30 May 2011

Plymouth Half Marathon!

Don’t think a half marathon is a social event. Not the Plymouth one, anyway. I had naively assumed you just line up with the runners, and then team up with the people you know, run up with them for as long as that works, and then you run some more and it hurts and you finish. But it doesn’t go like that!

Neil knew, and had come up with a time and place to meet, which meant I found him. Among the throngs at the start I saw no sign of Pete and Richard and whoever else would be running it. People as far as the eye could see! So many that only six minutes after the start signal sounded we could actually start running. A few tens of meters after the actual start Neil vanished out of sight.

Try to find anyone in such masses!

Ready to rock...

Some people thought just running 21 km wasn't tough enough! Nutters... but very admirable. Notice the beautiful Plymouth architecture, by the way.

I thought the field would thin out, but it didn’t! All the way to the finish you had to slalom around the other runners. It’s mad. But the atmosphere was good!

I kept an easy pace: when running the full distance with Neil around Burrator Reservoir I hit the wall at some point, and I didn’t want it again. So I paced myself. That way I had a very comfortable run. Lost in music, taking it easy, enjoying all the hoo-ha going on.

When we reached the top of the hill at Saltram Park I knew the worst was over. So I picked up some speed! I could do that now, without running myself empty, I presumed. So the second half of the race I was almost constantly overtaking people. And time flew by!

Already at the first few meters I noticed my ankle hurt; a souvenir from my unfortunate bike-somersaulting antics of Thursday. I had a bruise the size of my hand on my thigh, and swollen grazed bits too, but that I couldn’t feel; the inconspicuously green ankle, though, gave me some grief. Oh well; I owe it all to myself, so I’d better just suffer the consequences. But when the race ended up in Cattedown (I guess at about ¾ of the race) it started to hurt bad.

This one didn't pose any problem! Only looks spectacular. By the time I'm blogging this it has turned less purple and more green.

Such a subtle bruise! But man did it hurt. It still does...

I was hurting, but I also knew I was getting close, and I still had plenty of energy, so I speeded up anyway. And quite soon I was glad to overtake one of the runners that indicated an expected finishing time of two hours. I wanted to manage within that time! So that was good. I also overtook Richard; the only runner I knew I would actually spot.

In town, really close to the finish, I overtook the other two hour mark person. I was going to make it! I knew they had started way before me, so had probably been running for a few minutes more than me.

Near the finish I suddenly saw Steffie, our student, jump up and scream and wave. A supporter! I was really glad.

When I came within sight of the finish I saw it tick to 2:00 fast. So I ran for it. And came in at 1:59:17. Not bad. My first race ever! And I still felt fine.

By the time I thought of taking a picture from the desirable side of the finish it was still within 2 hours!
I accepted all the stuff they give you at the end (the medal, a T-shirt, and some food) and went to look for Neil. He’d been running in black, but put on the white race shirt, so I spotted him somewhat late. He’d been in for 9 minutes already!

I got my bag back and we went home. And had our official finishing times (from starting point to finish, not from starting time to finish) sent to us in a text message before we were even there! My time had been 1:53. Mad! Neil’s was 1:44. That’s fast! And phoning Pete I found out why I hadn’t seen him at all: he’d been faster than the wind, and had even finished before Neil. What a man! Next year there may be a whole line of blood-thirsty geographers lining up with the sole aim of running faster than good old Pete. Sounds like fun! I’m up for more, anyway...

28 May 2011

Biking the transport geographer goodbye

Nothing bonds like bicycles! A very inconspicuous email announced the arrival of Matthias the transport geographer, who would come to Plymouth for a few weeks to see Jon. None of my business of course; I am a micropalaeontologist. But as I already mentioned; I’ve had business with Jon’s bike, which inspired Jon in turn to inquire if Matthias could liaise with my bike, and one thing lead to another and before I knew it I was actively enjoying Matthias’ excellent company. But as his visit would be brief the moment of his leaving was soon imminent, and Jon came up with a marvellous idea for a goodbye: a bike ride (who saw that coming?)

This would mean all three bicycles that had lived in my kitchen would together go to Clearbrook, over the trail I had biked several times before, and run twice as well. Marvellous! I brought biking kit (including helmet) to the office and very p√ľnktlich I was ready at the bike shed. Matthias was there too, in civilian clothes (stripy shirt!), and with backpack. He evidently had different expectations!

Minutes later Jon also showed up, looking even more prepared: helmet, gloves, padded shorts; the works. But what’s different attires among friends? We were off!

We rode off campus, onto North Hill. Jon was in the lead, and Matthias, who didn’t know the way, guarded the rear. North Hill is fairly steep, and we were shooting down, only to turn to the left into an inconspicuous side road. I made sure I indicated direction with lots of pathos, so Matthias would have no doubts regarding where we were headed.

