So it's been a week of key moments. The sun finally came out, meaning that I could at least imagine I was in South America (even if it was still only 14degrees).
It was also heartening to see that I had gone over the 1,000km mark, meaning that my distance left to travel has gone from a number starting with a 9 to one starting with a 7. Hooray!
It was also time for my monthly wildcard challenge, but more on that to come...
The distances are looking like this:
Total of 182.4km
I was delighted to see the water temperature increase slightly to 8 or 9deg which means
I managed to finally get my distance up to over 1km across two swims this week.
Likewise, my niggling achilles seems to have finally (she says touching wood) started to settle down and I managed to include some hills into my runs for the first time in about
But the biggest achievement of this week must be ticking off my second wildcard challenge. Set by Coach Tom last week, it was to cover at least 50% of my cycling distance carrying the full kit I would need for a trip like this. From experience, that was around 30kilos, and so it was time to 'pannier up'. To simulate the weight I filled my panniers with bottles of water, books and other weighty items and off I went.
Well, this turned out to be more of a challenge than I expected, especially as the first part of the week brought with it strong gusty winds. I felt like I was hardly moving!
The funniest part though must have been when I was grinding out some laps cycling around Regents Park and as I stopped at the lights a fellow cyclist looked over my loaded up bike and enquired "Where are you off to then?" I thought for a minute and replied "Erm, Ecuador?" and cycled off. I assume he either called the police or the Priory....
In fact out of the 165.5km I cycled this week, I actually did 140km on my hybrid with full panniers. All I can say is, my thighs!!
So where would I be in South America right now? Well I've made great progress through Colombia and would now be approaching the city of Pasto in the south of the country. Affectionately known as the 'Surprise City' it is probably best known for it's beautiful buildings, and even more so for the 'Carnaval de Negros y Blancos'. This lively celebration takes place between the 2nd and 7th of January and are famous for the giant figures made by local artisans walking through the streets of the city.
But the highlight of my week back here in the 'real world' must have been recording my latest video conversation. In this episode I was speaking to Shäron Brown, a good friend of mine, and full-time carer to her 21 year old daughter Jennifer, who has a very rare genetic condition.
I spoke to her about resilience, tenacity, the challenges she faces on a daily basis, and the rewards that come with that. I would urge anyone who is currently struggling at the moment to watch this one for some real insights into how to keep mentally strong and resilient.
It's been another week where the weather in my part of the hemisphere couldn't be more different from where I would literally be in South America.
So the snow and Arctic winds left us on Sunday, but only to be replaced by days of endless rain, arrrgh. Equally unpleasant for cycling and running! Whilst the river temperature rose to a 'balmy' 6deg, getting changed in pouring rain after a swim is not much fun.
But, like a true Scot, I still managed to muscle it out and achieve a distance of 204.4km
The distances look like this...
190.6 km cycling (whoop, and despite the rain, only 28k of it indoors!)
I've now covered a total distance of 958.8km which brings me past the city of Neiva and a spectacular part of Colombia - the Tatacoa desert, also known as the tropical dry desert. This part of Colombia is a real delight in terms of the contrasts in landscape. From the 330 square kms of the arid Tatacoa desert to the changing vegetation and breathtaking views of the Parque Nacional Natural Nevado del Huila. At 5,364m, the Nevado del Huila volcano is the highest in Colombia, and after lying dormant for over 500 years, caused concern for the surrounding towns and villages after erupting back in 2007 and 2008.
Not quite as dramatic as these conditions, but back in London I was pleased to see the rain clear for at least one day for a glorious bike ride to Hampton Court Palace. I have often avoided going to this tourist attraction as it is always so busy. Not this week though, I can recommend a spin round the grounds during lockdown!
In a cultural nod to where I should be, I have also managed to get hold of some bocadillos, a classic guava, and in this case guava and raspberry energy snack classically used by Colombian cyclists over the years. Forget synthetic energy gels, these little cubes of fruity wonder are natural and even wrapped in plantain leaves.
I think I will be needing them for my next wildcard challenge that Coach Tom set me for next week which is....
