Craig Gibbons' Lifeblog lifeblog://


Helsinki City Marathon 2010

This past weekend I travelled solo to Helsinki to run the marathon there. I have done three marathons previously (Edinburgh, Berlin and Chicago) and they have always been tough. Something about a marathon makes it different to any other kind of race. I can take on a half marathon any given Tuesday, 30km’s on a Sunday pass without grave concern, but a marathon, now that's a challenge!

I signed up for the Helsinki marathon not because I am some kind of Finnophile, but because it was my intention to achieve my best marathon time yet, 3:10, thereby securing guaranteed entrance into the London marathon in the Good For Age category (GFA). I decided this all a bit late however, leaving only 5 weeks to train, which mostly went well, up until 2 weeks before race day when all kinds of aches and pains started to materialize. I knew there would be no running in the last 2 weeks, I just had to rest-up, give my injuries a chance to heal and hope that was enough come race day.

And so, with only 3 weeks of actual training, I set out after work on Friday August 13th (not at all portentous) to run the 33rd Helsinki marathon. The race went as follows:

Km 0: I'm standing on the start line, the pre-race music is blaring, my heart is already pounding and I love it. The gun goes and we start running.

Km 2: The injuries are flaring up. My right ankle is making all kinds of complaints, but I know they are all phantom, they will subside. Strangely, the more I think about what to do when my foot meets the asphalt, the more the injuries complain. I am reminded of Blink (Malcolm Gladwell) and the fact that my subconscious can calculate what to do with my foot when it collides with the road many times more quickly than my conscious brain can manage and when I don't think about it, there is no pain. The more I try not to think about it, the more I think about it. It's difficult to remove the focus. If I say "don't think of a red balloon" what's the first thing that pops into your mind? So, I apply the idea in reverse, "don't think about the road ahead, do NOT think about the road ahead!".

Km 10: I'm rockin' along. I feel invincible, like I can lick this thing and keep on going, maybe the caffeine gels are kicking in.

Km 14: I realize I'm 1/3 of the way through and feeling great. Surely I can manage another 2 of these.

Km 21.1: This is half way, and psychologically one of the toughest parts of the race. I've made it in the time I wanted (1:30 on the dot) and starting to feel a little rough, but still confident I can achieve the 3:10 target time. One foot in front of the other, easy.

Km 30: this is as far as I have ever run in training, unchartered territory, "there be dragons here"... and there were, lots of 'em as it turned out. It is at this point where the marathon earns its reputation. I feel rough, but I'm still running, forcing the notion into my mind that there are only 12km's to go, a mere lap of the 3 parks which I have done 100 times, just not after 30 other brutal kilometers.

Km 33: I'm broken, everything hurts and my mind is saying "walk you fool, walk!". I give in, but only because I think the brief respite will actually help. It does, I have a stretch, walk about 100m and start running again, invigorated, a 2nd wind overtakes and I go with it, running the next 2km confidently and focused on the prize, but it's at this point the dream fades, I can’t go faster than I’m going and I realize I can't make 3:10. It's bitterly disappointing. By now my legs are numb, I have to look down to make sure they're not flailing all over the place, I’m glad to see they are still moving forward and true. I press on, it hurts, a lot.

Km 36: even though it's a mere 6km to go, it seems impossible. You might as well ask a 100m sprinter to shave 0.2 of a second off their best, I am destroyed and it's pure mind keeping me going. I know that later on, this half hour of pain will be forgotten, and all that will remain is the result, but I just don't have anything left, I plod on to the end.

Km 42: It's true, the supporters do add a couple of miles. Somehow I've made it all the way home and it's great. This is why I do it... the sense of completion, the achievement, the elation, it's excellent. In that moment, I can actually even contemplate another marathon… another time.

Filed under: Travel, Tri & Run No Comments

Citizenship, passport, acquired

With the very greatest of satisfaction I can report I received my first British passport today. It is maroon in colour but in fact, it's pure gold. As a South African, travelling on the passport of my country has been a tiring and expensive experience. From waiting in the extraordinarily long arrivals queue labelled "Other passports" to being heavily fleeced every time the urge strikes to go abroad, it will be a truly novel experience to breeze through a border crossing, for free. Paris, here I come!

