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Motorhome Travels

Race Report: 2018 Zermatt Gornergrat Half Marathon, Switzerland



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At 10:18am 7 July 2018, under a pure blue sky with the enormous Matterhorn shy behind a bikini-cloud, the gun went off. A few minutes later we were finally released, on a rolling start across the line in the Zermatt half marathon, a point in time I’d been focused on for six months, finally, finally, finally here. We were off!!! Phil and I had shaken hands, wished each other good luck, and were running alongside each other through the chalet-lined streets of the iconic mountain town as folks cheered us on: “HOP HOP HOP”! 13.1 miles of test awaited us, taking us from 1616m at Zermatt up to 2585m at Riffelburg, and I was ready for it, bring it the hell on.

Zermatt Gornergrat Half MarathonIn the holding pen at Zeermatt waiting for the start. Phil had gone rather wild at this point, sprouting hair from his palms, a full-on hill-hunting werewolf! Zermatt Gornergrat Half MarathonWhhhoooaaarrr, almost at the start!!! Zermatt Gornergrat Half MarathonGo, Daft Hats, GOOOOOOO!!!!

Let’s not get too carried away though Jay, as I recall you were more than a tad nervous. Phil ran the race in 2017, with his mate who’d been burned by the altitude and the steepness of the course. The first couple of miles, Phil told me beforehand, are out and back into Zermatt, and are pretty flat. After that it’s about three miles at 10% uphill, on trails leading us up through the forest. I’d done some short sections of 10% on the Col de L’Iseran, and they’d been hard work, I had no idea whether I could keep going for three miles. From there I knew the course opened out above the treeline, with magnificent views, some flatter and downhill sections, and others which were un-runnable, hands-on-thighs at 15% or so. Jules (Phil’s better half) told me the end of the race is a mile like that, up alongside the cog railway, with a couple of hundred meters of flatter stuff at the top so you can run into the finish line.

The Zermatt Half Marathon profile: a bit hilly.The Zermatt Half Marathon profile: a bit hilly. The Zermatt Half Marathon courseThe Zermatt Half Marathon course – it’s only 13.1 miles, my watch was a bit off!

I’ve been running the past few months with an old Garmin Forerunner (a watch with a GPS in it), and had been getting used to the kind of pace I could do on the long hills, the longest being a 9 mile uphill to Les Arcs 1800m, at about 6%, at about 12 minutes per mile. From the off we were swept along, and the watch told me were were doing 8.5 minute miles – too fast – so we eased off a bit. Those couple of miles were over in an instant, the route left the milky glacier river we’d been tracking, and the hill came up at us. I didn’t take a camera with me, so thanks to Phil Russ for the great trail shots be grabbed on the way!

Zermatt Gornergrat Half MarathonLots of hills to hunt on this here joggy joggy!

At the start an announcer in Zermatt had told us to drink, because up here at altitude he said we needed 20% more water than at sea level. I took his advice on board, grabbing water at each of the stations except the last one, which was only a mile from the end. If you fancied it, you could have had sports drink, sports bars, bullion (thin soup), all sorts of stuff. I’d eaten my usual breakfast of oats and nuts, plus a bit of honey as a race-day lifter-upper, 3 hours beforehand, so avoided the food and other drinks, the water did the job. Oh, and a cold sponge went down a treat later on. The sun was in full force, although the altitude increase cancelled it out, and the air stayed beautifully cool.

The first ten-percenter had lots of folks walking, but all those hilly half marathons were in me, in my legs and head, and I was so happy to discover I could jog along without busting my lungs, and steadily got to the top at about 5.8 miles, and off out into the open. Phil had told me to remember to look up, to enjoy what was happening around me, and I remembered his words. The trails were tight in places, with sections of uneven rocks, dust and gravel, tree roots and streams, so some looking down is mandatory if you don’t want to break and ankle, but the scenery and the sensation of running with a pack of people were extra-ordinary. Out of this world, folks, I felt pure joy at it, but kept checking my watch to see how many miles were left!

Zermatt Gornergrat Half Marathon

As the course levelled off for a mile or so, and I could start to run more easily, steadily overtaking folks, being amazed at the marathon and Ultra marathon runners who came flowing past me. Jules later told me my overall position improved throughout the race, using an app tracker the race organisers provided for free, which showed when we crossed a number of timing points along the course. The marathoners had got 13 miles in their legs before reaching Zermatt, from their start further down the valley at St Niklaus, and we’d merged onto the same course as them when we were released to coincide with the leaders coming through.

