Swim set – swimming with fins and rotation

I hit upon a new swim set last night that I really enjoyed so I thought I’d share it with you all – although I apologise for the lack of pictures in the post! It’s really hard to get pics of a swim set in a pool especially as we are not allowed to take pictures of the pool so sorry about that.

The swim almost didn’t happen. Firstly I had left my bike lock at home so couldn’t lock it up outside the pool. Luckily my office stayed open late enough and was near enough for me to leave the bike at work and walk back after swimming. Secondly, as I put my swimming costume on and reached for my hat I realised my goggles were not in their usual place inside the hat… yep I had left them at home. I only had a short time to get the swim in before heading to a pub quiz so I wavered and then decided I’d just have to buy a new pair at reception. £15 later and I had a pair of the most uncomfortable goggles I’ve ever worn – an expensive purchase as I doubt I’ll wear them again!

Anyway – time to get in the pool.

The set below is good for when you don’t have a full hour to swim. After Saturday’s long swim of 500m sets and using the pull buoy, I wanted to work my legs for strength and do a bit of technique work on rotation. So I brought my fins along with me.


Fins are great for improving leg strength in the pool. You don’t want those big ones that scuba divers use, little ones are much better for use in the pool. They are handy for allowing you to slow yourself down and focus on stroke and arm/rotation technique – however, as they displace more water, they increase the resistance. If you kick as hard as you normally might, they target muscles on your legs that you may not be using properly when you swim without fins.

They also help with ankle flexibility – something that many runners and cyclists struggle with when they get in the water (with my ballet background, I’ve never had a problem with ankle flexibility but it’s always good to work on it!) Having flexible ankles will make your kick more streamlined and efficient.

Finally, the buoyancy of the fins helps get your body into a good, high, streamlined position – practicing being in this position with fins on will help you stay in the position when you take them off!

The other thing that fins are great for is giving you an added bit of propulsion and buoyancy when you are trying to work on something else. The other aim of my set yesterday was to work on my body rotation in the swim. This means rolling your shoulders, body and hips at the same time as you take your strokes. Doing this is really important for a fast stroke, especially when wearing a wetsuit in open water. Why?

Firstly, the wetsuit constrains your shoulders. Rolling your body makes it much easier to bring your recovering arm over the top of your body with the shoulder high. When you are on your side, the recovery is a much easier action than if you are flat on your front in the water.

Secondly, rolling means you are able to use larger, stronger muscles in your swim. Rather than just your arm and shoulder muscles, you can use your back, core and side muscles. You know its a good swim workout if you come out the pool with your sides aching!

It also makes you more streamlined in the water, makes turning your head to breathe easier, and allows for a longer stroke. BUT it is often really difficult and feels unnatural at first. The drills below are great for getting you used to the position and I was so surprised by how easy the body roll felt afterwards, and how much easier it made swimming! P.s. for more information – the Swim Smooth website is always fantastic and this is a very useful article about why rotation is important.

Okay – now all the theory is out of the way, here’s the actual set.

1) Warm-up: 2 x 200m front crawl – although, because I can’t count, I did 2 x 250m front crawl (10 lengths). I wore the fins for the first rep to get used to how they felt and warm up my leg muscles, and then no fins for the second rep. Note: fins are slippy on the bottom of the pool and pushing off is hard when you’re wearing them!

2) 4 x 100m with 10-30secs RI. Each 100m went as follows:
– 25m front crawl
– 25m on my side, with the bottom arm outstretched in front of me and the top arm lying across my body. My head is facing the bottom of the pool so my eyes are staring right at the bottom and I am looking past my shoulder.
– 25m with both arms relaxed lying back along my body. Start on one side, with your head facing the bottom of the pool. Without moving your head, use your back and side muscles to roll your body from lying on the right side to lying on the left. Repeat throughout the length (rolling up more to breathe when needed).
– 25m front crawl – I couldn’t believe how much I was rotating and how easy it was on this length!

