As the Director of my own company, I rely on word of mouth to ensure I am always bringing in new business. Reputation is everything, and something I work hard at. However, I am aware as anyone else just how busy our lives are - we are overwhelmed by work and fast moving social media feeds and it is easy to slip off the radar. So I know just how important it is to keep in touch with your contacts and stay 'front of mind'. I have my own little ways of doing this , such as sending 'Happy New Year' cards to my contacts (a little different from sending the usual Christmas card), but I was really interested to hear some tips from the former editorial director of Twitter, Karen Wickre on how to nurture these contacts throughout the year:
Take 10 minutes a day to craft casual hellos — it goes a long way.
According to Karen Wickre, tending your network doesn’t take more than 10 minutes a day. The key to making meaningful connections, she argues, isn’t going to a marathon of cocktail hours. It’s staying in “loose touch” — what she defines as “the care and feeding of your networks over time.”
As the former editorial director of Twitter, Wickre is both incredibly well-connected and a self-described introvert. She even wrote a book for her fellow quiet, limelight-avoidant observers. In Taking the Work Out of Networking: An Introvert’s Guide to Making Connections That Count, Wickre shares a 10-minute trick for maintaining loose touch, and five FYIs you can send keep your relationships thriving.
Here she is in her own words:
No one likes to feel used repeatedly, especially when it’s one-sided. The best connections you can make are those where you have mutuality: sometimes one of you needs something, and sometimes neither of you does, and you continue to give your time and attention either way.
This is my guiding principle for no-pressure networking: Nurture it before you need it.
Start by spending 10 minutes a day building your loose-touch habit. That’s a small amount of effort for what is potentially a lot of payoff, in good feelings if not in immediate outcomes. Whether you’re the giver or the receiver in need, you’ll get a sense of satisfaction either way. Here’s how I fit it into my day:
The nice thing about a “Just FYI” message is that there’s no real obligation involved on either side, and you are top of mind for a moment with the recipient (which helps solidify your ongoing relationship).
Apart from the link or attachment, your message is essentially along these lines: this confirms what we talked about; I wonder what your reaction is; reading this reminds me of you. Here are five types of ‘Just FYI’ notes to add to your rotation:
Subject: Do you know about this conference? (The subject line should tease the information you’re sending instead of being a generic “hi”.)
Hi Jimmie, I hope you’re faring well in these fun times. Just ran across this [link] and thought of you.
Even this short note accomplishes quite a lot:
I am just reflecting on the culmination of a fascinating project I have been working on for WWF.
I initially started working as Project Manager with them back in January 2018 and wanted to share some of the highlights of this amazing fundraising campaign with you.
WWF had previously worked with curators 'Artwise' on two projects called 'Pandamonium' which featured collaborations with contemporary artists to create innovative artworks out of old panda collection boxes which raised significant awareness for the charity through exposure in Selfridges in Oxford Street. This was followed by 'Pandamonium 2' in 2012 where artists were tasked with creating wearable sculpture or performance art.
'Tomorrow's Tigers' was an altogether more ambitious project. Not only was there an expectation of generating a similar level of exposure for WWF, but a fundraising target of raising £1million for tiger conservation work was set. In 2010, the last Chinese Year of the Tiger, WWF made a promise:
WWF, tiger range nations, the World Bank and other partners committed to double the number of wild tigers by 2022, the next Chinese ‘Year of the Tiger’. Since the start of the 20th century we’ve lost over 95% of wild tigers. Today there are only 3,900 individuals left. Due to the concerted efforts of governments, WWF, partner organisations, and communities since the International Tiger Summit in 2010, for the first time in conservation history, wild tiger numbers are increasing.
Artwise had embraced the the concept of increasing the numbers of this majestic animal and took their inspiration for an art led campaign from an exhibition that took place at the Hayward Gallery in 1988 called 'The Tiger Rugs of Tibet'. Curated by Mimi Lipton, this showcased a collection of very rare antique rugs. Like the wild tiger, the original Tibetan Tiger Rugs are very rare. Thought to be owned by the
Tibetan elite and considered a prize possession, when the 1988 exhibition was staged, there were only around 200 samples known about. Traditionally the Tiger Rugs were made as gifts for Lamas in their monasteries and were used with Tantric Meditation. The tiger skin motif was thought to protect the person during meditation. Artwise planned to approach 10 contemporary artists to take their inspiration from these rugs to create their own interpretations which would then be realised by specialist rug makers Christopher Farr. These rugs were to be handmade by craftspeople in India to produce a limited edition of 10 of each design. Starting prices were anticipated to be around £10,000.
Building the Team and the Brand
The first phase was to pull together the project team to support Artwise from WWF. This included PR and Comms, Brand, Digital, and of course key people from the fundraising team, in this case led by Philanthropy/Major Donors and including members of the Corporate fundraising team. The contemporary art world is very specialised, and to crack the PR around this was going to be key.
The exhibition date at Sotheby’s was January 2019 and so working back from this we decided to have a launch event in September 2018 to try and engage with key people in the art world as well as potential philanthropists and influencers. WWF supporter Lily Cole came on board to lend her voice to the project and agreed to attend the launch at Sotheby’s.
The project had initially been referred to internally with a working name of ‘Tiger Rugs’ but we were very aware that this would not work with an external audience as it conjured up images of tiger skin rugs, obviously NOT something WWF wanted! So the title ‘Tomorrow’s Tigers’ was decided as a fitting name as saving this species is intrinsic to securing the future of our planet. It needed to have its own identity which would not only sit within the WWF brand, but speak to a contemporary art audience. Working with designers is something which I have always enjoyed doing, echoing back to my art and design background. WWF’s agency, Clean Canvas were great to work with and ever patient as we considered their various options. It’s never easy when there are so many stakeholders involved, but we were really happy with the clean logo they came up with which had a subtle reference to tiger claw marks.
Whilst this background work was going on, the really exciting stuff was happening. Artwise confirmed that they had secured support from the ten artists. We were highly excited that the first artist to come on board was Anish Kapoor! They had in fact already received the artwork designs from Anish Kapoor, Rose Wylie and Gary Hume. It was fascinating to see how they had all come up with very different interpretations, and we were excited to see how Christopher Farr executed them into the rug production.
The final confirmed artists were:
Francesco Clemente, Bernard Frize, Gary Hume, Reena Saini Kallat, Anish Kapoor, Maya Lin, Harland Miller, Raqib Shaw, Kiki Smith and Rose Wylie.
The original rugs had of course been woven in Tibet, but this was something that was no longer viable, and so Christopher Farr was working with a group of highly skilled craftspeople in North India who would be handweaving these designs. WWF had to of course have sight of all of their documentation on the processes and materials used to know that they were responsible and sustainable in their production methods.
This was a very unique project for many of these artists, as they were very closely involved in the whole process. Christopher Farr would send a small sample of the rug to each artist for sign off before the final one was begun.
The first samples began to arrive from India in late August just in time for our launch breakfast event at Sotheby's on 11th September. Here guests were given unique access to view some of the initial designs, and to touch and feel samples of the samples of the rugs by Gary Hume, Raqib Shaw and Kiki Smith. Heather Sohl, Tiger Trade Leader at WWF explained how tiger numbers had been in rapid decline, and talked through the ambition of the Tx2 project to double the number of tigers in the wild.
Christopher Farr then talked through the incredibly skilled processes used by their craftspeople and how each rug was realised in a different way. The Raqib Shaw rug, pictured in the middle below, would apparently involve around 1 million hand tied knots when completed.
The First Rugs
It was fascinating to work with Artwise and be party to the work that was going on between them, the artists and the production by Christopher Farr in India. It is unusual for artists who are giving their work to a charity project to be so heavily involved in this way. For many of them, though, this was a new medium for them to create their work in and so their was a lot of dialogue and sampling back and forth. In October the first rugs arrived with Artwise and I was excited to be able to see them up close! The Kiki Smith, Rose Wylie and Gary Hume rugs were a great example of how differently they had all been executed. The Smith was incredibly tightly knotted with very fine detail, whereas the Wylie was a lot looser. Gary Hume's rug was a real treat - hand woven in hand dyed wool and silk, it had a different look from each angle it was viewed from.
The Collateral and Promotion
By November we starting to pull together the assets we had to continue to push out stories to the press. This included some great imagery of some of the artists with their rugs including Gary Hume and Raqib Shaw (and his wonderful pet dog!)
At the same time we were collating imagery and editorial content for the catalogue which Sotheby's were kindly producing for us. This was running alongside briefing our web designer as we received imagery back from the photographer of the finished rugs. We were incredibly up against it in terms of deadlines as we approached Christmas, and four of the rugs were still being finished in India. Working on a project which is being fulfilled in another continent comes with it's own challenges. Unusually cold weather meant that the craftspeople were unable to work for certain periods of time, and along with this, we had to factor in the delivery of the rugs into London. As the exhibition preview date of 28th January approached, Christopher Farr photographed the final rugs as soon as they were completed in India before they were shipped so that we could make the catalogue deadline, and ensure we had content for the website.
