The greatest show on turf!

They say it gets easier the more times you do it – I am not sure that’s right.

It was the 20th time that I had covered this unique race but I have to say camping in a field with 43 lawn mowers racing around can leave you lacking some sleep. My 13 year old son loved it – what’s not to like…. speed, engines, racing, crazy wonderful people… and yes …..the camping bit!

 

 

Motor sport doesn’t get much stranger than lawn mower racing, but to its hard-core devotees it is so much more than just a weekend pastime.

43 teams lined up for the highlight of the British and World’s Lawn Mower sporting calendar – the annual 12 hour Endurance Race – in the English village of Five Oaks.

This race is the pinnacle of the sports surprisingly busy racing calendar, and this year newbies to the sport and seasoned drivers alike, battled through the night to claim top honours.

At 8 pm Jim Gavin, the founder of lawn mower racing in 1973, lowered the flag to the delight of race goers who came along to see this very British spectacle.

The race commenced with the traditional Le Mans grid formation with the drivers running to their machines for the start. Prior to the start, a water bowser was set to work dampening the circuit to minimise dust, after the hot dry conditions but this made the circuit very slippery for the initial laps before it dried out. As darkness descended the circuit becomes a sea of light and the night is punctuated by mower headlamps streaking past and the distinctive hum of the machines.

12 hours of racing is hard enough, but the majority of the race is completed in darkness to make it technically more of a challenge, with each team fielding three drivers who swap around to combat fatigue, there is also a support team in the pits.

As dusk turned to night, the pit lanes became a hive of activity as mowers came in for refuelling, driver changeover, cleaning and repairs. Many breakdowns ensued but amazingly, most of the mowers were still in the race as the hours marched past.

5 times champions the wonderfully named “Northerners Kick Grass” from West Yorkshire, led from the first lap and built up a 9-lap lead. But there was a twist this year – 20 minutes from the finish they experienced a catastrophic steering problem, which sent them into the pits for repairs and ended their dream of another win.

In the end the victorious team was number 2 – “Les Lux Pussies” a team from Luxembourg who made history as the first overseas team to win this prestigious event.  They completed 430 laps in the allotted 12 hours and as a bonus also achieved the fastest lap time of 1:30:14.

 It may not be Formula 1, but in the world of lawn mower racing it doesn’t get much better than this. But perhaps next year I’ll hire a campervan….might be a tad more comfortable.

Quidditch World Cup – a venture into a surreal sport

It was my fault entirely, I asked Richard Turkowitsch the rules of Quidditch (he’s the PR person for Team Austria and one of the commentators) – I knew I had made a mistake when he hadn’t drawn breath for ten minutes. But his passion and panache for the sport was astounding. 

I had had a nightmare of a journey getting to Florence, flying Vueling (avoid them if you can) were really awful – I won’t go into details as it’s it would take far too long, but suffice to say I got to the stunning Italian city a day late.

I didn’t know much about the sport of Quidditch. I knew it was adapted from the Harry Potter novels around twelve years ago but I was impressed how many countries were taking part in this World Cup – 29-teams from as far away as Iceland, Malaysia, South Korea, Hong Kong and Vietnam to name few. The first World Cup was held in Oxford in England back in 2012, when the United States took top honours, they won again in 2014 but the Aussies caught them  off guard to snatch victory two years ago in Frankfurt. 

This year’s tournament  was the biggest in the sports short history with over 800 players registered to compete.  

For those who don’t know – it’s like a cross between rugby and dodgeball and before you ask…..they don’t fly! The broom-sticks are replaced with a plastic tube which is shoved between their legs when they are in play.  I know, I know….…it does looks odd but it is fast paced and full contact.  Two teams of seven players compete, using four balls: three ‘bludgers’ used to momentarily knock opponents out of the contest and a ‘quaffle’ which a player can put through one of six ring-shaped goals to score.

Matches, well they last anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour. They are finished when the golden snitch – a tennis ball stuffed in a stocking worn by an independent player – is caught by a ‘seeker’. 

