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Here are a few notes on the energy foods – drinks, bars and gels – that I’m currently using to fuel my training for my X-Pennine 300 challenge together with a flavour of my generally unsophisticated approach to nutrition. All of these products are consumed during exercise (I don’t usually bother with pre or post-exercise supplements, only skimmed milk as a recovery drink). During training and definitely before long events I try to ensure that my glycogen stores are fully replenished and thanks to my lovely wife generally eat a fairly healthy, low-fat, home-cooked diet (although tracking my weight over the last couple of months I’ve probably eaten more carbs than I should).

I consume the bars, gels and drinks to suit myself and have never followed manufacturer recommendations because, apart from anything else, I’m somewhat suspicious of their motives: if you did as suggested, at over a £1 a pop for a gel feeding oneself on the go could become an expensive business for amateur, unsponsored athletes and I think there are more cost-effective gains to be made by looking after your general diet.

I freely admit that although I’m not THAT old I am a bit of a dinosaur when it comes to new ideas and I’ve always been inclined towards a ‘tough of the track’ approach of self denial (anyone remember Alf Tupper in The Victor comic?). I believe that the body quickly learns what it can expect and adapts accordingly. If you’re competing against others or you’re motivated by PBs then you might need to be a bit more progressive but as I’m not I can take a more ‘seat-of-the-pants’ approach.


The importance of fluid for performance clearly can’t be overstated. It is not only well documented but the effects of dehydration can be dangerously easy to experience first-hand. Key points here are: to start your activity fully hydrated; consume sufficient fluid to match losses; attempt to maintain an adequate electrolyte balance (for which purpose the best energy drinks are formulated).

I almost always take a single bottle on the bike, sometimes 550 ml but usually a 700 ml bottle. Irrespective of the size of the bottle taken, the amount of product I add is always the same – currently 3 scoops of a product that I really like called Torq Energy (I should really vary the amount of powder added for each size of bottle but I can’t be bothered – I actually prefer the less dilute solution).

I’ve found that many energy drink formulations are a bit sweet and not refreshing enough. After half a bottle or so, some make me want to ‘gag’ and I find that I don’t actually want to drink which is not a good situation. On most bike rides of less than 40 miles I tend to take a water bottle for a training load only and don’t actually consume anything – it’s the old denial thing again.

If I do consume the energy drink I would replenish the bottle with plain water bought from outlets en-route (so anything I’ve previously said about maintaining electrolytes is null and void although there is of course the bars and gels). When running, I always try to start fully hydrated and – providing it’s not too hot – wouldn’t take anything else for runs up to 3 hours. Anything over that (or if it’s really warm or humid) I usually take a 550 ml water bottle complete with energy supplement stuffed into a bum-bag.

Products used and recommended: Torq Energy naturally flavoured high carbohydrate energy drink powder – lime and lemon


Despite the fact that on the bike I still take the occasional cheese-and-jam butty, along with thousands of other cyclists throughout the country I usually opt for the more modern energy bar solution. Again I tend not to pay much attention to manufacturer’s recommendation and usually rely on an energy drink to get me through anything less than 40 miles (and as I’ve already said, frequently don’t touch that unless the weather is warm). Energy bars really are a matter of taste and after trying many varieties I eventually stumbled on Zipvit’s ZV8 range which I really like – certainly as much as almost any confectionary bar I would care to choose even when not exercising. They come in several varieties: uncoated orange; uncoated chocolate; chocolate coated strawberry; uncoated banana; yoghurt apricot peach, all of which are as nice as each other. For a long ride over 70 miles, along with a couple of gels I usually take a couple of bars and would generally consume them both – as much for the distraction as for the calories.

Products used and recommended: Zipvit ZV8 bars (variety of flavours)


The first time I ever consumed an energy gel was during the 90s when I was competing in mountain marathons. The ones I used then were made by Leppin and were a bit like tubes of wallpaper paste that really needed to be washed down with water (they’ve come on a bit since then and are a lot more palatable now). I generally prefer the less viscous brands that don’t need the assistance of additional fluid. Particular favourites are Maxifuel’s Viperboost which are quite big and easily taken and Mule Bar’s ‘Kicks’ which are smaller.