Finally, in mid January, the website was ready to launch, see the screengrab below, or even better, have a look at the real thing here . It was so exciting to see this come together as we pushed it out to supporters and waited for the first glimmers of interest. At the same time, WWF launched a 'Tiger Edit' of affordable products in their main online shop which included some specially commissioned pieces by illustrator Ollie Terry, including this lovely tote bag below. Thankfully we just made the catalogue deadline with the arrival of the Anish Kapoor rug from India - which was well worth the wait!
Finally as the weekend of 26th January approached we were all set for the exhibition to come together. Artwise delivered the rugs to Sotheby's as we received confirmation that the first rug had actually been sold online - we were so excited!
But more exciting was the big preview day when I first walked into Sotheby's to see these wonderful pieces proudly hanging alongside their original antique counterparts in the St George Street Gallery.
Wow, they looked amazing!
A press call had taken place first thing and we were delighted with the coverage this project was receiving, see some of the highlights below including BBC online, FT How to Spend It, The Times, The Telegraph and even as far afield as the New York Times.
Now was the moment of truth....We had over 200 acceptances for the Preview of the exhibition which included art collectors, gallery owners, WWF supporters and philanthropists. We had initially anticipated the rugs being priced at around £10,000, but in fact the average ones were priced at around £15,000, with some of the more detailed ones including the Raqib Shaw, Anish Kapoor and Harland Miller coming in at £25,000.
The Preview had a real buzz about it and two rugs were sold on the night to add to the now two pieces which had been bought online. This was a very new world to WWF, but we were advised by the experts Artwise, that there had been lots of interest and that naturally people would need to think about a purchase of this size. During the exhibition week we delivered two engagement events - one to some Patrons of the RA, featuring talks from Artwise and Christopher Farr, and another aimed at WWF supporters where tiger expert Heather Sohl spoke passionately about the plight of the tiger.
Our aim during this week was to sell around eight rugs - we thought this would be a decent kick start to the campaign which we hoped would then tour and take us into the Year of the Tiger in 2022 and culmination of the £1million project.
Can you imagine our delight to be able to announce that at the culmination of this week we had raised over £600,000 in rug sales! This bodes really well for the future of the project and plans are already in place to tour the exhibition internationally, so watch this space.
The success of projects like this is what really makes me enjoy the work I do. I love to work on campaigns where we exceed expectations. A nice bonus to this was to be able to work with such a great group of people, and it was a lovely surprise when the team at WWF presented me with my own wee tiger rug and thank you card to show their appreciation, awww. So it is onwards and upwards for Tomorrow's Tigers project and I hope to be able to update you on the next steps as it goes global!
One of the benefits of running a business like nnoodl is that I can use it as an excuse to try out new things myself. Something I have surprisingly never done, but always fancied was horse riding, and so what better way to try it out than to take a group of nnoodlers on my adventure with me! This is obviously where the participant form that everyone fills in when they join comes into it's own. There are restrictions around weight and also health conditions like back problems which could make this activity unsuitable for some people. However, no-one that had signed up to this month's activity had any issues in this area, and I was also relieved to see that nobody had expressed a fear of horses (or equinophobia as it is apparently known!) So, joining instructions were sent to people to wear a long sleeved top and leggings, pretty sure that this wasn't enough to give the activity away in advance.
Where to meet to go to Lee Valley Riding Centre though was a slight challenge. Clapton station seemed like the best option, and I thought might be random enough to put people off the scent! Along the short 15minute walk to the centre, people began their usual guessing as to what the activity might be....kayaking on the River Lea?.......ice skating at the Lee Valley Ice Rink? This is the point where I always worry that people might enjoy these activities more than what I have actually booked! There seemed to be genuine relief as we walked past the ice rink though (probably from myself too having previously broken my arm ice skating), and genuine excitement as we approached the Lee Valley Riding Centre. Phew.
We could only book 10 people on this activity and I was really pleased to learn that only one person in the group had ever tried horse riding before, and that was apparently as a child, and so they were also keen to give it another crack. The closest I had come to getting on a horse was when I was on holiday with a boyfriend about 24 years ago. We had in fact booked and paid for an hour's lesson, but when we got to the stables the guy in question bottled it saying that he "didn't like the look of the horse" he had been allocated. I should have carried on and done it myself (and dumped him sooner than I did, but that's another story!)
The centre lends out hats and boots, and so one we were all kitted out we moved into the space next to the arena and watched as the group before finished up. There was an unusual vibe here as I have never witnessed a group of people being so quiet. I couldn't tell if it was trepidation, or respect for the horses that made everyone act like this. Our instructor soon put us at ease though. Embarrassingly I can't remember her name, as I then became overwhelmed with names of horses. The horses were led in and we were directed to the horse which seemed most appropriate to our size. Our instructor explained that she would refer to us by our horses' names, at which point I immediately felt sorry for the woman who had been allocated a horse called Chunky. In came Buttons, Darcey, Splash, Bill and many more until I was allocated Madison. He was a lovely chestnut horse and I was told he had a very good temperament and was quite nice and steady/not too bouncy. You will notice that there aren't many photos from this event, as I was very aware of anything that might make what we were doing unsafe, and maybe freak the horses out. But that said, I did squirrel my phone away down the front of my leggings, which almost proved to be a mistake on the dismount later...
The group were directed one by one onto a stepped block to mount their horses. As I stepped up I was aware of how high off the ground I seemed as I mounted Madison. Jasmine was the young girl who was looking after us. She told me she had been riding for 7 years, and I asked whether she had her own horse. No, this was quite a luxury she told me as they are very expensive, starting at £3,000 and going up to about a million pounds (I'm not quite sure if that was an exaggeration!) As we lined up next to each other, Madison became a bit edgy, with Jasmine telling him gently not to be grumpy. She explained that horses are like people and have their own horsey friends - it seemed that Madison was next to one of his 'not such good friends'. Ok, stay calm buddy, let's move away....
A slightly comedic moment followed where Darcey, the first horse to move off, seemed to be breaking wind in time with the walking movement, much to the embarrassment of the rider, Emily, who was giggling and saying "It's not me!". We started by just walking around the arena, getting used to the feel, where to hold the reins, and how it was important to stay calm and regulated with your breathing as the horse can sense any tension. Our first skill was to practice changing rein, and so we were directed towards one of the letters on the wall, where we would then turn the horse left by pulling on the reins with the left hand and squeezing the horse with your right leg. The only challenge here was that the horses seemed to want to follow their friends and so Madison was starting to veer off and cut the corner to follow his pack instinct. No, no, stay straight I was trying to say. We did a couple of rounds of this in both directions before it was time to move onto something more challenging, a rising trot. First we were asked to just stand up and sit down on the horse in a smooth action on the spot. Well this seemed ok, but of course the challenge was going to be trying to keep this timed with the horses trotting action, and not crashing down on his back. Our instructor pointed out that this could be very uncomfortable for any male riders. The first couple of riders did really well, so the pressure was on. Madison moved off quite slowly, so I was managing ok and found my rhythm, but then he picked up the pace and I had a bit of a bouncy moment until I settled into it again. I could tell our male riders were being particularly determined to avoid the bouncing motion, and the little horse called Buttons was particularly spritely, giving Tony, his rider, a bit of a challenge to stay in time.
Using our change of rein skills, we then moved onto a mini slalom style course of buckets which we had to weave our horse around. We had to do this manoeuvre one at a time, and so with the eyes of everyone else on you, the pressure was on again to perform. Despite me trying to remember, left hand, right leg and so on, as we weaved around the obstacles, Madison did me proud. I was loving this horse.
To perfect our trotting skills, we were then tasked with moving away from using the short saddle strap to balance, but instead trying to stay upright and move up and down in time either by holding loosely onto the long reins, or with no hands at all. Well you know me by now, I love a challenge, and so went for the 'no hands' option, determined to succeed with everyone else watching on!
All too soon the session came to an end. Our final challenge was to get our horses to all line up next to one another in the middle of the arena. Well I say final challenge, that was actually getting off the horse! I hadn't realised that we would be just dismounting onto the ground rather than back onto the block. This is almost where I came unstuck, or more accurately 'stuck' as I swung my leg over and my phone down my leggings got caught on the saddle, oops. So a slightly ungainly manoeuvre and I was on the ground. Quickly I retrieved my phone and passed it to Jasmine whispering "Could you take a photo of me with Madison please?". He seemed quite non plussed by it all. There is something odd looking at this photo after the event, and one or two people commented that we has a small horse. Trust me, when I was on his back, it seemed like a loooooong way down to the ground!
As everyone gathered to put their boots and hats back outside the arena, it was like a rush of adrenaline - suddenly the centre was filled with chatter as everyone excitedly spoke about their horse riding adventure and how much they had enjoyed it. Hooray, another nnoodl success!
After coming back from Spain to the hottest week this year in London, I was slightly apprehensive about the Prudential Ride 100 the following weekend. It was all over the news, "Don't exercise in the heat", but then I had cycled for hours on end in 33deg heat, hills and wind in South America last year, so that must have set me up? Well I certainly wasn't prepared then for the weather that was forecast by the day before the event....the wind was there, but accompanied by bucketing rain! The temperature was forecast at about 16deg maximum.
