The whistling call of curlews mixed with the shrill peeps of oystercatchers and acrobatic lapwings entertained with me their erratic flight as I cycled between wind-ruffled fields. Most impressive were two curly-haired Hungarian sheep pigs who trotted over to see me, hairy ears flapping enthusiastically (theirs, not mine). Wanting to dust off my panniers and stretch my legs, I had cycled off the ferry in Stromness that afternoon and was on my way to visit my excellent friend, Moni. The weather moves quickly in Orkney and by the time I arrived, 28 miles later, I had experienced brilliant sunshine, buffeting winds and stinging rain.
Saturday was a wildlife frenzy as Moni showed me the sights. Starting early, we quietly crept up on the local harbour seals: basking adults snoozed, pups swam in the shallows and a defensive mother saw off a grey seal with a short but convincing charge. Terns nesting on a nearby beach shrieked at our approach as their chicks scurried around in the dunes, then we were off to the Brough of Birsay in time to cross the causeway in search of more seabirds. Puffins, guillemots and razorbills lined the ledges, fulmars cruised over the cliff tops and shags stretched out their drying wings on the rocks below. A seal surfacing in the wash below us was our only marine mammal sighting of the afternoon, no killer whales for us.
Despite an excellent forecast, light rain pattered against the window as I repacked my panniers on Sunday morning. I was taking the scenic route back to Stromness via the north coast to complete my lap of mainland Orkney. The slow slog to Kirkwall gave me time to reflect on the rumour of Orkney being flat.
Brighter weather and easier miles followed after that, along with a welcome lunch stop near Tingwall and an excellent cake break in Birsay. One more hour of cycling and I was rattling over the narrow cobbled streets of Stromness to a busy campsite beyond the harbour. I celebrated my 55-mile day with a warm rum and coke in the evening sun as I rehydrated some spicy noodles and listened to the hum of fishing boats heading home. With clouds approaching and the wind picking up, I retreated to my sleeping bag and was asleep by 9pm after a brilliant mini-adventure in Orkney.
During The Gray Whale Cycle I will mostly be camping and I could not be more excited, I love camping. Until recently I had two tents: my trusty storm-proof North Ridge tent (like North Face, but not) and an ultra lightweight Nordisk one. Unfortunately, neither tent seemed right for the job.
My North Ridge tent is pretty much indestructible and I’m very much hoping we’ll grow old together. It’s kept me snug in howling gales on an exposed headland on the Isle of Skye, incessant rain in Yorkshire and plenty in between. Its strength comes at a price though, it’s heavy and bulky and, sadly, is just too big to lug all the way from Alaska to Mexico.
My Nordisk Telemark tent, on the other hand, packs down nice and small and is as light as a feather. It’s also a miniscule canvas coffin that barely accommodates me, let alone any of my ‘stuff’. Perhaps I’ve never mastered pitching it correctly but its one pole gave up on a breezy night in Skye (different trip, Skye’s a windy place!) and heavy dew can spell disaster. It’s just not adventure-ready. Its future more likely involves Ebay.
After reading most of the internet, quizzing friends, borrowing tents (thanks Jon!) and visiting shops to stroke and prod their products, I settled on a winner. Over budget but bursting with promise, I went for an MSR Hubba Hubba NX. It has glowing reviews and even came with a free hip flask, what more can I say.
It arrived on a blustery Fife day and we immediately headed to the nearest hilltop. It passed that test with flying colours and, so far, I love it. It’s light (1.9 kg with the footprint), packs down to a manageable size, and is easy enough to put up and take down. It’s yet to be tested in heavy rain but I’m feeling optimistic. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship.
Running across Scotland from east to west was a huge success. Whilst the wildlife sightings were distinctly underwhelming (no golden eagles, no red squirrels and only a small heard of apologetic deer on the penultimate day), the scenery was fantastic. Winding our way up the rough track at the head of Glen Affric before bounding and whooping our way down the other side, with the waterfalls and streams tumbling off the Kintail mountains now flowing alongside us for the first time, was the absolute highlight. Not even 22 miles of incessant rain and an ice-cream headache inducing wind could dampen our spirits after that and we hobbled across the bridge to the Isle of Skye already planning future runs.
