Friday, January 30, 2009

Enough Is Enough!

At last I have managed to do some walking!

We were at the doctor's again on Thursday – a different doctor. This does not mean we are hypochondriacs, despite the fact we live in France, the home of health insecurity and a very secure place to be a pharmacist. We always have our annual medical check-up in New Zealand rather than at home. It is well known that the health service in France is excellent, but we feel happier having our check-up in English, just in case something does crop up, some technical term which could possibly get lost in translation.

We saw our regular NZ doctor, Michael Thwaites. As with the doctor in Akaroa, he said we should take antibiotics to clear up the persistent infection. Having had a few more days without improvement or prospect thereof, this time we snapped his hand off and started guzzling the pills with gusto.

Coincidentally or otherwise, I feel much improved. Gay, who seemed to catch the infection from me and is therefore a few days behind in the cycle, is still quite ill.

So I have managed to salvage some exercise from our week in Akaroa, which looked as if it was going to be a complete washout. The kms for the past 3 days have been 10, 13, then 14 today. The last two walks were extremely hilly. Tomorrow we move on to Alexandra for a couple of days, then to the Catlins on the South coast of New Zealand (next stop Antarctica) for a week.

We are nothing without our health, are we? In the past month I have had more to remind me of that than the paltry infection already mentioned. In mid-December my eldest daughter Karen told me the doctor was sending her for tests for throat cancer. Unbelievably, in the same week my youngest daughter Nicola said she was waiting for a CAT scan and a MRI scan of her brain, with a possibility of a brain tumour. Karen had her tests a few weeks ago and was cleared. Nicola did not get her scans until a couple of days ago and she, also, is OK. But it was not a happy time.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Physician, Heal Thyself?

This is just the sort of thing I do not want to happen when I am in the middle of VBW. Bowling along, happy as Larry, when wallop! Along comes a virus, reducing me to a coughing, quivering wreck.

It has been going on for a week now – a week in which I have done barely any walking, except for the surprising amount one does around town, and even that has been a bit much for me. I would certainly have felt incapable of doing 180 kms (which will be my average weekly walk from May to July next year) during that time. And if I had forced myself to walk anyway (as I would feel inclined to do when under the pressure of the 70-day deadline) I would likely have made myself more ill than I am now. I remember once going ahead with a marathon, despite feeling under the weather – I did not cover myself in glory during the race, but I was severely ill for the next week or two – a colleague rang me at home but put the 'phone down when I answered – he though he had dialled a wrong number when he heard such an old man on the line. I was about 40 years old at the time.

I am very reluctant to use antibiotics. Like most people, I know that all that is happening is that I am training the virus to adapt and to tolerate the drug, and that eventually there will not be an antibiotic which has any effect at all.

But after a week of coughing and wobbling, Gay and I went to the doctor here in Akaroa on Monday, as it seemed the enemy was not going to go away on its own. The doctor, who went to school at Rossall, not 10 miles away from my own school in Poulton-le-Fylde, confessed that he was suffering from a similar ailment himself! He offered us some antibiotics, if we wanted to use them, but said that the illness will blow itself out after 10-14 days. We decided to let the sickness run its course, despite the effect it is having, of completely curtailing our athletic activities.
If I am stricken with a virus while doing VBW, it will be a different story. It will be “gimme the tablets” and sod the future. With only 70 days allowed for the walk, I will not be able to afford to lose a week.

As mentioned, we are in Akaroa, which in many ways is a little bit of France in New Zealand. In 1840, the Maori chiefs were persuaded to sign a treaty with the uniformed representatives of Queen Victoria, turning New Zealand into a British colony, like much of the rest of the world at that time. Not long before this happened, some French explorers had discovered the Banks Peninsula, on which Akaroa lies. They were very taken with it and scurried home to raise an expedition to colonise it on behalf of France. Four shiploads of eager French settlers arrived at the British colony just too late to claim it for their own country but decided to stay anyway. Most of them, or rather their descendants, have dispersed around the country now, but there are still some French names about. Many of the streets have French names. Also many of the businesses, although this is clearly a marketing ploy, as the usage of the French language on the signs is pretty comical and obviously not handed down from the original French settlers.

