high-minded drivel

high-minded (adjective) - refined; cultured; particularly civilized. drivel (noun) - senseless talk; nonsense.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Summer Vacation Part VI: Gobsmacked! (or, Getting My Ass Kicked In The Welsh Countryside)

The Bog Snorkeling Triathlon that I referenced in the first of these Summer Vacation posts and subsequently alluded to in other posts is an annual event held in Llanwrtyd Wells.   Llanwrtyd (pronounced lan-er-tid or lan-er-tif) claims to be the smallest town in the UK, and in a brochure that we picked up states that it intends for things to remain that way, at least after the annual cull.  Knowing that their status as the smallest town in the UK may not be enough by itself to draw people to the town and fuel a livelihood for the townsfolk (a relatively high percentage of which own bed & breakfasts), Llanwrtyd has gained a bit of a reputation for hosting unusual annual events, including the Bog Snorkeling Triathlon.  A lineup of the annual events can be viewed here.  The Bog Snorkeling Triathlon actually plays second fiddle to another of the town's events: The World Bog Snorkeling Championships.  The Championships consist of contestants snorkeling just one length in the bog, with each contestant racing against the clock to see who will come away with the best time.  The event now attracts a few hundred participants each year.  In contrast, the Bog Snorkeling Triathlon gets less than 30 participants (and only about 16 this year), and is, as you might expect, and much longer and grueling affair.

If you're wondering about the bog itself, think about a muddy, water-filled ditch, like you might see on the side of the road.  Or just refer to the picture below.  The bog isn't a vast swamp, with web-footed creatures and gnarled trees and a perpetual mist hanging over it.  Rather, it is basically farmland, spongy with water, and a few ditches have been hacked out of the ground to create long, narrow pools of water that are about six feet deep.  The water is very cold, even in summer, and the reason people ever decided to snorkel in it, as the townsfolk will gleefully tell you, is because in the absence of other things to do in Llanwrtyd, people hang out at the local pub (the Neuff Arms) and think of odd ways to entertain themselves.

The Bog Snorkeling Triathlon consists of not one, not two, but three parts!  Imagine that!  First comes a run of 7.5 miles, then the snorkeling (two lengths of the bog, which totals about 120 yards), and finally a 19-mile mountain bike ride.  Having never snorkeled before, or mountain biked for that matter, some training was in order.  Thus it was that I got my old Mountain Storm tuned up, and around the same time placed an Amazon.com order for a snorkel and pair of flippers, which showed up on the doorstep a few days later.  This is where the real difficulty started, because as you know if you live in Columbus, there is a distinct lack of both bogs and mountains.  Not to be defeated so quickly, I searched out the nearest piece of ground that was at least on an incline, along with the nearest body of standing water.  The "mountain" that I turned to was the combination of streets in Grandview running north-south and connecting with Goodale Boulevard (Grandview, Broadview, etc).  Not exactly snow-capped peaks, to be sure, but at least you have to exert some force on the pedals to go up them.  As for the body of water, I wanted something suitably murky and dank.  Something deep enough to actually swim in, but calm enough to use a snorkel.  Something that had a real aura of "Why would you get in this?"  Something like Mirror Lake.

Jen accompanied me on the trip to Mirror Lake late one evening, which is a true testament to her character, because it's one thing to take the plunge along with 10 other shit-faced friends the Thursday before the Michigan game while surrounded by hundreds or even thousands of other students, and it's another thing to be stone cold sober with your boyfriend while he strips down, dons a snorkel and fins, and hops in for some leisurely swimming.  The rationale for going under cover of dark was two-fold: First, I hoped for a minimum audience.  Second, I hoped to escape notice by any campus police that may have been driving by who would potentially decide that they should enforce the posted "No Swimming" sign.

That first venture went reasonably well, but some more practice seemed advisable, so rather than making repeat late-night solo trips to Mirror Lake (Jen had left for France shortly after the first trip), I simply went to the local YMCA for a few days to utilize the pool.  Clearly this represented a further departure from a training environment that would facilitate "transfer of training," but I figured that it would really be out of the spirit of the event if I prepared too thoroughly.