Although I almost always opt for caffeine products I try not to consume them regularly in training because rightly or wrongly I don’t want to risk building up a tolerance to the caffeine. I find that the general effect of a caffeine gel taken towards the end of a session is electrifying and I always tend to work my calculations on hitting the wall 20 minutes from the end of a session. By consuming a gel just before, I like to think that I get 20 minutes of extra hard work free! But as I say, I use them only occasionally as – it’s probably just me – I don’t particularly like the idea of developing a dependence on any form of stimulant ‘crutch’.

Products used and recommended: Mule Bar ‘Kicks’ – Lemon Zinger (with caffeine); SIS GO Gel (plus caffeine); SIS GO Gel; Maxifuel Viperboost (with caffeine); High 5 Isogel

This represents a snapshot of my current nutritional regime during exercise. As the new year progresses and the distance builds up I’ll be constructing a diet to support it; I’ll be writing more posts to document it as it happens.

Galleries Restored!

Just a quick update to say that the image galleries on the Weardale and Teesdale Way sections have now been restored.

Gallery Problems!

After a routine upgrade we seem to be having a few problems with our galleries so we’ve disabled them until we’ve had time to sort it out. We’ll restore them as soon as we possibly can.

My First Weardale Way Talk Safely Delivered

Well that all seemed to quite nicely. Although the room couldn’t have been claimed to be full, the curious souls who did me the courtesy of turning up to hear my debut talk on the Weardale Way at the Dales Centre in Stanhope last night actually claimed to enjoy it! After throwing out half my content at the last minute to shoehorn it into 50 minutes, we turned up at the venue to be beset with the obligatory projector issues. However, Ian, the organiser – who also kindly provided the projector – calmly overcame them with professional decorum and the talk started only a few minutes late with Diane at the controls, changing the slides. Despite using a very unprofessional pointer and failing to keep up with my notes, it all went very smoothly and the only interruption to the flow was Diane’s coughing fit which was so noisy that she decided to leave the room leaving me to turn my own pages! My thanks go out to everyone who attended, to those who kindly bought my book, to Ian Forbes, the organiser who made me feel very welcome and to Gerry Wilkinson for lending a virtual stranger (me) two books that were integral to the theme of the talk. Looking forward to the next opportunity and to hopefully renewing acquaintances.

A Flag for County Durham

I didn’t even realise that there was a competition to design a flag for County Durham but six have now been shortlisted – you can see them here. Personally I think a flag should be respectful and mindful of the heritage of the county but forward looking and inclusive. Portability (being able to use it in as many situations as possible without having to modify it) is also a handy feature. My own preference is for the last one in the slideshow (I quite like the version that harks back to the flag of the Venerable Bede but it’s too similar to Northumberland’s and personally I think there is more to County Durham than the cathedral and its knocker – and anyway it looks like the flag of some rogue African state).

North Pennines Walking Festival

Li’l ol’ me’s doing a talk on the Weardale Way as part of the North Pennines Walking Festival. The talk will take place at the Durham Dales Centre at Stanhope on Tuesday 1st October starting at 7.30 pm till 9 pm. It’s free and it’s open to all so why not come along? Copies of my book The Weardale Way – A Guided Tour along the River Wear through County Durham and Sunderland will be available for sale at the reduced event price of £10.00.

Bettering the Beast

the-beast(6)Last week, on a whim and looking for a bit of motivation, I decided to enter ‘The Beast’, one of a number of annual cycling events organised by Durham Big Ride. Although I’ve done longer and harder events in the past this one packs a lot of hills into a relatively short distance meaning that it’s a real rollercoaster with a profile like a rip-saw. Consequently it demands a reasonable standard of cycling fitness to enjoy and I should imagine many miles of quality riding to race (although the organisers are at pains to state that it is most certainly NOT a race – there’s no timing for instance).