The day got off to a bit of a bad start when my 'cycle cab' to take me to Stratford (from a company who will remain nameless as they have made good) arrived at 6am instead of 5.30am. There was a moment of panic then, when bike all packed in the back, the driver then couldn't get the car to start. Was this an omen, should I just go back to bed? This was, it turned out, not the first time that day I was to have this thought.
I needed to get to the start time of my 'wave' or risk not being able to ride. I won't take you through the stressful journey that ensued, as it makes me anxious just thinking about it. Suffice to say, I got to the start with 3mins to spare.
My cycling comrade Giovanna was there, smiling as ever, and excited about the challenge ahead. It's unlike me not to be positive about most things, but even the PA blasting out 'Sweet Caroline' (a guilty pleasure of mine, Neil Diamond), couldn't lift my spirits as the wind and rain whipped around us. I was glad I had put my overshoes on, and of course my rain jacket. The compere at the start was doing his best to create a buzz by asking for song suggestions to be played, and so we set off rather ominously to the sound of "Live and Let Die"....
I tried to get into the spirit of things cycling alongside Giovanna as we said how great it was to have closed roads to ourselves. I had been looking forward to cycling through central London and the various sights along the Embankment, but in truth I enjoyed the tunnels and underpasses more as it was a reprieve from the weather. As was inevitable, we got split up in the ups and downs of the course, and so I remember approaching the Hammersmith flyover thinking to myself how this was going to be a long old day. As we approached Richmond Park I admit to having a more than fleeting thought about how I knew a good way to cycle home from here. The rain was relentless and I was already soaked through. Giovanna pulled up alongside me just at that very point, and I shouted to her "I am bloody hating this!" Still ever cheery though, she shouted back "Oh come on Scotland!" Well that did it, now it was a matter of national pride! Uphill ahead, it was head down and get on with it, just think about those freezing loch swims Denise...
And think of them I did, although at least there you knew you were going to get cold and wet. I promised myself a stop at about halfway/50miles. There, that was something to look forward to. This landed me at Newlands Corner, possibly one of the more exposed locations on the course, at the top of one of the first climbs. I had to admit I was feeling sorry for the volunteers and marshals in this area, where they were buffeted by wind and rain, and trying to hold down bags of crisps and snack bars. I couldn't even bring myself to queue for any of this, so was grateful for the soggy cheese sandwich in my back pocket. I wolfed it down and then ran the gauntlet of the portaloos. These were feeling very precarious as I balanced trying to unpeel my bib shorts. Uh, nothing quite like putting soaking wet clothes back on. With no incentive to hang about much beyond this, I set off again down the hill (wet downhill, eeek).
I knew that Leith Hill was the first big challenge to face us (although I had already seen people walking on some of the 'pre hills' we had encountered). This is a funny one, everyone talks about Box Hill, but it's actually ok. No, it's Leith Hill you have to worry about. This little infographic gives you an idea of what it is like. But never fear, there was a little band at the bottom of the hill bravely playing under a small marquee to lift our spirits. And what was their song choice? 'Forever Young' by Bob Dylan. Don't get me wrong, a great musician, but not known for being uplifting! It was however a moment that really made me and the riders around me laugh at the irony.
The thing that makes Leith Hill extra tricky is when the narrow road is filled with about 8 cyclists across, most of whom are cycling slower than they can walk. As I tried to make my way up the right side of them, squeezing through a very narrow gap, whilst giving the instruction 'on your right' I could see people wavering all over the place as they started to lose their momentum and fall over or come off. I did chuckle slightly smugly to myself though as I heard lots of guys saying "You go girl" as I passed them. Tee hee. This was a challenge and a half, but I still had the equivalent downhill to come. There was a bit of carnage here as I saw an ambulance attending to someone who had crashed, only to witness another guy crash as he went past looking at them. This was doing nothing for my fear of the downhills! I later learned that both Leith Hill and Box Hill got closed off for safety reasons about an hour after I went past them. Shortly after this we were onto Box Hill. Again more worried about the downhill than the up, I coasted to the top and tentatively made my way down. By now I had the slightly cheesy 'Things Can Only Get Better' in my head as I was past half way and had survived some slippery descents. To add to the cheese, the music positioned at the bottom of Box Hill was that exercise classic 'Eye of the Tiger'.
You know you are in a state of delirium when you are looking forward to getting to Leatherhead. I mean what is in Leatherhead? But somehow in my mind it marked a place that was close to London/the end. I have to say the locals turned out in force to support the event, with people huddled under umbrellas and even one woman in her pyjamas and wellies holding a sign saying "I got out of bed to watch this". It raised a smile or two. My malt loaf (sustenance of choice) was by this point soggy beyond belief, but I knew the end was in sight now, just please don't let me get any punctures or I will cry.
Just when I thought I could 'relax' into the ride a bit more as we ventured into the familiar territory of Kingston upon Thames, it seemed that a lot of cyclists had 'relaxed' a bit too much. As we rode past some small gathered groups of supporters, people seemed to be cycling like nutters. I'm not sure if this was in an effort to impress friends and family, but the result was seeing two people skid across the soaking pedestrianised surface into each other, narrowly missing me. Time for a blast of the chorus of 'Chandelier' in my head "I'm holding on for dear life...."
I was pleased to see the short sharp hill into Wimbledon village as a way of getting away from people. One woman shouted "Yeeees, doing it for the girls!" as I overtook groups of people on the short climb, with the song "Sisters are Doing it for Themselves" fittingly blaring out of a PA (even more poignant given the sad news about legend Aretha Franklin). This was more like it, I was starting to get that sense of achievement as we saw more and more supporters in the run along Chelsea Embankment and towards Westminster. There was a tiny bit of deja vu from doing the London Marathon as we passed Big Ben and I thought we would take the turn up Birdcage Walk to the Mall. But we continued along Whitehall where crowds of slightly bemused tourists in disposable rainmacs looked on. Through Admiralty Arch and yes, there it was, the finish line! Now, I thought, now I would have that slightly emotional feeling like at the end of the Marathon. But no, the only emotion I felt was "Thank god that's over!" Dismounting, we all wheeled up towards Buckingham Palace for a dodgy selfie and then beyond and up to Constitution Hill for our well earned medals.
And can you believe it, the rain had now stopped, hooray! So, looking on the bright side, it made the 5mile ride home not seem too bad, more of a little cool down. But as you can see, I was definitely glad to get home for a lie down...
I had been really delighted when I had been awarded my place in this event from my cycling club, Giant Camden Team Liv back in March. I had known how difficult it was to get a ballot place in this event, often described as 'The London Marathon of Cycling'. The thought of cycling on closed roads through London and Surrey was something I was really looking forward to. I had even completed this 100 miler in 6 hours and 30 minutes, which was a time I was to come to realise, that was actually very good, and especially in those conditions.
Now I'm not one to be negative, and have taken part in all sorts of challenges - being pulled out of a 10mile open water swim in Loch Rannoch with hypothermia in a freak hailstone shower being up there with the best/worst of them. Being from Scotland, I've never been overly deterred by weather, and did famously venture out on a club bike run back in December in a snow storm, with no thought that it might be cancelled. So it is not entirely due to the weather that I am saying that I generally didn't enjoy this event from start to finish, but perhaps that combined with the sheer numbers involved. I think I have realised that these 'mass events' just aren't for me anymore. I loved my two London marathon experiences, but weirdly did my best time on the undulating (that's how we sold it anyway) Loch Ness Marathon route where there were clear roads and smaller numbers. Cycling events with over 20,000 people acting erratically just puts me on edge and takes away from the experience. So, as much as we can tend to have that "I'm never doing that again" feeling immediately after an ultra challenge like a marathon, only to sign up to another one the day after. Well in this case, I have mulled it over for three weeks and still think, no thanks. Done it, ticked it off my list, don't need to do it again.
Of course when I say no to mass events, I can see the benefit of a crowd around me if I was doing something like a full ironman....but then I said I would never do one of them, didn't I.....?
Still pining for something which fills the void from my South American cycling adventure at the end of last year, I snapped up the opportunity to go cycling in the Costa Brava area of Spain. A friend from our Giant Camden Team Liv cycling club, Giovanna, goes there often and just last year had tried out her cycling legs in this challenging terrain and highly recommended it. I didn't need much convincing!
I am only familiar with Barcelona in this area, from a (slightly failed) long weekend many years back, so was keen to reclaim this beautiful area. Our base was to be at Pals, a coastal town almost midway between Barcelona and Girona. Although I initially intended to take my lovely Liv Envie road bike with me, a few factors made me reconsider:
1) The expense - by the time I had factored in taxis to and from the airport, the baggage handling fee and the hire of a bike box it was coming to almost £250.
2) The hassle - I was already having flashbacks to the less pleasant part of my South American travels, including breaking down and rebuilding your bike and the anxiety of trying to get the damn thing through the airport.
So I was delighted to see that this part of Spain is very well set up for cyclists and found a bike shop just a few kms from Pals where I could hire a good quality Giant TRC road bike for €99 for the week. I can highly recommend these helpful guys at CiclesJK.
And so, after a fairly relaxing flight to Barcelona, we picked up the bike from Palafrugell and drove to Pals, where we cracked open a beer and plotted our first ride the next day. Giovanna spoke with much fondness of her first rides in this area last year where she met up with some Dutch guys who supported her over some of the challenging hills this area has to offer. The word 'hill' always fills me with mixed emotion. I love the climb, having developed strong quads from my Andes adventure, but still have the fear over the descents.
