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Racing.

thumb_COLOURBOX5661662 - Copy I honestly didn’t know if I could stay on my feet. I really was close to either throwing up or crying, or possibly both. My chest heaved, my legs sent signals to my brain that pleaded with me to stop and the scenes all around were reduced to tunnel vision.

The route ahead – more concrete – stretched out to a pin prick that remained in focus while all else around me, the crowds of screaming spectators and the steel-framed bed I was pushing as it rattled loudly from its wheels rolling over the road beneath my feet, pulsated in an increasingly claustrophobic blur. I must have been on the verge of losing consciousness and we were only about half way in.

At this midway point of the Great Knaresborough Bed Race I berated myself for being there. With absolutely no exaggeration, this was the worst physical punishment of my life. My wiry frame and limited fitness was being tortured, despite weeks of intermittent practice (albeit without the bed half the time and never once with a passenger aboard, as is required on race day – we only had ourselves to blame).

The crowds thickened and the noise erupted… somehow we summoned enough energy to lumber on.

All that kept me going was the money. Between seven of us we had raised, by that point, around £900 in sponsorship for the British Heart Foundation. We owed it to people’s generosity alone to make it over the finish line.

Here we were, six of us – three blokes and three lasses all aged 30-plus – pushing this heavy structure through the streets of what is a pretty North Yorkshire market town; our seventh team member riding as passenger and wearing a helmet and life jacket as per the rules.

Bed race 2bed race 4Part-way through the 2.4-mile route of Tarmac and, in places, cobbled roads, we were at the peak of the route’s almighty, twisting summit – a seemingly endless, steep, helter-skelter hill that winds up from the riverfront to the market square at the top.

The crowds thickened here and the noise erupted. Our passenger, Ally, hammered repeatedly on an air horn tied to the bed with her foot as the adrenaline pumped, shouting encouragement in thick Scottish tones. The rest of us – Rosie, Clare, Caroline, Dan, Matt and yours truly – somehow summoned enough energy to lumber on as we came to the long downhill section of the High Street before crossing a bridge and navigating a river crossing just before the finish line.

Some 90-odd other competing teams filled the route and there were thousands of people lining the streets in support – some of whom were armed with water guns to fire at you as you run past with the bed.

Come the river crossing and I was one of two of us who we’d agreed would jump in the water first to bear the weight of the bed as it was lifted into the River Nidd, but I was muttering over and over, though barely audible to the rest, that I couldn’t do it… I did it anyway and half way across the river I turned the air blue with obscenities. The ‘frog man’ stationed there in case of emergencies had a good chuckle and urged me to picture the pint of beer that would await me at the finish line. It was enough to get me over and out of the water and across the line.

bed race 3bed raceThe rest of the team had been utterly incredible in getting us round. I collapsed straight away at the finish. High fives all around. I couldn’t believe we had done it. Overwhelmingly, I was filled with sheer relief that it was over.

A huge ‘thank you’ to every single person who cheered us on around the route whether you know us or not. A massive ‘thank you’ to all our friends who supported us in Knaresborough on the day. And a heart-felt ‘thank you’ to every single one of our 63 sponsors who raised an incredible £1,090 for the British Heart Foundation – smashing our initial target of £150 – via our JustGiving page: JustGiving: So Sozzled Crew 

Turns out we’re suckers for pain and despite the trauma described here, our team ‘So Sozzled Crew’ fully intends to enter the ballot for the 2017 Knaresborough Bed Race. Although it was so very, very hard work, the event is actually fantastic fun that attracts a real community atmosphere and it is all held in a beautiful setting. Congratulations to the voluntary Knaresborough Lions group for another wonderful occasion.

 

 

 

Looking. For the Aurora Borealis.

Twelve nights in Iceland in search of the Northern Lights.

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It isn’t supposed to be easy. The best things in life tend to be those that are earned; through perseverance, through dedication, yet sometimes rewards come just by being in the right place at the right time.

Where I was heading, 66 degrees North, Iceland, all the advice told of October to April being the best time to see the Aurora Borealis – the Northern Lights – when the hours of daylight are shorter.

With age I’ve become increasingly fascinated by the night sky: it’s twinkling stars, the sense of perspective it provides, and so, the phenomena of the greatest light show on Earth, was something I had to see. And where better, I figured, than the land of ice and fire; a giant’s stone throw from the Arctic Circle.

The spaceship-like front of the Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjavik

The spaceship-like front of the Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjavik

Vast vistas of natural nothingness, of rugged mountains, imposing volcanoes, black lava fields, and plains and ocean inlets dotted with colourful metal structures of homes and industry: Iceland was a mysterious, far away place to me that appealed to my wanderlust, sense of adventure and lust for life less ordinary.

The Myvatn area in the North of Iceland offered stunning scenery

The Myvatn area in the North of Iceland offered stunning scenery

However sage the advice though, that is not to obsess over catching sight of Aurora while staying in this spectacular country, the possibility seduced my thoughts regardless of the days’ wonderful pursuits; from stepping behind the pummelling Seljalandsfoss waterfall and bathing in the hot geothermal spring waters of the mountainside Myvatn Nature Baths, to marvelling at the beautiful calmness of the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon.