As events of this type go, the organisation was fantastic and the Sniperley Park start/finish was one of the best I’ve used for the purpose. We set off after a short delay on a chilly, but sunny, September morning behind a police escort with me well off the back, taking pictures. By the time we’d climbed up to Long Edge on the way to Burnhope most of us were well up to operating temperature with clothing being shed but I elected to keep my arm-warmers on because of their brilliance as snot-rags! Now I started to work my way up the field so that as many people as possible could get a look at my Carers Trust t-shirt with the X-Pennine 300 Challenge and Durham Cow logos that I’d carefully ironed on that very morning (in retrospect I should have started at the front and let them all pass me but hey-ho).

the-beast(5)After one of my favourite descents from Greencroft the next climb was Iveston Bank which is brutal but mercifully short. Although plenty of people were pushing at this point I was still passing cyclists doing very nicely on touring bikes and mountain bikes as well as those without any means of connecting themselves to the pedals! I spent the next forty-odd miles anxiously scanning the riders ahead of me for their general form, apparel and bike style. Although I undoubtedly benefited from local knowledge I spent the entire ride see-sawing, going backwards when we hit the climbs, pulling it back on the relatively sparse areas of ‘flat’ between them and, if I say so myself, making up a lot of ground on the descents. After the long climb through Thornley and up to Tow Law, I and many others didn’t bother with the overcrowded feed station but carried straight on to complete a cruel loop created just to include the short but steep Ivesley Bank.

Although I’ve confessed to being worried about those riding touring and mountain bikes, my own steed is no racing thoroughbred; its aluminium cyclo-cross frame is fitted with not-particularly-light mudguards and heavy 32C touring tyres put on especially for the training benefit. Currently it weighs about the same as my steel mountain bike but can only draw on a 34×26-tooth bottom gear which leaves me a bit over-geared on some of the steeper hills in this neck of the woods (many of which were included in the event). Shortly before the challenge itself I’ll be swapping the tyres for lighter models and possibly putting a smaller gear on depending on how the training is going. If the weather is forecast to be good I’ll be losing the mudguards as well.

About a third of the way through the event some considerate chap had decided to discard the contents of his drinks bottle just as I was passing on his right. God only knows what was in it but it was the stickiest brew I’ve ever come across and it ended up all over my left handlebar and down my left leg working its way in behind my knee which stuck itself together on every pedal stroke thereafter. I didn’t fully realise what had happened until I got down onto the hooks of the handlebars and I grabbed the sticky mess that had soaked into the tape. Putting my hand back onto the brake hood ensured that whenever I wanted to change my hand position from thereon I had to unpeel myself first!

the-beast-goody-bagAfter the final leg-busting climb on Ragpath Lane I made it onto the back of what became a fast-moving group speeding through the villages of Quebec, Esh and Bearpark; just when I thought that it was going to be plain sailing to the finish I got dropped on the steep little hill at the junction of Toll House Road and the A167 as I succumbed to some shocking cramp down the insides of both thighs at the same time. The final mile and a half was more uncomfortable than the rest of the ride put together but I had an appointment with a goody-bag that I intended to keep and five minutes later there I was crossing the finish to rapturous indifference. I quickly consumed the bottle of water, banana and Mars Bar, gave my legs a bit of a massage then headed off home to try and catch the start of the Italian Grand Prix.

Use it or lose it!

joe&cowThere’s a saying in health and fitness circles, particularly with respect to the ageing process: ‘use it or lose it’. After a couple of weeks of consistent training for the X-Pennine 300 Challenge I can see what they mean. Over the last couple of years I’ve been plagued by little niggles that wouldn’t go away and which consequently made me less inclined to exercise as a result (not in a major way but just eroding the enthusiasm a bit). With the additional motivation I’ve had from the challenge, gradual and consistent exercise sessions seem to have helped many of my ailments vanish. My right knee is performing almost perfectly again and walking downstairs is smooth and straightforward; my left ankle hasn’t bothered me at all since I started a program of what is essentially cross-training, although as it’s been a constant thorn in my side for many years, I’m not counting my chickens yet.