Anticipating hot weather, we decided to make a start at 7.30am, so that we could have this ride knocked out by lunchtime. The first part of our ride was to take us through some lovely little villages along a deceptively flat piece of road. This was a really pretty area, where we made a stop to have a look at Sant Feliu de Boada and Peratallada. Further along these lovely roads we also stopped to admire the sunflowers, or girasol (literally, 'turn to the sun', why does everything sound so much better in Spanish?).
As we cycled through Cruilles, Giovanna warned me of the upcoming climb, and sure enough, a few kilometres along the road there were markings in the road which said '6km to the top'. This was a nice winding road though, and so the climb didn't seem too arduous. We met up with some other cyclists at the top for a slightly comedic photograph directed by one guy who said "Please let me have a photo taken with you two so that I can tell my wife why she should come cycling with me and not let me go on my own!'. Happy to help :) Then of course came my moment...the downhill! I was overtaken by a Jimmy Saville lookalike, long white hair blowing in the wind, no helmet on. Well, if he crashed then it wouldn't be such a loss would it, I thought...
The sun was now starting to really beat down and so we decided to have a short stop at a cafe in La Bisbal d'Emporda for a quick orange juice. Giovanna told me an intriguing story about this little cafe which, although very unassuming, is actually run by the (alleged) illegitimate son of Catalan King Juan Carlos.
It has become quite an institution amongst locals for the amazing jamon....and of course the curious royal connection. Then it was the final stretch back to Pals, where we stopped in the main village at a lovely little tapas bar for some tortilla and small snacks. Better hold off on the cerveza we decided until we got back home!
Day two started off rather tentatively as a thunderstorm was forecast for around lunchtime. How far should we go? Did we really want to be stuck at the top of a mountain when lightening struck? Let's see how it goes we thought...Well it didn't take too long, maybe about 40 minutes, before we could see the gathering dark clouds and the rumbling of thunder. In fact it seemed like we were cycling towards it. Giovanna suggested we make a call on what to do as we approached the appropriately named town of Torrent just as some ominously large drops of rain started to fall. Apparently there was a quick way home, 5km, or we could turn around and go back the 12km way we had come. The decider was Giovanna saying she had never cycled in a thunderstorm...let's do it! The rain was really starting to come down now as we laughed out loud doing a PB reaching 35-40km an hour on the return journey. We agreed that fun though it was, an hour avoiding being struck by lightening was probably enough for one day!
In true holiday style though, the storm passed by early afternoon and offered us the opportunity to get back outside and soak up the sun.
After a stretch out in the pool, we decided to do a bit of non cycling sight seeing and took a drive along the coast. Giovanna took the smaller coastal route roads, pointing out that this was a ride we would do one day. The downhills here were already alarming me, even in the car! Oh but the views were stunning, and we decided to stop for dinner at Calella de Palafrugell, a beautiful little coastal town. Cerveza and sardines on the seafront, heaven!
Day 3 dawned, and feeling like we hadn’t quite put the miles in on Monday, where better to test ourselves than by going to the top of the climb that we had intended to do on Day 1? So we set off bright and early to find that the track route down from the house had been a casualty of yesterday’s deluge and the rutted parts were full of water. I protectively carried my bike over the huge puddle whilst Giovanna waded through it. (A manoeuvre she was to regret as she realised about 15kms along the route that her rear brake was caked in dried on mud.) The run out to Cruilles was the same as the first day, but with less of the touristy type stops at villages, and only a passing wave and ‘A Deu!’ (as seems to be the casual way of saying ‘hello’ in Catalan) to the sunflowers. There was one moment we felt a stop was in order, though as we saw a hot air balloon flying serenely over the fields we were cycling past. When I say 'serenely' I couldn't help but think of the opening chapter though of one of my favourite books 'Enduring Love' by Ian McEwan. If you've read it you'll know what I mean!
We then took a road to Monells via the lovely village of Madremanya. Some slight hills on the way there, and then there it was, the sign to ‘Els Angels’. It seems that all climbs in this area are 6km in length as Giovanna shouted ‘See you at the top’. This was definitely a more challenging climb than our first day out. The road winded around quite a lot, meaning that there was very little reprieve, and no flat areas – this one definitely called for the small chain ring! I was ever aware of what I was to face on the way back down, and was grateful to note that the sheer drop was on my right hand side going up, so I would be further away from it coming down! I was feeling pretty pleased with myself as I passed a ‘serious looking’ cyclist who had pretty much come to a stop about half way up. Well, I say half way, but there didn’t seem to be the encouraging km countdowns painted onto the road here.
As I approached the summit though, I could see a small pathway up to the Els Angels chapel, and the inevitable view point where I bumped into two South African guys who offered to take my photo. When I asked if this was their first time cycling in this area they replied that they came her every year and that it was ‘a religion’. This was a suitably topical reference as Giovanna appeared and told me about the
history of the chapel, whilst we had a refreshing orange juice in the plaza outside.
Brace yourself Denise I thought as it was my turn to say “See you at the bottom” to Giovanna. Yes, it certainly was a steeper descent than our first hills trip, and as I eased off the brakes to then grip them again a bit too dramatically as a bump appeared in the road, I had that moment where I thought I was going to go over the handlebars. Eek. It really is an odd feeling I thought as I happily cycled flat out along a straight part of the route at over 45km/hr without a thought of the crash fear.
After the obligatory relax and stretch out in the pool on our return, we decided we deserved a nice meal out and found a real gem of a place about 5km from the house called Pahissa del Mas Pou. This was a real find, located on the edge of the rice fields of Pals, we took our seats at a table on the terrace as the sun started to go down and had some of the most amazing food. Starting with their take on the Catalan tomato bread, we then shared monkfish with black trumpet funghi and tenderloin beef, which was divine. Although neither of us really wanted a dessert, it had to be done and so we shared a couple of dishes which were equally amazing, and all washed down with a bottle of Albarino wine. Yum!
Was it the Albarino or the big bike ride yesterday, but we both agreed that we needed a more sedate day on Day 4. Unable to resist the empty pool though, I started the day with a few (ok about 100) laps and then lay in the sun where I continued to read my holiday book 'Nomad' by Alan Partridge, whilst chuckling like an idiot to myself. Giovanna asked if I had any issues with boats if we were to go to one of the local beaches and hire one. "I bloody love boats!" was my excited reply. And so we hired a small boat which we were to pick up after a nice lunch in Pals.
We were given a safety overview and demo about how to drive the boat and drop anchor as we picked up our vessel at Aiguafreda beach. I am sure this was really informative, had it not been in Spanish, with me only picking up the odd word here and there. Giovanna volunteered to get the boat out of the bay, shrugging off the advice to go left rather than right due to the strength of the winds. Ah well, we like a challenge! The wind was certainly having an effect on the sea as we bounced our way over the waves. I misinterpreted Giovanna as she shouted 'wave' whilst taking some photographs. She was actually warning me to hold on as a big wave approached, rather than telling me to wave at the camera. Oh well, no harm done, and I was having the time of my life!
This coastline really was stunning, but as we only had 4 hours on the water, we decided it was time to look for a small bay to drop anchor and go for a swim. As Giovanna was back on the controls, it left me in charge of the anchor duty. Did I remember what the guy had said, she asked? Remember? I didn't understand most of it! Never mind, here we go, and nothing like an audience of a few other boats watching to motivate you not to f**k it up! Oh but we did, as I attempted a few anchor throws, wondering how you know when it has taken hold, and in fact, then, how do you reel it back in again? Apparently continuing to pull at it isn't the way to go though, as Giovanna shouted "Stop touching the bloody thing!" which then just made me laugh even more. It was getting embarrassing so we decided to give it a go, and if the boat started to drift I could swim after it and grab it couldn't I?? Oh jumping into that water was amazing! A sea swim is always the highlight of a holiday for me. I had a dive down to look at our anchor, which just seemed to be limply lying there...was that ok? We were both in the water by this time though, so there was no going back. As the sun started to go down, and the boat, to be honest, starting to slightly drift, we decided to head back. My turn at the helm, and the wind hadn't died down. I was loving it thought as we bounced through the waves, shouting 'whoop'! I had forgotten though that part of this duty meant me guiding the boat back safely into the harbour. Uh oh, this became a bit stressful as a group had gathered waiting for the boats, and helpfully shouting guidance (again, in Spanish of course!). I did it though, and covered in salt spray I happily fell out onto the harbour wall. Bliss!
This was a day I had been having anxiety dreams about. Buy why, this is supposed to be a holiday, no?
I think Giovanna's run through of the route on her Strava the night before, over a gin and tonic had stuck in my subconscious. She was reminding herself of the steepness of the climbs, whilst of course I was fixated on the corresponding descents.
The first 'hill' was actually a gradual uphill drag out of Pals, a distance of about, yes, you guessed, around 6km. The only real challenge here was the fast traffic, but at least I had reminded myself to look to my left and not right at roundabouts, which should save Giovanna some alarm.
