Sunday, 30 March 2008

SOUTH - an outline

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SOUTH, the magnificent title of Ben's brainchild expedition, and the culmination of years of his hard work and learning, is a bold project.
It aims to be the first unsupported return journey to the South Pole. We walk to the Pole, turn round, walk back again, come home. The journey will be 1800 miles, or 69 back-to-back marathons and will take four months to complete.
What counts as 'unsupported' is a contrived argument, but it is an important one in the polar world. Basically, an expedition is defined as being supported if it uses dogs, professional guides, air resupply or kites. We, of course, will be greatly supported in our expedition, by our sponsors, by our friends and family, and especially by Andy, the expedition manager. But, in terms of the rules of the game, we will not be supported on the ice. Only ten people have ever made a return journey on land to the South Pole (list here). Scott, Wilson, Oates, Bowers and Evans would have be the first men to manhaul to the South Pole and back, but sadly they did not return. (Captain Oates died on his 32nd birthday, the same birthday that I shall celebrate on that continent.)
Fewer than 20 people have made an unsupported one way journey to the pole from Berkner Island
(see little black arrow on map above)
, the place Ben and I will begin. If we make it even only to there it will still mean that Ben is only the 12th person ever to have made it to both Poles unsupported which would be amazing. Hopefully that point will only be halfway for us and we shall turn round and head for home picking up our welcome caches of food along the way.
Can we achieve what those astonishingly tough men of the Terra Nova expedition did not? We are not so stupid or deluded to think for a moment that we are better, or stronger, or harder than them. No way. But the advantage we do have is almost a century of learning on our side. Equipment, nutrition, communication, preparation, navigation: everything has progressed so much since 1912. I have spent three months riding, ill-equipped, through the cold of Siberia, and the prospect of a four month slog seems short and sweet in my experience. Mentally I am positive. Ben has the experience of six tough Arctic expeditions under his belt and I trust his judgement. We will arrive in Antarctica as well prepared as is possible. The rest is up to us.

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Monday, 24 March 2008

The Devizes to Westminster canoe marathon

The weekend did not begin well. My paddling partner, Lucy, and I were loading the car to head for the Devizes to Westminster canoe race, "the longest non-stop canoe marathon in the world". Lucy accidentally dropped a life-jacket in the Thames and so I had to ignore the snow and jump into the river to retrieve it.
At the start line we feared we would not be allowed to begin. Everyone looked very keen and we had been told that at least 4 months of hard training were needed prior to the race. We had done 2 outings together before work (but lied and said we had done lots).
The race organiser spoke to everyone about safety but he took the two novices aside,
"I cannot force people to drop out... hypothermia... snow, flooded river... worst ever conditions... very dangerous... months of training..."
We assured him we would be careful and set off. A marshall pointed out that my paddle was upside down and people laughed at my stylish yellow washing-up gloves in place of proper canoeing ones.
But the sun was shining and things looked promising. Then the wind rose, night fell, snow was blowing horizontally into our faces and 125 miles began to sound like a long paddle. We paddled through the night, beneath a beautiful full moon. You have to lift your boat out of the river and carry it 77 times during the race to bypass canal locks, including one portage that is a mile long. These began to lose their appeal. The canoe was shiny with ice and the night was long.
Dawn saw us reach the Thames.
Sunset saw us still on the Thames.
After 27 hours of non-stop paddling our two, brief, 30-minute training sessions felt insufficient.
We were in a world of pain and exhausted. We were dead last. But we were still paddling, unlike around half the field who had quit during the race. We were undeniably slow, but we were also undeniably still soldiering on towards the end.
So it was a shame to be disqualified for not meeting a newly-invented cut-off time [the winners had finished 10 hours earlier] and to therefore not finish the event. It was a small consolation that the organiser who had been so sceptical at the start was staggered to see that we were still going after all that time. But it had been a great experience. The night was beautiful, and the memory of paddling quietly through a town as nightclubs blared ("nothing's gonna stop us now...") and the TV in a pub window showed a man running up to bowl in a cricket match, and well-lit trains thundered past as we crept slowly through the moonlit, frosty night is a good one.
But today I am incredibly sore and sleepy. My shoulder has torn. And on Thursday I fly to Morocco to compete in the Marathon des Sables - "the world's toughest race" which involves running 6 marathons in 6 days through the Sahara desert. It's a busy week! If my feet are OK after that I also have the London marathon to run the next weekend.
All of these races are a way of raising funds and awareness for 'Hope and Homes for Children' and you can make donations here. I know I did not finish the canoe race, but I hope to fare better at the running, despite not having run for 7 weeks due to injury.
"Thank yous" are definitely due to Lucy, my heroic paddling partner, and to Claire our support driver. Most paddlers had several cars and loads of people feeding them and cheering them over the course. We had Claire, on her own. Thank you! Thank you also to Ollie for lending us a boat. He is off later this year to row solo round the world.
Thank you to Profeet for sorting me out with awesome orthotic insoles and trainers for the desert race.