Filed under: London Life No Comments

iPad: I caved, I totally caved

I'm writing this post using the WordPress app on my 2 hour old iPad. For months I've been deliberating whether or not to purchase one of these devices. The idea is massively appealing, a device with 10 hours of battery life, the thickness of an iPhone and support for all the usual apps. The iPad was launched in the UK yesterday so today I went down to the Apple store at Westfield mall for a play to see what all the fuss was about. I've had an iPhone for a couple of years so I wasn't expecting very much but I was thoroughly overwhelmed by the experience and found myself queuing not long after. I'll update this post over the next few days but so far, I'm loving the iPad!

Update 22:26: Showed it to some friends, they're sold.
Tip 1 Jun 2010: Use the Amazon Kindle reader and store. The catalog is bigger, the books are much cheaper and the reader is free and great.

Update 8 Mar 2011: I've sold my iPad to make way for an iPad 2. So long on old friend, it's been special. Amazon Marketplace ensured a sale within 90 minutes.

Filed under: Cool kit No Comments

Mobile phone covers are stupid

A gigantic cover/protector industry has sprung up around devices like the iPod, iPhone and very soon I'm sure, the iPad. For some reason, people love 'em and the sales people at the store try push these expensive add-on's to you every time you enter the store. They look on with animated disgust when you extract your phone from your pocket, devoid of not only a cover but, oh my, a screen protector too! "Are you mad?!" their wide eyes enquire. I take special delight in this ritual. To me, the mobile phone cover is stupid, pointless and a false economy. It is tantamount to covering your sofa in plastic. Think about it, what does it actually give you? You get a nice shiny new phone, straight out of the box it's perfect. Then, you cover it with some silly carbon-fibre or jelly looking thing and you place a strip of plastic over the screen, entombing the device in these accessories forever. What has happened here?

  1. You paid money for the accessories
  2. You made the device twice as big and half as attractive
  3. Eventually the cover will get messed up anyway and then...
  4. You'll have to buy another one

All the while you never get to see or use the device as it was intended. You'll never get to feel the soft leather of that new sofa.

I can only really speak for the iPhone, but after 2 years without a cover, being dropped twice, shoved into my pocket with keys and coins thousands of times and taken through a hailstorm in my top pocket while riding my motorbike, it's still going strong and looks good.

Ditch the cover.

Filed under: London Life No Comments

The Pheasant, Keyston

Those who have not been in a cave or a coma for the last few years will no doubt have watched, or at least heard of, The F Word, eminent chef Gordon Ramsay’s TV show. Recently, the show went in search of Britain’s best restaurant. From 10,000 nominations the list was whittled down to a few serious contenders and then week by week, finally down to just two, in a head-to-head finale which saw an Indian restaurant Lasan, based in Birmingham, narrowly take the prize from an unassuming pub, far off the beaten track, in the sleepy farming village of Keyston Cambridgeshire, The Pheasant.
So it was with great delight that my good friend Laura mentioned she had somehow managed to secure a Sunday lunch booking at The Pheasant which is, as I later discovered, booked up every Friday, Saturday and Sunday until May 2010. Apparently people put some stock in what that Ramsay fellow has to say.
Joined by another friend, Hadar, the three of us set off with excited appetites on the 90 minute drive from London (thanks Laura) about 45 minutes too late. We called ahead to say we’d be arriving past our booked time expecting to receive some kind of stuffy reprimand, but the hostess at The Pheasant was cheerful and accommodating and we were ushered straight to our table upon arrival, with maybe a touch of [justifiable] haste. I ordered a bottle of Le Petit Jaboulet Aine Viognier which was wonderfully delicious and we proceeded to order the food. Hadar had the soup of the day while Laura and I both had the game terrine, which I thought was credible and quite tasty, but not spectacular. For mains we each selected a meat dish. Laura went for the pork, Hadar the beef and I the lamb, which all arrived looking perfect and beautiful but I have to say, I was slightly underwhelmed. This is partially borne of expectation, but it seemed to me a dish of similar quality might easily be produced at my local. Enjoyable? Yes, definitely. Good quality and presentation? Absolutely. Worth the drive and price? Probably not.
The Pheasant is a charming pub in a lovely part of the country which produces good, solid, traditional British fare. If you’re in the neighbourhood, go.

