We knew we were heading for Switzerland before we even got to Zurich, as already FrontEndConf 2013 was organised better than pretty much every event I’ve ever been to. Just in case we forgot, within moments of landing we were met by a conference representative and whisked to the ticket kiosk, then directed to the correct train.
“Cool, how long until the train comes?” I asked. Glancing up at the iconic Swiss railway clock (sporting an analog face) our guide answered, “In exactly 7 minutes.” And so it was.
FrontEndConf 2013 for me was a great experience, both as a speaker and being able to attend and listen to some of the talks. I really enjoyed meeting with several of the other speakers as well during the fantastic speaker’s dinner at breakfast at the hotel, and at the conference party. In addition to some great talks about usability, there were demos of new UX products like the Occulus VR headset and Google Glass.
Although it was the first time giving my talk “How to build the perfect product your users want, but can’t describe”, I was pretty happy with how it turned out.
This weekend was the third annual Turing Festival here in Edinburgh. I was delighted to have been asked by TechCube MD and Turing Festival founder Jamie Coleman to speak Friday morning. Due to the fantastic lineup of speakers covering a variety of items, the fact that this event was local, and the tight connection with the TechCube, we ended up taking three Administratives along as well. All of us enjoyed the experience, the sessions, and a day away from the office to learn, talk, reflect, and listen.
If you’re located in Scotland, I think the Turing Festival needs to be firmly placed within your “Don’t Miss” category of events. It’s time intensive and expensive to bring visiting speakers like the last three keynotes – Neal Stephenson, Steve Wozniak, and Richard M. Stallman, but these are individuals that our local community should hear from and be inspired by. Here are some thoughts from some of the sessions I attended during the festival.
Bill Aulet from MIT Bill Aulet spent his time addressing the question of whether Entrepreneurship can be taught. He had just finished a book on the subject which outlines a roadmap for entrepreneurs to follow, and he’d partnered with local startup Stipso to put forth a living info graphic that deals with some of the questions his book addresses. I thought his points on how education has difficulty engaging with the subject of entrepreneurship due to a lack of datasets was interesting, and he mentioned how easy it is to provide fake or misleading guidance on this subject. I thought it was an interesting start, if a bit long. Check out his book here.
Jim McKelvey from Square
Two of the best soundbites from the festival were from Square’s Jim McKelvey, who mentioned that the industry they were trying to disrupt (payments) is “fundamentally corrupt.” Transparency, according to Jim, is a fundamental ingredient to their success. He also talked about how much of what Square has achieved came because they were in the right place at the right time, both of which are necessary to achieve huge success. In addition to being a cofounder of Square, he’s an accomplished glassblower, and board member of the financially focused startup accelerator SixThirty.co, located in St. Louis. Who knew that St. Louis is the second largest financial centre in the USA? Jim seemed like the kind of guy I’d really enjoy bantering back and forth with – he was opinionated and generated controversy, which is needed at events like this. He was great to chat with over drinks one night too!
Mike Hearn of Bitcoin/Google
One of the talks I enjoyed the most was from Mike Hearn, of Bitcoin, who clumsily shouted that “HE WAS NOT REPRESENTING GOOGLE” in response to a question from the audience. Still, he spent most of his time talking about a future 50 years from now that involves digital cash without middle men, and a trade net that’s leveraged by autonomous, self-owning agents who respond to bids for materials and services on both the internet, and the “matternet.” The latter just seemed to be an attempt to make quadcopters sound cool. Humans, he contended, will be around for their ingenuity and creativity, which we’ll always have in abundance compared to computers. The irony of announcing the ultimate invincibility of the Turing Test while speaking at the Turing Festival seemed to be lost. This talk was enjoyable as it firmly fixated on the future, painting broad yet tangible themes that were all theoretically possible today.
Brian Doll from Github
I really enjoyed the talk about how Github markets and has grown over the years as part of the Growth Hacking session. Github saw most of its success from focusing on its voice. Marketing according to Github is the culture transference, and this is how they continue to engage their customers. In first year of their existence, while building their product, three engineers managed to push out 280 blog posts that were true to their culture. Their famous “drinkup” strategy is an outgrowth of attending meetups and finding that the chat in the pub afterwards was more valuable then then presentations, thus they sponsor more than 200 drinkups around the world every year, including the after-party drinks at the TechCube as part of the conference! Focus on your culture, focus on tribes, tell stories, and develop a voice was the mantra of this session and I thought it was great.
“Living Infographics” from Stipso
Stephen Drost launched into his discussion of the evolution of infographics with a short history lesson. The origins of the fundamental charting methods used in infographics today come from the Scottish inventor of statistical graphs (bar chart, line graph, pie chart, and circle graph), William Playfair. Florence Nightingale, in addition to being the founder of modern nursing was also a highly accomplished statistician whose early info graphics (which look like something you’d see today) were instrumental in proving that soldiers died more from disease than from battle. Essentially, info graphics have been unchanged for hundreds of year, until now with Stipso. They’re a combination content and listening tool (notably, Brian Doll from Github mentioned that there were plenty of great content tools out there, but zero great listening tools). I’m a huge fan of how Stipso is positioning their product, how it can be used to both project and listen, and think it could be a fantastic tool for those looking to make their infographics a continuously fresh asset, rather than something that’s created and dies after a week or two. As part of their talk they demonstrated one of their living infographics in conjunction with Bill Aulet’s book, which you can check out here.
My Session on Starting Up in American and Scotland
If you wanted to distill my talk down it would be: “The grass is always greener. Make sure you’re shipping something.”