A few photos:
Not sure Lucy was taking our land-bound training very seriously.
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On with the washing-up gloves and here we go!
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There were occasional splashes of winter sun amongst the snow showers
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The rise of the full moon into a frosty sky was a real treat:
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Still going, over 24 hours later. Hurting, slow, but not giving in. What a great race!
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Thursday, 20 March 2008


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Great relief on Sunday when I made it, with no increase in pain, through the Bath Half Marathon. My time of 2 hrs 35 (yes, 2'35 and yes, you did hear correctly: it was a half marathon not a full one) may not instill much confidence about my capability for completing the MdS, but it was a start. We were running on behalf of Access Sport and, in their hospitality area, I was very impressed to see footballer David James giving up his Sunday to chat to kids and talking knowledgeably about development of Malawian farming techniques. I spoke to him, very briefly, as he is considering competing in this summer's Tough Guy race (I guess England's footballers have all got plenty of spare time this summer...) Naturally I told him that the summer one was for wimps and that he should do the winter event.
I got my silk gaiters sewn onto my trainers, courtesy of Andy's local cobbler. (The guy on my street had looked me up and down, decided I was a mug, chatted with his family in some far-flung tongue, tapped on his calculator and quoted me £89.82 for the work!)
Anyway, so things are looking up for the MdS (except for my plane tickets currently being in an empty house in Yorkshire, me being in London and the flight next Thursday).
Things were not looking as promising for this weekend's canoe marathon. The Thames is in flood, we had no boat and my partner dropped out. No boat, no partner...
A quick trawl through my phone book saw me getting an ex-Para and a Commonwealth rower (aka the London Gladiator) interested. Next morning Lucy phones up to say she's back on board. A mate heroically finds a boat that is not an instant death trap. And we even had a practice this morning! Bring on the race!
Finally - an enjoyable pub night last night with a bunch of aspiring or nostalgic cycle-adventurers. The Thorn Tree really is a great place for anyone dreaming of a bike expedition to learn more.


Ladies in Lycra

I thought a headline like that would get you looking...!

A friend of mine is part of a team heading off to cycle from Parliament Square to the Pyrenees to raise funds for worthwhile causes. Good luck, Louise! You can donate
or party here:

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Cycling adventure

A vid from some guys who did a nice ride:


Beijing's Olympiad

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beijing one world one dream

You decide. Show your feelings along the route of the Olympic Torch on these dates:

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London relay info here.


The elders

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Despite all the ghastliness that is around, human beings are made for goodness. The ones who ought to be held in high regard are not the ones who are militarily powerful, nor even economically prosperous. They are the ones who have a commitment to try and make the world a better place. We – The Elders – will endeavour to support those people and do our best for humanity.
- Desmond Tutu

Out of deep concern for the challenges currently facing all of the people of our world, Nelson Mandela, Graça Machel and Desmond Tutu have convened a group of leaders to contribute their wisdom, independent leadership and integrity to tackling some of the world's toughest problems. Learn more about The Elders


Want to run an ultramarathon?