That was a mistake.

Indicating left only leaves your right hand for braking. That’s the front break. Which I had just tightened... I braked while gesticulating furiously and immediately felt the mistake. I thought “oh darn” while I flew though the air, over the handlebars; an antic I had never performed before. If I go downhill my fellow traffic users will have to make do with very concise gestures. And now I was reminded of why.

I smacked into the tarmac, feeling positively stupid, but luckily I fell fairly elegantly, so I got up immediately and got my bike off the road. Jon told me afterwards he heard the “smack!” but knows I’m Dutch, and fully realised that couldn’t possibly be the sound of me somersaulting off my bike, so he didn’t even bother to look back. When checking if Matthias was following into the side road he was up for a surprise...

The men immediately sped to my side, inquiring if everything was alright. Though blood was oozing through my trousers I was. Fortunately; two days before a half marathon is not a good time to get injured. The bike wasn’t really OK; somehow the fall had tightened the rear brake, and the wheel only spun with difficulty. We couldn’t find why that had happened, nor could we do something about it by lack of tools. So I tried the bike, figured it wasn’t that bad, and we decided to go on as if nothing had happened.

After that silly incident (how I hate having to admit such blunders on my blog!) the bike ride was idyllic. It was a beautiful evening, the route is very scenic, and the men were in shape. Like rockets we shot up to Clearbrook.

Upon arrival we had a small photo session; Matthias wanted something to remind his Plymouth time by. And then we went in for a splendid dinner in splendid company. That was easily worth the blood! And when we rode back, in a more relaxed way as it is all downhill, the sun set beautifully over the moors. I think Matthias got a worthy goodbye...

Mud bath

“What if it is all dry and clean?” Rick, who is famous for his squalid underground trips, had promised us one of his trademark excursions, but it had been very dry recently, and on the way to the adit he wondered if he might not have promised too much... he needed not worry though.

Six enthusiasts arrived at the first adit. Rick had said we would do two; first a filthy one, and then a wet-but-clean one. Very cunning! That way we would enjoy all the squalor available and still get back to the cars acceptably hygienic. (Yeah right!)

The adit was such that the men started singing the wet bollocks song (it does not have lyrics) which is often heard in mine explorers company. The ceiling got lower and lower and at a certain point we needed to take our helmets off in order to be able to keep our noses above the water without having to tilt our heads horizontally. I was having a ball!

Deep muddy water: I'm loving it! 

And it got deeper!

After the bit with little air space we were rewarded with a beautiful shaft, with all sorts of bobs and ladders and things still in it. And after that there was a part of the adit that wasn’t very wet; just muddy. I took some pictures, mainly for John of the Trevithick Society who was bouncing off the walls in enthusiasm for the industrial remains, and then we headed back. John the Fluorescent (who had turned his jacket inside out so he wouldn’t spoil our pictures with his showy hi-viz!) and Marina had shown up in waders, and these would have filled up in this adit, so they were waiting for us at the entrance. Altogether we went to the next attraction of the evening, four of us leaving a conspicuous mud trail behind.

Rick looking decidedly mischievous after having established his reputation is still intact 

 Wooden remains in the shaft

 The end of the adit was so dry you could use a small tripod

Rick at the end of the trail of mud he's just produced

The next adit was hidden in the woods, so we first staggered through dense growth, then sloshed through the very swampy stream coming out of the adit, and then walked into the very spacious next adit. This was a strange one! Even Rick didn’t know why it was there. It did not show any signs of having hit anything lucrative. What it did show signs of was being almost as muddy as the previous one. I had a bit of a fit of giggles at the end, where the mud was so deep it was genuinely difficult to walk.

Beautiful flowstone in the second adit

Beside muddy (we could have known!) it was also cold, so it wasn’t so bad it was only one straight tunnel and we didn’t linger for very long. As I had no idea how long the walk to the adit would be I had put on my thin summer short-sleeved and similarly trunked wetsuit on. Optimistic! By the time we got out I couldn’t feel my feet. Back at the cars I did a little trip-with-Rick dance to warm up again, but it would be in the pub I would be able to feel my feet again. The pub was one of which I wonder if it was real. It would easily one of those that turn out to have vanished when one returns in daylight. All in all a longer trip than anticipated (and I had wanted to get good nights of sleep this week, with the half marathon in mind!), but a good one. And Rick’s reputation is beautifully intact!

23 May 2011

Down with the mineral hunters

Caving with the Plymouth Caving Group is lots of fun. But the trips are often fairly short and uncomplicated, and for me they come with responsibilities. And that's fine, but I do like sometimes buggering off to go underground with the Cornish nutters (or the Cornwall Mine Exploration Club as they are more formally known), as they tend to reserve a day in the weekend for a long, mad trip I only have to show up for. And there was one coming up! I was looking forward to it. This time we would visit the Cornish North Coast.