One thing I’ve noticed is that entrepreneurs across Europe tend to fixate on comparing their local market to Silicon Valley, while ignoring their own advantages. I firmly believe that Scotland is an amazing place to build an incredible company. While some changes in approach may be necessary (forget building a B2C business here, unless you can demonstrate significant traction), there are plenty of advantages.
A point that I forgot to mention is last year while I was in the audience at the Turing Festival, a panelist based from Edinburgh emphatically said, “Make sure you focus on a small market that doesn’t matter, otherwise, the Americans will find your company, come into your market, and destroy you.” I’m not sure I’ll ever forget that moment, and it goes into the category of statements that I wholeheartedly disagree with. With the talent, cost structure, tax advantages, and access to capital we have here in Scotland, we should be able to take on and compete with any company anywhere.
The Venue and Surrounding Events
The Turing Festival was held in three gorgeous venues in the heart of the Old Town of Edinburgh. Truly some of the most beautiful rooms I’ve ever been in. Some liked the multiple venue approach, some wished for less walking, but I thought it was a nice approach to get people out and integrated into the city. Lunch was provided in addition to free drinks (thanks Github!) at the great After Party and like many quality conferences, the people who you got to meet and talk with were really great. I would have liked a bit more attention paid to following the schedule and a few more breaks between talks, but overall it was a great couple of days.
Last year I had a great time speaking at Lean Agile Scotland, held in the fantastic Our Dynamic Earth venue here in Edinburgh. This year I’m really happy to be back speaking on a new topic – how to build products that your customers love but can’t articulate. It’s going to be a great couple of days in Edinburgh!
One of the highlights of last year was the Turing Festival, held in Edinburgh during August. It’s a fantastic event with really great speakers, and it takes place against a backdrop provided by the incredible festivals that all converge on the city.
This year’s program is incredible, featuring speakers from around the world, and the Turing Festival boasts a larger focus on startups, in part due to its close affiliation with the Edinburgh TechCube. I’m really excited to have been asked to participate on a panel discussing Startups and Entrepreneurship. Tickets are still available and this is the only tech conference I’m aware of held in the midst of festivals devoted to comedy, books, arts, music, and theater.
I’m really excited to be speaking at Frontend Conf in Zurich next month. Run over two days (Aug 29-30), the lineup of speakers and topics looks really great, and I’m sure it’ll be a very educational experience.
In a change of topics from what I’ve been talking about the last few years, I’m speaking on how to build a great product that your end-users want, but can’t actually describe. This is an important skill that few develop, and it’s really not that hard to acquire. If you’re in the area I hope to see you there, and I believe tickets are still available.
May 12 was the Caledonian Etape, an 81 mile sportive race which is billed as the largest cycling event in Scotland. Roughly 5,000 riders arrive in the town of Pitlochry every year to ride the very scenic route which winds around two lochs and climbs over part of Schiehallion, a famous mountain in Scotland. The Etape series has partnered with the Marie Curie charity and raises money via each rider which is processed for free through Virgin Money’s excellent donations engine. I’d really like to thank everyone that supported me and the charity – it was a very motivating experience and your contribution will make a difference.
Contrary to my original plans of taking the train, I ended up driving up with my teammate Craig on Saturday afternoon, which put us into the town around two in the afternoon. There were cyclists, cycle racks, and expensive bikes everywhere! Pitlochry is a popular tourist destination for those wanting to see the scenery of the highlands, and was a favoured spot of Queen Victoria’s, which increased the town’s popularity during her reign. It’s picturesque, with many buildings dating from the 1800s, yet still very small, like most towns in the highlands, with a population of roughly 2,500. The Etape starts and finishes on the main street (Atholl Road) which follows the River Tummel, and when we arrived Etape HQ was already set up and rocking. There were registration tents, booths setup by sponsors selling various cycling gear, and a mobile bike shop with mechanics giving cyclists free checkups. Techno music was blasting, and we were pumped as we met up with our other team members, Brian and Eugene.
Training, Preparations, and The Team
Here’s a quick rundown of the team members:
Craig – Australian, extremely fit, completed a marathon the previous year, spent time as a Mount Everest mountain guide, fairly seasoned cyclist.
Eugene – Irish, very fit, preparing for several sprint triathlons, toying with the idea of doing an iron man, new to cycling.
Brian – Irish, very fit, works out regularly (over the last several months with a personal trainer), does quite a bit of climbing, new to cycling.
Myself – American, overweight, never exercises, not fit at all, new to cycling.
I think it’s safe to say that none of the above is an exaggeration or in any way inaccurate, but if you walked up to our group and asked us if we were in shape the other three members would all spend quite a bit of time telling you how weak they were, how they’ve lapsed on their fitness, etc. This led to myself almost getting killed on the first couple of rides as I was cold-starting my body from years of devoted neglect. The first few training rides saw the group “drop me” (in cycling this apparently means “leave me behind) so badly that I couldn’t even see them. Eventually Craig would get concerned, turn around, cycle back towards me for quite some time, upon finding me he would crawl alongside me at my pathetic pace. It was humiliating. I was determined to catch up.
We cycled 460 miles across 18 different rides to prepare for this race, but that doesn’t include at least 1-2 gym trips every week and probably a half dozen spin classes. It’s difficult to ride on weekdays in Scotland during the winter, as the daylight hours are so short you’d be riding in the dark, so a lot of the training we logged was in the gym.
All this to say that there was great concern in January on my part over whether I could finish either the Etape or our previous event the Tour o’the Borders. We didn’t have much time to train, and further review of the Borders race indicated that it could be significantly tougher than the Etape. Having survived the Borders race a month earlier in what many seasoned participants proclaimed was the worst weather they’d ever ridden in, I felt like I had a huge psychological edge on this event. Still, this race was 10 miles longer with a thousand more feet of elevation, albeit essentially all packed into one massive climb.