'To do at least 50% of my rides this week on my bike loaded up with the kit I would need for an actual trip like this'
Eeek, so the fun begins as I look out my front and rear panniers to load up with bottles of water, books and all sorts of other 'weighty stuff' to simulate this load!
In an otherwise fairly uneventful week, the highlight has to be.....getting my Covid vaccine!!
I was at first slightly aggrieved at receiving my text from the NHS citing me as 'clinically vulnerable'. I only have mild asthma, but I certainly wasn't going to argue and so headed (by bike obviously!) to get my jab.
This did make me feel nostalgic about my 'real' South American trip back in 2017 where I had my own little health passport to log my numerous jabs (mostly a series of rabies ones to protect myself from angry Argentinian dogs!).
Well they say be careful what you wish for, and I do prefer cold to rain, but THIS cold!?
The icy conditions made everything I did this week a major challenge, but the distances are still good....
Just under 192km in total, my highest distance in a week to date!
401m swimming (definitely shorter dips this week!)
I was pleased to be able to increase my running mileage this week, especially as it seemed like most of it was spent in a sort of run/skid fashion on the icy pavements, or across a wintry Hampstead Heath.
I do love it there, the feeling of space and views across the city, it is one of my favourite places in London. I often head there when I am in need of some perspective on things.
Having now covered a total of 754.4km through Colombia, this would have me approaching the city of Cali, southwest of Bogotá. Known for being the world capital of salsa, every September, salseros flock from around the world to take part in the World Salsa Festival. Ah how I would love to be there right now, dancing, drinking lulada, or dipping in the refreshing waters of the Rio Pance in the south of the city.
These waters would definitely be more balmy than the 2.5deg that I experienced in the Thames this week! So the easing off of the rain might have brought the flow rate of the river down slightly, but with ice forming near the lock, a new challenge of not getting hypothermia faced me instead. But that said, I do get a sense of pleasure when walkers on the footpath stop and take photos and gasp in awe as they see me get into the river in my costume in the falling snow, whilst they are wrapped up in Arctic-like kit against the elements. Then afterwards there is the almost comedic race to get dressed in as many layers as possible. I know that it is 'properly cold' when I have dug out my old ski gloves from circa 1990 as the they are the only things that will keep my hands warm post swim now.
Meanwhile on my run over at Hampstead Heath, I could only look longingly at the mixed pond, where swimming is still closed in the current lockdown.
I believe this challenge is definitely helping with my mental health. I think it could be quite demoralising to train for a triathlon just now in a world where mass participation events are so uncertain. As an events organiser this uncertainty over large scale events taking place has the added knock on effect of making me anxious about my business too.
There have definitely been more bad days than good this week where the thought of getting on my bike in the biting 'beast from the east' wind, with a relative air temperature of -7deg has felt like a real effort. Then I think of the legendary ice man, Wim Hof who reminds us that being too comfortable and warm all the time is not good for us, it doesn't challenge our system.
And I remind myself that I do like a challenge, and so I hope for better days, in every sense.
Speaking of tenacity, I released the second in my series of video conversations this week. Here I talk to beekeeper Tracey Carter about what we can learn from honey bees about resilience, tenacity and their unique style of communications. Even if I say so myself,
I found it very interesting!
The stats this week are looking like this:
...and a paddleboard plan in place, pending river flow being more manageable!
On that subject, it has been another week of challenging swimming as the heavy rain has caused the river flow to be over 400 (and to think that 2 weeks ago I thought 250 was fast!). As this video above shows, it really was a case of "I'm on a road to nowhere". That was definitely the song going around my head as I was giving it my all and realising that I was not moving away from the jetty. My swimming buddy's dog was looking on very concerned from the side I have to say.
To a lot of people it seems like madness to go to all that effort to swim for about 10 minutes at a time, but I have come to realise that these activities offer me a rare opportunity to see a 'real' person and speak to someone (not on screen) as much as anything else.
After sharing my recent swimming frustrations, I have been advised that I should use the calculations based on stroke rate that someone in an endless pool would use to indicate how far I would actually have swum. So there you go, averaging about 450-500m for each swim stint in 5deg water.