This took us up to Begur, where Giovanna said we had a choice and could miss out one hill. We both looked at each other, were we shirkers? No siree! The first section of this downhill was on a cycle path that was part of the pavement, with a sign that indicated a 20km speed limit. Optimistic, I thought as it was a speed that was definitely exceeded on the way down, and never met on the way back up again. And yes, we had actually just come down this hill for the challenge of climbing back up it. First one done, tick, not too bad. Then came the hill known as 'The Wall'. This was definitely a taxing one, really having to grind it out in a low gear at the gradient of just under 13%. The thing that was causing me most concern though, was the road surface, it constantly felt like you were riding on a flat tyre. We proudly reached the top though and wow, was it worth it for the beautiful view. I knew what was coming next though, an equally steep descent, not only on rough road, but very narrow, with the threat of unpredictable cars and pedestrians at every turn. Giovanna had warned me about a sudden stop junction which was still on a steep part of the hill, and so I was grateful to be able to give a cursory glance to see nothing was coming and turn onto the main road. There wasn't any way I could stop or actually go any slower at this point!
With white knuckles we rode into Tamariu, a lovely little beach resort where we stopped for an orange juice. I was so tempted to jump into the sea for a swim but I knew we still had 28km of cycling and 2 hills ahead of us. This was no time for a soggy bum!
The final climb of real significance was to Far de Sant Sebatia, where we had driven a few nights previously to take in the amazing views from the lighthouse. Trying to block out the accident that had happened between a motorbike and a car at a junction on the way up to the climb, I confidently started to power up it, passing cyclists as I went. I was slightly lulled into a false sense of security on this one though, as I thought the gradient would then be equally manageable coming down. Ah but no, we were coming down on the other side, and this was not a gentle descent! In fact the first part of the downhill was so steep and sharp that I had an unnatural urge just to keep going straight over the edge!
The remaining 20km back to Pals had some undulations - nothing too taxing. But having done over 53km of hills, we felt a relaxing swim in the pool was in order, followed by some of the local roast chicken from the amazing Can Padres and a beer. Then the only decision that had to be made was what bottle of wine to choose from the amazing Vins i Licors Grau - apparently one of the largest wine and spirit stores in Europe. This really was 'kid in a sweetshop' stuff, set in 1,200sqm of floorspace, it boasts over 9,000 wines and spirits. We had to have a sit down on the trolley to contemplate the section in this photograph which is just the dry sherries! What a way to end off a fantastic trip, a wine tasting and barbecue by the pool. It was difficult to tear myself away the next day. What a fantastic place for cycling, and joie de vivre in general. On a personal note I returned feeling invigorated, suntanned and having lost 5lbs (despite the G & T's and Albarino!) I definitely hope to return to this part of Spain to seek out some further routes and adventures.
In contrast, you will see my next blog post is about my 'Prudential Ride London 100' event the following week. It was definitely a very different experience....
Well, our nnoodl adventurers had tried paddle boarding and stop motion animation in previous months, so what did I have in store for them in June? nnoodl events are booked so that weather won’t affect them, and this month’s activity was taking us on a journey to North India via Shepherds Bush for a class in Thali style cookery. This was one event that was easy to keep secret – no particular equipment required, just cool clothing which was very much in keeping with our sudden very summery spell.
We met at Shepherds Bush station and had the usual murmurs and guesses as we ventured into Westfield Shopping Centre …”a personal shopping experience?” I heard both a male and female member of our group ask with very different tones of enthusiasm.
As we approached the Jamie Oliver Cookery School, everyone seemed audibly excited, but still not 100% on the mark as they guessed the inevitable Italian cookery. But no, the chefs at this school cross various continents offering classes from Italian, to Thai, Mexican, Vietnamese, and even a class in knife sharpening skills.
We were welcomed with a glass of Prosecco and an apron as we took in the impressive surroundings of our working kitchen, situated through to the back of the restaurant. We were introduced to our Chef, Francesco who explained that traditional Gujarati cuisine, as it’s known involves lots of different cooking methods and flavour combinations making it a really unique and versatile cuisine. He was going to take us through the steps needed to make a vegetarian Gujarati thali – a selection of small dishes and rice that’s traditionally served on a tray.
Now this is my kind of food, I love any little sharing dishes like tapas or mezze. As we only had limited time, Francesco explained the ingredients and cooking processes for the lentil dahl, which was now reducing down so that it was ready for our little feast later.
Firstly he talked us through the spices we would be using, by passing them around and inviting us to smell them and guess what they were. I wasn’t too bad at this bit, although couldn’t guess the mustard seeds…well, that was until he started frying them right in front of me, and those of us in his sight line had our breath taken away as we started coughing - much to his amusement. This, along with a spice base of cumin, turmeric and chilli powder was to form the base of a sambharo, a warm cabbage salad.
Francesco talked us through our knife skills next for chopping the cabbage and carrots. This is something that despite cooking a lot, I have never been taught. He demonstrated the ‘Chef claw’ and how to curl your fingers in on top of the item you are cutting, keeping the first knuckle of your finger close to the knife blade. He showed us that you use the part of the knife closer to the handle to produce that rocking movement with the knife to create that clean cutting motion. He then talked us through the chickpea masala and crispy spiced okra dishes, and finally the chapati bread.
After this overview we were paired up at our stations and we were off! I was working with Mark, who is actually my PT and a former Marine. Here’s a guy who will know about knife skills and cooking, I thought to myself. He went off to select the spices as I tried out my chopping technique. Francesco was over like a shot to direct me safely through this, in his inimitable, jokey way, all the time referring to me as ‘Chef’ even though clearly I was anything but! Our next challenge was not to move the the vegetables around as they cooked in the oil. As a fan of a stir fry this was really counter-intuitive, but he kept a beady eye on all of us “Don’t stir Chef, don’t stir!” to the point that I thought it was burning and then “..well yes, stir it now!”. All the time we were cooking the team were coming round to see if we wanted more drinks from the bar. I decided that knives and alcohol weren’t the best combination but lots of people were partaking without injury and everyone seemed to be in high spirits.
It was my turn to select the spices (it transpired later that I had possibly been a little heavy handed in my measurement of these little devils!) as Mark perfected his okra slicing. Mindful that time was not on our side, and both of us being of a slightly competitive nature, we decided to try and crack on with the chapati bread whilst cooking the other elements. This turned into something akin to Paddington Bear let loose in a kitchen as we realised there was too much water to flour, and then tried to counteract it…resulting in too much flour, and then too much water and so on. We thought we had it just about right as I rolled my little dough ball out on the small circular wooden base. Great, I thought to myself a little smugly as it looked perfectly round and just as thin as Francesco’s. Until it came to getting it OFF the board and into the pan. Stuck fast - too much liquid still in the mixture! And so back to some more flour. I later found flour in my clothes, and strangely in my handbag which hadn’t even been with me! Ah, but when we got the chapati mixture right, it was so satisfying to see them puff up into lovely little breads that we were proud of.
There was then that ‘Masterchef type call out’ as we had 5 minutes left to plate up our little Thali trays. And here is the result, and I have to say everyone did a really good job, we were suitably chuffed with ourselves!
Time to tuck into the fruits of our labours and the tastes didn’t disappoint either. Although see previous reference to a little too much spice, which did bring us both out in a bit of a sweat, but didn’t stop us loading up our plates. Everyone cheered and congratulated each other around the table in creating a meal that they would never have considered trying before.
nnoodl is taking a month off in August, and then our September and October events are fully booked, but we will be sharing details of the date of our November event shortly, so watch this space….
If you have read my previous blogs (I’m assuming you are all avid fans, and why wouldn’t you be?) you will know that paddle boarding has proved to be one of the things I enjoyed most when I did my own year of surprise experiences. I had been desperate to introduce my nnoodl adventurers to this fantastic pastime for a while, but of course it is quite weather dependent. As summer seemed to be finally showing itself a bit more consistently, I decided that June was the time for it. Now I know that this could be a tricky call as water isn’t everyone’s friend, but I reviewed the ‘what scares me’ section of everyone’s forms and was happy to see that amongst the fears of things like spiders and being in an underground in a confined space, this experience wasn’t going to freak anyone out. Next came the instruction that I had to give people in terms of meeting place and what to expect. I chose the beginners’ session at Kew Bridge and so instructed people to meet at Gunnersbury station. Yes, this was a 15 min walk to the location rather than 5mins from Kew Bridge, but I like to throw people off the scent a bit!
So what should they bring? Well the good thing about paddle boarding is that no specific equipment is required to do this in warm weather. You can wear shorts, leggings, or any sort of outdoors sports kit, and either some old trainers, or the company lend out neoprene shoes. So people would hopefully not have any idea of what they were about to do….
Of course the element of surprise is always a bit of a risky moment and the ‘reveal’ on the day is the part that makes me almost as nervous as the participants. Although I could have chosen the slightly easier version of paddle boarding along the Grand Union canal from Paddington, I don’t think anything beats the Thames, and especially this trip from Kew to lovely Richmond. As we gathered at Gunnersbury you could tell that people wondered what they might need their summer/sports kit for in this slightly industrial looking area.