The snitch comes on after 18-minutes of play.  Each goal is awarded ten points and for the team that grabs the snitch, 30 points are awarded.  There are tons of other rules which I won’t bore you with – I can always send you in the direction of Richard Turkowitsch if you want to find out more! 

Each side must satisfy the gender rule where only a maximum of four players from either sex is allowed on the field at any one time.  

In the early rounds it was favourites USA and Australia who set the early pace, in the groups stages. The games were played in sweltering temperatures of between 33-35 degrees; each game which took its toll on the players and fans alike.

The in first semi-finals, “USA” beat “Team UK” to book their passage to their fourth (4th) final in a row. Underdogs Belgium, out played Turkey to gain a place in their first ever World Cup final.

The final between the USA and Belgium produced some quality Quidditch for the crowd of over 1000 people who mostly wanted Belgium to win – everyone loves the underdog don’t they!

Team USA scored some early goals and never really looked like losing the final.  It was left to their ‘seeker’ Harry Greenhouse to claim victory by grabbing the ‘snitch’ within minutes of it coming on. The final score was 120 for the USA against 70 for Belgium.

 In a sports world full of corporate sponsorship, diving football players etc it’s rather refreshing to see a bunch of adults running around with sticks between their legs having so much fun. Who needs fantasy football? 

  Still photos courtesy of Ajantha Abey

Speedgolf – “It’s golf Jim – But not as we know it….”

The British Speedgolf season has just kicked into life.  It’s a great sport to cover for many reasons. I normally book a couple of cameraman who chase the Speedgolfers during their round in golf buggies.  We were one of the first to use a drone at the British Open a few years back, which caused quite a stir, especially when British Speedgolf put out this shot on its social media!

Safety is paramount now for Drone operators (our drone guys are CAA register pilots before you ask) but this gives us some of the most unusual golf shots you will encounter.  Speedgolf provides a fast pace tournament with competitors set off at intervals playing 18 holes,  all over before lunch…what’s not to like!

The sport appeals to people who love their golf but can’t find the time to play with work and family commitments – plus those who enjoy running and having fun, there is a really nice sporting spirit at the events.

 Speedgolf offers a faster, more athletic version of the game, where a player can complete a full 18 holes in under 60 minutes, or 9 holes in under 25 minutes, by jogging between shots. The challenge for players is to balance their running pace with their ability to quickly and accurately play shots to get their lowest score possible as golf shots and time are combined for a Speedgolf score. 

With our increasingly sedate lifestyles, Speedgolf has health and fitness benefits as well. Playing nine holes at running pace can be fitted in to 25 – 40 minutes; players will jog two to three miles depending on their golf accuracy, take over 5000 steps and burn over 850 calories.

This year is an exciting year for this sport; a new international alliance has formed to include the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. In the UK a brand new Pairs Championship will be hosted at West Kent Golf Club  on 22  July, followed by the British Open Speedgolf Championships on 9  September at the prestigious Piltdown Golf Club in East Sussex – voted one of the top 50 golf clubs in England. With just 40 tees available at the latter, it is short odds to become a British Champion!

The sport is capturing the imagination of players across the globe and this October, the US will not only host their US Open Championship, but the World Championships will also a few days later in New York State. The UK is hoping to assemble a team! 

Here is a report from last year’s British Open Speedgolf Championships, registration for this year’s championships are open now  Enjoy!

 

World Cup Fever – Swamp Soccer madness

With the World Cup kicking off in Russia later this month, I thought I would delve into my archives for this week’s blog.

Blairmore in Scotland is a shade over 2,200 miles away from Moscow in Russia, but it might as well be Mars with regards to the beautiful game. It was back in June 2014 when the small Scottish village played host to the filthiest game of footy you are ever likely to see.

It was a pleasant enough journey, the location was on a remote peninsula in Argyll and Bute – just getting onto the old ferry across Loch Lomond all added to the adventure.

Normally when you arrive at a football match, you are greeted by overzealous members of security who after much huffing and puffing will finally thrust a lanyard around your neck. So, it was a convivial surprise when I turned up at the stadium, I say that, it was a dodgy looking field, to see the local farmer churning up the so-called pitch with his tractor and another guy holding a hose flooding the whole area. This could be a bit of fun I thought as I squelched my way back to my car, although I could have done with some wellies!