3) 4 x 100m with 10-30secs RI. Wearing fins, each 100m as follows:
– 50m holding onto a float in front of me, kicking as hard as I can
– 50m front crawl

4) Warm-down: whatever you like! My warm-down involved 50m breast stroke, 50m front crawl, 50m backstroke (all without fins), 100m slow front crawl with fins to finish.

Total: 1550m and 40mins of swimming.

Week in review – a long swim session

After my 100 miles last Sunday I felt pretty horrible. I was slowly rehydrating and gaining energy but all my muscles were sore and the act of sitting down had me wincing! My body slowly recovered but I had given myself a full week off everything unless I absolutely felt like it…..

Well, it got to Thursday and I did feel like a swim after work- until I realised I’d left my towel at home and then I was asked to go for a drink. The swim was put off until Friday morning and then one drink turned into three and it was put off altogether. I did manage a lovely lunch time walk around St James Park though!


My weekend started with a yoga class at 6pm on Friday night at my local gym, the Queen Mother in Victoria. It’s a great class, really hard yoga that gets me hot and sweaty and leaves me feeling really tired afterwards – it’s a great way to sweat out all of the toxins of a hard working week. It finishes at 7pm which still leaves more than enough time for a nice Friday evening. James’ sister came round for dinner so we had Dalila takeaway (my favourite Lebanese food from Battersea) and spent the evening chatting and relaxing.

Saturday was the weekly shop, reading my book, a nap, and then I eventually made it to the pool for a swim. I’d been putting it off all day, wavering about whether I’d go or not and with various excuses but eventually I just left the house and headed down to Brixton Rec to use the pool there. And it was wonderful – Saturday afternoon swims are the best. The pool was deserted with only a few other swimmers and I had a lane to myself for at least half the swim. I had no real time pressures so that took out my usual morning excuse for cutting the swim short. I really enjoyed it - 86 lengths and 2150m later I was considering going on to 100 lengths but realised I should probably get back for dinner. It was the longest swim I’ve ever done!

It’s a great set for a mental and more endurance based workout so I’ll share it with you – it’s also very simple to remember!

4 x 500m with 1 min rest interval

1) front crawl. 100 normal breathing, 100 bilateral, repeat. Sprint the last 100m

2) pull-buoy – repeat the above but with a pull-buoy for 500m. Sprinting without using your legs is funny – I find it hard to stop my feet trying to help me along!

3) repeat sets 1 & 2

I then did a nice cool down involving 50 breast stroke, 50 front crawl and 50 back stroke.

Saturday evening was a special dinner of ribeye steak, potato dauphinois and m&s chocolate puds before beginning series 4 of the Walking Dead . I might have spent a lot of it with my scarf over my eyes but I LOVE that show.

walking dead

I learnt a valuable lesson on Sunday. Don’t eat a ginormous burger for lunch, get straight into bed for a nap for two hours, get up and down a bottle of water before immediately heading out on a run. My tummy was not happy and being sick was a definite possibility. All the more annoying as my legs felt really strong and I kept good form throughout the run but had to keep stopping to walk due to my tummy pain. Oh well – lesson learnt!!!


Chrissie Wellington – a life without limits

Chrissie Wellington is a bit of a hero. I just finished reading her book, Chrissie Wellington: A Life WIthout Limits and I thought it was fantastic – would really recommend reading it. However, it is a biography, not a training manual, so don’t open it up thinking you’re going to get Chrissie’s training plans and race strategies. She’s not a coach, she’s an athlete, and so part of what she does is just follow the plans her coach sets for her. If you want a training plan, go for a different book! But if you want to know more about the life and personality of this incredible athlete, it’s a great book. I thought I’d review it in a slightly different format than normal – so here are my ten reasons to love Chrissie Wellington


1) She has won the Ironman world champions in Kona four times – 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2011 – she has won every single ironman she has ever competed in – thirteen in total. She broke Paula Newby-Fraser’s record at Kona – a record which had stood for 14 years prior to Chrissie’s race. She also holds the overall world record at the ironman distance (set at Challenge Roth) and the official Ironman-branded world record. Miranda Carfrae took the Kona course record in 2013. She came out of nowhere in her first Ironman world championship – winning on her debut was a feat that was previously seen as unachievable, leaving commentators empty for words as they just did not know who she was. Then in her final world championship in 2011, she won after a major bike crash just a few weeks before. The book really shows the toll that put on her – swimming 1km just a few days before Kona had her pulled out of the water in agony and spending six hours in hospital. The accident meant she came out of the water down on her usual times and had to fight her way back through the pack – an incredibly gutsy and hard-fought win, resulting in setting a new course record for the run (to be taken again just a few minutes later by Miranda Carfrae).