Feeling giddy behind the Seljalandsfoss waterfall in the south

Feeling giddy behind the Seljalandsfoss waterfall in the south

There is, of course, more to happening upon the Aurora Borealis than simply rocking up at a tip of the Northern Hemisphere at the right time of the year.

Two other elements are important: matching clear skies with high magnetic activity, and if you are heading to Iceland a great tool is this website – en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/ – which provides a dedicated Aurora Borealis forecast for the whole of the island. It is frequently updated throughout the day, showing a map of the country with different shades of green indicating the depth of cloud at any given location.

Next to the map a sliding scale of 0 to 9 provides a measure as to the magnetism in the atmosphere, so the higher the number the greater the magnetic activity. Match a high activity number and a location where the skies are clear, away from light pollution, and boom, there’s every chance of being in luck.

My girlfriend, Rosie, and I had chosen early March to fly to Iceland from Manchester, England – flight time approximately two-and-a-half hours – and booked our flights through easyJet. Determined to see the Northern Lights we were staying in Iceland for 12 nights.

We settled on an itinerary that saw us spend our first three nights in the capital, Reykjavik; four nights in the second most populous settlement, Akureyri, in the north; another two nights in Reykjavik as a half-way house to adventures further south which led to two nights in tiny Vík on the coast; ending with one final night in Reykjavik before flying home.

DSCF3115A week in and we’d seen precisely zero hint of Aurora activity and I’d be lying if I said we weren’t a little anxious. In the back of my mind the lights were to be the pay off for holidaying in sub-zero temperatures and thus wearing five layers of clothing, long johns and all. We’d been checking the Aurora forecast several times a day, more so as the holiday wore on, in the hope of getting decent conditions.

Lo and behold, on the morning of day eight, the forecast for the next day was looking promising: an activity rating of four (meaning ‘Active’) and clear skies over much of the south of the country, where we’d be for our stay in Vík; a village of around 200 people located next door to Katla, one of Iceland’s largest active volcanoes. According to locals, on average Katla violently erupts twice every century but the last major eruption was in 1918. A slightly unsettling fact when you are sleeping in a bed next to it…

So the next morning we made a plan, to tour east along the ring road to the glacial lagoon late in the afternoon. We would stop for dinner in a remote village on the way back to Vík, by which time it would, all being well, be ‘show time’. Another quick check of the forecast before we set out on our days’ road trip and the activity rating had crept to a five; ‘High’.

This had to be it, had to be our lucky day, now or never. The long range forecast for the rest of the stay warned of clouds, clouds and more clouds.

It was 8pm by the time we pulled up outside a simple restaurant, out on a limb in a tiny settlement consisting of no more than a couple of streets and small houses. The orange glow from the windows an enticing draw in the chill of the evening.

We dined at a table next to the window and cast glances through the glass at the clear night sky in anticipation. No sign. Conversation by a group of Americans around a table in the middle of the room touched on the Aurora then drifted onto other matters. Main dishes over. Still no sign. I ordered dessert. A risky call. “For all we know they could be right above us!” Rosie said, only half joking. It is fair to say it was the quickest I’d ever eaten a serving of apple pie.

We settled the bill. Fleece on, jacket on, hat on, gloves on… we swung open the door into the dark night, the glow of the restaurant’s light filtering a warm hue onto the pavement outside. We turned to the right and WOW. At last!

Right across the sky as far as the eye could see stretched a thick luminous green streak. Rosie screamed in excitement but I was gobsmacked, classically awestruck. Wow, is indeed what I think I said. A few times. Before I knew it Rosie was off, urging us to flee the invasive light from the restaurant, bounding across the road, no one else around, into the nearest ink black field.

Together, we stood there, held one another and craned our necks. Aurora was out, in all its glory, directly overhead. The brilliant green streak grew wider, then slimmer in parts, wiggling like it was being gently shook in slow motion at one end; dancing an ethereal dance. As mesmerising as promised. 

Majestic. It was truly unlike anything I’d ever seen. Then it changed, split into two lines, its texture like dust caught in a stream of light from a window on a sunny day. Directly above us a blotch of green, it widened, looking as though it was opening itself out from the middle. It seemed as though it was cascading downwards; felt like we could reach out and touch it. I seriously expected to see a face emerge out of its centre and speak to me in stern, slow sentences; the result of watching too many sci-fi flicks.

Its otherworldly dance continued across the sky for, we reckon, 12 minutes. Every second of every minute was intoxicating. I couldn’t believe we’d actually got this lucky. And then, slowly, its green sheen faded and faded, gently, disguised back to the black of the night; just a faint trace visible on the horizon. It’s safe to say what we saw will stay with us for the rest of our lives.

I didn’t care that the battery in my camera had died hours before. So elusive the spectacle, it seemed fitting that I hadn’t documented an experience hard earned. I can still see it now. All I have to do is close my eyes.

The snow, the ice, the layering up, it had all been worth it.

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