As soon as we approached the bridge and headed towards the arches, murmers started amongst the group as they saw a sign for kayaking. One or two people had done this, but still seemed keen, but when our instructors came out with a paddle board, I could hear some gasps of excitement. Phew, so no-one wanted to cash in their ‘pass card’. There were, inevitably some people who felt a bit apprehensive, but our instructors quickly put everyone at ease, explaining that you didn’t necessarily even need to be able to swim to do this sport – just let them know if you can’t so they know to keep an extra eye out!
Our instructors gave us a brief overview of paddle technique whilst on dry land and before we knew it we were launching ourselves into the water. The group gathered near the shore, still on their knees, trying to get to grips with the paddling, and watching apprehensively as speed boats and pleasure cruisers went by, causing some small waves.
Although I am now quite a competent paddler, I decided to stay on my knees too until everyone got their confidence up. Once we were through the arch of the bridge, we took a little inlet down the side of the main part of the Thames, where the water was quite calm, and within 10 minutes, everyone was having a go at standing up. There were a couple of people in the group who, like me, are confident swimmers, and so they couldn’t understand why they were afraid of falling in the water. I told them how I had felt exactly the same and that I got over it by falling in, slightly deliberately on a nice hot day.
With that, I heard a splash behind me, as someone fell in the water. You have to try to resist the urge to turn around quickly as a beginner or else you will unbalance yourself and also be in the Thames. But as we checked our fellow paddler was ok, she surfaced giggling. This little incident seemed to put everyone at ease, as she assured us it was ‘lovely in here’. Our instructors reminded her to wash her hands before she ate anything, and to maybe have a Coke when she got out of the water. Yes, Coke kills all the possible bugs in your stomach. Well you have seen what it does to a penny if you drop it into a glass of the stuff...just saying..
We were out on the main part of the Thames now, and on such a sunny day, people were out in force enjoying the water. Suddenly, whoosh, a motor boat went past and the wake started to throw the group as small shrieks went up. But I was so impressed, as no one dropped to their knees. This happened a few more times (I couldn't help but think that the RNLI boat went past deliberately causing a wake to try and spice up their day!).
Everyone seemed to be really embracing the sightseeing side of this activity too. As we paddled past Syon Park, it really was idyllic. It’s a very sociable experience too as you paddle along with different people having a chat and comparing experiences. We were quickly approaching Richmond, and had to navigate our way to pull into a small inlet by the White Cross pub for a refreshment stop. I could feel the apprehension as people were out drinking by the river, obviously intrigued by these visitors, and watching us, and I’m always sure, waiting to see someone fall in. We had some snacks and drinks for the group as we enjoyed a 30min stop whilst we waited for the tide to turn. We heard about some new paddles that the company were offering, including some environmental events to clear plastic from the river, which I liked the sound of. By the return paddle the group were even more confident and really loving it. There was a short section where the wind picked up and it became a bit of a struggle to paddle against it. I could see a few people getting a bit competitive at this point, and then I think were quite relieved when they were advised to slow down to keep the group to together for safety. The group safely navigated their way back under Kew Bridge and managed to avoid cranky geese to get safely back to shore. Everyone seemed to be on a total high, comparing how shaky their legs felt, but how exhilarating this experience had been. Even the most apprehensive were already asking about other sessions they could join. Hooray, another nnoodl success!
Our events are booking up quickly this summer, so remember to register your interest here so that we can tell you about our next event, or maybe you would like to buy a gift for a friend?
Come and discover some of the amazing activities London has to offer, we hope to see you soon!
This sounds like an inspiring week doesn’t it? So why was I dreading it?
Much as I love my job, and the sporting challenges I set myself, I sometimes think I wish my life away to get through the tough bits.
At the end of 2017, feeling at a bit of a loss after my Andes adventure, I had set myself the target of completing a half-ironman triathlon. What hadn’t yet been set in my calendar at that point, however, was the delivery of a major event (The Women’s Sport Trust ‘Be A Game Changer’ Awards) or taking part in a team time trial with my cycling club. In fact, about this time last year, having watched a time trial I remember categorically saying that “I will NEVER do one of those!”
The half-ironman challenge actually harks back to something that I put on my list of things to do in my 40th year, but had been scuppered by a broken arm (due to another 40th activity - learning to ice skate). And so this challenge had rolled into my 50th year. (Where did those 10 years go? Frightening). In fact, my first choice triathlon had actually been Marbella, which had sold out, as had the Cotswolds event. It seemed serendipitous that the event with places available was actually the one I was originally signed up to do in 2008. The curiously named ‘Swashbuckler’ takes place around Bucklers Hard in the New Forest and although not part of the ‘ironman’ brand (read: not ridiculously overpriced), had a reputation as a friendly triathlon. If I am going to half kill myself, I want to be around nice people doing it, thank you.
I threw myself right into training, wondering how long I could hang onto the ‘Andes effect’. I signed up with cycling/running coach Gareth Pymm who set me training sessions via an app called Training Peaks.
I (grudgingly at first) realised that I would need to invest in a turbo trainer to consistently train through the winter months. Here was another thing on my “I will never do that” list that I had caved into! I was also going to have to get back into my running big time given that I had laid off it quite substantially towards the end of 2017 due to a niggling hip injury. I love swimming, and am a member of a masters club, but how was that going to fit into my calendar with the other 14+ hours of training a week?
With factors like ‘The Beast from the East’ thrown into the mix, I ended up embracing (not literally) my turbo, and one day doing a 3 hour session on it, telling myself it was ‘character building’, not demoralising and boring as hell. Other low points included the Gravesend duathlon - surely one of the wettest, most miserable things I have ever done, and trying to squeeze in a 60km bike ride, followed by a 10km run before a friends’ leaving party (and promptly almost keeling over after 2 beers). But the high points were that I was feeling stronger, that I had managed to keep my running fairly consistent, and that I had a fantastic new wetsuit courtesy of my lovely LIV team cycling friends. Gareth kept me on track, as I experienced ‘Training Peaks Anxiety’ (fear of the training sessions not being completed and turning red!).
I would add comments into my training sessions along the lines of “Couldn’t wear my HR monitor today, it’s chaffed my chest”. At this point, I hadn’t even met this man yet…
But if there was one saving grace about now being in full flow organising the Women’s Sport Trust Awards, it was that it distracted me from thinking too much about the triathlon. In fact I hadn’t even booked my accommodation until 2 weeks’ before, and this was going to be essential for the 5am start!
My journey to the New Forest for my pre race briefing happened to be on the day of the Royal Wedding, which was an unexpected coincidence as the roads were clearer than usual. Bags packed with all manner of paraphernalia, including energy gels, talc, race number belt, wetsuit, spare goggles, hats, water bottles, inner tubes and goodness knows what else, I arrived at my B n B. One other key thing in my kit bag was my trusty pre-race breakfast of oatcakes, jam and peanut butter, as apparently they didn’t cater for a 3am breakfast. One of my LIV teammates, Gemma was also doing this race, along with her boyfriend Steve and so we compared notes nervously over our early dinner of fish and chips (carbs and protein, can’t be bad, right?) Then it was off to bed at 9pm.
The alarm went off at a time that I have usually only seen at that time on a Sunday when I have been coming home from a flamenco club. One thing I hadn’t packed that might have been useful I realised was a head torch as I tried to reassemble my bike in the pitch-black race car park. Surely I should be questioning my sanity right about now? As a sea of neoprene clad people nervously gathered at the waters edge we were advised that usually they would consider setting people off in waves, but due to the tide timings in this inlet, we would need to move swiftly and all 270 of us were set off at once. Now I love swimming, and have done my fair share of it in the freezing lochs of Scotland, but this was something else! Arms and legs flailing, I was kicked, hit and ducked for pretty much the whole way round the 1.9km. I quickly realised you can’t swear and swim at the same time and so dug in and got on with it. Cue a song at this point, and I drew on a song from my ‘Swashbuckler’ playlist which was ‘Girl from Mars’ by Ash which had the right type of crazy guitar beat to be the soundtrack to this leg. On the plus side, there was a PB time of 33mins – must have been the fear of death! A sprint (kind of) up the hill whilst trying to peel off my wetsuit and then it was onto the bike. As it was only just starting to get light, there was a moment of quandary…do I just wear my trisuit for the next 90km? No, best take that extra minute to pop on my cycling top too.
All suitably ‘Liv branded’ I was feeling quite good on the bike, and played a game of cat and mouse with a few riders until I surged away and set my own pace. The first 40k or so was quite an eerie experience as we cycled across the moors avoiding errant ponies and cows in the mist. It was after all still only 8am on a Sunday morning. I fuelled myself on my trusty jelly baby/malt loaf combo as I thought, “this would be a lovely weekend if I wasn’t having to kill myself out here for 7 hours”. Song time? Billy Idol’s ‘Dancing by Myself’, some Jesus Jones and bit of Embrace amongst others kept me going here.