With that mile over the trail narrowed and kicked upwards for about half a mile. I’d been worried about working out which bits I should try and run, but needn’t have bothered: no-one was running this stuff. Hands went on knees and we all formed a giant caterpillar of plodders, hearts hammering, lungs pulling in as much of the thinning air as we could, just clawing away the trail. Eventually it dropped and we were again released, hopping over rocks, my mind-voice uttering a fair few expletives as I nearly went over! A bloke flew past me at one point, I swear his feet didn’t touch the crazy slabs of rock, respect! Phil told me later on he’d seen a guy along this section being given CPR. He’d stopped to help but the organisers were on it, and a helicopter came in quickly. We’ve not heard if the bloke survived, and of course wish him the very best of luck.

Phil had to stop every now and again to let the pack catch him up.Phil had to stop every now and again to let the pack catch him up.

About 8 miles in, the course actually tracks downhill or level for about three miles, and I’d decided at this point to get my head down and run, as fast as I dared. I figured the last part couldn’t be run anyway, and as long as I could drag myself up there I’d be OK. On one downhill section I was passing a fair few runners, arms flapping about like Animal from the Muppets, when my right foot decided to raise the alarm and a few shooting pains slowed me down a bit, although they didn’t come back and I’ve felt OK since.

Although there were long sections of course with no supporters, there were lots of places with support, and the “HOP HOP HOPs” and “BRAVO” rang in my ears, encouraging me along. A few folks spotted my name on my bib and shouted it out, clapping me through, and I tried to give a thumbs-up to everyone who was helping the runners. As I came through the Riffelalp train station, Jule’s voice rang out from the crowd and she came legging alongside the course shouting encouragement. Ju had an array of cameras set up to grab some great shots, saving us a small fortune on the official race photos! Quad bikes were patrolling the wider sections of trail too, and it felt all along that we were being perfectly looked after.

The 'Jules Personal Mountain Trainer' service running alongside me at RiffelalpThe ‘Jules Personal Mountain Trainer’ service running alongside me at Riffelalp Turning the corner at Riffelalp it took me a second to work out the course had just gone vertical!Turning the corner at Riffelalp it took me a second to work out the course had just gone vertical!

That final section finally appeared, and it is the feisty animal folks say it is. Almost two miles of slogging away trying to walk as fast as you can, heart beating against chest wall, air thin in your lungs, legs threatening to cramp up. I kept alongside the overhang to the railway line, after a bit of shade. It felt like cheating, having to walk, but running was just impossible: I tried a few times but just couldn’t do more than a few strides and took to just trying to pick people off by turning my legs over a bit quicker than them. The watch showed the miles very, very slowly increasing.

The long, long final drag up to RiffelburgThe long, long final drag up to Riffelburg

The point the course gets close to Riffelburg the noise started to increase. Folks around the finish had walked down the course and were shouting us on up the long drag and over the top. The trail narrows but eventually becomes runnable again, sweeping around the hill, past a couple of bag-pipers filling us all with adrenaline again for the arm-raised triumphant crossing of the line. Done it. What a feeling!

The months of effort. The long years my Dad’s suffered with his lungs. The dreadfully sad need to have our dog Charlie put down just over a week before the race. The donations and message of support from friends, family and strangers. It all hit me and after I’d hugged Ju I sat on the hillside, looked out at 4000m peaks, and cried. These runs aren’t really about running. They’re about struggle, and that’s a deeply personal thing for all of us. Everyone out there was running their own race, their own struggle against their own demons, their own problems, chasing their own personal peace.

A short while later Phil ploughed his way up the incline, defying an injury which had stopped him running the 7 weeks before the race. That takes some serious mental strength, and I salute him for piling his way up that animal of a course. I also thank him, once again, for inspiring me to be here in the first place. Phil: you’re a hero my friend!

Here’s Phil on the final climb, you can see down to the valley we had just run up from

Zermatt Gornergrat Half Marathon 2018

And that was it. We watched more runners fighting their way into the finish, supped our 0.0% Heineken handed out at the finish, posed for a few photos and hugged each other. The racer’s numbers have a chip in them which gives us three days of free access to the railway, and Ju had bought a one day ticket allowing her to get up to the finish. We used these tickets to get up to Gornergrat, where the ultra runners were finishing their gruelling climb and being adorned in silver and gold blankets to protect them against the cold. The views up there of glaciers and 40-odd 4000m peaks are sensational, a more than fitting end to a day I won’t forget in a hurry.