2) She is quite clearly an incredible female triathlete – however, she is an incredible triathlete in her own right, with marathon times that are often just a few minutes behind the lead man, coming second over all in the Alpe D’Huez long course triathlon. She often finished in the top ten overall – an impressive feat for any triathlete but she has slowly been chipping away the gap between the male and female times.

3) She is just pretty incredible in terms of her ability. She had no background in sport or athletics as a child or junior, a bit of swimming but she wasn’t always winning and it was a bit of fun rather than anything serious. She ran her first marathon at the age of 25, with no structured training plan and ran it in 3 hours 8!!!!! This just makes you realise how incredible she is. When you think about other professional athletes, you can think “oh they’re that fast because they have very good coaches and they train all the time and they eat all the right food” etc etc. Even when you think about faster age-groupers, you can think “oh they’re much better than me because they train more and do the right kind of training” (or whatever it is). But Chrissie just went out there in old beaten-up trainers, knowing nothing about “structured” marathon training and ran a 3hr 8 marathon.

chrissie winning

4) One of her mottos is to always smile – she says this relaxes her body which is obviously useful in a race, plays mind games with her competitors, and just makes her feel better – but it means that she always looks like she is having fun, and that triathlon is the best thing in the world. Which it is!

5) She is searingly honest about her battles with anorexia and bulimia in her late teens and early twenties, the disordered thinking that led to them and the importance of triathlon in her recovery. She now loves her body for what it can do, and nourishes it so that it can do those things – no longer is she worried about being “thin”. Having said that, she is also very honest about her super-organised, super-obsessive mentality and it is easy to see how that can translate from counting calories to endurance training.

6) She is also searingly, disgustingly honest about bodily functions during an ironman, discussing openly having diarrhea running down her leg or in the water pre-start. She advises peeing on the bike, not only to save time but also to prevent others drafting – apparently if any of the other girls get too close she lets off a “few warning shots” of wee!!! Urine as a weapon…. I like it.


7) She is proud to support, inspire and be encouraged by all the other competitors including age-groupers. She stays at the finish line at ironman events until the last person has crossed the line, supporting and cheering on the other athletes as they come to their finish. A chapter of her book is dedicated to athletes she finds inspiring, from disabled ironman athletes to Madonna Buder, the 84yr old ironman nun, to each and every age-grouper putting in the training hours on top of a 40-hr-a-week job.

8) But she is not just a triathlete, and her book is not just about triathlon. Chrissie is incredibly passionate about development and specifically the importance of sport in bringing together impoverished communities. She worked for DEFRA for several years until she became fed up of the hypocrisy of staying in a five star hotel, travelling first class, drinking champagne, all the while talking about ways of improving the lives of people in poverty throughout the world. She believes it’s really important to use the opportunity that has been given to her to be a role model, to raise the profile of the issues that matter to her and to increase participation in sport throughout the world – she is a proud ambassador for park run, the wonderful initiative that sees volunteers hosting free timed 5k runs every Saturday morning in parks around the world.

9) Chrissie is also a passionate supporter of women’s equality in sport, submitting a petition in 2013 together with professional cyclists such as Emma Pooley and Marianne Vos for there to be a women’s tour de france – “We thought women couldnt run marathons until the late 1960s! Hindsight has taught us how foolish that was. Hopefully 30 years from now, we will see 2014 as the year that opened people’s eyes to true equality in the sport of cycling, and also generate equality all the way down to the grassroots level.”

This resulted in La Course on the Champs d’Elysee this year.