The huge harbour at Akaroa was once a mountain, a volcano in fact, which blew its top, and also its bottom, long ages ago. The result is a beautiful setting for a splendidly photogenic little town which is a major tourist draw and one of our favourite places on earth. When you visit New Zealand, as everybody should do at least once in their lifetime, it it is one place you must see.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Vic's Small Walk

As you know, this is a blog about walking. I suppose it was optimistic to think that I could continue to get daily use from my ten-league walking boots in the middle of winter. There have been many interruptions of late. Not least in the past two weeks, since Gay and I left home to traverse snow-bound France on the way to visiting relatives and friends in UK en route to a 3-month stay in New Zealand, where the opportunities for long distance walking are boundless, and where, miraculously, it is mid-summer.

After the long flights from Manchester to Singapore and then, following an overnight stay, Singapore to Christchurch, we would hit the ground running, or at least walking strenuously. We arrived in NZ on Tuesday to the shock, after the exceptionally cold start to winter in Europe, of temperatures in the high 20s or low 30s. One overnight in Christchurch, then off to Oxford, 50 kms north, where, during a 3-day visit with our friends Denise and Robin Illingworth, we would “conquer” Mount Oxford and indulge in a couple more long walks and/or cycle rides while we acclimatised.

The actuality is that in my case I hit the ground coughing. My legs hit the ground wobbling. An angrily sore throat was also one of the symptoms. Presumably I had fallen victim to the famed ability of an aircraft's air-conditioning system, to redistribute germs and viruses from one sufferer to unsuspecting passengers in another part of the machine.

I walked 10 kms on Tuesday, 12 on Wednesday, then 4 on Thursday. The second half of the 4 kms walk was consumed by dragging myself back to our accommodation because I was exhausted by a 2 kms walk into Oxford town. Big Walker? The next day I managed 6 kms, so presumably there is some improvement in my condition, although my still coughing all night and day does not support that theory.

We spent today removing ourselves to Akaroa for a 7-day visit. The plan here is to tackle each day a 3-hour walk (that's how long it normally takes us, although it is billed as 4.5-6 hours), which also includes a climb from sea level to 600 metres. I fear that we shall have to settle for something less ambitious, at least for the next couple of days. Or more, in Gay's case, as she is now starting to display the same symptoms. At least she has someone to blame!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Miracles Can Happen

There are two ways to live your life.

One is as though nothing is a miracle.

The other is as though everything is a miracle.


Monday, January 19, 2009

Other Big Walks 3 – The Man Who Broke Out Of The Bank – And Went For A Walk Across France

A week ago we were struggling through the snows of France, only to find it was still minus 7 degrees C. when we arrived in UK. So it seems strange that since our arrival this morning in Singapore, we are suddenly struggling with a temperature of about 30 degrees C. with the high level of humidity that always exists here. My first visit to Singapore was in 1957, so I have long experience of this place and the immense changes that have taken place here during that time.

So, obviously still in transit, there is not much walking being done, although, as mentioned before, the pedometer tells me that I seem to walk 30-35 kms a week without specifically setting out on a hike.

All this travelling, especially the 13 hours we spent on an aircraft overnight, across 8 time zones, have given me the opportunity to catch up on some more books about long walks. I have just re-read the one which has its title above.

Miles Morland was a high-powered City trader, who, as he constantly reminds us, spent his life “Shouting Down A Phone”. In the late 80s he abruptly decided to pack all that in, without having planned his next employment move. While he thought about what he should do with the rest of his life, he would walk across France, taking with him his wife Ghislane, half-French and who not only had no history of exercise, but who, unlike most of the population of the world, had never even owned a pair of trainers.

Miles himself had no recent record of any sort of athletic activity, although he had rowed while at Oxford. But not recently enough to have any relevance. They made one attempt at a sort of training walk in London but no other physical preparation.

Their walk across France was East to West, from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. They took the soft option of starting near Narbonne, rather than in the true East of France near the Alps, which halved the distance they could have covered. Nevertheless, for such unprepared physical specimens, 350 miles was a serious undertaking.

There is an attempt to add spice to the story because the pair had been divorced and recently re-married. Was the stress of the walk going to put a strain on their restructured marriage? An intriguing angle, but you never get a sense that there is any possibility of a rupture. Just the odd tiff when Miles keeps trying to second-guess the mappers.