This so-called sport is fast becoming a worldwide phenomenon. It apparently originated in the swamps of Finland back in 2000; they found it to be an excellent means of training for cross-country skiing, apparently. Swamp soccer tournaments are held across the globe with countries such as Brazil, Turkey and China now getting involved.

Surprisingly, no training is required; but the player’s do require real guts, coordination, determination and an extremely good washing powder.

16 teams packing their home and away kits for a dirty weekend north of the border with names such as ‘Mud, Sweat & Beers’, ‘Mudwatch’, ‘Real Manky’ and ‘Whitby Walruses’  the tournament was always going to be fun affair.

The World Cup was open to everyone over the age of 17 years -old with teams of all male and mixed. Each team consisted of 6 players but teams could draw on an unlimited supply of substitutes throughout the match. Each match lasts 24 minutes and watching some of the better teams who had played before to skill was to keep their players moving all the time otherwise as ‘newbies’ found out you sink into the boggy pitch and can’t move.

The rules of the game are also a little bizarre. Players are prohibited from changing their shoes during the game and are advised to tape them onto their feet with duck or gaffer tape. Also corner kicks, penalties and throw-ins are taken by drop kick – I guess you can understand why 

Unlike the 2018 World Cup which is spread over 6 weeks, this quirky tournament only lasted two-days. In the mixed team final Turkish team ‘Erisim Istanbul’ lost on penalties (4-3) to ‘Yipee Ki Yay Mucky Fudders’ – I had to type that one carefully when filing back to our client.

In the Men’s final ‘Team AKA’, from Scotland, beat fellow countrymen ‘Deportivo Lack of Talent’ 3-1.

 

The Royal Wedding of Meghan & Harry

We Brits are pretty good at pomp and ceremony.

Being one of 5,000 journalists and media workers that had been accredited to cover the Royal Wedding my first thought was that it was going to be one hell of a long queue at security…. I was right – it took me nearly two hours to get the four wristbands that I needed.

 

Interest from the US media was enormous, whilst in the queue I was talking to a women from NBC who was one of over 230 that had been sent over to cover the event.  The mind boggles at what they all did! Still, the local hotels and restaurants were complaining.

My role for the event was working with the Japanese broadcaster Nippon TV during their two live hits.  We had an amazing ‘live’ position as it was inside the castle grounds, which gave them a great view of proceedings and fortunately all went tickety-boo.

 

For me one of the best moments was looking at all the faces of the assembled media listening to the most Reverend Michael Curry, the Afro-American leader of the Episcopal Church in the US.  His sermon was both passionate and entertaining,  although it did last rather too long, which meant that we had to push back one of their our live hits, but no real drama.

 

Not being a huge royalist, I had mixed views before the event but whatever our thoughts of the Royal family, the broadcasting of the Wedding across the globe was a magnificent advert for UK PLC; even the sun came out for the day ensuring proceedings looked even more splendid!

North Pole Marathon 2018

The two-hour flight from Spitsbergen is pretty uncomfortable as the Antonov plane that is used does not have many luxuries. These planes were built for Arctic work; they mainly shift goods around rather than athletes and members of the press. 

The marathon operates from a drifting Russian camp base at the Geographic North Pole –it is the only race in the World that is run on the waters of the frozen Arctic Sea ice.

Camp Barneo, otherwise known as the North Pole Camp is located approximately 49 kilometres from the top of the world. As I looked at my GPS watch I can quite clearly see that we were drifting about in the Arctic Ocean – northerly winds push the floating camp towards the southeast at up to 0.5mph – a little bit scary if you sit down and think about it.

Richard Donovan, the race organiser and all-round top geezer, marks the marathon course out around the camp.  This is for safety reasons; well you wouldn’t want to get lost out here that’s for sure.

The runners this year had to complete 10 laps but they were able to retreat into a refreshment tent every lap to regain body warmth and hydrate themselves with hot drinks and snacks. Everybody needs to protect their skin against the harsh conditions. Our clothing included a full faced balaclava, goggles, gloves and mittens, long johns and several layers of thermal clothing under a ‘shell’.