Registration and Recon
Upon arrival we registered and proceeded to look for somewhere to eat. All of us were already carb loading, and I’d eaten two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch, but it was important to keep stuffing down the carbs. Carb loading helps build up stores of glycogen in your muscles and can be the energy difference you need in an endurance event, particularly at the end. Every restaurant in Pitlochry had pasta on their menu as a special, no matter what they normally served, and after a plate of lasagna and chips, it was time to head out and preview the route.
Driving along the route for me was a demoralising experience. It took us an hour and a half to drive 60 miles of the 81 mile route. We were hoping to cycle the complete route in roughly six hours, and from the car the distance was looking a bit intimidating. There was also quite a bit more elevation in some areas than I’d anticipated, particularly at the start, and I was reminded of the gruelling long initial climb from the Tour O’the Borders.
Still, it’s always an incredible experience being in the country in Scotland. The Scottish scenery is absolutely stunning and the scenery we get to experience on each ride is one of my favourite aspects of the sport. We cruised along, stopping every now and then to take some pictures, and marvelled at the mountains, glens, and lochs that we’d be heading through in just a few hours.
Reconnaissance finished, we drove back to the accommodations we’d booked, which were a few miles out from Pitlochry in the town of Blair Atholl. Wikipedia says that the town is “small”, and I couldn’t find an official population figure, but one newspaper article I came across mentioned it contains roughly 260 households. Like almost every little Scottish town, Blair Atholl has its historical curiosities. The town was a refuelling stop (water) for steam locomotives and since 1911, the railway companies were on the hook to provide the town’s water supply. This unusual legal arrangement ceased only recently in 2006 when the railway paid millions to connect the town to Scottish Water, one of the main water companies in the area.
Carb Loading and Carb Overloading
We were staying in a prefabricated lodge (3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, living room, kitchen, deck) located on the grounds of Blair Castle, which is the ancestral home to clan Murray and the last castle to fall under siege in the British Isles. It’s also the home of Europe’s only remaining legal private army, the Atholl highlanders. Every year the Duke of Atholl, who currently resides in South Africa, returns to view his private army of roughly one hundred men (membership is only available upon invitation by the Duke and the member has passed the necessary standard of foot and arms drill).
We arrived back to find a huge (and carb heavy) dinner waiting: a kilo of pasta and a huge portion of pork stuffed with plumbs. Prepared for us by Brian’s Brazilian wife and Eugene’s Italian/English girlfriend, each focused on their specialty: pasta from Italy and meat from Brazil. It was a fantastic meal. I ate two massive plates of spaghetti and a large portion of pork, but Eugene proceeded to methodically put away the most pasta I’ve ever seen someone consume.
After dinner we headed for bed, but due to nerves and the prefab walls being paper thin, it wasn’t until after midnight that I got to sleep. With our 5AM wakeup, this meant we would spend less time sleeping than we’d be out on the bike, which definitely hadn’t been part of the plan.
Upon waking, I was still massively full from dinner the night before, but I attempted to choke down some oatmeal and ate about half a bowel. Eugene ate three servings of oatmeal. We’re unsure of Brian’s food intake. As we pulled out into the driveway, we noticed our neighbours cycling to the start of the race, eight miles away.
Pitlochry was in full frenzy when we arrived. Eugene managed to find a great parking spot and we quickly headed up to the high street on our bikes to find our starting wave. There were thousands of cyclists crammed into the starting area, and we quickly realised there was no chance we’d be able to manoeuvre into our proper wave. Slowly we inched closer to the start, but it was at this point that Eugene’s dinner and breakfast began to…make its presence known. He needed a bathroom. Quickly.
While funny for the first five minutes it became apparent that if Eugene didn’t find a bathroom soon, it could be a messy and unpleasant first stage. Brian and I weren’t too thrilled about the idea of riding next to Eugene if something happened. He dashed into nearby ice cream shop, but the owner was ready for him, and rebuffed his pleas for a bathroom. Back in the group, he began to despair, quite verbally, and I noticed that we were now good entertainment for other cyclists around us. One gave us his best tips for holding it. Another suggested some bushes over by a church bordering the road. Everyone was in high spirits except for Eugene. Finally as we got closer to the start, he shouted that he couldn’t take it anymore and that he was “going to solve this” and ran away and off the street, leaving Brian and I holding his bike. Five minutes passed. Then a few more. Finally a much more relaxed Eugene returned to cheers and congratulations from our neighbouring cyclists. And then we were at the start and ready to ride.
We gained elevation along a wooded road that was heading west towards the first loch. There was some decent climbing but nothing too remarkable, and it was great being on closed roads riding with other cyclists in decent weather. Brian, Eugene and I were together most of the way, but I fell behind a bit on some of the hills as I was keen to make sure I paced myself. This race would include just as much elevation as The Borders, but was also 10 miles longer and I really wanted to avoid running out of gas at the end.
I felt great coming into the first of four feed stations. We were twenty miles in, but I wasn’t at all tired, and it was a far cry from the previous sportive where the first thirty miles had been pure hell. Plus, the weather was looking like it would hold. Bananas consumed and water bottles refilled, we needed to wait for another bathroom stop. Carbs that go down must come out.
The second leg I rode quite a bit of a the way with Brian, while Eugene blitzed on ahead. I caught up again at the second feed station which was located prior to the main climb over Schiehallion. There was more carb offloading to be done from Brian. Just before the feed station, we passed the 40 mile marker and I remarked to an older rider close by me that we were over halfway! He turned to me, spat once, and said, “Och! That was the easy part!” then put his eyes back on the road. Nothing beats the motivational cheeriness of the Scots!