10) This article could be ten reasons in itself – Be The Change:

“So, ask yourself these simple questions. What am I passionate about? What causes are of interest or concern to me personally and why? The environment, climate change, senior citizens or children, certain diseases or illnesses, sex trafficking, domestic abuse, natural disasters, animal rights, social inequality, obesity, pollution, sustainable energy, organic farming….the list is endless.”

Go on to ask yourself what your skills and experiences are that may be of value to others.

“You don’t have to make huge changes or sacrifices. The smallest stone creates a ripple that will spread across a pond. Think in terms of what you CAN do, rather than what you cant.”


Week in Review – 100 miles

This week I managed ten hours of training – a bit different from most high volume weeks though as it was made up of:

- 1 swim
– 1 strength workout
– 1 yoga class
– 1 100 mile cycle!!!!!!!!

I really enjoyed my swim workout although it was hard so I’ll share it below. The hundred mile cycle was fantastic and there’s a post coming soon on that so I’ll leave the details for now… except that it took us 7 and a half hours and was the hardest thing I’ve ever done although also great fun!


Fast and hard swim workout – from 220 Triathlon magazine with a few of my tweaks

1) Warm-up – however long suits you. I’m pretty sure the plan in 220 Triathlon mag recommended 600m as a warm-up but that’s a bit long and time-consuming for me so I went for a slow and easy 200m!

2) 10 x 50m fast with 15secs rest (a total of 500m)

3) 10 x 50m alternating fast and easy with 15 secs rest (another 500m)

4) 10 x 50m at 85% effort with 10 secs rest (another 500m). I don’t really know what 220 Triathlon meant by ‘fast’ as compared to ‘85%’. Is ‘fast’ faster than 85%? That’s the way I decided to take it due to the fact the final set has less rest time. BUT I only really have two swim speeds and so I aimed to go all out on all ‘fast’/85% reps.

5) cool down! I usually do 200m of front crawl and breast stroke.

It’s a great workout that had me gasping for breath, heart pounding, arms aching. I really felt I had done a proper workout… when often the lengths in the pool are more mental and technique-based than really pushing my body. With a sub-30min olympic distance swim time, it’s time to think about speed a little bit as well as technique. I actually really enjoyed this, despite how hard it was, and am looking forward to doing it again!

South Downs 100

On Sunday I cycled my first century in the Wiggle South Downs 100. It was HARD. Cycling 100 miles is, I think, the hardest physical thing I have ever done. It was also the first thing I’ve done this year where I didn’t know if I could do it. I knew I would get up Mont Ventoux, I just didn’t know how fast or if I would hate every moment. I knew I would finish my first Olympic distance triathlon, even if I ended up walking most of the 10k run. In the end I loved Mont Ventoux & was really proud of my triathlon times.


But since that triathlon, at the beginning of September, I’ve cut down quite a bit on my training. And especially on my bike training, as my old knee injury has been flaring up. When your knee is really painful at the end of a slow 15 minute cycle to work, you seriously question your ability to cycle for 100 miles.

Falling asleep the night before, my tired mind had envisaged me sat in tears on the side of the road, knee in agony, unable to cycle any further. I remembered a short 35 mile cycle James and I had done a few weeks back, and the utter misery on every hill because of the pain, and I worried. I slept badly, woken up by howling wind and torrential rain (another worry – did I even want to cycle 100 miles in torrential rain?!), and then by a horrible nightmare. I felt sick with nerves and I couldn’t really work out why – I couldn’t get my brain to understand that this was just a nice day out cycling with my family.

The morning seemed rushed and stressful, and we were very late out of the door. I had forgotten to take the ibruprofen and the paracetamol that was going to ward off the knee pain, and I was getting increasingly stressed. As we were late I was worried we were going to miss the cut-offs and actually be unable to cycle the full 100 miles. Luckily everything was very well-organised, registering and getting our timing chips took a matter of seconds.

