Tuesday, January 25, 2005

It’s been pointed out to me a number of times since I began this endeavour, that to get a truly substantial event under my belt early on would provide a boost for the rest of the campaign. To that end, I’ve all but decided to enter the London Triathlon this year. My wife and I went down to London last August to watch my sister-in-law (Vicky) and two good friends (Neil and Timo) compete.

No one knew Vicky had such a small head until her hair was tamed by a swimming cap.

It begins with a 1500 metre swim – that’s 60 lengths of your local pool – except you don’t get to do it in your local pool, you get to don a wetsuit and swim the guts of a mile in the Albert Dock. And you don’t get a lane to call your own – you get to swim in a mêlée that I will save a thousand words and show you a picture of.

I shall practice by swimming 60 lengths of the washing machine every night.

Assuming (and it’s a fairly heroic assumption) that you don’t die doing that, you get to climb out of the dock and then out of your wetsuit while you run to your bike.

Cycling in wet shorts is the sort of thing your mother probably would have warned you against, had she ever suspected that you would be stupid enough to do such a thing in the first place, but there is no time to stop and change or even towel down. Instead, you have to cycle 40km – which is nearly 25 miles – which is virtually a marathon.

Having done all that, you might think there would be some provision in the rules for a nice cup of tea and a bit of a sit down, but I’m reliably informed that it’s not until you park your bike in order to run 10km that things get really nasty. Your legs protest (quite legitimately I suspect) about the abandonment of a perfectly good bicycle in favour of a much less effective pair of running shoes.

I believe the guy on the right has just spotted Neil's chest-wig and is trying not to vomit.

In the London Triathlon, the run is made worse (yes, it can be worse) by being staged over two laps of a 5km course. That means being subjected to the cruel and unusual torture of being guided mere feet from the finish line a full 5000 metres before you are allowed to cross it.

Timo crosses the finish line and indicates that he would very much like a gin and tonic.

Watching the event last year, I wondered if any of the contestants were tempted to cut corners in the swim, or come running over the finish line with arms aloft after just one lap of the run. Then I discovered that each tri-athlete carries a chip somewhere about his or her person (the shoulder being the most popular spot presumably), which is registered as it passes through various checkpoints throughout the race, making it impossible to cheat by cutting corners.

I said that I have “all but decided” to enter. The only thing holding me back is the occasional foolish notion I have to actually think about what it entails doing. I don’t like deep water; in fact, I fear it, and this fear is worsened when it is murky deep water that has a hundred other people thrashing around in it beside me.

I quite like riding a bike – at least I did when last I owned one, when I was twelve – but I worry about the effects of cycling in wet shorts. I just can’t imagine a scenario in which that is going to work out well.

I have grown to not loathe running as much as I used to – but so far, I haven’t done more than my mile around the park at any one time, and I haven’t done that for weeks now. The prospect of doing that just over six times is enough on its own to make me pause for thought, but the prospect of doing it six times having just swum the equivalent of 60 lengths of shark-infested dock and virtually cycled a marathon is quite intimidating.

Neil is doing it again this year, and has recently taken possession of a new bike. His old one (which was, appropriately, originally Terry’s) is getting passed on to me, so at least I will have someone to train with and something to train on. I think I have almost managed to talk Swiss Toni into entering it too – at least, I take the fact that he did 60 lengths at the gym the other night as an encouraging sign that he's seriously thinking about it.

Entry costs £68 and closes in a few weeks. I’ll do a deal with you, my mighty readership - if someone can stump up the entry fee by way of sponsorship, I’ll enter without any more hesitation, repetition or trepidation. Having entered, I reserve the right to revert to being a neurotic wreck about it though.

By the time you've finished, only your mother would still be willing to do this.


Saturday, January 15, 2005

Shotguns are heavier than you’d think, especially when they’re recoiling backwards into your shoulder. In cowboy films, they swing them around like they weigh about as much as the plastic ones kids play with, but a real one takes a fair bit of effort to hold aloft – even more so when you’re wearing eight layers of clothing, but you’re still shaking from the cold.

The clays seem to have shrunk somewhat since I found one in a field all those years ago. The official Olympic standard clay is 4.33 inches across – just a smidgen bigger than a golf hole – but when it’s flying away from you into the fog, it looks a lot smaller.

John van de Poll (who made his debut on another blog this week too) was my companion for today's event. We arrived and were pointed first in the direction of the ear plugs. Having poked those as far into our ears as we could, it was quite surprising that we managed to hear the lady in the tent call us back to give us a box of 25 cartridges each.

From there, it was off to the range, where we found some very keen and friendly shooters who were more than willing to show us the ropes. They hardly laughed at all to be fair. I suppose though, after a while, watching some novice completely miss the target becomes less and less funny.

Fortunately, there were two other novices with us who had also arrived early, and we got to watch them have a go before we took control (for want of a better word) ourselves. John went first. The format was ten singles and then doubles until you were out of ammunition – so, ten singles, seven doubles and a single for luck. John hit 5 out of 25 to lead what had suddenly to me truly become “the competition.”