Then we were upon the summit, and as I rolled through the marker that signalled the beginning of the timed “King of the Mountains” segment, I heard the loud beep that confirmed my time was being recorded. Starting with a gradual incline, the climb only gets truly brutal for a couple hundred meters, but plenty of riders had dismounted or needed to stop. Unlike the previous sportive I’d ridden, I didn’t need to stop once on the way up the hill and before I knew it, I was hearing the beep that signalled the end of the climb. Except that there was still another third of the climb to go. Sigh. I dug in and gutted it out.
Because it’s such a large event and the roads are closed, one of the great things about the Caledonian Etape is that there are tons of supporters out on the course cheering you on. In contrast to The Borders where I rode more than 50 miles without seeing a single person, on almost every bend there were spectators cheering us on, waving signs, clapping, shouting encouragement, and ringing cow bells. Children would run alongside us, there were words of encouragement spray painted on the road, and every time we’d see a group of supporters I’d feel a rush of encouragement and wave back, giving them the thumbs up. It was great.
Once I reached the legitimate top of the summit, it began to lightly rain. I stopped to grab a banana from the third feed station was alarmed to see the sweeper car pull in just a few minutes behind me. Behind the sweeper, the roads were open and if the car caught up to you, you were required to stop, turn your chip in, and would be classified as a DNF. Because we’d missed our start time, we were an hour behind where we should have been (they put the slower riders in the front), and now it was going to be a race against time and the car! I decided I’d surrender my timing chip over my dead body, and proceeded to descend as quickly as I could, which was fairly difficult now that it was raining.
At the bottom of the mountain the route veers West around one last loch, and this was where the wind became a problem. It was blowing directly against us, albeit not too badly, but it was enough to make things more much more difficult than normal. I managed to tuck in behind another rider and we made pretty good time, averaging roughly 25kph until we finally turned and headed back on the other side of the loch with the wind at our backs.
This was truly the home stretch now – only 15 miles to go, but I was starting to feel tired and wanted to get to the finish. The last miles felt like they went on forever as we rode up and down an undulating stretch of road that included one more feed station. I decided to ride through it to avoid the sweeper car, and as we got closer to the finish, I was concentrating on the last major challenge ahead: The Sting in the Tail.
This is the last major climb of the route, but the sting that’s being referenced is a section where the road feels like it goes straight up. Strava reports this as a 12 percent gradient, which doesn’t sound so bad, until you realise you’re climbing 70 feet in a tenth of a mile. The hill is right after a descent and is a very narrow road as well (about the width of a single car lane). As we approached the turn onto the Sting they had wardens out waving flags shouting “Shift into your highest gear NOW”. Those who didn’t promptly fell off their bikes as it was impossible to shift quickly enough while keeping forward momentum up the incline, and a clipped in rider needs time to unclip from the pedals. Halfway up, as I was standing in my highest gear, I felt my legs begin to cramp up halfway. Nearby it felt really chaotic. Two cyclists had fallen over on the left, a warden on a motorcycle was on my right, more cyclists were behind me, there were dismounted cyclists ahead, and I began to fear that all of this would combine to be some kind of epic disaster. In just a few more minutes it was over without anything more than a few close calls, and I felt incredible elation and relief to be beyond the worst parts.
We began a quick descent down the last hill and then it was around the bend onto the high street of Pitlochry. There were hundreds of spectators lining the sides of the road, music playing, and I wasn’t the last rider coming in! I crossed the finish line and then met up with Brian and Eugene who had finished about fifteen minutes earlier. Craig blew us all away with a sub five hour time!
Upon review of our times and our Strava data, we concluded that our time of just over six hours could have been cut by at least forty minutes if we’d spent less time at the rest areas. However, all of the team would agree that the alternatives weren’t really palatable.
All in all the Caledonian Etape was a fantastic experience. The course was tough but doable, and it was a great weekend spent battling against the course and raising money for the Marie Curie charity. Thanks to the support of friends, family, acquaintances, and some anonymous contributors, together we raised over four hundred pounds! It really meant a lot to me and we’ll certainly be back next year!
With two days to go before we cycle 81 miles in the Scottish Highlands, I thought I’d give a quick update on the pre-race preparation. Our cycling team has a 6:56 AM start time, making us one of the first few groups of 5,000 cyclists that will be attempting the course. Our goal is a finish time in under 6 hours, but in reality, my goal is to just finish.
The Weather Report
Weather is a huge factor in both enjoyment and how difficult the ride will be, and the number one factor isn’t temperature or rain, it’s the wind. We’ve been enjoying spectacular weather here in Edinburgh the last few weeks, but the highlands is a different story and at one point the BBC was predicted 25kph winds which would make things very difficult. The weather in Scotland changes quickly and dramatically, so while out on the ride we’ll be prepared for everything from torrential downpour to bright and sunny, and won’t be surprised to see everything in between over the duration of the race.
I’d like to take a minute and thank everyone who has supported the Marie Curie charity by donating money – we’ve raised over 400GBP, which has exceeded the 300GBP goal I had and commitment I made when signing up for the race. It may not sound like much, but it’s a huge motivator when you’re on the ride to think that every mile that we put behind us means another 5GBP for people suffering and in need of care. Part of the Facebook fundraising involved a promise to provide some “in action” spandex pictures, although some of my friends offered to pay to NOT have any pictures posted. Unfortunately for them, the pro-spandex pictures won out. It’s a humbling thing to consider that even though these races are tough, it’s nothing like the fatigue, fear, concern, and a whole lot of other emotions that those battling cancer face every day. Your money is helping people. (If you still want to give – you can!)