We finally started and almost immediately stopped to raise my saddle. And then we were off. Immediately I started to relax in the gentle rhythm of turning my pedals, mind attuned to any potential twinge in the left knee, but also put at ease in the raising of the saddle. I imagine this was probably completely mental, but I had convinced myself the height of the saddle was the problem, and we’d just solved this.

We split up quickly, with my mum accompanying my aunt, while my uncle Nigel, cousin Jane, and my other cousin’s boyfriend Ben and I went ahead. I was the slowest of the group, which was no surprise to me! And I’m not ashamed to say I received quite a lot of help in sticking on either Nigel or Ben’s wheel! The route started by leaving Chichester towards Lavant, and then a climb up towards Goodwood – a climb I quite enjoyed on fresh legs especially as this was the hill I’d come down during my triathlon! It was just under 25 miles to the first aid station, along roads I’d never cycled or driven on before. Almost deserted – this was the “epic” route and we were some of the last “epic” riders to start so we didn’t see many other cyclists and very few cars. Although it had been drizzling when we woke up, the rain had stopped before we started and it was clearing up into a beautiful, if windy, day. The wind was so hot – like warm breath blown right into your face, incredible for the end of October. It was quickly drying the roads although also blowing leaves all over them which meant some of the descents were a lot slower than they could have been! This first section was the flattest of the route, with the biggest hills coming in the final 30 miles. “Flat” would be a slight exaggeration however… this was definitely undulating.

I felt pretty good at the first aid station – time for some flapjacks and a toilet stop before we were on our way again. It was a long drag to the second aid station at around 55 miles and by this point I was starting to feel a little tired, but still okay. We sped through tiny villages and miles and miles without a house in sight, cycling along some stunningly beautiful deserted roads, so narrow and covered in leaves that bikes had to go single file, stunning views of the South Downs spread out before us.


I had a gel between stops and then about two bananas at the second aid station. This was where things were starting to go slightly wrong with nutrition – it was lunch time and I was hungry, but all that was on offer were bananas, more flapjacks, fig rolls (which I don’t like) and jelly beans. I really wanted something savoury and realised I should have stuffed a sandwich into my jersey pocket.

We were soon out and off towards the next aid station – a mere 20-odd miles away at 76 miles. I knew by this point I would be able to finish. Both knees ached gently, but no more than you would expect after over 50 miles on the bike. The first portion of this next section was great, time and miles were speeding past, until we hit the 8% hill known on Strava as Turkey Island climb. The gears went down and I ground my way on. Jane and Ben sped off, both saying afterwards they thought it was the hardest climb of the day – but they had been trying to beat each other and the two men in front of us clad head to toe in Sky cycling gear… (They beat them). Nigel stayed back with me and basically talked me up the hill. It is hard enough on any ride, but when you’ve done 70 miles up to that point…. Breathe, breathe, grind, grind, stare at the road, you’ll get there eventually.

Eventually we made it to the third and final aid station at 76 miles. Everything was hurting. The front of my ankles, both knees, my arms, my shoulders, my back, my neck, my hands….. Everything. I’d taken another gel on the ride and was now tucking into a flapjack when an organiser came round telling us that if we were doing the epic course we had to leave NOW. This was slightly unfair as it was just past 3pm and they weren’t meant to be removing the last epic loop until 3.30pm so we had almost half an hour… But we jumped on our bikes and headed away, me still attempting to munch on my flapjack as I cycled. All the sweetness was making me feel slightly sick despite being very hungry. I had an internal sense-of-humour failure as we cycled away, feeling like crap and with Butser Hill looming up ahead of me.

This was the cruelest part of the event. The epic route involved a final loop away from the standard and short courses. This loop consisted solely of a steep climb up Teglease towards East Meon – an average gradient of 6% + which might have been challenging but okay normally but not with over 70 miles on the legs. By this time I was talking to myself – “it’s meant to be hard you twat, it’s meant to hurt. Just a few more hills to go. Just keep cycling just keep cycling.” The ‘positive’ (?!) talking seemed to work and I made it to the top, the smiles coming back as I cycled along a ridge with stunning views.