The Pheasant
PE28 0RE

Telephone: 01832 710241

Filed under: Food & Wine No Comments

Buell XB9SX, the start of something beautiful

Three and a half years ago, when shopping around for a bike to buy, two machines with very different pedigree’s, from very different stables, emerged as strong contenders; the BMW R1200GS and the Buell XB9SX. The decision was a difficult one. On the one hand, I had always owned BMW’s and knew the bike and the brand well, on the other; I had loved the Buell ever since I had first seen it (over 10 years ago) and it continued to impress and inspire. In the end, I went with the BMW, for mostly practical reasons.

Fast forward a couple of years and the BMW is reluctantly up for sale, to make way for a house purchase and 18 long months later I’m back at the same juncture; lusting after another bike while enduring the indignity of a crowded bus journey during the 2 days of (illegal) strikes called by the RMT which brought the City of London to a standstill.

That same Saturday I found myself at Warrs Harley Davidson in Chelsea looking at the 2009 Buell XB9SX, which is now even better looking thanks to a new all-black option which was lacking from the translucent blue and cherry line-up offered in previous years. Miraculously, the price had also come down by 10%. The deal was sealed, I called and placed the order that Monday and collected my shiny, brand new Buell that Friday after work, just in time for the weekend. All credit to Warrs for pulling it together on such short notice.

Having had the bike now for a few months and really having the chance to really know it, I can comprehensively say, I love it. It is a riding experience unlike any other.

Upon first starting the bike, the 984cc Thunderstorm engine rumbles into life almost the same instant the starter button is pressed. For the first few minutes, the engine feels a little rough and the rear view mirrors are ablur, but as it warms up, it becomes remarkably smooth for an engine of its type and size. Selecting first gear might feel a little strange for sports bike riders. There can be no doubt the gear has been selected, much like the 1200GS, the gear thunks into position like the closing of a luxury German car door and you’re ready to go. The power delivery is constant through the entire rev-range and at no time does the bike feel distressed. There is no ‘power band’ like you get on many other bikes, the engine spins up and pulls hard, all the way. The Buell is light and agile, it feels and handles like a scooter, but has all the brute-force of a superbike. This, along with the low-down torque, makes this bike ideal for city riding, but it’s also at home on winding roads or the motorway, as I recently discovered on a round-trip from London to Manchester, although the lack of a front fairing means you take a bit of a buffeting. Riding 2-up is the biggest surprise, and pleasantly so. Even on the mighty 1200GS, one can really feel a passenger, but on the Buell, it’s almost not noticeable. The front remains solid and deliberate, instead of light and twitchy. The back remains taught and responsive, instead of sunken and lethargic. Best of all, the engine just doesn’t care, it happily purrs along oblivious to the extra weight.

There are however a few negatives and it would be remiss to neglect to mention these. First, the controls and instrumentation are generally quite poor. The indicator switch looks like a throwback to the 80’s and the clocks yield little more information than speed and revs per minute. Attempts to operate with winter gloves yields butterfingeritis. Second, occasionally when pulling off from an idle, the engine will skip a beat and splutter. According to the guys at Warrs, it’s peculiar to this type of engine and in fairness, it happens infrequently and is easily controlled. Third, there is very little space for luggage. Perhaps this is not a legitimate complaint as the XB9SX is, after all, a streetfighter with an exceptionally short wheel base, but I like a bit of luggage for those days in the country (I know, I know… “cake and eat it”).