Most of the team is heading up via car, but I’ll be taking the train there and back using the excellent Scotrail services between Edinburgh and Pitlochry (technical, the Blair Atholl station). The journey is just over an hour, through some beautiful scenery, and crosses my all time favourite rail bridge – the Forth Rail Bridge.
Unlike the previous Tour o’the Borders, we have not cycled the route prior to the race, which is always a bit annoying. Schedules just didn’t work out, but we did have part of the team take on the big climb around Schiehallion, the large and iconic mountain peak that is part of the route. Sciehallion is from an anglicised form of Gaelic (Sìdh Chailleann) meaning “Fairy Hill of the Caledonians”, and in Celtic mythology, a retreat to the hills was part of the surrender agreement that the sos sí, a fairy people kind of like elves made to the Milesians who came from Iberia. This means that you can essentially sum up this entire experience as me cycling 81 miles in Spandex around a Scottish mountain populated by a bunch of defeated fairies, thanks to the Spanish of course.
Schiehallion is the most difficult climb of the route and provides the majority of the 6,000 feet of elevation we’ll be experiencing during this ride. The roads for this race are closed to traffic, unlike the Tour o’the Borders (although the Borders race will be on closed roads next year), and there is limited “support” available from sponsors Mavic, a cycling wheels company. If you receive a puncture, the support cars will be pacing groups and will stop to assist and even swap out a wheel if necessary. Quite a luxury, but we’ll still be prepared with our own spares.
I’ll be looking forward to the finish, and in true Scottish fashion as soon as you’re done it’s time for a pint! I’ll be on the lookout for a pint of Schiehallion ale to commemorate the achievement. We’ll be using Strava to instrument the route and illuminate how far we are from professionals. I’m sure it’ll be extremely difficult but also intensely rewarding.
Updated on the 25th of April, 2013 to include some more ride reports and videos.
This past weekend was the Tour O’the Borders, a 70 mile sportive race that started and ended in the town of Peebles, Scotland. This was my first ever endurance athletic event, and was quite the experience.
Preparation started in January with the delivery of my Canyon Roadlite AL bike, direct from Germany. My first ever spin on a road bike was a few laps of Arthur’s Seat on the 12th, and our team trained regularly during the week and on weekends since the third weekend of the year. Most weekends we’d be out on the bikes and during the week I’d hit the stationary bike at least twice and sometimes do a spin class. While we weren’t quite as far along as we wanted to be, I found myself comfortably managing 30 mile rides with a couple thousand feet of elevation changes. One week prior to the event, we decided to ride the main loop the route would take in order to get our bearings and make sure we had one last good ride in prior to a week of tapering before the event.
We rode the practice route during a spectacular day and learned an important lesson about nutrition – we had underestimated how critical eating was to our success. All three of us on the ride crashed pretty hard prior to the last major hill and found it and the ensuing flat ride back to the car to be gruelling. We wouldn’t make the same mistake again.
Diet and Carb Loading
A few weeks prior to the event I stopped drinking all alcohol except for red wine, and didn’t drink any at all the week prior to the race. We drew a start time of 8AM in Peebles, and decided to spend the night prior to the event in town as our group had a tendency to, shall we say, struggle with leaving on time. We had been watching the weather all week while enjoying the second straight week of perfect Scottish weather and were excited to see that the temperature, which had been averaging in the 40s for most of the month, looked like it was going to be in the upper 50s for the weekend. Rain was also predicted, but we’d been training in snow and rain plenty and were prepared for the elements. The only concern we had was wind. Wind, more than any other element, is a killer on the bike. Even a slight breeze can really make life difficult, and without a doubt the most difficult training ride of the entire preparation period had been on a day which had seen us battling 15mph gusts of wind for roughly 20 miles. The event is scheduled rain or shine, like everything in Scotland, so there wasn’t much to be done other than to hope.
On Saturday we loaded up our gear and drove down to Peebles, where we checked into the Crown public house, and headed over to register. Because the starting times had been published previously, I knew I was the only rider in the event with the last name Peebles, and as I checked in I informed the attendant that I’d been promised a statue of my likeness to be delivered upon registration. She looked down at her notes and said, “Ah yes, it’s right here in my notes that we’ll have your statue at the end…that is…if you finish.” It was a bit ominous if you asked me.
After asking if I’d come all the way from America for this race they did admit that there was one person who lived in town with the last name Peebles. He was an American. A school teacher. Quite a strange man. I assured them I was at least as strange, admonished them to get my statue ready, and then it was off for supper.
We’d booked a table at the only Italian restaurant in the village. According to the internet, the average male can load over a thousand calories into muscles, stored as glycogen, by eating a high level of carbs prior to an event, and we were on a mission. The race would take over four thousand calories and I was convinced it could be my last meal on earth, so we ordered appropriately. I had two mains: gnocchi and lasagne, and shared a banana split with fellow teammate Eugene. We also ate two peanut butter sandwiches each prior to bed. That evening we spent a couple of hours making PBJs for the ride (two each) and checking our equipment, bikes, and food supplies for the race.
Here’s the gear I had with me:
Clothing: 2 merino (3 if wet) Icebreaker base layers, cycling jersey, bike shorts, bib tights, lightweight cycling rain jacket, 2 pair (3 if cold) wool socks, cycling shoes, neoprene waterproof overshoes, merino skullcap, glasses, helmet, and waterproof winter rated gloves.
Bike: cycling computer (odometer and speed), saddle bag, bike hex wrenches, spare tube, puncture repair kit, compact pump, bottle, wallet, waterproof bag with phone, route card, and camelbak with 2.5L reservoir and low calorie cycling specific energy drink.
