As a cyclist (of sorts), I often use an app called ‘Strava’. This not only tracks your route, speed, altitude etc., but also lets you know how you are doing against your previous efforts (as well as other people).
Out for a cycle a couple of evenings ago, I tackled one of my favourite hills. ‘Personal Record’ gushed Strava enthusiastically after my ascent – this was apparently the quickest I had climbed this particular hill in the twenty or so times I had cycled up it. My satisfaction was short-lived. After a little investigation, the app informed me that I was the 1188th fastest person up this hill in the last five years or so. That must include a few races of super fit young guys though, surely? Not only that but I was only the 23rd fastest up it today! I then found similarly depressing figures for my gender, age-group and weight, suggesting I suppose that quite a lot of other middle aged slightly overweight men had done better than me.
The lesson here is not to get sucked in to measuring yourself against other people. For most of us, for any task or achievement, there will always be someone who has done better. We are each our unique mix of talents and abilities. I don’t suppose many of those people who climbed the hill quicker than me could design gardens very well or probably cook an omelette as well as I can (I do mean scrambled eggs as well). Try your hardest and do better than you did last time.
Curiously enough, businesses do much the same. They often spend far too much time comparing themselves against their competitors. “How did they get that contract?” “Why are they able to sell that more cheaply than we can?” Instead, we should concentrate on what our clients want. In the end, they are what drive the business. if we get that right, the competitors cease to matter. As business leaders, we should concentrate on serving our clients’ needs as best we can, along with fine-tuning our internal processes to make improvements to our performance. We should also be looking for new ways to delight them, perhaps even identifying needs that they didn’t know they had.
And that is like finding a hill which no one else has cycled up yet.
At noon on 15th September 1986, Vicky Stammers and I set off on our bikes from Westminster Bridge, cheered off by friends and relatives and a class of school children. Our destination was China and we had spent a year preparing for this trip. About nine months later, slightly battered and bedraggled as well as nearly three stone lighter, I cycled across the high Himalayan border between Nepal and Tibet and officially entered the Peoples’ Republic of China.
The journey was both more fulfilling and more taxing than either of us expected. After many adventures together, I had to leave Vicky in Kathmandu, resting after injuring her back – the road to Tibet becomes impassable following the monsoon, so we took a joint decision that I would press on ahead in order to fulfil our obligations. In fact, the route was very nearly impassable – there had been some severe storms and in places I had to carry my bike across landslides and rockfalls. I also began to lose weight alarmingly quickly. In fact I was suffering from a form of amoebic dysentery, although I didn’t know it at the time. Although I made it across the Tibetan border, I was stopped in side China by an Army patrol and prevented from cycling. Vicky and I met up again in Chengdu, in western China. We made our way back to the UK and were married the next year. The trip raised £14,000 for work in Eritrea and Tigray.
Thirty years later, almost to the day (September 18th 2016), I will be setting off on a slightly less ambitious trip, also for a very good cause. Hopefully it will also be less calamitous than my 1986 efforts! Some of you may remember that three years ago I joined colleagues in the industry to raise money for Perennial with our Three Peaks Extreme challenge. We climbed the three highest peaks in the UK, and cycled between them, in just 5 days raising over £26,000 for our industry charity. This time, two teams of cyclists will set off from Snowdon in September 2016, one team on road bikes, the other on mountain bikes, both aiming for Lands End. One team will stay on-road, the other will ride exclusively off-road. Needless to say, I am in the on-road team! It is no picnic – over the course of six days, I will climb over the height Everest by bike and more than the height of Ben Nevis each day! Total distance is a little shy of 500 miles.
Training is going well so far – I cycled 173km (107miles) yesterday and I am topping that up with two or three shorter rides during the week. Finding enough time during the working week can be difficult, but luckily at about 40km of hilly terrain, my journey to or from the office can be easily converted to a training run!