When packing a bag for travel, you would be surprised at how much room a pair of flippers takes up.  They are awkwardly shaped, and just big enough that they don't fit nicely into a bag no matter what angle you choose.  Eventually I got them situated, but of course a few days later as we packed our backpacks in preparation for going to the UK, the flippers again had to be cajoled into a space that really wasn't quite big enough.  Fortunately, at no point during the trip did I need to unpack my bag mid-journey and then re-pack it.  The closest I came to that scenario was at Westminster Abbey, where a guard was poking around in everyone's personal belongings with a little stick before admitting you to the church.  If he noticed that my bag contained a pair of flippers, he didn't reveal any surprise or concern, although I guess the potential for stealthily putting on a pair of flippers in a church and then wreaking havoc are pretty slim.  And even if you did cause a ruckus, running from the police would be fairly difficult while shod with big rubber fins.

At long last we reached Llanwrtyd Wells, and the superb Ardwyn House bed & breakfast, and made final preparations for the next day's festivities.  One item of business was to pick up my bike rental from Tony, the town's bike rental guy.  As stated previously, mountain biking was entirely new to me, and given that my practice runs were on paved city streets, the surprise may have registered on my face when Tony handed me a "bike repair kit" as if it was an essential part of any mountain bike ride.  "Why would I need to repair the bike?" I thought.  Wasn't I getting a bike in good working order?  How odd.  The next stop was at the Neuff Arms to pick up some race information, which included a description of the course.  It was here that I read that the mountain bike portion of the course involved several "technical descents."  Excellent, I thought.  As long as it wasn't a technical ascent, then surely it was doable.  Just a little fancy steering, and gravity takes care of the rest.

The Sunday of the Triathlon dawned gray, but mercifully it was not raining.  We headed out to the bog and got signed in, and I found that I was the only international competitor among the field of 16.  This made me feel like an immediate fan favorite, although the reality is that I was probably viewed more as the unwitting tenderfoot, especially when I glanced at a few of the other competitors, who looked quite a bit more hale and hearty than me.  The race began with no gun, or air horn, or whistle, but just a count of 1-2-3-Go, and we were off.

We started out by running through some fields of grass that in some places came up to my knees, and with the ground underneath threatening to suck off your shoes with each step, the going was fairly difficult.  Several sheep fences had to be scaled, and in some places the ground was just pure mud, but eventually we left the fields behind and headed onto the road, through the town, and then up a long climb.  Coming from a cross country background that involved numerous legitimate hills in East Liverpool, I thought that hill-running would return to me in the same way that you can always hop back on a bike and ride it.  But alas, Columbus has made me weak, and as the hill went up, and up, and up, my pace went down, and down, and down, until I was walking.  To my credit, this seemed to be the favored method of climbing the hill, as other competitors were also walking.  When reading Born to Run, I remembered a section where McDougall is talking about the strategy of these ultra-runners, and I was surprised to learn that they frequently walk up hills if they can't see the top.  This hill I was climbing definitely fell into this category.  Eventually I reached the top and got back into a groove, taking in the splendid scenery and finishing off the run in good form.  I expected that running the 7.5 miles would be the part of the event where I performed best, and this turned out to be true.

There was only one rule for snorkeling in the bog, which was that you couldn't use any traditional swimming strokes.  Otherwise, you just hopped in, swam one length, pulled yourself out with a rope, and then came back the other way in a second ditch.  It's definitely cold, and being a bog, there is all kinds of reedy, grassy material that clings to your legs.  There's simply no graceful way of getting in and out, as the banks are slick with mud, but there must be a technique to doing the whole thing quickly, because some people were in and out of the bog in no time.  But just as I wanted to take in some of the scenery while running, it seemed a waste to come all this way across the Atlantic Ocean, have all the build-up, and then race through the bog as quickly as possible.  Why not take in the scenery, right?  Right!  Yes, that's the excuse I'll use to explain why it took me so long to doggy paddle my way through the bog.