A fast descent took you straight back down again and ready to climb up Butser Hill. Two years ago I walked my bike up here on the 45 mile “short” route. Pleased to say I managed to get up it this time even if I did worry at one point I would tip off my bike backwards!! Wiggle had organised a closed road for this climb and had volunteers ringing cow bells and cheering the cyclists on which was quite good fun as I powered up alone. It’s a kilometre climb with an average grade of 9.4% and it did me in.

This was the last proper climb, but from that point onwards, even the tiniest inclines had me grinding away in my lowest gear as if I was going up Mont Ventoux. We stuck closely together in a peloton for the last 15 miles or so, Nigel pulling us along on the front, cranking up the pace gradually until we were going over 20mph – the fastest I’ve ever gone on an undulating road and at the end of 100 miles! As soon as the road tipped upwards I had to really, really push my legs to keep on his wheel, but by this point I knew we were almost home, and the faster we cycled, the soon it would be over. The wheels really came off for the last 5 minutes back in Chichester and I had no more energy to push down on the pedals.


We were finished! 101.5 miles, over 2200m of climbing (or 7270 feet) in 7 and a half hours. I am so happy and proud of myself, despite the fact that every part of my body hurts. Even my tummy and my chest hurt to touch afterwards and I have no idea why! It has really, really put into perspective what these incredible ironman athletes do. To cycle 16 extra miles, and then go on and run a marathon… I was barely in any position to hobble/walk let alone run any distance whatsoever! So much respect and admiration, especially to the back of the pack who spend so much longer on the bike than the pros.


This is a mud line… not just very hairy legs!

The next day I was in agony and still not feeling right due to lack of proper nutrition and not drinking enough water. But already how painful it was is starting to fade into the background in the memory of those beautiful deserted roads, the blue skies ahead, and the sheer exhilaration when we finally finished. I’ll be doing it again for sure.


Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle by Dervla Murphy

I had planned a blog post on Dervla Murphy as a whole – the incredible Irish woman who has spent a lifetime travelling independently or with her daughter, mainly on her bike, and even now, in her 80s, is spending time in the Gaza strip viewing Palestinian politics with the same forthright approach as characterises all her books and adventures. Then I read Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle and my notes on that book alone stretched to almost 1,500 words. Clearly this book requires a post all of its own.

full tilt
Dervla was around 10 years old when she was given her first bike and decided that one day she would cycle from Ireland to India on a bike. She was in her early 30s when she set out to do just that, stating at the start of her book that “this is perhaps the moment to contradict the popular fallacy that a solitary woman who undertakes this sort of journey must be ‘very courageous’”. Two pages in, I was already grinning and shaking my head with admiration at her forthright, determined style. The main focus of the book sees Dervla cycling through the Middle East – it was at this point that she decided to send her notes home at intervals and have these passed around her friends. The book comes, apparently almost word-for-word from these notes. As a result, Dervla’s travels through Europe and what was then Prussia are slightly, and sadly skipped over. She set off in one of the coldest winters Europe had had, battling snow storms and icy winds. Her stoicism shines through as she writes about a fall off her bike and tumble down a mountain due to a blowing gale and icy roads, and a huge wave from floods in Yugoslavia also knocking her off her bike. “By this time worrying about pneumonia seemed fulfils; for days I had been living in a state of permanent saturation from the waist down, so that the only sensible reaction was lots of rum and no fuss”.

dervla murphy
The skipping of these parts was slightly annoying as it all sounded wonderful and I wanted to know more, but the beginning of the book really is a whirlwind journey: “I was able to cycle almost all the way from Cuprija to Istanbul, through Bulgaria and Turkey-in-Europe, but the Turkish highlands were still under snow so here again we became dependant on buses and trucks.” It focuses on the main events that happened to her, such as fighting off wolves, awaking to find a “scantily-clad” Kurdish man standing over her bed in the middle of the night, and threatening with her revolver three old Persian men who had attempted to steal her bike.