Food: 15 Torq isotonic energy gels with guarana (caffeine), 2 granola bars, 1 energy bar, 2 PBJ sandwiches, 1 Snickers bar, and 1 banana.
Most people are surprised at the food. The race was expected to take roughly 6 hours and about 4,000 calories, which means that while riding we’re spending almost two times the normal recommended dietary intake in energy, and missing a meal, and keeping your energy levels up is critical. I planned to supplement the food above with bananas and carb-heavy foods available at the two feed stations set up along the route.
Seasoned cyclists will observe that it’s fairly non-traditional to use a large camelbak, as it adds quite a bit of weight, but I don’t care. I find that it’s much easier to drink from a camelbak than from a cycling bottle, which takes quite a bit of concentration to get out of the cage and use, and when training without a camelback I noticed I drink substantially less. On courses here in Scotland, the hills are steep enough that you can’t drink on the climbs, and they’re frequent enough that you have to manage your drinking on the descents, which is problematic when you’re going down steep hills and need to be braking with both hands.
Seasoned cyclists will also note that I made a critical mistake on the equipment – I didn’t bring a chain tool, tire levers, or a second inner tube. A broken chain could end the ride, the absence of tire levers would make changing a puncture much more difficult, and on long rides two punctures can happen.
We went to bed early and I woke up twice to hear the wind had picked up. It was howling and rattling our windows, and come morning we were greeted with a weather situation that seemed fairly grim. The winds were at an estimated 12mpg (20kph) blowing northeast, and it was drizzling rain. It wasn’t raining especially hard and the temperature was in the 50s. The weather was predicted to improve over the course of the morning.
We had our meal of porridge, then suited up, ate a banana and rode over to the starting line, making it with about 10 minutes to spare. Unfortunately, the weather had worsened considerably. It was now blowing steadily and raining heavily. Scotland normally doesn’t get very much heavy rain, it tends to drizzle, but it was raining hard and getting worse by the minute. The organisers were starting us in groups of 50 but as the first group got ready to depart, the wind gusted so hard a rider was knocked off his bike. In case that’s not clear, I’ll reiterate: he went from standing with his bike to laying on the ground due to the wind. After that, the starting groups were pared down to 25 riders. We were slotted into the second group and then we were off.
20 Miles of Horror
As headed out we turned to follow the River Tweed and I noticed for the first time how high the water level was. We’d visited Peebles a year prior and the river had been 10 feet below the banks at that time. It was now level and moving very swiftly. It began to rain very hard now, but I was concentrating on riding with the growing peloton of riders, many of whom were intent on passing and moving up in position. The first leg of the course was mainly flat, but we soon turned off and headed for the hills, and began a brutal category four, six hundred feet climb that lasts for roughly 4 miles. We were in extreme rain at this point, and the wind was blowing at least twenty miles an hour in the exact opposite direction. The conditions were what could only be described as apocalyptic – it was very dark, I saw two riders blown off of their bikes due to gusts of wind, the rain was horizontal and pelting us very hard. The surrounding hills which had been covered with snow just seven days earlier were now bare and the rain was washing down rock and debris that was causing a lot of punctures. I counted at least six punctures on riders’ bikes in the first twenty minutes. Experienced riders would later comment to teammates that they’d never seen this many flats.
I had stupidly left behind my clear cycling glasses as they tend to fog up in rain, particularly on climbs, and I didn’t think the wind would be a problem. Now we were out in horrible wind and the rain was pelting us so hard that it was hurting exposed skin, particularly the eyes. I was riding with my head down, the eye towards the wind closed, head turned away from the wind, one eye barely open, and switching eyes when the one would starting stinging too badly. The racket from the rain hitting our helmets was so loud it made me think at one point there could be some hail involved. The wind was so loud it made it impossible to talk to other riders.
The pace was gruelling – I was struggling up the hill at roughly six miles per hour, which is less than what you’d expect to achieve walking a mile, and exerting a huge amount of energy. Halfway up the hill I stopped to catch my breath, and I realised that finishing the race at all was in jeopardy as I was burning valuable energy fighting the wind, and unable to eat or drink due to the heavy exertion required. As I restarted my ascent, I heard a word of encouragement shouted by another approaching rider. He was a white haired, overweight Scot in his mid-fifties, riding a decrepit bike with fenders, sporting cargo shorts and sneakers with no clipons.
“Cmon lad, we’ll do it together!” he roared.
I tucked in behind him and we settled into a routine where he’d shield me from the wind for a few minutes, and then I’d get in front and repay the favor. As we neared the halfway point of the first climb, I was confused to see four riders speeding down the hill in the opposite direction. They were bailing out, giving up. My new partner turned and bellowed at the top of his lungs, “THAT’S FOUR SCALPS FOR US, MATE!” and began laughing hysterically, “WE’LL SEE THOSE MOTHERFUCKERS AT THE FINISH LINE! YEAAAAAAAH!” As we reached the summit he peddled off into the maelstrom ahead and I never saw him again.
More and more riders were quitting. I counted twenty, and then stopped counting. Many were clearly experienced, sporting Rapha jerseys, three thousand pound bikes, and lean physiques. I didn’t really know what to do, so I pressed on.
As we ended the first serious climb, I was really looking forward to the first major downhill which would lead to the pub that we’d started our loop from the week earlier. Except the wind was blowing against us so hard that we had to pedal to go downhill. Riders were standing up to pedal downhill into the wind on what should have been a 20mph freewheeling descent.