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click here to
And this link is helpful if you are trying to work out what time you should target in your next big race.


Saturday, 15 March 2008

Solo and Unsupported to the North Pole

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I'm on the train this morning, travelling north to talk to some children and hopefully fill them with more fire than I manage in my day job. And I just received a text message from my mate Andy (the guy who walked from London to Istanbul). He flies this morning to Canada in order to manage a bold and impressive expedition. Another mate, Ben, is attempting to break the speed record for solo, unsupported travel to the North Pole. Sadly there will be few future opportunities to break this record, and whoever holds it in a few years time is likely to hold it for posterity, or at least for as long as we have our planet. For global warming is melting the ice at a staggering rate and future expeditions to the North Pole will soon be more suited to kayaks and yachts than to manhauling sledges through the twisted, frozen chaos of contorted ice rubble, across black slashes of icy water and trusting to the fates that the ice floe you are on will drift north on the currents rather than south, hauling you imperceptibly but unfailingly away from the pole you are struggling towards. Watch him on TV here.
As I write this, and as I think of Andy and Ben's bold determination to carry this expedition off despite the turgid inertia, doubt and lack of boldness that led to potential sponsors dropping out unwilling to take the risk and the ensuing panic to prepare for this project in just days rather than months, my shuffling iPod began to play Philip Glass' Metamorphosis. Ben- if you read this before you go: you will understand that that must be a good omen, serendipity, a portent for the sliver of luck that all bold projects need. Good luck both of you!
Get live updates from the ice here.

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What a chimp.
Training for "the toughest race on Earth" is picking up: after 6 weeks of enforced rest, of frustration, optimistic stretching and sleeping in a leg brace I went for my longest run in ages. 20 minutes to the top of Clapham High Street and back. My heel still hurts but the run did not hinder it too much.
Tomorrow I am running the Bath half marathon with my family. It was supposed to be my final bit of tapering. Now it will be my longest run in 6 weeks and a nervous indicator of whether I have any chance at all of completing the Marathon des Sables.


You say it's impossible

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It can feel both unpleasant and somewhat risky to change your own world. But perhaps it's even more risky to do nothing. Even more risky not to try to discover how good life can be, both for yourself and for those you care about. What you will regret in times to come are the chances you didn't take, the initiative you didn't show, what you didn't do.
If you say it's impossible and I say it's possible, we're probably both right.

- Erling Kagge, 'Philosophy for Polar Explorers'

This is the exact sentiment I end my talks to school children with. We all have so much more potential than we believe. We all perceive the obstacles standing in our way to be greater than they really are. We are all victims of inertia, for it is hard to get moving but not at all difficult to keep rolling once we begin.
I have been enjoying my early morning paddles (though not the 5.20am alarm) and arrive at work buzzing and ready for the day. Partly this is the fresh air, the energising of exercise, the calm quiet of a still morning on the river. But mostly it is because my life is becoming energised once more. I have tried my best to be still, to settle for settling, but it has not gone well! Now I am stirring back into life once more and it feels great.


Paid by the hour

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"I'm paid by the hour but dying by the minute"
sang the radio.

I don't know the song (Perhaps it was called 'It's 5 o'clock somewhere'...?) but I know that sentiment. The most precious thing that we have is our time. Don't sell it cheap.

Preparation is key

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Good news! Lucy finds another kayak for us! Great! But it needs to be picked up before 7pm so we can use it this weekend and because the guy who owns it is away all weekend. So I dash home from school and jump in the car and that is all the dashing I do.
Two hours later, Friday evening rush hour, I have crept in fume-coughing, stress-inducing, time-frittering first gear gridlock to the edge of London, a journey that takes 30 minutes on a bicycle. I reach the M3 and floor the throttle, happy to be hammering forwards at last. My phone rings (hands-free of course!) and the guy on the end tells me that, sorry, he thought we wanted a Canadian canoe and that they have no kayaks. Crossed wires somewhere. I turn around and creep back through London to home.
The challenge of this marathon for us is to be to get to the start line, to not surrender to the obstacles of preparation, to not think how much easier it would be not to bother. The race begins a week today. We have no boat. The odds do not look good. But I won't stop trying yet.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Pride comes before a...