My one major ache since I’ve started training consistently is my right thumb which I hurt as a result of moving a mattress down the stairs. Since it was forced violently backwards the mobility is a bit limited and it has the capacity to ache like hell. However it’s been responsible for making me take notice of the relatively poor state of the roads in much of County Durham. With my hands over the brakehoods when cycling, any excessive vibration is really uncomfortable and on really bad sections of road I have to remove my hand from the bars altogether, so much so that there are certain notable stretches of the road network near my home that I effectively ride one-handed (most of the Durham to Lanchester road for instance). Heaven help us if this winter’s a bad one!

The weight is slowly coming off – I’ve lost a couple of kilograms since I started training consistently and now weigh in at 76 kg (I’m 5′ 8″) although it’s easier to exercise consistently than to eat in the same fashion. The main plan at the moment is to reduce my weight ideally to around 73 kg (11.5 stone) which is what I raced at a few years ago, hopefully around the turn of the year (in order to allow me to train at longer distances less injuriously) and then drop it again by the time the event comes around in May. That’s the plan but the older you get, the more potential pitfalls seem to lie in wait so I’m taking nothing for granted .

One thing that has changed massively for the better since I was running and cycling years ago is a completely different level of interest in routes. I used to spend a lot of time head down and backside up not really looking at anything in particular, now I’m always excited to find new things and make new associations. Routes are almost always planned to take in places of interest – historical and geological – and where I used to focus on the level of discomfort I was experiencing I now find myself absorbed with considering some aspect of a place’s presence in the landscape. It saves a fortune in motivational music downloads! I’m not sure I’m that much slower either (allowing for the ravages of time of course) and I certainly don’t put any less effort in although exploratory photo stops are now a feature of many rides.

Anyway I’m enjoying it all far more than I thought I would – and I knew that I’d enjoy it! Stepping up to ultra-marathon distances  together with sleep deprivation is a bit scary and is somewhere I’ve never been before but that’s to be discussed at another time.  Thanks for reading and don’t forget that regular updates are on Facebook and at MapMyRun.


The Challenge Begins

Well, the ball is rolling and the X-Pennine 300 Challenge is under way: the charity agreement with Carers Trust is signed, the Just Giving page is set up, the Facebook account is in place as is Twitter (@durhamcow) and MapMyRun. I’ve just got to remember to keep them updated and to keep training and avoid injury through the delights of a North East winter.

I need to say first off that although I’ve done a few mountain marathons and bike races in the past I’ve never run or cycled anywhere near the distances that are involved in this challenge and the 48 hour timeframe might very well end up being meaningless but I’ll have a better idea as we get into next year. I’ve written elsewhere that it was passing the 50-year milestone that caused me to start thinking about trying to turn the clock back but I’ll be 52 this year so it’s taken a while to get around to it.

Because I’d written a guide to the Weardale Way I was sure that if I did a challenge of any sort it would involve this excellent trail and by integrating the C2C cycle path it’s produced what I think is an exciting if daunting route. It’s amazing how partnering with a brilliant charity like Carers Trust has really helped my confidence and determination because for some time the whole thing sat on the back-burner because of the doubts I had in my ability to pull it off.

Whilst the date is confirmed as the 16th to 18th May 2014 (a month or so before the longest day and close to being a full moon), timings will be adjusted when I get a better sense of what sort of schedule I might achieve. That will depend on the state of my fitness at the start which in turn will be reliant on how I manage my current injuries and niggles and avoid picking up any more. But more of that later, for now I’m just pleased to have announced it and look forward to the hard work to come…