There was a bit of a demoralising moment as I came towards the end of the 85km bike to see a number of people already out on the run. Oh no Denise, just don’t embarrass yourself and come last, was my aim at this point. Much as I had been moving on the bike for 3 hours, I realised as I changed into my trainers that I really didn’t have full feeling in my feet. Perhaps for the best as I set off on the 14mile (well that’s NOT a half marathon!) run.This was the biggest worry for me, after not getting a puncture on the bike. My running had been so sporadic that anything might happen. It was also now trying to get quite hot as the sun finally came out, and it was hilly (why do I continue to say I like the ‘element of surprise’ on events??). However, much to my amazement, I was actually overtaking people on the run, what was happening here? The only downside was that this was a double loop course, so at the end of the first lap, with a steep uphill run past the finish, I knew exactly what was ahead of me the next time. I was now starting to wonder what time I might do though as it looked like I might already surpassed my first goal of ‘don’t die’. My next goal was to try and complete the event under 7 hours. I didn’t have my watch on for the whole race, and so was trying to gauge my combined elements so far. I breathlessly shouted at a marshal “What time is it?” and when he replied 10.40am I started frantically calculating what sort of time I might do. What, I must only be a mile or two from the end…we started at 5.15am….what could this mean? I must be confused! As I attempted a strong sprint up that last hill to the finish (who was I kidding) I realised that I had finished in 5hrs 44mins!! And I actually didn’t feel like I was going to die or be sick, result!
I met up with Gemma and Steve who had both done amazing times and we did a sweep of the food and refreshments tent collecting all sorts of food that we didn’t feel like eating (who wants a chocolate bar when you have spent most of the morning eating sweet crap?). We gathered at the prize giving to soak up the sun and hear of the crazy times that some people had done. Fastest man? 4hrs 10mins!! But here is the real shocker, 2nd Female Supervet (don’t you just love that category name?) Denise Yeats! Wow, I was amazed and had to do a weird little roll in the grass to be able to stand up and go over to collect my funny pirate trophy. I was now reminded of two songs that I had in my head during the end of the run ‘Song 3’ by Blur (woo hoo!) and M People ‘Proud’.
We shall gloss over the 3 hour drive back from the New Forest that day as I move onto the next part of my inspiring week….
The #BeAGameChanger Awards are an initiative run by the Women’s Sport Trust, who I am proud to be a Trustee of. These awards showcase the irresistible nature of women’s sport; they highlight success stories, connect decision makers with one another and put a spotlight on inspiring role models.
I had been working with them over the past 4 months to project manage this event and just 4 days after my half ironman, it was the big day. The event had been held at the Troxy in east London for the past couple of years, and hosted some of the great and good in women’s sport, including Clare Balding, Tanni Grey Thompson, and Helen and Kate Richardson Walsh. This event really does belie the size of this tiny charity. Over 400 people gathered to celebrate some amazing award winners including footballer turned boxer Stacey Copeland, and double Olympian and Commonwealth gold and silver medallist Lorna Boothe. This also formed the launch of Sky Sports' #ShowUp campaign, encouraging people to show up to watch some of the amazing women's sport that is taking place this year. There were several really standout moments at the event for me though. One was when the Local Inspiring Initiative was presented to Crawley Old Girls (COGs), which aims to enable older women to learn to play football. The work they do in the community is so inclusive and life changing, but yet they were so modest about their achievements. I felt really quite emotional to see Sarah Williams’ reaction to winning the Media Initiative of the Year for her ‘Tough Girl Podcast’ series. She really is a woman after my own heart with her personal tales of challenge and endurance. I would highly recommend giving her podcasts a listen. The standout moment then surely had to be when the award for Outstanding Contribution to Women’s Sport was presented to former England captain and founding member of the Rugby Football Union for Women Carol Isherwood. There was a really moving build up to this award as various female rugby players were spotlit as they told of their personal connection to this wonderful woman. She was truly taken aback, goodness knows how we kept this one such a secret!
So yes, we are still in the same 7 days....
Buoyed, and knackered in equal measure from this week, I realised that I had previously signed up to take part in a team time trial with my Team Liv Giant Camden club mates. Although I had vowed just a year ago that I would never take part in such madness, well, what could I say to a new challenge? With just one day to recover from the Awards event (and six days on from my half ironman), there I was on the outskirts of Cambridge with seven of my teammates nervously registering as we observed some of the most expensive bike/aero helmet combinations I have ever seen. Oh dear I thought, I don’t even have tri bars - so much for aerodynamics! The amazing Amy who is our Liv Ambassador and all round cycling and triathlon inspiration was going to lead our team of four. “Am I in the wrong team...can I change?” I nervously whispered to her when we arrived. She confirmed that no, I was in the right team and couldn’t change.
I was to stick as close to her wheel as possible, with Kim and Eva behind me to push me on. I had been casually joking earlier in the week that this would be just like our Regents Park lap training…..but was about to realise that it would be NOTHING like it!
Our very precise start time for this 25miler was 2.06pm, with our other team of four starting about 20 minutes after us. There was a few miles to cycle to the start, and event before we got there I found myself shouting “gap!” at Amy to alert her that I was slipping off her wheel. This was not looking very encouraging! My next anxious moment came at the race start as I realised that the officials/marshals would hold our bikes whilst we were fully clipped in and then push us off at the start. The last time I felt in this vulnerable position was when I was four years old and my dad was teaching me to ride my first bike, and that ended up with my face in the gutter full of gravel. Suddenly though, we were off and I was determined to stick onto that wheel in front. Oh but almost immediately there was a bit of a hill, followed by some sharp bends, and once again I was shouting “Amy, gap!!”. Bless her, she expertly judged the pace, at around 35km/hr! Well you know how I love to have a song in my head, and this was definitely time for Sia’s ‘Chandelier’ as I had in my head the lyrics “I’m holding on for dear life…”.
The only upside to the headwind as we went one way was the tailwind as we turned the corner. I snatched a gel and downed it (I never take gels unless desperate, so you get the picture). It was a hot day, but not really an opportunity to grab your bottle and take on any water. One lap round and I had to tell myself I could do this, ‘only’ another 12.5miles to go! As we came round the bend to the final climb to the finish I was desperately clinging onto Amy’s wheel, with Kim behind me shouting ‘Go on girl!’ We all knew that we had to finish together for our time to count. And there it was, the finish. I was hoping for more I have to say than a chequered flag stuck in the ground. Surely a man should be in the middle of the road, triumphantly waving it, if only to herald the fact that I hadn’t died. As we slowed down I lifted myself from my drops for the first time in over an hour and realised how much my buttocks hurt! This was a weird pain like I had never experienced before, and must have been caused by this over-exaggerated attempt to get into an aero position (which you can see from the pic above wasn’t even successful). Ah, but it was worth it, as we cycled back to the race HQ, we realised that we were the second female team, coming in in a time of 1:09
(I would normally do about 1:19 for that distance!). Our second Liv team came in fourth, and so we were all totally chuffed. Especially when we saw our speedsuit clad competitors.
Sunday was definitely a ‘lying down, eating ice cream’ kind of day. But yet here I am arranging to have tri bars fitted to my bike in anticipation of my next triathlon on 8th July. What is wrong with me…..
When I was developing the nnoodl business model I hosted a few focus groups where I invited people to critique the idea and contribute to some key words which summed up the concept. This is where the phrase "for the bold, the brave and the curious" came from. I was keen that the concept didn't instil fear in people though, or lead them to think that all of the activities were adrenaline led or sports focused. The word 'brave' though was one which came up again and again as people identified it as being aspirational. Attending an event on your own for a start, many of them thought required a certain amount of courage. Putting yourself in the hands of someone else also required some bravery, and trying something new, whatever it was, certainly did.
But what does 'being brave' actually mean? The dictionary definition of brave is 'ready to face and endure danger or pain; showing courage' The origin of the word brave come from the Latin word barbarus. The Spanish then developed this to bravo which translates to courageous, untamed or savage. Let's go with courageous!
I really enjoy getting feedback from people who have come to my events and experience that rush they get from pushing themselves out of their comfort zone. I loved the year that I spent trying new things out for myself. I definitely felt a sense of fear in some form before each activity I did. I remember turning up to climb over the O2, and wasn't so much fearful of the activity as the fact that I was there on my own doing it. Well, along with a stag doo of 14 guys it turned out! I love water, but how did I feel before my first attempt at paddle boarding in the Thames? Filled with panic. And the biggest challenge must have been my first singing lesson which I almost cancelled. My life would be very different now without singing!
People have often described me as brave, but despite all of the above, I still feel far from it. I have never had the desire to do a bungee or parachute jump, and my fear of cycling downhills is pretty well known.
I was keen to know what the word 'bravery' meant to other people, and here are some of the responses. They range from people who are facing personal challenges in life, to some of my cycling buddies...
One thing that has struck me in the people I have spoken to is the perspective that women have about bravery. The more digging I do, the more I think I realise why females can have a very different approach to it. A friend recently shared this YouTube link below with me about a Ted Talk from Caroline Paul. She explains how girls are often told to 'be careful', whereas boys are encouraged to climb trees, skateboard etc as the norm. This very much resonates with me. As a child I was quite 'sickly'. As a baby I was in and out of hospital with breathing problems. Sadly, a year before I was born, I had a brother who had died as a baby. My parents were naturally protective of me. My memories of my childhood are were very much of being 'looked after' and protected from harm. I'm not a parent, but I can understand this. Ironically, as a child of about 5 or 6 years old, I was secretly latching onto my older brother and his friends and doing activities such as jumping off garages and rolling down hills of stinging nettles to be 'one of the gang' to show I wasn't scared. I remember one particular incident where I was tasked with trying to get something out of a tree by throwing a brick up at it. Obviously this resulted in the brick landing back square on my forehead. I bore that egg shaped lump on my head for about a week. Surely this sort of activity should have set me up for life as a 'brave person'? Well in theory yes, but as soon as my parents got wind of my behaviour, along with worried reports from neighbours, well this sort of activity was well and truly quashed as 'too dangerous'. So whilst my brother continued to play on building sites (one of my favourite things of the time), I was encouraged to 'be careful'. At the age of 10 I developed asthma and even passed out having the blood test for that! It seemed my life was destined to be one of caution.