He seems to be surprised that they did not lose more weight, yet the daily pattern seems to be to walk until lunchtime, eat a full lunch of several courses, along with two bottles of wine, have a bit of a sleep, finish the days walk, have another sleep, then hit another full meal in the evening, accompanied by two more bottles of wine. Not the ideal way to lose weight – the wine alone would put paid to that idea. And does wine at lunchtime not put your legs to sleep? It certainly does with me and I don't think I have ever drunk a full bottle with lunch.
Tonight we make another flight through the night. Only 10.5 hours this time, and 5 time zones. The next night's sleep will be in Christchurch and will be terminated by Obama's inaugural address. And soon after that we may be able to get down to some serious walking again.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Too Good To Be True

We set out last Wednesday to follow (in the car) Multimap's walking route from Mirepoix to Caen. The idea was to check out that this, although on public roads, would be safe for me to walk next year.

If so, it would save me a great deal of trouble poring through maps with a magnifying glass in order to plan a course which would both stick as closely as possible to my pencilled straight line, and avoid autoroutes, routes nationales, and even the busier D-roads. It would also be a good way of avoiding the 800 Euros we estimated it would cost to buy and use the more detailed blue series IGN maps.

I thought it was too good to be true, and so it proved.

First we drove from home in Puivert to Mirepoix. This will be the stage for Day 1 of VBW. I already know which way I will walk - and it is not the road route proposed by Multimap. It will be via the old railway line with which I have already endlessly bored you.

From Mirepoix onwards we were in new territory. One of the problems with Multimap routing (and that provided by other mapping services), is that although it is very clear in its "turn rights", "turn lefts" "go straight aheads", et cetera, and in telling you which road number you will be on, there is no indication of which town or city you may pass or go through. If the mapping did provide that information, I would have known without checking that the route was not up to snuff.

The first 30 kms from Mirepoix , equal to Day 2 of VBW, was fine. A lovely quiet road, parallel to what may be regarded as the main road north. No traffic. And it stuck pretty close to the line. Day 3's road was also fine. The road slightly wider and busier, very little traffic, which, when walking, I would clearly hear in the approach.

Day 4's road started out fine until we came near to the Autoroute which crosses from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, parallel to the Canal du Midi. I would have expected to cross both these obstructions and to have continued heading north and slightly west. But no, Multimap turned due west, on the road which was presumably replaced by the motorway as the main east-west link, and which was quite busy. Too busy for walking. I assumed that this would be for a couple of kms, and that we would then be tuning right and north onto a D-road. But it became clear that we were heading into the middle of Toulouse, a large city, and a huge diversion from the straight line.

The mapping had clearly failed. Also the snow was coming down heavily to add to that already on the ground. For these two reasons we abandoned the operation at this stage. It is back to the drawing board to plan the journey through France.

The idea had been to travel that day to Sarlat, a famous market town 300 kms from Mirepoix and eleven walking days from home. The next day to drive from Sarlat to Chatellerault. The final day to Caen, or rather the port of Ouistreham, which is really some distance from Caen. As it happens, we discovered that much of France was deep in snow, which would have made it impossible to drive the D-roads listed on our plan.

Saturday we fly to New Zealand for warm weather training (that's my story). On our return I will replan the route, which will then need to be checked out - I think we have already proved the value of doing that. The checking out will probably take place in September. Certainly not in the snow season

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

France 1, New Zealand 0

We are in North East England, still in transit to New Zealand, still fitting very little walking in, partly because of the travelling, being in strange places, having only one suitcase of clothes each, and partly because of the weather - we have come through deep snows in France and it was -7 degrees C. when we arrived in UK.

Also getting in very little bloggery. My laptop is in for repair and I am dependent on the kindness of friends and relatives in granting me access to their computers - a kindness one does not like to abuse by being unsociable and staying on there too long.

So it will be another posting in which I report on the "fitness for purpose" of the walking route through France as provided by Multimap. If you recall, the objective of our 3-day trek through France was to follow this route (in the car) to see whether it was indeed a safely walkable journey. More on that in a couple of days.

My last decent walk before leaving home was, as reported, the rail trail from Mirepoix to Chalabre and onwards. A great walk, if a little flat. There are three railway tunnels to go through. It is here that New Zealand has something to learn from France. We have walked and cycled similar rail trails in NZ, also well supplied with tunnels. In New Zealand, if you have not remembered to carry a torch, you have a bit of a problem. Especially on a gloomy day, it can be somewhat hazardous or at the least difficult. All three tunnels between Mirepoix and Lavelanet are brightly lit. For the middle one, there is the dreadful chore of having to raise your arm and press a switch. In the other two tunnels, there is a walker/cyclist/runner/horseperson detector which saves you all that trouble. A real benefit is that the lights do not go off while you are halfway through.