Dervla describes such horrific incidents completely matter-of-factly, such as an attempted rape by a police officer in Azerbaijan: “having discovered that European women are not as obliging as he had supposed them to be, he lost all control, and the ensuing scene was too sordid for repetition…… It is perhaps understandable that, of all the regions I travelled through, Azerbaijan is the not one I would not wish to revisit alone.
However, problems with the bike and/or the weather are (unsurprisingly) those that Dervla encounters most. A wheel breaking in the middle of a desert means a chance for an afternoon nap until a truck comes past and she can hitch-hike a lift. Extreme heat in the plains of Afghanistan and Pakistan is alleviated by constant breaks to sit, naked, under waterfalls – some days Dervla cycles all day but for only 15 miles at a time, interspersed with short breaks to lower her body temperature – but she does eventually get heatstroke. And then climbing up mountains covered in snow and glaciers, so steep that she has to carry her bike, which, after banging her shins hundreds of times, she does by hanging it complete with panniers around her neck. You would think this would be enough for one day, but no, Dervla then descends the mountain only to discover the bridge is gone. She manages to ford the icy-cold, glacier-water river by wrapping an arm around a small cow who turned up at just that moment and accompanying the cow through the river!

shibar pass
Aside from the straightforward descriptions of hardship, Dervla’s depictions of the landscape she cycles through are so wonderful – anybody who’s ever been on a bike can appreciate the joy in “cycling day after day beneath a sky of intense blue, through wild mountains whose solitude and beauty surpassed anything I had been able to imagine”. This is especially obvious in her depiction of Afghanistan, a country Dervla develops a great love for; her descriptions make me very jealous that the likelihood is I will never get to cycle through Afghanistan in my life time. Having said that, it was not without its dangers in hers; everybody she meets says she should not be cycling through their country alone, that they would not do it. Twice, an incident in the desert means a road block is thrown up and she has to take a bus several hundred miles instead of cycling – once for over 400 miles in almost 24 hours of driving on a crowded bus, where two Afghan women, burkha-clad, were kept with the “goods and chattel” on the roof of the bus!
It is in Afghanistan that she sustains her worst injury of the trip, in a passage that had me open-mouthed in appreciation of the beauty she describes, and then almost laughing out loud on the train…. It begins with an incredible thunderstorm while Dervla is in a bus going over a pass to Bamian, with continuous lightning, “not flashes as we know them, but glaring sheets of blue illumination, revealing gaunt peaks on one side and sickening ravines on the other; yet it was all so beautiful and awe-inspiring that one simply forgot to be afraid.” A fight breaks out over the amount of the fare. One man brandishes his rifle and scrambles over the others to get to the driver; he is pushed backwards and Dervla gets hit in the ribs with the butt of his rifle. She turns around to see a “terrifying forest of rifle barrels behind me“. The bus stops, the driver gets out and brandishes his gun… “And I hastily produced mine, vaguely hoping to set a good example. But I was completely ignored while the verbal battle raged and everyone fingered his trigger menacingly as though it wouldn’t be verbal much longer; the angry shouts of all concerned almost drowned both the thunder and the hiss of the hail slashing down”. I LOVE the image of Dervla Murphy with her small revolver, surrounded by huge afghan men with huge rifles, crammed in on an overcrowded coach as the lightning flashes outside and the hail pours down.
Eventually a compromise is reached and on the bus goes with no further violence. But the result of the first protestor’s fall backwards is that three of Dervla’s ribs are broken. She continues on for several days, cycling, sightseeing and horseback riding, but eventually the pain forces her to the hospital and she is forbidden from cycling for two weeks.
Despite this, it is impossible to miss Dervla’s love of Afghanistan, the landscape, the culture, the people. She describes Herat as “a city of absolute enchantment in the literal sense of the word. It loosens all bonds binding the traveller to his own age and sets him free to live in a past that is vital and crude but never ugly. Herat is as old as history and as moving as a great epic poem”.