The mine was down a high cliff, so we hammered some very, very large spikes in the ground to fix some ropes on, so we could abseil down. When I did that I found Simon, Dave and Lionel not quite at beach level, but at a small platform higher up, with the end of the rope. Fail!

Lionel hammering some anchor points firmly into the ground

Dave is looking up to see if he can make contact with the people on top of the cliff, while Lionel and Simon look a bit lost with the end of the rope in their hands. 

Given that the cliff we came down was some 80m high I figured there would be no way to communicate to the top by shouting. So I volunteered to go back up and ask the surface people to bring another rope down... I was smelling thoroughly disgusting by the time I came back down. Simon and Lionel had, by that time, managed to get to the mine entrance anyway, using their bravery and two of Lionel's slings. Dave didn't trust that method and waited for the rope, but I figured I like a bit of clambering, and I followed.

 If you look closely you see the small figures of Simon and Lionel against the rock...

On the left, again, Simon and Lionel 

Trish staring heroically into the distance while on the right Mark comes down

Soon we were all down. We took our SRT kit off and went in. Simon immediately dashed off as he wanted to hunt minerals. And it quickly became clear this was another playground mine! Lots of questionable ladders, slopes with very necessary hand lines, labyrinthine crawls, awkward clambers, the lot! It was great fun.

Pic by Dave 

We also all visited Simon in his den; it was easy to see what he was after, but not so easy to see how he could get them out intact! He knew what he was doing, though, and at the end of the day he had a nice harvest.

Simon on the mineral hunt
 And what he was hunting for! It seems to be cerussite in a rare elongated form.

Dave coming up a nice climb 

Here I show my obsequious spirit; Dave thought it would make a great picture if I would light these structures from below with a slave flash. It took quite some attempts. The picture doesn't really show how uncomfortably I was wedged in some sub-vertical chasm... pic by Dave

Gratuitous speleothems! 

Here I am obediently lighting up the imprint of a launder. Pic by Dave

The mine was too big to explore all corners, but we must have seen quite a large part of it. Including some bits we didn't understand; we found a winze going up, with dodgy structures in it that were clearly intended to allow one to climb up, but which didn't inspire much faith. We were wise enough to not find out how bad of an idea it would be to try them all out, but we did try to get high enough to hold a flash gun up so Dave could take a picture; that already lead to cartoonesque antics with yielding wood, lassoing techniques, and Lionel half-dangling from a sling and half standing on my shoulders. It was fun!

Lionel in touch with his inner Tarzan. Pic by Dave

As a 80m cliff is not quickly ascended we decided to come out in two batches, so we would minimise waiting. Dave, Lionel and I decided to go out first, and were soon on top. We started to carry equipment back to the cars, changed back into our civilian kit, and then expected the next bunch to be up. Nobody! And no weight on the ropes! We were getting worried, but when we walked around to get a better view on the climb we could see all sorts of small figurines making their way up.  

Lionel and Dave respond differently to a 80m climb

Zooming in you can see the antics of those who remove the slings Lionel had put in place

If you take a close look you can see both the 5 figurines on and near the little platform, and the trail of flattened vegetation we had left of the cliff side...

It did take quite a while for everyone to come up and de-rig the whole thing, but lying in the grass in the sun while the waves chastise the rocky coast is not a punishment at all. It was a good trip! Gives me fuel for another month of caving responsibility...

21 May 2011

Eve of half marathon

Eight days and counting. That’s when I will run my first race! The Plymouth Half Marathon. I look forward to it. I had been training quite a lot and all went well. And then suddenly everything went pear shaped. I had to help Rob with his field kit, herd archaeologists down confusing mines, repair bikes, clean ladders, prepare and give seminars, rescue damsels from damp caves, go wild with Roland (OK; that was not really necessary, but doesn’t this count as networking?) absorb knowledge on large mines, prepare and participate in project meetings, and sometimes try and find time to have a cup of tea with Neil. One might gather from this list that a) there wasn’t much time for running b) I was tired enough as it was without running. So with the half marathon approaching I ran more and more like a wet newspaper. Ah well. Now I can try to have a week with sufficient sleep. And a few final training runs. And then next week the denouement!
I have, in the process, turned into a running geek: I (sloppily) keep track of my runs online. And sometimes even calculate my average speed over the various runs... this one evidently was done before life got too hectic!

Project meeting

Most of the year, I am sitting in front of a microscope in an obscure lab in Plymouth, Tasha is sitting in front of a microscope 600km away, Roland and Antony are being important somewhere, and the people at Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory are minding their own business. And altogether that means the boundaries of science are being pushed forward in the direction as laid out in the proposal of the project, but that can be hard to discern from a distance. Also for us. So every now and then we get together, and update each other on the progress made. That sharpens the focus en fires the imagination. After a meeting like that I always feel like a new broom. It was time again for one of these meetings.