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The day began well. During my lunch break I managed the longest run in six weeks. Granted it was only 15 minutes, but it was pain free. I collected my gigantic race shoes from Profeet for the MdS, extra big to accommodate swollen, tortured soles. And the sunset was great.
But then I arrived at Eel Pie Island where our uber-sleek kayak is stored. It was time for our first training session, with the Devizes to Westminster race just over a week away and sensible warnings of the need for four months of training ringing in our ears. The Thames is in flood at the moment, and Eel Pie Island is accessible only by a footbridge, now located several feet from dry land. Fortunately an enterprising young scallywag was loaning welly boots so I arrived dry and keen.
The river was racing, the night was cold but bright. We lowered the sexy carbon fibre boat into the water. Lucy climbed in. I followed behind. We pushed away from the jetty. BANG - we were upside down in the river and the water was dark and cold and racing and we whizzed downstream and grabbed the paddles and the boat and the jetty and began hauling ourselves out of the Thames. I had not even imagined a kayak could be so unstable!
So our training evening turned into hot tea by the radiator and me squelching home early in too-tight borrowed jeans, a girl's rugby top and plastic bags on my numb feet. Time for a rethink. Time for a search for a less sleek boat. Time for humble pie. Time to get up early before work tomorrow and get back out there and see if we can stay upright for more than one second...

Tuesday, 11 March 2008


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Listen to me.
No excuses. Just think.
Think. And then act.

Do you believe in serendipity?

Do you believe in fate?

Do you believe in luck?

Some people do. And people don't believe for nothing. They believe because they've seen somethin'. They believe coz they've seen others who are LUCKY. They believe because they hope. The believe coz they think that luck exists.

And do you know what I think? Hey - you mightn't even care a damn what I think but this here is my blog and if you don't like it you can disagree or you can click some other place or you can even think a bit. And if you still don't like it well that's fine. But at least think about it.

Anyway what do I think? I think that you make your own luck, that you work hard and you're a good guy so people like you and help you and you're an interesting person so you meet interesting people and so that opens doors and you're kind of determined and you won't let them get you down and so you fight like hell and you don't give up and you strive and you seek and you sure don't yield and then, then, at last, at long last you find yourself exactly where you want to be. EXACTLY WHERE YOU WANT TO BE. Exactly where you should be. Except you couldn't see that back when you started, you didn't know where you were headed. You didn't know where you wanted to be.
But you got there. Luck? LUCK?! Don't you dare to sit back and wallow and whinge and whine and hope. Trusting to luck? No way - if you want luck you've got to chase it. Chase it hard. Chase what you want with all your might. And you then have a chance to get it. And people will say you are lucky.

(These thoughts come after meeting a friend, a good friend, as bold and optimistic as me. But he remained bold and optimistic at a time when I feared my life was run, when I dreaded that I had peaked and that the next 60 years were mere filling. Thankfully my mate kept sparking, kept enthused and now, with my life bang back on track again, I am grateful to him. I'm grateful for those dark and low days for they've re-fuelled the fire for me. And I am chuffed at how thrilling his own life has become. Shine on you crazy diamond. Luck? No way.
I propose a toast to the loose cannons, to those who are free to choose their own way, to those who are bold and swim against the tide. You may fail, but you'll never know unless you try. And you'll regret it if you don't try.)

Monday, 10 March 2008

Lecture at the Royal Geographic Society

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My idle daydream of cycling round the world was galvanised into positive action at an expedition planning weekend at the hallowed Royal Geographic Society in London when I was at uni. As I sat in the lecture theatre reading the gold leaf names of all the society's Gold Medal winners I promised myself then that I was going to complete my expedition and that, one day, I would give a lecture at the RGS.
Finally that dream has come true, and I shall be speaking there on May 12 [details here]. I am nervous already!
It completes a sweet circle for me: the expedition began there, and my lecture will mark the end of the entire project as I will be announcing my next expedition there. It's time for another biggy..!