I’ve mentioned before that my competitive nature has been known to overwhelm my enjoyment of sport at times. As I approached the novice shooting cage, I was trying very hard to tell myself that it didn’t matter how many I hit, but I knew that any less than six would leave me disgusted with myself.

Things didn’t get off to a great start. I missed a lot of clays before I realised that I wasn’t really looking down the barrel of the gun at all, but instead seemed to be looking roughly in the direction of the flying thing and hoping that would be enough. It wasn’t. The first time I really got my eye behind the barrel, I hit one.

Needless to say, I then figured I’d cracked it. I was so eager to get at the next one that I was halfway through yelling “Pull!” when the man who was overseeing the situation, a mentor of sorts, tapped me on the shoulder to very kindly remind me to take the safety off.

I hit a few more as we moved on to doubles, and my mentor was very encouraging, but in all honesty I was relying on him to tell me whether I was scoring or not. The recoil from the gun meant that I could never quite tell. The confusion arose from there. I was sure he told me at one point that I had hit five, and then I hit one of my final doubles.

I looked back at John and raised my fist in (only slightly) pretend celebration. “Six!” I yelled at him to allow for the earplugs. “No, five” said my mentor, “but if you hit this last single, you’ll be in the lead, look!” he added, showing me the score sheet. I looked as he pointed at John’s score and nodded as though I hadn’t been well aware of how many I needed to take the lead.

I could feel some tension creeping in (as tension is wont to do at moments like that) as I loaded the gun for my final shot – it was nothing excessive, but there was a slight tingle of that heady mix sport so often provides of hope, fear, expectation and desire. I shouldered the gun and shouted for a target. The miniscule black disk hurtled out into the fog and I unleashed the 12-bore fury right at it (or so I thought). I opened the gun, releasing the spent cartridge and, as casually as I could manage, turned back to my mentor.

“Bad luck, lad – just a bit low.”

The worst result in sport – a tie – still, it was a lot of fun, and I’m reliably informed (although still hard pushed to believe) that that’s what’s important.

Today was a nice introduction to the sport. I am hopeful that I should be able (with a lot of help) to have a go at the skeet variation some time, but, for now, I’m almost tempted to chalk this morning up as a valid case of “having a go at” the trap and the double trap. I appreciate that to some that might be akin to claiming after a light jog that I’d had a go at running a marathon, but I’m not so sure.

Partly, I admit, it would be nice to chalk up two more events, but I’m also not sure how much more missing 100 of 125 targets would further my understanding of how difficult a sport it is – and to shoot that many cartridges into thin air and cause that many clays to meet their end at the hand of a fallow field rather than some well-aimed lead seems inherently wasteful.

I have certainly now shifted from my previously held notion that it had to be easy because the guys on the TV made it look that way – it’s far from easy. It is hard to tell what your margin for error is, but I suspect that a good number of my shots missed the target by a long old way, which makes it even more impressive that sometimes the top people don't miss at all.

I’ll take a straw poll and decide it that way – leave me a comment and tell me what you think – have I done trap and double trap shooting to your satisfaction? Or am I a lazy, half-hearted idiot doing a half-assed job?

Many thanks to Dave Bathe and Dave New, and all the other people who were involved in organising the day - when we left, there must have been 30 people waiting in line to have a go, so here’s hoping they have raised lots of money for their church charity.

Thanks also to John, not only for providing the meaningful competition (trying to beat strangers always feels a bit hollow), but also for driving there and back, and donating £10 to Sobell House - £2 for each target I hit - although he had the decency to tell me that after I'd missed the other forty pounds-worth. It was a bad enough feeling to miss so many clays without also having to think that I was losing charity money as I was doing it.

Shooting the Breeze

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

The tickets for this weekend’s shoot have arrived.

Shooting events have been in the Olympic programme since the first games of the modern era in Athens in 1896. Since then (when there were three shooting events for rifles and pistols), the number of shooting events has varied from 21 in 1920, to none at all in 1928. There are now 17 events in all – ten for men and seven for women.

The targets for the shotgun events have not always been made of clay. Traditionally, real pigeons were covered by the shooters’ hats before being released. In the Paris games of 1900, real birds were used. Shooters were eliminated if they missed twice. The winner killed 21 pigeons in a contest that claimed the life of more than three hundred in total. When using live targets was made illegal, glass balls (which were often filled with feathers) were used instead, until someone came up with the bright idea of using clay.

I remember finding one in a field once when I was a child; I didn’t know what it was. It was black and roughly glazed on one side, but it felt pretty solid, like bakelite rather than clay. To me, it looked like a particularly useless piece of kitchenware. It was too shallow and small to make a decent bowl, but too deep to be a side plate. I finally worked out what it was (with a little help), but even once I knew, I was mildly surprised (and very disappointed) when I dropped it and it smashed into a thousand pieces at my feet.