I look forward to many more days out with the Buell and future offerings from the Buell stable. Yup, this could very well be the start of something beautiful.

Update 18/05/2010: It is with great regret I note Buell will no longer be producing motorcycles. More from the founder of Buell here:

Tip 24/05/2010: Somehow I punctured my back tyre this past Friday. I recall from the days of my R1200GS that a puncture on a bike is not a fun experience. Back then I just got the bike recovered to the dealership for a replacement. This happened twice, at £250 a time. So when it happened to my Buell I could see all kinds of expense coming my way. The first thing to remember is, don't use TyreWeld or any kind of in-tyre sealant, doing so renders the tyre irreparable and you are then required to purchase a replacement. Having said that, nobody will actually recommend repairing a tyre, but several people I have spoken to say they've never had a problem. Suffice to say, I used TyreWeld and was therefore in for a new tyre. I called up the dealership I bought the bike from, Warrs Harley Davidson and was horrified to be quoted £235 for a new tyre (including fitting). I was convinced it could be done far cheaper but after calling around I discovered almost nobody would touch a Buell, what with the belt drive and the fuel in the frame and the oil in the swing-arm, it proved too much for your average grease shop. That is, until I found HGB Motorcycles who not only had the tyre I wanted in stock, for the best price I found, but also replaced the tyre while I waited, with no apparent difficulty, for half the price of Warrs, with some free number plate bolts I was missing, and a smile :)

Filed under: Biking, Cool kit No Comments

Stocks, Bonds and other things I don’t fully understand

Lately I’ve been dabbling a bit in the markets. Following the deepest darkest stock market declines since the great depression, I figured if I bought some stock and just held onto it, sooner or later I’d come good and in the mean time I might even experience what it feels like to receive a dividend or two. As it turns out, I didn’t have to wait very long. By virtue of some expert picks (read: sheer luck) my selections took off almost immediately, with pretty much everything gaining somewhere between 5% and 60% over the past 2 months. The experience has been eye-opening. While I will in no way pretend any of this was anything other than, as I said, luck, I have nonetheless sought to increase my understanding of all things financial and now have a modicum of knowledge in the area, or just enough to be dangerous, as we say in the technology world.

Much of the commentary is seriously perplexing. For almost every viewpoint, it is possible to find a contradictory viewpoint as vigorously expounded. For every broker recommendation, others are lining up to discredit the research and cast confusion and doubt. What then is an amateur, or even a total beginner to do? In the past, I bought into some funds. These funds had been the top performers in categories for the past few years and seemed pretty safe. Clearly they were bought at the wrong time, but they tanked just as hard as anything else when all the people with million dollar houses on minimum wage across the pond stopped making their mortgage payments. Maybe, I thought, funds are not necessarily the way forward. What about gold? Well, after watching the gold price fluctuate between $800 and $1,000 an ounce, I decided there is not in fact “gold in them thar hills”. Oil? Smart play if you want to lose money quick. Those long on oil (betting on an upward movement) would have found themselves dead broke now as the oil price tanked (no pun intended) from a high of $147 last July (’08) to around a third of that now. Defensives I hear you cry! Sadly that way is danger too. Pharmaceuticals got high on their own supply, auto makers got a flat, miners dug themselves a hole and the banks, well, enough said about banks!

In the end, any (every) market participant needs to know something about what they’re actually buying and about the company, sector and economy, domestic and global, as a whole. Some investments are inherently safer than others and I’ve tried to diversify into those. Whatever happens from here, the learning experience has, at least, been well worth it.


IDL, no more heckling at Heathrow!

After 5 hard years, I am happy, nay, god damn delighted, to report I have at long last been granted Indefinite Leave to Remain (IDL) in the U.K. The process has been long an arduous. When I first came here, I had no recourse other than to obtain a sponsored work permit. I duly found a sponsor and set about obtaining the work permit. After months of promises, the visa failed to materialise and only the good graces and sharp thinking of my immigration consultant prevented a disaster. Later, after moving to a second sponsor and enduring the extremely unfair immigration policies of the Home Office which added another year to the required duration, the road has come to an end and the visa has been granted. No more will I have to be subjected to the suspicious barbs of disgruntled public servants at Heathrow’s arrivals lounge. Ha… HA!