An impressive circumnavigation

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From the website of
On 2nd October 2003 my 57th birthday, I'm going to set off to run around the world. Making my dream come true and practical necessity, go together. I shall be solo, self supporting and on a very low budget. I couldn¹t afford back up teams, luxury, or flights to different continent and stages across wide oceans.

My dearest wish anyway, is just to do a complete circle of the earth, planned to keep me on as much land mass as possible, This is also the coldest, hardest, most fascinating way, and includes almost 7,000 miles of Russia and Siberia.

And now she's almost done it! A brilliant feat. Read more


Five years in Iraq


With the war in Iraq now five years old I decided to read again Colonel Tim Collins' famous speech from the eve of the campaign.
Whatever you think of him, or of the war, or of war, these words are wise and -with hindsight- particularly poignant:

We go to liberate, not to conquer.
We will not fly our flags in their country
We are entering Iraq to free a people and the only flag which will be flown in that ancient land is their own.
Show respect for them. There are some who are alive at this moment who will not be alive shortly.
Those who do not wish to go on that journey, we will not send.
As for the others, I expect you to rock their world.
Wipe them out if that is what they choose. 
But if you are ferocious in battle remember to be magnanimous in victory...

Read the rest of the speech


Saturday, 8 March 2008

New training programme

With only 3 weeks until my Sahara marathon I spent this morning with a useful training session: arranging a double kayak for the Devizes to Westminster canoe marathon that I'm doing with a friend over the Easter weekend. The professional
who has kindly lent us a kayak warned that he "would not even consider such a difficult event, in such an unstable craft, with anything less than 4 months training." We've got two weeks. Oh dear...


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This week I had to return to a house I lived in last year in order to empty some final dregs of furniture. It felt strange to return, to stir up memories, to see my DIY efforts still present-a painted garden gate, picture hooks in the bare walls. At the time it was important to us.
It is the house I made my home after four years without a home, the house where I wrote my first book, the house where I proposed to my girlfriend. And yet now it is bare and empty and my life has moved on.
I wrote my second book elsewhere, I've hung new picture hooks, my girlfriend is now my wife. How fleeting is life, how transient all that we think of as permanent, how unimportant is much that we consider important.

Friday, 7 March 2008

Travel Classic

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You may be surprised to see, should you visit the largest bookstore in Britain (Waterstones, Piccadilly), to see my
proudly and prominently on display on the table for the Greatest Travel Literature ever written. Me, next to Thesiger, Newby, Cherry Garrard et al? How on earth did I get there? Surely the author did not position his own books there. Surely he would not stoop so low...


Wednesday, 5 March 2008

The Last Place on Earth

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What are the last true outposts on our planet? In an era when humanity seems to have subjugated the whole world, are there any places left untouched by human influence?

To find out, New Scientist set out to discover the Last Places on Earth. Pleasingly, there were plenty to choose from: unclimbed mountains, unexplored caves, unmapped deserts, tribes untouched by the outside world and islands where alien species have yet to invade. See the map, and find out more


Fairtrade fortnight

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Find out more about what you can do to make your shopping habits more ethical during Fairtrade fortnight.


Running a Marathon when you're 100?!

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The truly amazing story of "Buster" who is running this year's London marathon. Aged 101!


Top Tips

You may have visited this site to glean some useful tips for an expedition you are planning. Well here are some
for life instead...
Very silly, but a recent nostalgia-chat about our teenage days reminded me of good old Viz.