It was quite a miserable bunch that huddled in the lee side of the pub when I finally arrived. Many riders were turning back and several commented it was the worst weather they’d ever experienced. I ate a granola bar, got back on the bike, and headed for the second major climb – five hundred feet of elevation over four miles. The wind and rain had picked up from before, and again I could barely average six miles per hour. Finally, I reached the summit and began heading down, and that was when I saw the decision point. I could head left and ride the shorter route, which would lop off two climbs and roughly twenty miles, or I could head for the longer course and do the full 70 miles. I’m still not sure why I headed right, but I think it had a to do with the fact that I genuinely believed I wouldn’t be able to finish the short course, let alone the longer one. In my mind, it would be better to fail attempting the long course than not make it on the short course.
As I descended the hill towards the first feed station, I was still fighting the wind – I trying to get as close to a full race position as possible with my hands on the bottom bars, head down, and in a full racing tuck. When riding like this it’s not very comfortable, and it can be hard to see far in front of you. I looked up for a minute and was astonished to see the wide valley that I’d ridden through just seven days prior completely flooded. The road disappeared for about a quarter mile underneath a swift moving body of water that seemed to be a couple feet deep.
Some cyclists had dismounted and were walking through the river. Tree branches, grass, and other debris were in the very muddy water. If I turned back, I’d have to ride back up the hill, so I forged ahead and rode through. You had to aim about 45 degrees to the right in order to get pushed back towards the centre and not be washed away and the water was over the crank shaft of my bike, maybe two feet deep. Emerging from the river on the other side I picked off branches, grass, and quite a bit of miscellaneous plant matter, and headed into another climb.
Finally I made it to the first rest stop. A teammate later commented that it looked like a campsite after a drone attack. There were two caravans parked in a flooded lot, and the remaining skeleton of a tent which had been torn to pieces. Furniture was overturned, and the camper doors were open and banging loudly in the wind. Bikes were strewn all over the grass, and I headed in to see what there was to eat. There wasn’t much room in the camper so I scarfed down a piece of cake with butter, then it was back to work.
My hope was that as we navigated around the course counter-clockwise, we’d have the aid of the wind at our backs at some point, and the last major climb situated between 3 and 12 o’clock on the course would hopefully be sheltered from the wind. A couple more miles of really hard work into the wind, and then all of a sudden, the wind was at my back.
The Wind and a Puncture
I remember laughing in giddy fashion as the wind and I worked together to get over the mountain and push me along a sixteen mile segment that took us across the spine of a range of hills. Compared to earlier I was rocketing across the course, and just before the descent towards the second feed station, I pulled over to take a bathroom break. The wind was blowing extremely hard at this point, and as I started to pee, it was an odd experience watching it rocket up and away at a forty-five degree angle. To any readers that live in France, I apologise for watering your lawn. I was hungry too, so I started eating a banana, solving two problems at once. So there I was, peeing into the stratosphere while eating a banana, and up pulled a female rider behind me. Everyone knew what was going on, but nobody cared, we were that tired, wet and cold. And she had a problem.
“Do you think my tire is punctured?” she asked, squeezing the inner tube until her fingers were touching. Road bikes run their tires between 100psi and 120psi and are rock hard. They don’t flex when squeezed.
“You definitely have a puncture”, I answered.
“Oh,” she said, “I think I’m going to cry.”
If you do that, I explained, the tears will just rocket up and away from you. After all, I had experience.
We set to work, even though I’d never changed a tire before, and neither had she. Two other riders stopped to assist, and together we formed a collection of the four most clueless cyclists ever assembled, as nobody knew what they were doing. It was really, really cold, but twenty minutes later we had the tire changed and pumped up, and I jumped on the bike and headed off.
Down I came into the second feed station, which was located in some kind of Scottish version of a VFW hall. Walking in I was barraged by volunteers asking me what I needed. “Hot soup! Two kinds! Take as much as you want!” I pointed at a few things, then walked over and sat down. I felt like hell. There were three or four other riders across from me at another table. A volunteer walked up to me and stuck his head in my face. “Are you OK?” he asked, as if I was in shock. I probably was. I nodded yes.
While I chewed my sandwich and drank my soup I listened to the organisers talk about the race. Riders were being picked up all across the course, and many were reaching this feed station then leaving their bikes and being bussed back to the finish line. There was a truck leaving outside with a bike trailer that could hold at least twenty bikes, and it was without an empty spot.
I was facing the hardest climb of the day, and after the descent, I’d be heading back into the wind as I closed off the circle at the pub. I decided to just go for it.
Heading out, I couldn’t see any riders ahead or behind me which was much as the race had been all day. I started into the grade and saw a massive Scottish hare about twenty feet in front of me. Bigger than a cat, it was watching me. As I’d pedal closer, it would run ahead for about twenty feet, then turn around and watch me struggle to catch up to it. It was a truly bizarre experience, possibly a hallucination, that lasted halfway up the hill. I had taken three gels throughout the ascent, but I was completely out of gas as I rounded a corner two thirds of the way up. Just as the climb doubled back on itself, I caught the wind and it literally pushed me over the last two hundred feet of the climb and into a very long, very fast descent. With the runoff from the rain and snow covering the road, braking was harder than usual and my hands began cramping up as I struggled to maintain control down the hill, but I had made it. There was a glimmer of hope.
Last Man Standing
However, I turned onto a mostly flat section back towards the pub and the wind hit me full force again. This was a grim stretch. About halfway through, a motorcycle pulled up next to me, and asked me how I was doing. It was a race marshall checking up on riders.
“OK”, I lied, “Am I the last one?”
“Well…” he said, not really answering.
“I’m really the last one?” I asked, quite surprised.