I did the run in 2hrs, 37 mins, was 19th in my class and 114th overall, from about 800 runners. I also raised over £1100 for the British Lung Foundation (final donations gratefully accepted here), I’m very happy with that.

If you’re interested in doing the race, I can highly recommend it! The 2019 race is on 6 July, and entries are open. Have a look at the official website, and book early as the half marathon fills up. I’ve photographed a couple of pages from the 2018 race magazine to give you some idea of the logistics too.

Cheers, Jay

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Motorhome Travels

Our Laptop v the Lenovo Ideapad 330S



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Driving around Fes in Morocco Driving around Fes in Morocco

Strange things happen when you write a blog. We’ve been recognised and stopped in the street a few times and even asked for a selfie (once!), but the strangest thing is that folks get in touch offering us stuff. Usually they’re offering money in return for us posting their article on our blog, but we don’t do that as I suspect everyone would stop reading it.

The Lenovo ideapad 330s Laptop

A couple of weeks ago, among the email offers was one that had us intrigued. It was from Intel asking if we would review a laptop which has their new has Intel® Optane™ Memory inside. That meant nothing to me, but Intel were so sure we’d love the laptop they said we could keep it after we had reviewed it.

So we faced a dilemma. Would we be selling our souls if we reviewed the laptop? We already have adverts on the blog (these are suppliers we use, and as we’ve mentioned in the past) and we also have Google Adsense adverts which help fund the blog, but this seemed more direct. In the end we went back to Intel and said that we’d look at their laptop and compare it to our current laptop, which is less than a year old and works perfectly well. We’d then do a video review, but as you know, we tell it like it is on this blog, so if we didn’t like it, tough.

The (non-touch) screen opens flat, which is a bit odd, but maybe handy for showing folks around you what you’re working on?

The laptop arrived with few instructions in the box, so we did some googling to find out what is so special about it. It turns out it has the same amount of storage and RAM as our current laptop, so will hold the same number of videos and photos, but because it has both Optane™ Memory and Intel’s 8th Gen Core i5 processor it’s much faster at doing stuff (the full specification’s here on Argos). I’d say no more waiting for the egg timer, but I think they disappeared a while back, these days we stare at a bar or some spinning ball things telling us how long it will take.

We filmed ourselves running a few tests comparing how quick the two laptops were at starting up, saving a video file, opening a large word document (our new motorhome book which will be out soon!) and shutting down. I don’t think I have a new career as a technology correspondent, but I have to say I was surprised at the results (clue – it’s very fast).

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Of course, speed isn’t everything. The laptop feels light and thin but well made, the keyboard’s nice to use, and the USB ports and power jack are handily on the sides rather than the back. That said, there are only two of the ‘big’ USB ports (and a smaller USB-C one) so if you plug lots of stuff in, you’ll need a hub. There’s no network connector either, so you can only use it wirelessly, although that’s all we’ve ever done (outside of work offices) for years now. 

Side-mounted connectors on the ideapad 330sSide-mounted connectors on the ideapad 330s

The screen caught us out too. The quality’s great! We’d not noticed how washed out and imprecise our current laptop screen is, but we have now, argghhhh! The new one’s a pleasure to look at, and we enjoying watching us driving around Fes, and in the butter-coloured Erg Chebbi dunes like we were there.

Driving around Fes in MoroccoDriving around Fes in Morocco

In terms of motorhome travel, the laptop’s size will make it easy to store. It has a narrow bevel around the screen, making the best use of space for watching videos on dark nights. It has a rapid charge feature, which gives up to 2 hours of use from a 15 min plug-in, which will be handy for keeping load on leisure batteries down to a minimum (we use a 300W pure sine inverter). The laptop will easily handle the blogging, book writing and video editing work we do, much better than our existing one. The only negative point is perhaps the fact it doesn’t have a solid state drive, which would handle knocks and drops better the ‘normal’ hard drive it has, but that’s never been an issue for us in the past. It’ll make a solid travel laptop.

We’re never going to be able to do a full-on review, but we have to say we’re really impressed with how quick the laptop was compared with our usual computer. It costs about £530, which is £100 to £150 more than we’d usually spend. Would we buy one ourselves? Probably, but as we only buy a new laptop every five years or so, it’ll be a while before we find out!