Have a look at Caroline's Ted Talk below where she talks about getting out our comfort zone, calling on resilience - and how these are the elements of bravery. She cautions against instilling fear in our children, as if this is the primary reaction we won't push ourselves out of our comfort zone. Bravery, she says, is learned, and like anything else it needs to be practised. 'Risky play' teaches hazard assessment, it teaches resilience and it teaches bravery.
Someone else championing the idea of bravery, especially in women and girls is Lee Craigie. As the figurehead behind The Adventure Syndicate, Lee aims to increase self-belief and confidence in others. She also sites one of her own fears as "..getting to the end to the end of my life and thinking "if only I had....".Having produced the documentary film 'Divided' with Rickie Cotter about their emotional attempt to do the arduous 'Tour Divide' event, Lee said "My hope is that this film will show camaraderie, cooperation and collaboration, and show women who are not following the traditional model and are going against the flow and having a ball. Not listening to the people who say it is not possible and that it is a bit dangerous, and I think that is a really powerful message for teenage girls".
And so the subject has come back to cycling again, a pastime close to my heart. But when I think of the things that I did on my first self supported cycling trip last year in South America, what were the things that I consider to be 'brave'? Was it cycling down that scary as hell road of many switchbacks? Or the accidental rerouting down a dual carriageway, narrowly avoiding passing lorries? Or possibly the 'non-avoidance' of traffic when I was knocked off my bike by a bus? No, none of these things were undertaken deliberately, but put in our path as the route was changed out of necessity. One of my travelling colleagues said he thought that the 'braver' elements of that trip were probably the fact that I went on my own, only knowing one of the of the group; the months of organisation and endless preparation. Setting up my own tent for the first time even. I do remember in the run up to that trip that although I had a slight concern about being at altitude for the first time, it was the thought of actually getting myself, a bike in a cardboard box and 35k of kit halfway across the world to the starting point via the various flights that gave me anxiety dreams.
For me though, the thing that really fills me with fear is the thought of looking stupid, or publicly failing at something. I have shied away from many a public speaking opportunity, and despite my love of flamenco guitar, have made myself feel physically sick at the thought of just playing on my own in front of my peers at flamenco workshop opportunities in Seville. Having built up to my first singing lesson two years ago, I have made an excuse for every open mic singing opportunity that has come my way. This year, I decided, it was time to step off that scary ledge and perform at my 50th birthday party. My wonderful friend Cath and I had been talking about a song that meant a lot to both of us for various reasons - 'Titanium' by David Guetta and Sia. It is a song about overcoming fear, and so resonated with us both. Why not go one step further I thought and try to do some arpeggio style guitar playing at the same time? Oh hell, let's add another song, 'Losing my Religion' by REM.
And so, despite working myself up into a frenzy before the big night, and (kind of) jokingly asking one of my friends if she still had beta blockers, I DID it.
OK, so I wasn't on my own, but having the attention of about 70 people focussed on me was a big deal. The feeling afterwards was quite euphoric. It made me feel that I could achieve more. (Important to point out that the actual performance was of course MUCH better than the quality of this video, which is thankfully so dark you can't see the fear on my face!)
So to sum up the the reason for bravery, it is something which will help you grow and develop to accomplish your life goals. As Caroline Paul said, bravery is something which needs to be practised.
Am I brave? No, but I am definitely going to practise bravery more!
As is customary with my blogs, I will finish off with a couple of songs which I think sum up the mood. One is 'Not Afraid' by Eminem, and the other, a favourite of mine which reminds me to be braver on those hills, 'Driving with the Brakes On' by Del Amitri.
If you are thinking about doing something just a little bit brave this year, sign up for the next nnoodl event on Saturday 9th June. I can assure you it will NOT be scary, or involve you being put on the spot, just a great opportunity to meet with fellow adventurers, and give yourself that tiny push out of your comfort zone...
I like to offer a nice mix of activities with my nnoodl adventures. Having previously done axe throwing, singing, beekeeping and fencing to name a few, I thought it was time for a creative challenge.
Something I'd been looking into for a while was stop motion animation. This is a technique that physically manipulates an object so that it appears to move on its own. The object is moved in small increments between individually photographed frames, creating the illusion of movement when the series of frames is played as a fast sequence. Think of things like Morph, or 'The Trap Door'. One thing I have noticed, however, is that art and craft type activities can often make people feel more anxious than physical ones. The idea often brings up memories for some of being told they 'just weren't artistic' at school. So when I found Jennifer Kidd,from Ctrl+Art+Del and had a chat to her,she seemed exactly the type of person who could lead our group of unsuspecting participants in this activity.
I instructed our adventurers to meet at Canning Town station,which I know had already caused a few murmurs of what exactly might await us in this outlying area of east London? I had to manage expectations as we gathered on a grey Saturday morning that we weren't going to get a flight from London City Airport (sorry!) A short walk and we were at the London City Island Gallery. Now this on itself is a little hidden gem,a collection of eclectic art all sourced from the locals in the area. The perfect backdrop to this creative pursuit.
Jenny explained to the group what we would be doing, which is always the moment I personally feel most nervous. Will anyone say they don't want to do it, or have they done it before, and want to take up their 'pass card'? Thankfully there was a ripple of excited noises as everyone seemed up for it. The first part of the day would involve us splitting into small teams and creating characters from plasticine. The brief was pretty wide here, but Jenny advised us to consider maybe having a villain and a victim. Considering I was the only one of us who knew what we were doing in advance, you might have thought that I'd come prepared with some idea...but no. I decided to see what my fellow teammates, Lee and Andy were producing, and then see what I could add to it. Lee started modelling an octopus, whilst Andy was hard at work with a scary villain. The idea of water always appeals to me, so I thought 'a starfish!'
Talk then turned to the recent story of starfish being washed up on the beaches at Ramsgate, and so immediately my little character became the victim in our yet to be developed storyline. It was heartwarming to see how engrossed everyone was in this childhood modelling fabric for almost 2 hours. It made me wonder if I should invest in some plasticine to use at the end of a busy day! I could also hear random snippets of conversations about the different groups character names and personalities. We were then encouraged to develop this further and think about what the characters fears might be, and how they would interact with each other.
Our group found ourselves developing a story with a conservation message about the villain being a litter lout and the sea creatures being caught up in this, leading eventually to the death of the starfish by ingesting plastic. It's quite poignant that this storyline wasn't actually my idea, despite my current work with WWF. In fact each of the teams ended up creating a moral tale - with one story about protests and fur during fashion week, and another about a child using her imagination to play creatively.
Time for a short lunch break to have some tapas type food (all included in the price don't you know!). Interestingly though, everyone seemed keen to crack on and continue their storyboarding ready for the camera work that afternoon. Sign of everyone having a good time!
Jenny explained some things we should think about when we did our storylines, such as should we communicate certain messages with speech bubbles, or would the story be self-explanatory? There is also the option to add sounds and music in of course, but we realised we were up against time.....
You soon realise the work that goes into these animations as Jenny explained that we had 900 shots available to us! You have to think about continuity if you are trying to replicate a scene with a moving character in it (so try to avoid kicking the camera tripod Denise). Yet she also advised us not to get too precious when the characters inevitably got a bit 'remodelled' or discoloured during the process of moving them. Yes, we spent many minutes readjusting eyes and mouths which had fallen off our characters. As we set up our scenes I was amused by the dialogue coming from the other teams "Let's get more blood there when she gets hit!" for example. All a bit dark....
The time just disappears when you are acting director for these animations. Trying to frame the shot just right, and get the perspective and continuity. I can see why in the credits of Pixar films there is always a long list of 'Pixar babies' who have been born during filming. Apparently a frame in one of these films can take 24 hours to render, and a 90 minute film will have on average about 130,000 frames!
Once we were happy with our shots, we joined Jenny to talk through the final editing of them. This is when you spot any inconsistencies, or wonder if you should have worn your glasses after all? However, we were actually pretty pleased with the results, especially from character creation to completion, this was all done in one day. We all agreed we felt pretty tired! So it was time for a glass of celebratory cava to toast our creativity. Have a look at the final animations below and see what you think....
Oh and if you are now inspired to come along to a future nnoodl adventure, the April one is sold out, but our next one on 9th June is now booking up, go to the 'Packages' page here to snap up your place before it sells out!
Denise Yeats is an events professional with over 18 years of creating inspiring events ranging from arts events at Tate to Tower Running races. She recently undertook a personal challenge called 'The Secret Life' which involved doing a new pursuit every week which is chosen at random by an allocated colour and number. This has led onto the creation of 'nnoodl - discovering your secret london life' where people are led on surprise activities...