The people she meets are almost without fail generous, helpful and friendly, showing remarkable “tolerance” for Dervla, even when their wives practice purdah – female seclusion involving wearing their burkha, they “so easily accept the fact that my standards differ from theirs, yet give me no feeling of being regarded as inferior on that account”. Indeed, Dervla believes she has the best of both worlds, being treated as an equal by the men but still afforded the level of respect they afford women.
“This is the only country I was ever in where not one single man of any type has made the slightest attempt to ‘get off’ with me, so I feel no qualms about a night at the mercy of my five companions. They all look as though murder was their favourite hobby (and maybe it is – among themselves) yet they’re as gentle as lambs with me.”
The only slightly discordant notes in this book for me were Dervla’s views on arranged marriages and purdah, which followed her dislike of westernisation and globalisation. She suggests that, where there are problems in Afghan families, “perhaps the mistake is to give daughters a glimpse of western freedom by educating them at European-run schools, and then to expect them to revert unprotestingly to their own traditions”, and she expresses great sympathy for a patriarch who wants his daughter to marry a certain man against her will. Dervla’s views on this were perhaps skewed by her general love of the country, and they have developed over time as she has absolutely no sympathy for such behaviour in her most recent book, A Month by the Sea!
In summary, this is a wonderful book, beautifully written and filled with interesting tidbits of opinion and insights on the way people live, together with the necessary hardships and challenge of any cycle journey such as this. I couldn’t recommend it more.

Weekly review – a fitness blog with minimal fitness

This week marked a turning point. I am fed up of hungover Sundays where getting out of bed is agony and the thought of getting on a bike is about the worst thing ever. I have really embraced the off-season. Not that I’ve actively gone to more events than before as I was always quite good at turning up… I’ve just stayed out longer, drunk more… And so this week I did the least exercise I’ve done ALL year – just over 3 hours – basically due to missing park run from laziness and missing a 2 hour cycle ride due to an extreme hangover. Enough. This week will be VERY different however as I’m attempting to cycle my first 100 miles on Sunday!!


It was an incredibly busy week which also didn’t help, involving a trip out of London helping out the incredible US attorney Nancy Hollander – if you are interested in issues of justice and the rule of law I would suggest reading this article by her – it’s extremely passionate and well written.

Then a few days later I went with a friend to see Matthew Bourne’s Lord of the Flies. This was amazing – a ballet / contemporary dance with an all-male cast ranging in age from 10 years old to adults. The boys were wonderful dancers, filled with anger and passion and the fight scenes between Ralph and Jack were wonderful. There was so much going on on stage that I’d love to go and watch it again – the show was funny, creepy, scary and moving at different times. Sadly it’s run in London is over but you can still see it in Cardiff, Newcastle, Norwich and Bradford.

lord of the flies

I did manage to get in one run – a fantastic, beautiful 7k run although not as fast as I would have liked! From work I ran through St James’ Park, along the bottom of Green Park past Buckingham Palace, through Hyde Park, round the Serpentine and back again.


London looking like Disney Land

It was a beautiful day, if a little windy – blue skies and sun and that wind gave me a nice little push on the way home! I think my new Strava update isn’t working as well as it did before as the run wasn’t as fast as it felt, and my slowest kms were those when I was waiting at traffic lights to cross over to Hyde Park … so I think I probably ran it faster! The best thing about the run was that by the time I was showered and back at my desk, tucking into a hot lunch, the heavens opened and it was torrential rain for the rest of the afternoon. Well-timed!


This weekend was my gran and grandad’s 60th wedding anniversary… 60 years, it’s ridiculous. We had a huge family gathering with 26 of us, starting with lunch and followed by go karting at Goodwood. I’d driven down from London under torrential rain showers but the sun came out as we reached the race track and was sparkling on the puddles.


The go karting track at Goodwood is great – to the left, the main track curves round and it was a day where people can bring their own cars to the track so there were some minis going VERY fast around it! To the right was the airfield with some lovely little planes taking off and landing. The go karting was great fun and I even won a race! Even my 84 year old Grandad had a go and was faster than my mum (which wasn’t saying much…..)


We got all dressed up in the evening for a lovely dinner in which I drank far too much wine – together with most of the family – before spending Sunday morning in Goodwood’s spa. Sunday would have been better had it been less hungover but all in all it was a fantastic weekend!