Ju x

Disclaimer from Intel: “Intel does not control or audit third-party benchmark data or the web sites referenced in this document. You should visit the referenced web site and confirm whether referenced data are accurate.”

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Our 2018 Three Month Motorhome Tour – Summary and Costs



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Rather than our usual tour for several months, in 2018 we decided on a short, for us, trip of just three months. The main reason was our pampered pooch Charlie. His health was failing, so while we initially planned to take him to the beaches of Croatia (he loved a beach), the temperatures across Europe meant we changed our plans. We fitted the tour around Charlie so we only did short drives, finding places to stay where he could wander around freely outside and keep cool in the shade etc. This meant that we drove a lot less, and stayed in more campsites than we usually would.

Motorhome Tour of France 2018Our overnight stops

We set off on the 23rd of April and worked our way across France slowly, staying in places for a few days. Jay had a date with Zermatt in Switzerland at the beginning of July to run a half marathon up the foothills of the Matterhorn. So, as the temperature rose, we headed for the Alps to keep cool and so Jay could do some running at altitude. Sadly a couple of months into our tour Charlie deteriorated rapidly and we had to take him to a vets in France to have him put to sleep to end his suffering.

Just over a week later Jay kept his date with the mountains of Switzerland and did himself proud. After seven nights in Switzerland, we made our way back to France to watch a stage of the Tour de France. Finally we made a quick, for us, trip back up to catch the ferry at Dunkirk on the 23rd July. On the way back we nipped through Luxembourg for some cheap fuel and stopped one night in Belgium.

Motorhome Tour Overnight Costs

How much did the trip cost?

The total cost for three months in Zagan, our motorhome, was £3282.83, which breaks down to £36.08 per night. There is a full breakdown of the costs below.

These figures includes the cost of the ferry, a couple of one off costs – a new wheel bearing for Zagan and having Charlie put to sleep. They don’t include vehicle tax, MOT, vehicle insurance, breakdown cover, personal travel insurance or depreciation of the motorhome.

Zagan, our 2001 Hymer B544 with a 2.8JTD engine supped diesel 485 litres of diesel at 24MPG over 4010km (2490 miles). We also used 82 litres of LPG, but very little of that was on heating as it was hot most of the time.

Over 40% of the total cost for the trip was paying for food and drink, either from the supermarket or eating out. Diesel was our next biggest cost, followed by motorhome repairs – these were bumped up by the wheel bearing replacement.

I know lots of you like to see the numbers in detail to help with you own tour planning – so here they are. Hopefully they are pretty self explanatory, but feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions.

Motorhome Tour Cost Breakdown

Cheers Julie

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Between Trips

Fitting a Mini Heki Skylight to a Hymer Motorhome (or how not to!)



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Me looking nervous cutting through the motorhome roof Me looking nervous cutting through the motorhome roof

We’ve been hanging our noses over a new Mini Heki skylight for Zagan, our 2001 Hymer B544 motorhome, for months. The standard skylight in the kitchen area was the candidate to be replaced, as it had become opaque with age, and only lifts up a few centimetres by design. On our wanderings we’d seen these new style Heki skylights bright and wide open, and during the heat of summer had fancied the addition breeze wafting about our wagon’s cooking space.

The standard skylight on our Hymer B544. It works fine, but lets in little air and light.The standard skylight on our Hymer B544. It works fine, but lets in little air and light. The top of the skylight - close to the satellite dish as it happens...The top of the standard skylight – close to the satellite dish as it happens… The underside of the skylight with the flyscreen in place.The dark underside of the standard skylight (with the flyscreen in place).

So, when we met up with a mate doing a self-build panel van conversion, who happened to have a spare Heki Mini, we were propelled into action. A quick bit of research revealed there are four variants of this particular skylight (all fit an aperture 400mm by 400mm):

  1. With permanent (forced) ventilation, and roof thickness 25 to 32mm
  2. With permanent (forced) ventilation, and roof thickness 43 to 60mm
  3. Without permanent ventilation, and roof thickness 25 to 32mm
  4. Without permanent ventilation, and roof thickness 43 to 60mm – this is the one our mate had

The first two, with permanent ventilation, are for caravans. They let air in even when closed, so would whistle during driving which, in turn, would drive us mad. The latter two are for motorhomes. After quickly checking the van’s roof thickness (about 50mm) and the size of the current skylight (400mm by 400mm), we picked up the skylight for the bargain price of £75 (they’re usually about £100 with postage from Amazon).