So with a total of 563km completed, I would now have passed through Muzo in Colombia, a town widely known as the world capital of emeralds for the mines containing the world's highest quality gems, and now be approaching Bogota, the country's capital.
It is a city of around eight million people, with cycle paths covering more than 360km of the city’s surface. Colombia’s capital pretty much invented the concept of ciclovia (cycle way). Cars are banned from 120km of city roads every Sunday morning, from 7am to 2pm, when two million city residents take to the streets to cycle, jog and roller blade. This sounds like exactly the kind of place I would love to be actually cycling in!
In honour of that fact, the closest I could come to this city experience was to be cycling around my home city, London, though which sadly even in lockdown can't quite replicate the Ciclovia experience! But it was great to be able to try being a tourist in my own city, and with a Colombian cycling friend, Giovanna being there, then I feel I gave it the cultural Latin American nod. (Though it did feel like we were playing a bizarre game of chicken as the horseguards were bearing down on our photo moment here!)
I'm pleased that I have managed to rehab my previously very niggly achilles to increase my running ever so slightly this week. At least running in the pouring rain isn't quite as miserable in cycling in it. The depressing weather has definitely been making all of this more of a challenge, but I am still trying to do as little of it indoors/on my turbo as possible, I think it is important to be 'out there'. And of course I am Scottish, so can never use the weather as an excuse really!
Then I think about two words which mean a lot to me: Tenacity and Resilience, and it is very timely that this week I launched the first in my new series of video interviews.
This is where I speak to a series of guests about what techniques they use in their professions and everyday lives to channel resilience and tenacity amongst other things.
I am passionate about the benefits that challenge can bring, and fascinated about how many areas of our lives it affects. This first interview is with my singing teacher, Matt Thompson, and there is a fascinating one coming up next week with a beekeeper!
And what better way to finish this week than to watch Scotland beat England in their Six Nations rugby game on Saturday! I think wearing my Doddie Weir top for my bike/run that day must have definitely brought some good luck!
Week 2 completed with me covering 191.4km. Only 8,620km to go!
The weather, coupled with my 'wildcard challenge' of completing 1000m of hill climbs on the bike at 6% or more meant that this week was a real test in many ways.
So, it's heavily skewed towards cycling again this week, the breakdown went like this:
183km cycling (most of it on hillls!)
Having covered a total of 386km so far, I would currently be just outside Puerto Berrio in Colombia. This is a major river port on the Magdalena, handling a lot of the famous coffee that comes out of this part of South America.
Again, the weather conditions in my part of the world couldn't be more different from my virtual one. Snow and ice in London whilst Puerto Berrio basks in 33deg!
The week got off to an interesting start after an unexpected snowfall on Sunday.
I had my mind set on a swim on Monday though, and so I tenaciously navigated my way out of a very icy street on my hybrid bike. The trip was rewarded with a VERY cold but lovely swim in the Thames, though yet again a super high flow rate of around 270 meant that what should have been a 400m swim registered as 156 as I battled against the current. Daaaah! Though as you can see, I'm still grinning like a lunatic...
But the most challenging part of my training was yet to come.....I had the hill climbs to do and neither the roads nor the weather were looking favourable. Could I do this on my turbo trainer indoors? Coach Tom said no, that was too 'easy' apparently, but advised safety first and that I could delay it until next week. But wimping out is not my style.
I did appreciate that steep downhills on skinny road bike tyres might not be the best idea though and I so decided to do them on my trusty hybrid. Now where to do the challenge? One of my favourite destinations to get the hills in is the Chilterns, but with travel of that distance out of the question just now I had to focus closer to home.
I am lucky to live in North London close to some great hilly locations. For those familiar with cycling in this area, there is a gem of a hill near Hampstead towards Highgate called Swain's Lane. Averaging at a gradient around 8% and maxing out at 20% over 900metres, it is the location of the Urban Hill Climb Race and enjoys legendary status in the London cycling community. That, coupled with some surrounding climbs and a 'nice' 12% hill near where I live, and I had my plan sorted.