 

This year, 60 athletes from over 20 Nations took part; China had a significant entry with 13 athletes vying for glory.  The race started at 10:35 Sunday evening (15th April) with a temperature of ¯30° degrees Celsius. That time of year there is 24 hours of daylight, so it was a bright sunny outlook throughout the race.

Aside from the cold, competitors had to negotiate the energy-sapping soft snow and small ice pressure ridges to complete the race. Conditions were very tough underfoot, in places many had to slow their pace to avoid slipping and injury. As the race progressed temperatures dipped further to ¯33° degrees Celsius

This year’s winner was the wonderfully named Greek runner Argyrios Papathanasopoulos, transpires he’s an emergency physician now living and working in Halifax, England.

I was thrilled for my Aussie chum Marcus Fillinger who ran the race with two husky dogs called “Blue and Duro” as they now enter the record books becoming the World’s first dogs to complete the North Pole Marathon.

 

 

 

Barneo Ice Camp – North Pole

Later this week I’ll be heading up to The Barneo Ice Camp at the geographic North Pole. It’s one of the most remote scientific research stations on the planet.

It will be my nineth time that I will have visited this camp; nothing comes close to this surreal experience. I am extremely lucky and very privileged to cover the ‘World’s Coolest Marathon’ – The North Pole Marathon over the last decade.

This year we have been delayed by a week, actually all Arctic travel to the region has been delayed; the Russian’s are in charge, so perhaps we will know more on arrival.

Our Russki friends call their camp on the sea-ice, only 1° away from the North Pole, “Barneo” because it’s not Borneo… that’s a Russian sense of humour for you!

They may not share our wit, but their inventiveness, persistence and just good old fashioned guts in setting up the camp on the sea ice is second to none.

Barneo is a private temporary camp, each year it is assembled from scratch; helicopters take off from Siberia in search for a good, stable location. The frozen landscape at the Pole is constantly moving and the depth of the ice from one year to the next is unpredictable. They refuel on an island called Sredny and then head towards the North Pole. Once a suitable site is found on the sea ice, paratroopers are airdropped to set up a basic camp, they transmit their coordinates back to HQ , where an Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane chocked-full of fuel and supplies will follow. They fly in 50 tonnes of equipment – including a tractor with a bull-dozer for smoothing the ice to make a runway. The camp is only operational for a matter of a few weeks each year becoming the gateway for North Pole expeditions and of course the North Pole Marathon.

Finding the perfect ice-floe for the camp is challenging. The floe must be oval-shaped, detached from the surrounding sea ice and must be at least 2km’s long a runway can be built. According to sources this year, the ice is pretty solid from 1.60 to 1.82 metres, which is enough to land the plane and the 2018 North Pole Marathon competitors.

 I’ll let you know how we crack on next time. 

World Winter Swimming Championships

Plunging into ice cold water to compete in a swimming race did not sound like fun, but for nearly 1500 participants the World Winter Swimming Championships was the highlight of their year.

Tallinn in Estonia was the host for this year’s championship, from the air it looked a small compact city on the coast, dusted in snow giving it a winter wonderland appearance. On the ground temperatures were around zero degrees Celsius, but the wind chill made it feel much colder.

The International Winter Swimming Association president Mariia Yrjö-Koskinen summed up the spirit of the championship “the colder the water, the warmer the welcome”. Over 35 nations took part from as far afield as Australia, Brazil, Argentina, the US, Europe and even a competitor from Mongolia, with the youngest just 10 and the oldest at 93. 

According to most of the swimmers it gives you a real legal ‘buzz’ making them feel thoroughly awake and revitalised. Many also are quick to report the therapeutic benefits of cold water swimming. Getting into effectively ice water is a shock to the system so to enjoy the sport; you must first learn to overcome this shock and continue to breathe!

Organisers in Tallinn had built the pool area adjacent to the harbour side, which measured 25 x 12 metres, with 10 lanes. There was a festival atmosphere with hot Jacuzzis and saunas where competitors could warm up after their ice cold heats. Races distances were 25 or 50 metres, breaststroke, butterfly and freestyle as well as 4 x 25 metre team relays.  Spread over 5 days there was plenty of free time to visit Tallinn and the surrounding area.