The main purpose of this is to raise funds for a great charity close to my heart, called Perennial. This may not seem an obvious first choice, but for those in the landscape industry, it can be a lifesaver. There are 500,000 people working in or retired from horticulture in the UK. Many are not well paid and pension provision is poor. In addition, Horticulture has one of the worst rates of workplace injury – perhaps not surprising, given it often involves working at height, in cold and wet conditions and operating machinery. Horticulturists are completely dependent on their good health and physical fitness to be able to work, an accident can have severe consequences for the horticulturist and their family. Perennial exists to support them when the going gets tough, which can be as a result of illness, bereavement or workplace injury. For more information about who and how Perennial helps, visit: http://perennial.org.uk/home/ways-we-can-help/
As I am sure some (if not most of you) know I am a keen cyclist. Regular readers of the blog will have picked up on this through the pieces I did on the Three Peaks Extreme event that I took part in September 2013. (Find them here)
When I was on that trip, I began to muse on the parallels between cycling and design. I trained hard for that mad caper, which involved a lot of cycling through tough countryside on my own, often after a hard day’s work. I am a fairly heavy guy, so hills have always been my Achilles heel. I used to get despondent on climbs, slowing down and feeling that the hill was getting the better of me. The task became huge and started to sap all the pleasure out of the cycling (this despite having cycled up a few mountains in my time.) And although I would be the first to admit that I am a bit of a speed junkie when it comes to cycling, especially down hills (when a larger frame really comes into its own!) my attitude to cycling is sort of summed up by ‘You don’t have to go fast, you just have to go’. I suppose what I mean is that in a sport obsessed by time and speed, actually the greatest pleasure comes from just doing it. I have never won a cycle race. Most garden designers have (like me) never done Chelsea, never been on TV (for garden design at any rate!) and are rarely in the magazines. But we do this because we love it; and there is a lot to love, not least the intense sense of promise at the start of a project (or a bike ride). The travel writer William Least Heat-Moon said that “The open road is a beckoning, a place where a man can lose himself”. You might as well say “a blank sheet of white paper is a beckoning…”. When I sit down, marker pen in hand, in front of a blank pad of layout paper, with its luminous depth of whiteness, I feel as though I stand on the edge of a lake about to dive in.
All too often though, I start to suffer ‘design constipation’ – the longer the timeslot available to do the design, the worse it gets. I have written about this before (Where do ideas come from?) but there is another parallel with hills and cycling here – to be successful, you have to get in the ‘zone’. Quite often, when I am cycling on my own, I get in an almost ‘Zen’ like state (bear with me here!); the swish of the wheels, the whirr of the pedals and cranks, and the wind whistling past is hypnotic, especially given one’s own body rhythm. Cycling when in this state is much easier – the miles fly by. Even when I am not in my own little world, when I get to an incline, I often deliberately think of something else: some all-consuming train of thought and before I know it I am at the top of the hill. Design is a bit like that, don’t you find? It often creeps up on you sideways and when you try and think of it directly, it skittles away.
Garden design in particular can be a lonely existence. Many garden designers work from home on their own. Sometimes exhilarating, sometimes dispiriting but in both cases no-one to share it with. During the summer I cycle a lot on my own, but I also go out once a week with friends for a ride. Cycling in a group (particularly a tight formation) is 30% more efficient than on one’s own. You can cover much greater distances and it is one of the few exercises where one can easily talk at the same time. Company and shared experience are essential to make the most of solitary pursuit.
To finish, one more quote, this time from John F Kennedy: “Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride”. Except perhaps a well-executed design?
Quite a few people have asked me to upload a blog of how the trip went, so here goes…
After a stomach-churning night of nerves, I get on the train to London to meet up with the rest of the team. We stand around at Euston nervously joking and laughing as though we are on the bench for a big cup-tie. A quick coffee and a team photo and then we’re on the train.
However, it doesn’t go well – an accident near Lancaster means that the train will terminate at Preston, less than halfway to our eventual destination. After a journey on a replacement bus, another train to Lockerbie in the Scottish lowlands (where we do a spot of ‘carb-loading’ – see left), we get on a minibus taking us north. After about an hour, as we switch to a second minibus, one wag pipes up “Have we lost them yet?” We finally arrive, five hours late at the hostel in Fort William.