Buy a television set exactly like your neighbours. Then annoy them by standing outside their window and changing their channel using your identical remote control.
MOTORISTS. Pressing your 'fog lights' switch a second time after the fog has cleared will actually turn your fog lights off.
Cheer loudly at 8.00pm each Saturday to fool the neighbours into thinking you have won the Lottery.
Minor skin grafts can be performed on pigs by covering any cuts and grazes with thin strips of bacon.
Save money on expensive personalised car number plates by simply changing your name to match your existing plate. - Mr. KVL 741Y,
Don't waste money buying expensive binoculars. Simply stand closer to the object you wish to view.
Avoid jet lag by simply taking an earlier flight, thus arriving fully refreshed and on time.
Save time when crossing a one-way street by only looking in the direction of oncoming traffic. - D. Rogers, Hemel Hempstead
When crossing a one-way street always look in BOTH directions in case a large blue furniture removal lorry is reversing the wrong way up the road. - D. Rogers, Hemel Hempstead General Infirmary
Olympic athletes. Disguise the fact that you've taken anabolic steroids by running a bit slower. - B. Johnson, Canada
FOOL other drivers into thinking you have an expensive car phone by holding an old TV or video remote control up to your ear and occasionally swerving across the road and mounting the kerb.
DRILL a one inch diameter hole in your refrigerator door. This will allow you to check that the light goes off when the door is closed.
BOMB disposal experts' wives. Keep hubby on his toes by packing his lunchbox with plasticine and an old alarm clock.
SAVE electricity by turning off all the lights in your house and walking around wearing a miner's hat.
AVOID parking tickets by leaving your windscreen wipers turned to 'fast wipe' whenever you leave your car parked illegally.
DON'T INVITE DRUG ADDICTS round for a meal on boxing day. They may find the offer of cold turkey embarrassing or offensive.
OLD telephone directories make ideal personal address books. Simply cross out the names and address of people you don't know.
A TEASPOON placed in a glass on the back seat of your car makes a handy audible gauge for road bump severity.
BUS DRIVERS. Pretend you're an airline pilot by wedging your accelerator pedal down with a heavy book, securing the steering wheel with some old rope, and then strolling back along the bus chatting casually to the passengers.
SAVE petrol by pushing your car to your destination. Invariably passers-by will think you've broken down and help.
AVOID being wheel-clamped by jacking your car up, removing the wheels and locking them safely in the boot until you return.
NO TIME for a bath? Wrap yourself in masking tape and remove the dirt by simply peeling it off.
Bearded men can obtain the appearance of an upper class Arctic explorer by simply applying Tippex to their beards, painting their noses blue, and cutting off a couple of toes. It never fails to impress the girls.
PEOPLE whose surname is Toblerone should always take along an empty 'Toblerone' chocolate box when attending interviews for office jobs. This would save your potential employer the expense of having to make a name plaque for your desk, and therefore increase your chances of getting the job.


Monday, 3 March 2008

Innovate or Die

The world's environment is in trouble. The bicycle is good for the environment. Simple statements.
So well done to Specialized for launching a competition to invent pedal-powered inventions that would help the environment and make the world a better place. The winner was an Aquaduct Mobile Filtration Vehicle, a bike that filters water as you carry it. A superb idea for the developing world.


The dangers of an Office Job

When I was travelling people often used to worry about the perceived dangers of my chosen lifestyle. It seems that being in an office can be fatal as well... Click here to read about the tax official who died at his desk and was not noticed for days!


Photography tips

Nice, simple photography tips from the
. Have a blast.


The Death of Che

With Fidel Castro's surprisingly stepping down from office recently, I have been reading up about Cuba, the revolution, the idealism, the difficulties. I was interested in this article, 40 years old, about the death of Ernesto Guevara, known to T-shirt vendors worldwide as "Che".


A deaf cyclist rides again

Here's an interesting blog that reincarnates a long-dead cyclist. Deaf and brave, Dummy Jim cycled up into the Arctic fifty years ago.



First Footsteps. I ran again today. OK, so it was only for 10 minutes, it was barely above walking speed, and I was absolutely petrified that that sudden sharp pain would return to my foot, but it was a start. I now have 23 days to get myself from being able to jog for 10 minutes to being able to run for 150 miles through the Sahara desert.