The Old Town was charming, but the highlight for me was the Gala dinner venue, the Seaplane Harbour maritime museum.  Dinner beside the Lembit submarine was somewhat surreal, especially with a live band performing at the top.

However, the most enduring memory of this event was the camaraderie amongst participants. People come from across the globe for this bi- annual event as strangers and left as friends, a potent reminder of what sport is all about!

World Marathon Challenge – Team Johanna

Three weeks ago I had the privilege of covering my 4th World Marathon Challenge. The event is a logistical, physical and extreme challenge for not only the 50 athletes from around the World who would complete seven marathons on seven continents in seven days, but also for us press chaps tasked with capturing the event. In my mind, this is  one of the toughest endurance races on earth. 

 In completing the challenge, the runners ran 183 miles, travelled approximately 24,000 miles around the globe whilst experiencing nearly 50° degree temperature changes, sleeping in the air and living off of airplane food, all in less than 168 hours.

This year the locations had changed from the previous three challenges.  The group congregated in sunny Cape Town on the Sunday evening and went through the itinerary, checked equipment and talked through the logistics of the challenging schedule. We were to leave on Tuesday 30th January and head off to Nova, a Russian Air Base on Antarctica for the first marathon. From there it was a six hours flight back to Cape town, then on to Perth in Australia follows by Dubai, Lisbon, Cartagena (in Columbia) and finally to South Beach in Miami.

Among the athletes this year was a woman called Johanna Garvin. She was attempting to become the first person to complete all 7 marathons on 7 continents in 7 days in a wheelchair assisted by two fellow Australian runners – James Alderson and Steve Birnie.

Johanna was born 11 weeks prematurely, and at just three days old Johanna suffered a severe lung haemorrhage and a stroke, which lead to a diagnosis of cerebral palsy at the age of one. Alderson and Birnie took it in turns to alternately push Garvin in the customized wheelchair. The aerodynamic chair, which cost around $4,000, had one wheel at the front and two wheels at the back. The chair also has six different sets of wheels, specifically engineered for the various terrains they encountered.

Even though Johanna was being pushed around the courses, communication with James and Steve was essential to keep Johanna alert and involved; she was kept busy helping with logistics, particularly during the four night marathons, often shouting out “potholes, left hand side.”  

The trio took on average between four to five hours to complete each of the marathons. Travelling with the rest of the able bodied group was not easy, as transit through customs was always a challenge on such a tight schedule. Team Johanna was running to raise money for the Cerebral Palsy Alliance based in Sydney. To date they have raised $64,000 (Australian dollars) for the charity. 

 

Recycling on a Grand Scale!

It was a stunning winter’s morning as I meandered down the motorways towards the Cotswold’s in Gloucestershire. I was here to film a report on a large-scale green revolution that has been going for several years at the local airport.

I was always under the impression that planes that were past their sell-by-date were rotting away in some vast American desert in 100-degree heat. So I was quite surprised that these beasts of the skies are now-a-days nearly 100 per cent recycled.

I had arranged to meet Mark Gregory, who is the big cheese behind Air Salvage International. His business is thriving and the company is now the biggest in Europe processing over 50 planes a year through its Cotswold facility.

He was telling me that the economics of plane production have reduced the price of new jets to such a level that aircrafts are now retired much younger as the core value of spare parts can fetch more than the aircraft, as an airborne asset.

The programmed age for retirement was normally around 25 years but it is now common for perfectly good working jets to be retired at 15 years.

For new generation aircraft up to 95% can be recycled with the removal of 1000 – 2000 parts. To preserve the value of the parts, each item needs its documentation, to prove that it has been taken from the aircraft, a little like its own passport, without this provenance the part is worthless. Every part must be carefully dismantled and labelled, a skilled yet somewhat arduous task.

A 737 can take up to 6 weeks to dismantle. Whilst the engine is the most valuable asset, surprisingly it is the airframe itself that is least valuable, but even that is recycled as scrap metal often finding a new form such as a beer or coke can.

 

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