Whether it was the run across Scotland that helped get me through London marathon, or the incredible atmosphere and cheering crowds, that was another day to remember. A punchy mix of bone-rattling bass from countless bands and speakers, bowls of jelly babies and slices of orange, smiles and shouts of encouragement from strangers, and the determination of all those runners who made it to the start line, never mind the finish. With survival my only goal, I soaked up the atmosphere and took in on the chin when a rhino overtook me in the final mile. Within 24 hours of finishing – with so many muscles still groaning and my running shoes sticky with Lucozade – I entered the ballot for the 2020 Virgin London marathon. Fingers crossed!
Really I should be cycling. Cycling from Alaska to Mexico will hurt less if I train more now. However, I have a couple of marathons coming up – London in April and Edinburgh in May – and I want them to hurt as little as possible too. As part of my training, I am travelling to Inverness this weekend to attempt to run coast to coast across Scotland. That’ll be from Inverness to the Isle of Skye, approximately 86 miles over five days. Some will be over fairly friendly terrain, alongside Loch Ness for example, while other sections will be remote and more gruelling.
Elements of the trip will undoubtedly parallel The Gray Whale Cycle: getting up each day with a destination to reach and only myself to make it happen, watching the scenery evolve as I progress, documenting and sharing my journey as I go, cursing headwinds and, hopefully, having a sense of achievement when I reach my goal. Whilst I’m not convinced that running fitness equates to cycling fitness, I’m excited to consider this a practise run.
Preparing for The Gray Whale Cycle has been difficult while I’ve been working offshore this year. As often happens in the offshore industry, two 10-day surveys quickly became 43 days at sea. It was a great project and I’m absolutely not complaining, it’s just the way things go. There wasn’t much time on the ship for reading up on gray whales, nor sufficient WiFi to be Googling cycling routes and stopovers, and my spells on the gym’s spin bike were shorter and less frequent than I would have liked (quite unlike my cake stops in the ship’s galley). Something that remained achievable though, was my daily Duolingo practise.
There’s no way round it, I’m terrible at languages. Even when I have previously grasped a little French (from five long years of secondary school lessons) or Swahili (whilst working in Kenya for six months), I’ve not had the nerve to practise what little I know, out loud and with actual people. This time I’m working to change that. This blog post hereby serves as an apology to the unsuspecting people of Mexico who will have my new skills unleashed upon them, a thank you to Duolingo’s little green owl for its patience and unwavering support (even if it seems tinged with sarcasm at times) and a pledge to stick with the daily Duolingo practise. That way, come the autumn, I’ll be ready and confident to habla español a todo el mundo.
It has now been over a month since I heard that I have been awarded the David Henderson Inspiring Journey grant and the news still excites and terrifies me in equal measure. Being anxious about a plan is a surefire way of knowing it’s a good one, so I’m not overly concerned about that. More of a worry is how much of the last month I spent sitting around eating mince pies and Terry’s chocolate orange.
With that in mind I have been making a concerted effort to get out on my bike when I can, which wasn’t today because I was hurrying to catch a flight. It’s not tomorrow either; I’ll be on another plane then. Then I board a ship the day after. Luckily it’s a ship with an exercise bike and a treadmill, but also with excellent and abundant food. The struggle is real.
As well as training, there are routes to plan, people to
contact, kit lists to refine and anti-bear strategies to devise. I’ve more
questions than answers right now: are any of the ultra-light tents on the
market really weather-proof? Can I remember how to repair a punctured inner
tube? Do muffins really cost $5 in Alaska? My to-do lists (yes, there’s more
than one and none are written in the notebook I bought especially for the task)
keep on growing and October is creeping closer. It’s time to get moving; the
count down has begun!