Because of our late arrival the previous night, we rise a little later than originally planned. A quick breakfast of tea and porridge follows and then we are off to Ben Nevis. Suddenly it is all real. As always with mountains, the views slowly uncoil as you climb, each more amazing than the last. By curious coincidence, a friend of mine is climbing Ben Nevis the same day, leading a party on a three peaks experience (all three peaks in twenty-four hours) and we meet up for a quick chat and a photo halfway up.
Our mountain guide, Davey (who is a trained mountain leader) takes us off the main trail and across to the north face where we get spectacular views down into the gorges on the north side of the mountain. We are incredibly lucky with the weather, which (unusually) stays clear right to the summit. A celebratory photo follows and then we are off down the slopes. This was the part I had been dreading. All the other team members I had spoken to had been fearful of the cycling. For me it was the mountains, and especially the descents. By the time we finally reach the base of the mountain a few hours later, my toes are killing me and muscles I didn’t even know I had are aching. It is therefore a relief to get on the bikes and cycle 18 pleasant miles to Loch Leven. Finally I feel as though I am in my element, although we ride as a somewhat ragged and uncontrolled group. We are a pretty mixed lot – one racing cyclist, two or three ‘roadies’ like me and the rest mostly experiencing their first seroius stretch on a road bike. With a broad range of fitness, and ages varying from 38-57 we are hardly a practised group. One rider (who we shall call ‘Jim’ for the sake of argument) insists on riding on his wife’s bike in old trainers, with a borrowed too-small helmet in purple with an attractive floral pattern perched on the top of his head. He stops for a cigarette several times a day, but still manages to outpace many of the other riders. It just shows that you don’t need all the latest flash kit!
The first big day’s cycling (125 miles) breaks with rain. We set off nervously in groups of around five people, with me in the first group. Cycling uphill toward Glencoe in the morning rain has an ominous feel. Scottish drivers are not friendly to us and there is some hooting and abuse. By the first food stop, I am ravenous and eat as many sweets, energy bars and other quick calories as I can cram in my mouth. We have to eat around 8000 calories a day to keep up with what our bodies are burning. This is equivalent to roughly 32 McDonald’s hamburgers, although we have to eat most of it as carbohydrates and sugars which are easy to digest. At the end of each day we have a protein shake to aid muscle damage recovery – not exactly something to look forward to, although it is usually followed up with a good pub meal (but no beer!). The rain slowly abates and we cycle through grand highland valleys under what can only been described as brooding skies. After a fantastic 35 mile stretch along the banks of Loch Lomond and a slightly less pleasant ride through the suburbs of Glasgow, we finally end in the delicious dry comfort of a Premier Inn near Ayr, where we collapse gratefully into bed.
For many of us this is the toughest day so far. The late start and bad weather the previous day meant we did not quite do the miles, so we have to backtrack by minibus and pick up where we left off. We are starting to ride as a more ordered group now; after a brief stop for best mates Darren and Matt to get married at Gretna Green and south of the Scottish border, we have a delightful ride south towards the lakes on an old Roman road through rolling countryside. By now, we are riding as a tight group in a peloton of eight pairs. I get great satisfaction from the occasional silent periods when all that can be heard is the swish of the wheels and the whir of the cranks rotating, periodically punctuated by the light clatter of sixteen bikes changing gear at the same time. We finally stop at Glaramara House nestled in the beautiful Borrowdale.
After the by now legendary porridge at 06:45 as usual, we set off up Scafell Pike. This is the highest point in a ridge (Pike being the local name for a ridge of hills). The Lake District has a complex radial pattern of hills and valleys resulting from the geology and glacial action. As we climb Scafell, the weather closes in, but through occasional tantalising breaks in the cloud, more and more of these hills and U-shaped valleys become visible in the sunshine. We reach the summit around lunchtime and the clouds part to give us some amazing views before our descent.On our return to Borrowdale, we have an exhilarating 25 mile cycle past Derwent Water, through Keswick and along Thirlmere to Grasmere. In the pub after a good dinner, a brisk discussion about route follows. Our three cycling guides are unwilling to take us through Liverpool and the Mersey Tunnel; we are unwilling to cut the mileage. We eventually compromise – we would keep the mileage the same, but divert to the coast, taking in stretches of shoreline through Blackpool and Southport before picking up the minibus through the Mersey to North Wales.