The Seitz Heki Mini Skylight UnpackedThe Seitz Heki Mini Skylight Unpacked

At this point I should note we (I) cocked up, resulting in some ‘fun’ during fitting, as the skylight didn’t, erm, fit. Measuring the roof and the aperture size with the existing skylight in place was a bad, bad idea. I really should have done more research, as the roof thickness is actually 30mm, which meant I’d got the wrong variant of the Heki, whoops. What I couldn’t have known though, or at least probably wouldn’t have discovered unless I’d really looked, is that the standard skylight opening is actually 390mm by 390mm, with small semi-circular cuts made to accommodate the 400mm-wide fittings. So we had a skylight which was both too deep and too wide…

Lifting off the old skylight housingLifting off the old skylight housing The existing aperture before cleaning up all the existing mastic.The existing aperture before cleaning up all the existing mastic. And it's 39cm across, so the Heki doesn't fit.And it’s 39cm across, so the Heki doesn’t fit.

From a previous job fitting a solar panel to Dave, our old Hymer B544, I already knew about Sikaflex, one of the ‘standard’ makes of adhesives folks use to stick stuff to the roofs of motorhomes and caravans. Checking some self-build videos, I got a tube of Sikaflex 221, which glues the the skylight to the roof, creating an elastic seal to keep water out. I was also aware of the fact Sikaflex is horrible stuff to work with if you get it anywhere it shouldn’t be (and best not breathed in or got on skin), so was careful to wear gloves and not let it get on stuff (other than Ju’s shorts, which had to be binned).

Daftly choosing a timeslot starting about 2pm, the hottest part of a hot sunny day, I removed the underside of the old skylight, then got up on the roof and used flexible knives to cut under the adhesive for the existing skylight. After going around all sides a couple of times, the top part could be lifted away (shown above). Another 30 minutes with blades, cloths and fine sandpaper removed the rest of the sealant and keyed the surface ready for new adhesive. At this point we realised the hole was too small, shook fists at the sky, borrowed a jigsaw from a friend and a power supply from a friendly bloke at the storage yard and, gulping a bit, cut a 1cm piece of roof out from two sides, so the new skylight fit with a spare 1mm or so as per the instructions.

Me looking nervous cutting through the motorhome roofMe looking nervous cutting through the motorhome roof

By this point we’d also realised the roof was only actually 30mm thick. The instructions called for small plastic pillars on the lower section to be trimmed to the correct height (4mm in our case), and when we did this we found all the screws we had were too long. Another trip back home and we cut them all down to the correct size with an angle grinder, easy job but took another hour by the time we’d supped a brew! Back at the van, popping a thick bead of Sikaflex along the groove on the underside of the Heki, we made sure we had the lower part of the skylight facing forwards, and dropped it in place. Back underneath we screwed the lower part of the frame in place, placed screws at opposite corners to avoid pushing the sealant out too far on any one side.

Marking the plastic pillars ready for shortening with a hacksawMarking the plastic pillars ready for shortening with a hacksaw Applying the SikaflexApplying the Sikaflex The upper part of the skylight dropped into placeThe upper part of the skylight dropped into place, with the hinge at the front With the lower section screwed on, the skylight couldn't openWith the lower section screwed on, the skylight couldn’t open

Back on the roof the sealant looked good, just pushed out from the base of the skylight all the way around. At this point though, we realised it couldn’t actually open. Goddammiiitt!!! The lower part was made for a thicker roof, so was covering the grooves the handle needed to run through. A bit fed up, we retreated home for a few days to let the sealant go off. Back up there today, we (I) trimmed a couple of V-shapes from the lower section, refitted it and slotted the flyscreen/sun shield section in place using the little metal clips provided.

Two v-shaped sections removed a few days after installation lets the skylight open, huzzah!Two v-shaped sections removed a few days after installation lets the skylight open, huzzah!

One final issue: the satellite dish stops the skylight being fully opened. Resolution: put up with it. If we lift the dish a few cm the skylight opens fully, so not a huge issue, and we still have the other two opening settings available to us, one of which has a locking mechanism to stop the skylight flipping open in the wind. The Heki lets in a ton of light compared with the old one, and we’re pleased with the final fitting. Lesson re-learned, once again: measure properly, and do more research!

The final result - the Heki Mini in place and workingThe final result – the Heki Mini in place and working. Took MUCH longer than expected, but only because I cocked up! All in all, well worth the effort.

Cheers, Jay

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