown my girlfriend’s 16 year old son and his friends decided to start playing in a 6-a-side outdoor adult league. And started getting hammered each week by organised, competent footballers. He asked me if I could play and so I thought “what the hell”, laced up my boots and got back out on the pitch. And so it was that I ended up playing football in a team where I was 30 years older than my teammates.

To put it in context, for one of them to achieve the same feat their teammates won’t be born for another 14 years. I must say, I was proud that at the age of 46 I was able to play and not embarrass myself. Turns out I was by some years the oldest guy in the league and definitely not the least fit (top 10% I reckon). But it wasn’t about me at all.

I thought maybe I’d feel jealous that I no longer had the carefree raw energy and fitness of youth but instead I felt privileged to share a pitch with the next generation. Knowing the exciting futures they have ahead of them, that all the fun and adventures I had they still have to look forward to and more. Some of them will make very good footballers and play at a much higher level than I did if they want to. And game by game they’ve been learning to play as a team rather than running around like they do at school. It’s been great seeing first hand how they’ve improved. Even better is a couple of them are naturally gifted footballers so know which runs to make, know how to make a bit of space and think steps ahead of their much more experienced opponents. Which is easy for me as all I have to do is pass it to them and they can make it happen.

Football (sport in general) is a great leveller. If one of them tells me to mark someone or drop back I’ll do it. And vice versa. It’s a team game and there’s no room for some sort of adult / child interaction. We’re all equal out there and it’s really refreshing and energising. I’m sure for them too.

It won’t be long until they’re way beyond me and I won’t be in the same league as them. But to overlap the end of my playing days with the beginning of theirs is something I’ll cherish. While we may not be winning yet (one draw and one win so far), it’s really good fun. I’m hoping I’m around in 30 years time to see if any of them are still playing and take up my mantle of being the old guy in the team. I certainly hope so! 🙂

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A Road Trip around North West Scotland

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I grew up in Scotland and spent my formative years driving to the mountains then hiking up and down them (with a bit of mountain biking thrown in). Even when I moved to Yorkshire at 24 and travelled around the world I always loved coming back to my home country and seeing just what a beautiful place it is. As life got in the way I’d still visit Scotland but hadn’t been up in the mountains for too many years. I decided it was time to break that cycle and have an old school road trip around some of my favourite parts. A trip down memory lane, literally. And Scotland did not disappoint!

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Visiting the Same Glacier 22 Years Apart – Seeing Climate Change in Action

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Way back in 1995 my friends and I took an old MG Montego on a road trip from Scotland to Chamonix in the French Alps which also happened to be my first holiday abroad. I wrote about it a few years ago – The Spirit of Adventure. My abiding memory of that trip was taking a hike up the mountains to see my first ever glacier. I was expecting it to look pristine and white, not covered in rocks and debris so initially asked my friend where the glacier was before he pointed out that everything in front of me was a glacier! You can understand my confusion, this is the photo I subsequently took:

Scott and Gary and the Mer de Glace

Wind forward to the Summer of 2017 where I had the pleasure of spending a few months living in France including a couple of trips to Chamonix. First time was with a friend for a few days and we went up to the highest point a cable car can – the Aiguille du Midi (which was too expensive for the John Conners of 1995 to afford) – and I was hoping once again to catch sight of this amazing glacier I’d seen over 20 years before. Turns out I should have looked at a map – the glacier was on the next set of mountains over. But it was pretty spectacular nonetheless!

Nice view at the top! I'm the one on the left

A few weeks later I returned and this time I had a better of idea of the glacier I’d originally seen – I reckoned it was the mighty Mer de Glace. So I figured out how to hike there and one morning that’s exactly what I did. Rather than being a lazy tourist and taking the funicular railway to the top I walked – starting straight up a ski slope (those things are pretty steep and relentless to walk up). And after a couple of hours I found myself in truly spectacular scenery.

The Mountains above the Mer de Glace

It was shortly after I was in for a bit of a shock. Turns out the glacier has receded dramatically over the 22 years since I’d been. To the point where there are signs on the cliff as you go down showing you where it was in a given year.

I couldn’t help but feel sad – upset if I’m honest – to see such a dramatic difference in such a short space of time (22 years really isn’t long at all). The sheer volume of ice that’s melted just boggles the mind, but it wasn’t until I finally got around to scanning in the negatives of my photos from 1995 that I was really able to compare the before and after as it just happens that I’d taken pretty much the exact same photo 22 years apart (I’m nothing if not consistent).

The photos were taken at around the same time of year and it’s pretty clear that the rock and green line is significantly further from the glacier than it used to be. When you multiply that by how long the glacier is, that’s a hell of a lot of ice that’s no longer there. When you look at a photo like those above and see the difference it’s pretty unsettling. But when you walk there and see it with your own eyes and remember what it looked like before, it really does bring it home to you how our planet is warming. We live on a beautiful planet, but it’s fragile.

A couple of generations from now that glacier will be entirely gone. Enjoy it while you can.

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A Few Days Snowboarding In Chamonix

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Some friends and I went to Chamonix this year for 4 days of snowboarding and skiing. Turns out it’s not the cheapest of resorts if you like a few heavy nights out (as we did) but the conditions were very good considering the comparative lack of snow on previous years. Beautiful scenery in the shadow of Mont Blanc too as I’m sure you’ll agree!

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The Tour De France Comes To Yorkshire

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I’ve watched the Tour de France on TV for probably 20 years and have driven up and down the insane mountain climbs they go up and power down, always marvelling at what I believe to be the toughest endurance sport on Earth. While Lance Armstrong may now be a disgraced rider that doesn’t detract from how much I’ve loved and love the sport (and even knowing the performance enhancing drugs he took I still loved watching him power up climbs and take the races by the scruff of the neck back in the day – great entertainment). So to hear it was coming to Yorkshire and pretty much past my house I couldn’t wait to see it!

That day came yesterday and the first stage passed Addingham (a couple of miles away and so a short walk) and the second through Silsden, the village in which I live. To say it was an amazing experience would be to massively understate things. Watching it on Eurosport as I’ve done over the years but see all the places I’ve spent the past 15 years of my life was awesome, and to see these guys shooting past at incredible speed in the flesh was a dream come true for me. Even better was seeing just how many people had turned out to watch – people were EVERYWHERE! The people and countryside of Yorkshire did us proud.

I took a few photos, but you really needed to be there to feel the atmosphere and appreciate just what amazing athletes these guys are!

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A Few Days Snowboarding In Borovets, Bulgaria

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Myself and a couple of friends spent 5 days in Borovets, Bulgaria to do some low cost, high fun skiing and snowboarding and were, to say the least, very lucky with the weather (in that following a season with very little snow, it snowed just before we arrived and through most of our time there). Perhaps unsurprisingly we took one or two photos which you can find below.

If you’re on a budget and are only going for a few days I’d highly recommend Borovets. If you’re going for a week or more you might get bored as the resort isn’t anywhere near as large as a place like Morzine, for example. But it was just right for us!

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Snowboarding, Morzine, 2012

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Regular readers may recall I went on a friend’s stag do snowboarding way back in 2009 and that I had a fantastic (but knackering) time. It was such a great laugh that 6 of us went again to Morzine in France (about an hour from Geneva) and, it won’t surprise you to hear, I took a few photos!

Europe has seen some incredible snowfall this season but also some startling low temperatures – certainly the coldest I’ve boarded in. However the conditions will still superb and a great time was had by all. Enjoy the photos! 🙂