The Tuesday was reserved for the field team: Antony and Tasha from Durham, and Roland and me from Plymouth. We keep each other up to date on the state of things, but it was good to get together, go through every field site in detail, discuss the problems we had encountered doing the analyses, and decide on how we would proceed. It was a good meeting! And the result was as desired: I couldn’t wait to get back to the lab and get on with the analyses.

But not that fast. First there was the entertaining bit to be done. We adjourned to my favourite pub for a splendid after-meeting beer, which was joined by Marta who had participated in one of the fieldworks, and a Plymouth master student who would do his PhD with Antony in Durham. And after a very good meal Roland took the last reasonable train home, and Antony took over. The night ended merrily in the gin distillery.

The field team in a restaurant: me, Antony, Tasha and Roland

The next day the team would be complete: Phil and Miguel from Liverpool would join us. We briefed them on the results of the last day, and they told us what they had been doing, and then we discussed how we would integrate that work. It is the integration between our proxy records and their modelling that makes this project so excellent! And of course this is not achieved without difficulty; otherwise it would already have been done long ago.

With a clear view on where we were and where we were heading we broke up the meeting. A last meal was enjoyed in a Moroccan restaurant, and then all went their way. In October we'll see each other on screen during a conference call. And until then we can return to the frantic race to get the work done! But after this pep talk we'll run with renewed energy...

19 May 2011

Transport geographers and bikes

What goes around, comes around! Readers with a good memory will remember my epic struggle with a seat post that had rusted into place (the “project seatpost” series). It concerned the fairly elderly bicycle of Jon, our local transport geographer, which I repaired for him. And after that I borrowed the bike for some occasions.

Then the day came that Jon was expecting a guest; Matthias, a German transport geographer, in the UK for his sabbatical. He was a keen cyclist. Jon quickly realised he knew someone who had a bicycle to spare Matthias could borrow...

Matthias was happy with the bike, and decided to take it to afore mentioned BBQ in the pub. I was there already, somewhat apprehensive as I knew with whom he had been drinking the night before and what state his navigation skills allegedly were in, but that was all unnecessary; a text message arrived that not the man but the bike had given up. Issues with the back wheel! And one needs a back wheel.

Work in progress

Matthias took the train home, and on Monday we convened. He took the bike apart, and concluded a broken axle and worn ball bearings. He was evidently on a mission to get this thing fixed! Would that be karma? If you repair one transport geographer’s bike, fate sends you another one to fix yours?

I have no idea how easy and fast it will be to repair that thing; it’s a very old bike, and getting spare parts for it might prove interesting. But things are evidently moving along! I am a bit ashamed that I may get a good-as-new bike as thanks for lending out a wreck, and might get a free crash course in bike repair on top of that, but then again, if it happens anyway I might just as well enjoy it...

And it turns out Matthias repairs bikes faster than I can write a blog post! I was prevented from concerning myself with bicycles as we had a project meeting (blog post will follow), and before it even halfway Matthias already reported the bike was fixed and rode like a dream. And indeed, I already encountered it in the bike shed, with the shiniest rear wheel in the world!

17 May 2011

Mine seen from the surface

The best way to see a mine is from below. I have by now seen more than 30 mines from the inside, and when an opportunity came along to, for a change, see one from the surface, our eyes guides by the expert knowledge of our own Rick, I wouldn’t let that slip. So on a sunny Sunday morning I drove my trusted vehicle to one of the few remaining intact surface structures of Devon Great Consols; the chimney, to add my modest person to an already sizeable crowd. I dare almost say my presence lowered the average age by many years, but these statistics only affected the speed with which we traversed the terrain, and not the atmosphere.

We walked past spoil heaps, dressing floors, leats, flat rod tracks, tram tracks, shafts, office buildings, and what have you, all in bright weather, and we all had a blast. There’s much, much more to see of this cluster of mines, but one can only see so much in a day. It was great to walk around there, with so many very knowledgeable people! It wasn’t just Rick who knew a lot about mining history. If there’ll be another walk on a different part of that mine I want to do that too. Mines are like everything else: the more you know about them, the more interesting they are!

The vice chairman of the Trevithick Society introduces our guide for the day: Rick! (with beard) 

One of the spoil heaps is now in use as a track for off-road bikers... 

Rick with one of the prettiest remaining structures: most likely a flat rod tower! 

 Do click to enlarge, so you can read the sign on the tree...

Some of these spoil heaps are big. And after all that time still barren! 

One of the most modern remains of the mine: a ball mill.  

It was a well-attended walk!