Of the ten men’s shooting events in the current Olympic programme, three involve using a shotgun to shoot at clay targets:

Trap - Three traps set at different angles and stationed at different heights are used. At the shooter’s command, a clay target is fired from one of the traps (the shooter doesn’t know which one until the clay is airborne) and he has two shots with which to try and hit it before it lands.

Double Trap - Same set-up as above, except two targets are released at the same time and the shooter only has one shot at each.

Skeet - Two take-off points are set up at different heights and at opposite sides of the range. The shooter moves between several shooting stations, which are arranged in a semi circle between the traps. The traps fire single or double targets – the single target can come from either trap, and the double target consists of one clay from each trap - the shooter is allowed just one shot at each target.

To sum up – you shout, “pull” and then shoot the next moving thing that crosses your field of vision. I’ve only tried this once, quite a long time ago, but it was fun then and I expect it will be again.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I don’t imagine that Saturday’s excursion will afford an opportunity to complete an Olympic event (both the trap and skeet events consist of 125 targets being thrown, while 150 are released in the double trap event) but hopefully I will be able to befriend some kind soul who will be willing to donate that much time, effort and equipment to the cause at some point in the future - I don’t know for sure, but I imagine that 400 clays and 400 cartridges (not to mention the use of a gun and facilities for as much time as it would take to get the job done) won’t come cheap.

- - -

Completely unrelated to shooting, but an excellent piece of Olympic trivia I spotted this week, courtesy of Simon Barnes and The Times – if Michael Phelps were a country, he would have finished 16th in the medal table in Athens.

Record Breakers

Sunday, January 09, 2005

John called round yesterday to scan some photos for his new blogging adventure, and he brought with him a rather exciting book. This massive tome contains no less than a listing of the top eight finishers in every summer Olympic event since 1896, along with their times or scores, and over fifteen hundred stories and descriptions of pivotal moments from Olympic history, not to mention the official Olympic rules for each event. I've a feeling it might be worth me shelling out the £16.99 it would take to get myself a copy.

The book has also inspired a rather amusing notion - John reckons (and I agree) that we should be able to find an Olympic (or world) record from the past that we can beat in there. At first glance, the 1896 Olympic long jump record of 6.35 metres looks realistic – John reckons he was jumping over 4 metres when he was a nipper at school sports days – but I will be studying the book at great length to see if there’s anything better.

I expect the 1896 (72 years pre-Fosbry) high jump record of 1.81 metres might be in range too, especially as I am (according to some) a “big lanky streak” - but then, I also remember how bad I was at the "jumping-backwards-into-the-swimming-pool" game the last time I tried it, so maybe not.

This coming week will also see the resumption of actual events partaken of – on Saturday, I’m going clay pigeon shooting with John’s housemate, John (yes, it does get confusing). We have entered the novice section of a church charity shoot down near Swindon. It only cost a tenner to enter so I fancy it might provide more of a chance to meet some people who can help in the future rather than a chance to actually complete one or more of the shooting events.

Either way, I’m looking forward to it. I’ve tried it once and was told that I was good at it; but then the man who was telling me was the owner of the range and was clearly keen to get some repeat business, so I’ll take that assessment of my talents with a large pinch of salt.

In other news, many thanks to Michael Smith for becoming the first person I don’t actually know to request an Ultimate Olympian Live Wrong wrist band in exchange for making a donation to Sobell House. It’s in the post, Michael – I trust that your cheque, which will make a big difference, is too. Anyone else who wants one: just drop me a mail at, tell me where you live and how much you want to donate and you shall have one before you can say “Oh look, here comes the postman!”

Ultimate Hangover

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Having made a vague resolution to make more and better use if my time in 2005 than I did in 2004, I spent most of the first day of the year curled up in a ball and moaning softly to my wounded liver. I didn’t think I’d had all that much to drink, but, to be fair, I might not have been in the best position to make a judgement call like that by the time I staggered to bed at four in the morning.

It was all a far cry from the Lance Armstrong mentality - "The answer is: what are you doing on Christmas Day? Are you riding your bike? January 1st? Riding your bike? The answer is total and complete commitment and hard work."

I found New Year’s Day hard work, but only because I think I might have been a little closer to alcohol poisoning than I find comfortable.

The plans I made at the start of the holidays to spend some time during the holidays making plans haven’t really panned out as I had envisaged. I have a firm commitment to go shooting (clay pigeons) on 15th of January by way of an introduction to that Olympic discipline, but otherwise, have not yet formulated any grander design. I don’t go back to work until Tuesday though, so there is time yet.

I’m finding it hard to write at the moment. It looks like the death toll from the Asian tsunami will top 150,000 before long. In the rest of the world, 30,000 people are dying every single day because they can’t get enough to eat or drink, or find shelter. It seems flippant to try and produce a few hundred words about something as petty as sport – and certainly something as petty as my efforts to perform Olympic events.

For now then, I’m going to go and dig out some of the clothes I never wear (and some of the clothes my wife wishes I wouldn’t wear) and put them all in a bag to send to someone who has nothing else in the world.