Oh but the weather was grim. Rain, rain and more rain (the picture on the right was not taken in real time!). I used to do some hill reps with some of my cycling club buddies a few years ago on this circuit when...
a) it was dry
b) I was on a road bike that weighs about 7kg and
c) we did about 5 or 6 of them in a week
Contrast that with...
a) it was soaking wet
b) I was on a hybrid bike weighing about 14kg and
c) I had to do 15 reps this week
So, this circuit (8 hills) done 2 days in a row, elevation 517m each day, I think we can safely say job done!
I apologise for any motorists who witnessed me shouting and laughing manically in the rain wondering if this was some biblical event I was in the midst of....bucketing rain and plague (Covid). I found myself muttering 'is this the fine line between tenacity and madness?'
And so with very tired legs (and yet again in the rain) I had some running to do. too My second swim of the week came unstuck when not only did I get caught in a major downpour getting there, but was advised that the river flow was 'dangerously fast' so (even I) couldn't swim anyway.
But I do love a challenge, and although the week might have been grey and testing,
I did receive some bright news from my parents in Aberdeen. My dad had been for his vaccine! Although, like the past 13 months, I could only see them onscreen, I could feel his excitement that there may just be a light at the end of this very long tunnel....
So, week one of my challenge is done and if I were actually in South America I would be halfway between Barranquilla and Barrancabermeja, just south of Aguachica (aren't these great names!)
My current mileage split is sitting like this:
The paddleboarding and kayaking elements are yet to kick in.....
It would be difficult to try and simulate conditions given that the air temperature in Colombia is currently sitting around 26deg whereas London has been fluctuating between 1 and 10deg this week. And then there was the snow!
The water conditions however, I feel I might have been able to simulate to a point. Passing through this part of Colombia, the town of Magangue sits on the Magdalena river, which possibly shares some of the features of the Thames...a bit muddy and fast flowing.
The only difference being I can't help but feel that the Magdalena would have been significantly warmer than the Thames. I felt cheated by my two swims this week. With temperature in the Thames at around 6deg, I could only really stay in for about 11 or 12mins and with the river flow creeping up by the day, where I would normally have covered around 5 or 600 metres in that time, my Garmin depressingly recorded 2 or 300metres. Who has ever trained in an endless pool? Swimming for over 2minutes if was depressing to look up and see that I had barely moved! Was I tempted to fudge my distance to account for my real efforts? Yes! But that would be wrong - what if I was actually swimming against the current in the Magdalena?
Yes, hands up, the majority of my mileage this week has been cycling. Mostly due to Covid restrictions and easing back into my running after a bit of an achilles issue. Far from the dusty, hot hills of Colombia, my cycling has revolved around essential work cycling trips (laden with panniers), laps around parks and turbo/Zwift sessions.
But I did do those 'around a volcano', does that count??
And so onto the other most important component of the week - refuelling! Well at this time of year I would be gearing up to host my legendary (even though I say so myself) Burns Supper. Eight or nine friends, great food, Burns recitals, music and the slightly controversial (but delicious) haggis lasagne. So cue a pared back version for two.
BUT what a great surprise, in the spirit of what would be a welcome addition to anyone away from home doing an an endurance challenge - a 'Scottish Care Package' arrived from my lovely training buddy Allison all the way from Aberdeen. Comprising of butteries (look them up!), haggis, neeps and tatties crisps, shortbread, fudge and Irn Bru pastilles, what more could lift your spirits? Apparently sent as a thank you for arranging our weekly TRX training sessions. Well Allison it's been a pleasure and let's do some more reps next week to offset those carbs!
What does week two hold in store? Well you might think 'more of the same'. But no, Coach Tom has pulled a wildcard challenge for this month and here is is...
‘To prepare for the long climbs and descents in the Andes, this week let's get you doing something that you love… 1000m of climbs and descents at 6% or more on the bike’
Hmmm...thanks Tom, I think the word 'love' is ironic. Some more creativity will be required to try and get those sessions in.
And for those who know me, those descents worry me more than the climbs.
But that's another story for next week...