After climbing out of the bog and getting my socks and shoes back on, it was time for the bike.  I never expected the biking to be easy, and had no illusions that I was going to be setting record times or anything, but let me say up front that I was thoroughly unprepared for this section of the event.  Starting out, you had to get your bike through some of those same fields with the high grass, and hoist it over some sheep fence.  My legs were already pretty gassed from the run, to be honest, and so the uphills turned into agony, not just because they were merely hard, but once again because it seemed like they were endless.  Turn after turn resulted in more climbing.  However, by far the hardest part of the whole thing was the path.  It was rocks going every which way, or mud, or pools of standing water.  As a result, the eagerly anticipated gravity-enhanced downhills were no time to relax and catch a breath, because you were too busy trying to navigate the deep ruts and not get thrown from your bike.

I have no doubt that all of this is Mountain Biking 101, but remember, I never took that class.  Still this all would have been fine, despite the growing sickness in my gut about having to do the second loop of the two-loop course, but near the end of the first loop I came to an intersection with various paths splitting off and didn't see any signs marking the way.  What to do?  Without a better option, I just took the most likely looking path and continued on.

In the Welsh countryside, it's not like you have roads frequently intersecting with each other, so you can go for a little while before coming to a turn-off point.  It's not that I went on for miles and miles, but I didn't just go the length of one city block, either.  Eventually I came to another intersection, again unmarked.  Thinking myself clever, this time I looked for tire tracks in the dirt, thought I saw some, and went the way they led.  Another intersection arose, again unmarked, with one way blocked by a gate of sorts.  You would think that having one way blocked by a gate would make my choice easier, but remember, this was a race where climbing over barriers was expected.  So I went over the barrier, went a short distance more, and finally decided that it could not be the right way.  I doubled back, went about half of the way I had come, and thought I saw a marker!  It was a bit hard to tell, because some of the markers for this course were literally just scraps of tape stuck on tree branches.  But I decided to go with it, thinking perhaps I had missed a marker further on.  Back I went over the ground just covered, but again stopped a few minutes later, thinking that if I was on the wrong path then it would only go from bad to worse, and I didn't have a strong desire to be lost in the Welshen Outback when the inevitable rain came.

I doubled back a second time (is that like quadrupling back?) and stuck to my guns this time, thinking that at worst I could go back to the original point of uncertainty and simply wait for the next competitor to ride by (obviously the competitive juices weren't so much flowing at this point as barely trickling).  But lo and behold, upon getting back to the troublesome spot, there was a sign there clear as day pointing the way!  "How did I miss that?", I thought to myself.  I followed where the sign led, and a couple miles later came across a guy waiting in the road.  This turned out to be the end of loop 1, and the guy, who was helping to organize the race, informed me that numerous participants were getting lost because all the signs were blowing down.  This was said in a very matter-of-fact, pleasant Welsh manner, and I got the impression that race signs blowing down was about as common as making a cup of afternoon tea.

I had wasted about 30 minutes worth of precious energy climbing unnecessary hills while struggling with my directional doubts, but then the silver lining came: they were sending people straight on to the finish line rather than allowing them to do a second loop and get lost all over again.  Call me a pansy if you will, but this was the most welcome news I had received all day, and I gladly abandoned my inaugural mountain biking adventure with ego only slightly damaged, and not nearly as sore as my body.  Back along some roads I went, over a few fences, and back through some sheep fields, where I saw another race organizer - on horseback! - smiling and offering up the quintessential Llanwrtyd encouragement of "Well done," until at last the finishing area came into beautiful, gorgeous view.

So, what to say about this experience?  Well, there are lots of things to say, like "Everyone should snorkel in a bog at least once in their life!"  Or "If you're going to do a triathlon, prepare adequately!"  Or "Mountain bikin' ain't for no wusses!"  But none of those things would be true, because bog snorkeling probably isn't really for everyone, and simply saying "prepare adequately" doesn't stress the importance of really preparing adequately, and using the words "ain't" and "no" together like that creates a double negative, which contradicts the fact that wusses shouldn't do mountain biking.  Truly, the most appropriate thing to say is that being served a slice of humble pie amidst all the fun never hurts, and is good for the soul.  Especially when it is fine English pie, and can be washed down with a pint at the Neuff Arms afterwards.

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