The X-Pennine 300 Challenge

There comes a time in many peoples’ lives when curiosity drives them to want to know a little bit more about themselves. I’m not talking about starting a family tree or anything like that, but to know more about THEMSELVES and what they’re capable of physically, emotionally or otherwise.  Since my 50th birthday came and went over a year ago, I decided that I needed my own answers to the physical question before my faculties started to fail me. Thinking about what I could do that was sufficiently outside my comfort zone I considered just running the 78 miles of the Weardale Way, a brilliant trail that winds its way through County Durham in the North East of England (it’s an excellent course for any multi-terrain challenge and I know it well having promoted it for a while now). However, I’ve never run anything near that distance in one go (the most I’ve done are mountain marathons that involve 5-6 hours out on your feet). Splitting it into two or even three days would just give my chronically dodgy left ankle an opportunity to seize up (it can be freed up but its absolute agony and involves around 2 hours of painful hobbling).

So I thought that what I needed to do was divide the running by starting half-way along the trail, take to some other form of transport (the bike was the obvious choice) and keep going so that the ankle didn’t seize up and so that I could start the second section of the run in better form. To minimize time spent on main roads, the popular C2C cycle path that crosses northern England from coast to coast seemed an obvious choice but because I felt the need to do it all meant that I would have to ride both ways to get back to the start of the Weardale Way at Roker, crossing the Pennines twice in the process. And for some reason, shoehorning all of this into 48 hours seemed like a good idea at the time. When I’d reflected on what 78 miles of running and 217 miles of cycling in that time period was going do to me physically I thought ‘you must be joking!’ But then after deliberating further I came to the conclusion that it might be more achievable if I had a bit more motivation. So I decided to do something I’ve never done before in any event I’ve ever taken part in: to do it for charity.

Many people, if not most, including my wife and daughter, have raised funds for charity when taking part in the events they enter; some wouldn’t even consider doing it without, but not me, I was always far too selfish for that. I couldn’t be bothered with all that ‘collecting’ shenanigans. So I didn’t even have a favoured charity but I did remember a compelling documentary I’d seen a few months previously that highlighted the humbling selflessness of the unpaid and unseen carers – particularly youngsters – in society today. It had made me feel slightly ashamed of the fact that for most of my life to date, my time has largely been my own and that broadly speaking, I could go and do what I wanted when I wanted; I thought that this image alone would be enough to stiffen my resolve when I needed it.

Primary_logo_Carers_Trust_logo_RGBSo I elected to raise money for Carers Trust, a charity that represents up to 7 million unpaid carers in the UK today. What is more, they estimate (and it’s a figure that I have no trouble believing) that 3 in 5 of us will become a carer, needing the services that they offer, at some point in our lives. Parvinder, who works for the charity, was and continues to be very helpful and I must say that I don’t feel that I’m doing this on my own anymore. On that theme, I’ve decided to log all of my training on Map My Run and to keep a regular journal along with updates on this blog and on Facebook so that anyone who’s interested can see how a 50-year-old body can hopefully be coaxed into coming up with the goods, so to speak (admittedly I’m not starting at the bottom but with the injuries and niggles that I’ve accumulated over the years and with my recent exercise record it could be worth a read).

As will be gleaned by the title of this post the 295-mile challenge has been christened ‘The X-Pennine 300 Challenge’ (because it’s NEARLY 300 miles long and it scans better) and that’s how I’ll be referring to it from now on. It is by no means a done deal within the time frame but I’m determined to finish it however long it takes. As I write this it seems a long time until Friday 16th May 2014 when it all begins but I fancy that it won’t be long enough. In the meantime I’d love to receive any advice, recommendations or encouragement so please feel free to leave a comment (positive or helpful ones would be particularly appreciated). One last objective: I’ve set myself a target of £1000 but have even less experience of fundraising than I have of the challenge itself so if you feel inclined to make a donation, no matter how small, you can be sure it will give my determination a massive boost (I’ll really need it come the winter). Donating is easy:  just go to my Just Giving page or send a cheque made payable to ‘Carers Trust’ to the address on our Contact Us page. If you want to know more about the X-Pennine 300 Challenge itself click HERE.

Best wishes and thanks for reading,