Another tough day’s cycling starts with the group being split up into three. In the end this doesn’t work as the contact between the groups is lost. Some press on and others stop. Eventually we all reconvene near lunchtime. The first part of the journey is switchback riding through Lakeland lanes, followed by a couple of long climbs. Eventually we wind down on to the Lancashire Plain and with a tail wind head for the delights (?) of Blackpool. After and exhausting 127 miles, we finish near Formby Beach.
We beat the forecast once again, and cycle in dry weather. The climbs start almost immediately and a tough 35 miles of climbing on the bikes follows, culminating in an into-wind grind up the final pass towards Snowdon. A small reception party are awaiting us at Snowdon, but no time is lost as the thirteen of us stand in a line in the car park changing into our mountain gear, much to the amusement of a coachload of middle-aged ladies parked nearby. After the six days of continuous riding and climbing our legs feel like lead as we begin the ascent of Snowdon. The weather deteriorates, and we were soon in rain and low cloud. Just before the summit, we emerge into strong rain-bearing winds along the final ridge. At the summit of Snowdon, as many of you will know, is a café and visitor centre, served by a Victorian funicular railway. The cup of steaming tea and warm pasty that I have there will remain as one of the best things I have ever tasted! The descent is pretty exhausting, particularly as my feet are beginning to suffer from constantly being rammed to the front of my boots. After a celebratory photo at the base, we retreat to a log fire and a beer. Later in the hotel, we have a final dinner followed by speeches reminiscing and celebrating what we have achieved. It is with some reluctance that we finally retire to bed.
Writing this diary three days later, my muscles have finally stopped aching, although it looks like Snowdon will have claimed both my big toenails! I was surprised to see that as well as having lost about an inch from my waist, I have put on about ten pounds (4kg), which mostly appears to be on my legs!
We never forgot the main reason that we were undertaking this – to raise funds for Perennial (the Gardeners Royal Benevolent Society) and its work with the less fortunate in the horticulture industry. We checked the total daily and it spurred us on. Please donate if you haven’t already done so – it is easy through the JustGiving website dedicated to 3 Peaks Extreme – www.justgiving.com/3PeaksExtreme. The page will remain open for donations until early December 2013.
Perhaps I have finally flipped. I was always rather dismissive of those middle-aged men going on mid-life crisis quests to regain their fading youth (although my youth indisputably faded a while ago). In fact I am not quite sure how I came to agree to do this. I just started get the emails that counted me in. I didn’t recall agreeing. A few people suggested that it had happened while I had had a bit too much to drink at the BALI awards. Once I finally did opt in officially, I discovered I never had agreed beforehand…
Anyway, the ‘Quest’ is to climb the three peaks – Ben Nevis, Snowdon and Scafell Pike (I know, we’ve all done that) but also to cycle between them at the rate of around 100-120miles a day – ha, that got you didn’t it! In the six days it takes to complete the challenge, we will have climbed or cycled over 35,000 feet in height – 20% higher than Everest – and cycled over 440miles. I start next week on Friday 6th September until 11th September. The main purpose of this is to raise funds for a charity called Perennial (formerly the Gardeners Royal Benevolent Society). This may not seem an obvious charity at first thought. However, regular readers of this blog will know that the status of the horticulture sector in general is a pet rant of mine. There are 500,000 people working in or retired from horticulture in the UK. Many are not well paid and pension provision is poor. In addition, Horticulture has one of the worst rates of workplace injury – perhaps not surprising, given it often involves working at height, in cold and wet conditions and operating machinery. Horticulturists are completely dependent on their good health and physical fitness to be able to work; an accident can have severe consequences for the horticulturist and their family. Perennial exists to support them when the going gets tough, which can be as a result of illness, bereavement or workplace injury.
To donate to the challenge visit www.justgiving.com/3PeaksExtreme. I really hope you can do this. Most people go into gardening as a career because they love it (certainly not for the money). Some fall on really hard times and could do with help as a stop- gap.
As for the caper, you should be able to follow our progress on the Facebook page at www.facebook.com/3Peaksextreme You can also and follow the team on Twitter @peaksextreme.