New life springs forth

I never figured myself for a green-thumb kinda guy and my early childhood spent watching South Africa's favourite gardener, Keith Kirsten, left me with an overall impression of gardeners toiling all day in the dirt and smelling not unlike a combination of formaldehyde, mulch and whatever growing thing they happened to brush up against last. Recently, Gemma and I purchased a house together. Through all of our adventures in house buying, the one thing which became the veritable holy grail of the first home, was a layout in which the kitchen led onto the garden via a gaping large sliding door at the back of the house, welcoming the fecund scents of spring into the expectant kitchen carpel. For me, the focus was always on the house and all the beautiful things it could be filled with, but lately, with the weather so very excellent in February, or indeed by any other month's standards, the focus has shifted, to the outside. Walking around the garden the past few days has revealed things I couldn't see upon moving into the house half way through September last year. Small buds have begun to appear, grass has begun to grow, barren shrubs have regenerated from nothing, grey has turned to green, indeed everywhere I now look, new life has sprung forth from the earth where only barren soil and dead branch resided only days ago. Eager to assist our new garden in its efforts to reclaim all that was lost to it during the winter, we have purchased Primroses and planted Lily of the Valley and all types of herbs, Rosemary, Sage, Thyme, Mint and even some Rocket. The garden is alive and to my eyes, presently only beginning to exhale after holding its breath for so many months. I Look forward to the spring and summer with unbridled anticipation... oh if Keith could see me now.

Filed under: London Life No Comments

The Crest KL, growth of a property portfolio

It's been a successful last couple of years in London. Since starting at Merrill Lynch and moving on from the days of £200 dinners for kicks, expensive cars for fun and designer suits for nothing, I've wised up at last and started trying to make more of my opportunities. To this end I have added a 3rd property to (what I am now calling) my portfolio.

I've been shopping around for about the last 6 months for a good investment. By now, everybody knows the party is over for the London property market (in fact it's more like the morning after when you come out the club and it's light and you can't get a cab, and it's raining) so I knew I needed to look further afield to invest in something with actual growth potential. At the moment there are several so-called property hotspots in the world, among them Eastern Europe, Brazil, Macau (and indeed China in general), several of the Caribbean Islands, Mongolia and Malaysia. One thing I have learned through the process of looking for a good investment is that if you can see the herd, you're already too late, but for a part-time amateur investor like me, I was never going to be intrepid enough to take the risk on a completely new market so it was all about finding a location which was booming, but still not overpriced. The investment also had to be 'hands-free' (i.e. No more to pay after deposit) and preferably cash-flow positive or at least neutral (i.e. actually returned cash or simply took care of its self). Lastly, there needed to be good let potential and exit strategy, which implied strong local market demand.

Finally, after so many hours reading about different locations, analysing local markets, tax laws, exchange rate trends and rental yields I have found what I believe to be the best investment possible within my budget, a new apartment in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. KL is a booming metropolis and Malaysia is really on the up and up with 50% of the population under the age of 27, an urbanisation rate of 10% per annum and a booming IT services industry servicing neighbouring China, it looks set to achieve solid growth over the coming years. It should also be largely protected from the downturns in the current credit crunch given the economy is not dependant on the US consumer, like so much of the rest of the world is. The property is a two bedroom, 77sqm apartment in the heart of KL's Golden Triangle, about 5 minutes away from the Petronas Towers, the world's tallest buildings. Set for completion late 2010, this is definitely a long term investment and anything could happen during that time, but I figure what the hey, one can't be too overly cautious. It's a risk to be sure, but a risk I hope will pay off.

Update 26/05/2010: Initial completion estimates have proven to be overly optimistic. Instead of October this year, the Crest KLCC will now only be complete in the final quarter of 2011.