I said above that we are not doing much walking. But I have worn my pedometer some days as an experiment and have been surprised by the results. Even on days when I have been driving from breakfast to mid-afternoon, the pedometer has registered 5 or 6 kms per day, just walking backwards and forwards from the car to the hotel, into town, out for dinner. So I am not being quite as slothful as on first impression.

Monday, January 5, 2009

These Mist Covered Mountains ...

Today was my last walk for a while, because we shall be in transit for about two weeks and I don't think I will get much walking done in that time. The walk today was from Mirepoix to Puivert. Now I have the pedometer it is clear that the whole walk, from the car park into Mirepoix and then from the centre of Mirepoix, via the Voie Verte, to Puivert, is 33 kms.

We are off on Wednesday, via England, to spend 3 months in New Zealand and a couple of weeks in Australia. Then home again via another week in England. We should be home in mid-May. Gay and I always find it a wrench, although we love New Zealand, to leave this beautiful area, which has been our home now for over 10 years. We had also spent much time here for several years before that. We can't imagine living anywhere else. These mist-covered mountains really are home now for us.

As I said, we both love New Zealand and another factor of our annual trip Down Under is that Gay gets to see her sister in Australia. Before we started these regular visits, Gay and Dana had seen each other 4 times in 27 years. But it is clear that Gay is always very sad to leave our home, our village, our departement the Aude, the Pyrenees, and her garden.

But we have the best of both worlds. We live in one beautiful place, about which we hear the word Paradise used, and, for several months each year, we are in another country which is also frequently described thus.

Also, to go south in our winter, as we are doing, means it is much more likely that we can get plenty of exercise than it is here. Of course it can rain in NZ, but we are not likely to get the interruptions with snow and ice, that are currently plaguing us. Not to mention that we will not be obliged to wear half a ton of clothing . Or that almost all our exercise in NZ is off-road. Even if we walked on roads there, life would be so much easier. Consider the matter of traffic. New Zealand is a country bigger than UK, with a population of 4 million. South Island, where we shall spend all our time, is as big as England, yet it has a population of 1 million, compared with the English population of probably more than 50 million. So you can imagine the difference in traffic density, and consequently in safety.

When we arrive home in May, it will be almost exactly a year to the beginning of the walk, which I shall be starting on 15th May 2010.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Stepping Out

Since Christmas Day I have been revelling in the fact that my regular walking routes are much longer than I previously thought. This is because I received the above gadget as a Christmas present. It is an Omron Walking Style II Pedometer.

After tearing off the wrapping paper, you insert the tiny battery, then input the time, your weight and your stride length. You carry it in a pocket or clipped to your belt or rucsack, and it kindly tells you how many steps you have taken, how many of those steps were of aerobic benefit, how many calories you have used by walking, and the distance, in kilometres, you have covered.

The key to all this is putting in the correct stride length. Fortunately, when I do what has become my normal Friday morning walk, from Lavelanet to Puivert, the first 5 kms of the Voie Verte has signs every half a kilometre, but only for the first 5 kms - after that, nothing. I don't know whether they are accurate, but they are certainly consistent. Last Friday, before I started wallowing about in the snow, I counted my steps over a couple of these half kilometres and decided that I was taking 550 steps to cover the distance. There were a couple of interruptions to my counting, when I encountered people with dogs or bicycles. It is always necessary in France to speak to people, whether you know them or not, when you meet them, so of course I did so and quickly reverted to my counting, thinking I had not lost many counts. The discipline of arithmetic showed that my stride length was therefore 0.91 metres, so I inserted this figure in the pedometer. Then it struck me that as the pedometer counts steps, I could have let the machine do the counting, while I exchanged greetings with everybody in the Ariege.

It was after this procedure that I discovered I was walking much further than I had previously estimated. Though pleasing, this was suspicious. As a runner, I was known for fast-cadence, short strides. When I used to run with Gay, I generally covered each mile one minute faster than she did, but when we walk together I struggle to keep up, despite the fact that our legs are the same length. More evidence of a naturally shorter walking stride.

Today I decided to check it out. Same walk as last week. Step counter showed 610 steps per 500 metres, 0.82 metres per step, much less than 0.91. Inserting this figure into the pedometer brought the distance it thought I had walked into line with the known distances involved.

The pedometer resets itself at midnight to zero distance covered. I would think one of these would be very useful for somebody wanting to make sure that they walked the recommended (for health) 10,000 steps per day.

I am certainly very pleased with it, now we have had a bit of a drains-up about the stride length. Excellent.