“Yeah…..you’re the last one,” he answered, and then because the truth had been spoken he immediately radioed in.
“Control, I’ve got the last rider out here now.”
I was debating how to ask if I could hang onto the motorcycle and get a pull when he shouted that he’d pull ahead and try to block some of the wind. I nodded in compliance. The trouble was, I was going so slow he was having trouble riding his motorcycle, and the exhaust from the bike was blowing directly back into my face. I wanted to puke.
Finally, we pulled into the pub. We’re going to pause our narrative briefly and leave out a few bits, but lets just say that that if I were you, I would never use the bathroom in the Guilford Arms pub ever again.
Emerging from the pub I saw two race marshals hanging out. Did they think I could make it? I was prepared to give up if they provided any hint of negativity. “You can do it!” they replied enthusiastically, and tossed me a red bull. I hated those guys. Back onto the bike and into the last climb, which was a 2.7 mile 430 foot climb. I’m not really sure how I made it, but once over, the wind was at my back as I sped down the stretch which I’d fought up for the first ten miles, and I realised I was going to finish.
As I joined back up with the River Tweed, the sun was out and I ate a Snickers bar (lovingly sneaked into my bag by my beloved wife), which provided quite the jolt to my system. A car approached from the rear and I waved to signal it to go around. The driver pulled up instead and asked how I was doing. I told him I was doing OK.
“Which course are you coming from?” he asked.
“The long one.” I said
“Brilliant! Well done! Quite a day isn’t it? You’re the last one!”
I agreed, and then he told me he was the event organiser. I told him my last name was Peebles, and I just couldn’t let the town down. Then he told me the best news I’d had all day.
“There’s no more hills from here on in!”
So it was with an escort that I pedalled along the River Tweed, heading towards the village of my namesake, and I fantasized about the welcome I’d receive. My team would be there, and hundreds of other cyclists and their families, enjoying their post-race meals. They would clap for me and cheer, and I would think of something funny to say. It was going to be great.
I headed up the short driveway to Peebles High School and the car behind me began honking as I surveyed the deserted parking lot. The organiser was honking in order to let the timing official know he should record my finish. There wasn’t a soul in sight. I rode past the imaginary line, got off the bike, and collapsed on the ground. I texted Sara that I’d made it, and called my teammates.
“Come on back to the hotel, take a shower, and come to the pub!”
And so I got back on the bike and cycled a quarter mile back to the hotel, and showed up where our team was assembled. It had been a rough day. One teammate’s knee was messed up from the ride. Another had been blown off his bike twice and had a punctured tire, then decided to ride the short course instead.
“On a scale of 1-10, how much did you enjoy that?” I was asked.
It had been the hardest thing I’ve ever physically done in my life. My elapsed time was 7:26, over an hour and a half longer than we’d planned. Only 233 riders finished the long course. 430 completed the short, and the remaining 337 dropped out. Still, the sense of accomplishment was incredible, and now we’re focused for the Caledonian Etape in three weeks.
Since Christmas I’ve embarked on a somewhat unusual journey for me in that I committed to ride in two endurance cycling “sportives”, despite never really doing any kind of serious cycling before. The past few months I’ve spent almost every weekend out on the bike and many sessions in the gym during the week attempting to prepare for these events.
This whole thing began with a great group who in true British fashion all declared that they were “rubbish” and “not at all fit”. After the first outing saw me fall behind by a few miles, the truth came out – all but one had run a marathon within the previous six months, and one was contemplating entering an ironman. Lets just say that we’re not expecting me to stay with the group. The goal is to finish – alive, and in one piece.
The first race is the Tour of the Borders which starts and ends in the town of Peebles, roughly 45 minutes South of Edinburgh. It’s a 70 mile route that includes 4,800 feet of elevation (billed as “big, alpine style climbs”) and should take roughly 5ish hours to complete. You can watch a short video on the route here.
The second race is the Caledonian Etape, an 81 mile race in the Scottish Highlands which includes 6,300 feet of elevation and winds around the banks of Loch Rannoch and Loch Tummel in Perthshire. The goal of this race is to raise money for the Marie Curie Cancer Care charity which exists to provide hospice nursing care to terminal patients in their own homes, often overnight, completely free of charge. They also fund research efforts and work in conjunction with the NHS in their mission to ease the last few weeks of a patient’s life. I’ve been very impressed by their transparency and ethical commitments and will be proud to ride as part of “Team Daffodil”.
One of the things I love about my wife is for several years while we were living in South Florida, she volunteered for the American Cancer Society on their “Road to Recovery” program, driving cancer patients to and from their treatment. Many patients simply didn’t have access to a car or were unable to drive themselves. Even if they could drive, they’d often be woozy or nauseous after their treatment. These kinds of difficulties are often found on the fringes of the battle against cancer and exist beyond the four walls of the hospital environment or medical attention. The work that those involved with programs like Road to Recovery and the Marie Curie Cancer Care hospice nurses do is really difficult – every few months a passenger’s trips would be canceled and wouldn’t resume. Good news was rare in that context and pretty much never occurs for hospice nurses, yet they’re still out there ministering to patient’s needs.
Would you consider helping their mission by donating a few dollars or pounds to the cause? I’ve set up a VirginMoney giving page which ensures that all money goes straight to the charity and is managed in a transparent manner.
This last weekend we rode one final preparation ride along the hardest part of the Tour of the Borders, which included 3,700 feet of elevation and four Category Four climbs over 46 miles of stunning Scottish countryside. It was one of the hardest, most physically demanding things I’ve done, but it’s nothing compared to what patients and their caregivers have to go through on a daily basis. Thanks for your support!