This year, between January and December, under my own steam in the form of a 'pentathlon' (in this case, swimming, cycling, running, paddle boarding and kayaking)
I will (virtually) cover the length of South America at 9,006km. This challenge will also include an undisclosed challenge from my coach each month that will push my comfort zone to the extreme.
As someone who likes to set themselves a challenge, I found myself getting disheartened in 2020 by training for triathlon events which couldn't take place.
I know I am not alone in feeling that the constant changing environment that we are living in was impacting my mental health.
A large part of my business nnoodl is about encouraging people to get out of their comfort zone and try new things. There is evidence that the more we set ourselves even small challenges, the more resilient we become, and so are better equipped to deal with the big challenges that life throws at us. If ever there was a time to be resilient it is now!
I needed to set myself a goal, an adventure which I had some control over.
Reflecting back on an event I did in 2017 where I completed an 800mile bike ride between Argentina and Chile across the Andes, I wondered how I could 'up the ante'.
Could I travel a distance which is equivalent to the length of South America?
What about adding in some further sporting disciplines to not only challenge myself but also replicate some of the terrain I would encounter in real life?
And so I decided on my version of a pentathlon, the Latin American Pentathlon:
Who better to help me with my challenge than Tom Frearson, Head Coach and Founder of Be Fearsome? A former Royal Marines Commando, keen Triathlete and Mountaineer, Tom has been coaching me over the past two years in my triathlon pursuits. We decided that in addition to the 'pentathlon' elements, that he will set me specific goals and challenges along the way to try and replicate some of the terrain and conditions I would face in real life. I have no idea what these are.......oh dear!
I am going to caveat this from the outset for the purists out there. I know how to research and plot a 'real' route but am using a bit of artistic licence here. My main aim was to replicate the distance on this virtual challenge, and tap into elements of the conditions along the way, for example climbs and descents, off road sections, cold water etc. So with that said....
Starting at Barranquilla, the 'Golden Gate' of Colombia, my route will take me through this cycling mad country into Bogota. From there I will pass through Quito, the capital of Ecuador, and onto Lima in Peru, situated on the country's arid coast. Then it is onto not one but two of Bolivia's bustling cities, La Paz and Santa Cruz de la Sierra. We continue to stretch reality as I zig zag across the Andes southwards into Salta in Argentina and across to the small mining town of Copiapo in Chile. I know from experience what a logistical exercise it is to make even one Andes and border crossing in reality. But hey, this is my imaginary challenge so I can go to all the places I want! Continuing through Chile and the metropolis that is Santiago, then on via the Alpine-like town of Villa la Angostura Through Puerto Aysen and onto Chile Chico where the Patagonian waters will really inspire me. Continuing south and back in Argentina to the city of El Calafate on the southern border of Lago Argentino and then Puerto Natales in Chile at the gateway to the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. We are now truly in some of the most stunning parts of Patagonia, surrounded by glaciers, lakes and rivers. The last leg takes me past Puerto del Hambre until my final destination of Ushuaia, aptly nicknamed 'The End of the World'.
How it works
The main reason for choosing this amazing part of the world for my inspiration is for the contrasting terrain and conditions it offers. It is these elements that I would like to challenge myself with: cold water swims and challenging kayak and SUP sessions; endurance testing climbs on the bike and run sections. I am no stranger to training in challenging weather conditions so I hope this sets me up for the winter sessions!
9,000km as a distance to cover over the next 11 months may seem achievable to a cyclist alone, but I have set myself some parameters around this. A percentage of the pentathlon must be covered by each of the five disciplines. With current Covid restrictions in place I am faced with the added logistical challenge of getting the mileage in with some of these sports. Just how far can I swim each month in open water in winter? Along the way I will be on the lookout for areas of the UK which I can use to test myself on. Restrictions allowing, there are already plans afoot for a Scottish adventure...
I will track my progress with my Garmin, synched with 'My Virtual Challenge' and update this blog page each week. My hope is that I can also inspire people along the way who are likewise missing their challenge fix to show that there are ways in which we can adapt and not only survive, but thrive.
Bring it on!
Denise Yeats is an events director, communications consultant, endurance athlete and avid adventurer.