August 26, 2007

Blisters and bin-bags

I have just returned from participating in my first mass sporting event, and it was great!

Six of us entered the Perth City to Surf as the "Hills Hikers" team, to do the 12 km walk. Only one of our group had done it before, so although we all walk regularly in the bush, we weren't sure what to expect. Waking to a forecast that included a Road Weather Alert and warnings of strong winds and thunderstorms was a little off-putting, but we all met up at 7am and piled into one car for the trip down to the City. I was surprised to see small groups of people in jogging/walking gear on every city block as we looked for somewhere to park, and when we reached the starting point the size of the crowd was truly eye-popping: despite the rain, about 22,000 people had turned out for the event!

The runners set off first, followed by the walkers, but for the first kilometer it was more of a stroll, because of the crowds. Quite a spectacle though:

By the top of the first hill, the crowd had thinned out, so we were able to pick up the pace, aiming for a steady 6km/hr. For dedicated people-watchers it was a fascinating experience. All ages were represented, and although most people opted for standard exercise clothing, there were the usual smattering of costumes and silly accessories, not to mention the use of large garbage bags as an alternative to the blue plastic rain cape supplied to each participant. In fact the threatened storm did not eventuate, and although we had a fierce headwind the whole way, there were only a few rain periods. Spectators braved the weather to cheer us on, and volunteers provided drinks every 2 kms.

One thing surprised and disappointed me: many hundreds of the garbage bags and plastic capes were removed as people found them too hot, and they were just discarded on the spot, blowing down the road, into people's gardens, up trees and into ponds and pools. Similarly, at every drink station, and for a hundred meters thereafter, plastic cups littered the road and footpath in their thousands. I can understand the most serious runners having no time to use one of the many bins, but surely the fun-joggers and all the walkers could afford to break one stride?

We all wore nifty transponders on our shoes, which were programmed to our race numbers and triggered as we crossed the Start and Finish lines. The official times have not yet been posted, but we were pleased to reach the end in close to 2 hours. In view of the many hours of walking I do every week, I was very disappointed to develop blisters under both feet, but of course I never walk on bitumen or concrete, so after about 8km of that, my feet were complaining. The logistics of transporting 29,000 carless people back to the city were mind-boggling, but in fact the queue for free buses moved along fairly quickly due to a sensibly blind eye being turned on the number of standing passengers in each vehicle.

I'm rather stiff and sore, but thrilled to have done it, proud to have helped a good cause, and found the whole experience very rewarding. I plan to do it each year if I can.

August 14, 2007

How to Keep Calm About the Greenhouse Effect

Perhaps you have managed to avoid all the news stories, TV documentaries, scientific explanations and political waffle about greenhouse gases and climate change.
Or perhaps you have seen and heard so much about it that you just want to scream "Yes I get it! We are all going to die! Now shut up, OK??"
Or are you a dedicated seeker of knowledge who tries to keep up to date with all the claims and counter claims?

If you are one of the second or third groups, I have something soothing/interesting (respectively) to show you. (Anyone in the first group will not have read this far.)

As I have mentioned before, a friend of mine writes a scientific blog about climate change, and because he actually knows what he's talking about, I usually don't. But a recent post made sense even to me, because it used the sort of analogy I can follow: "Do Greenhouse Gases Act As Blankets?" .
Even if you don't read the article, do watch the movie of the "experiment", because it is very peaceful, and something we can each verify for ourselves at home, or use to impress any easily awed friends.

August 13, 2007

Not all truck drivers have tattoos ...

One of the volunteer organisations with which I happily spend my time (in preference to unhappily spending it doing actual work) is the local bush fire brigade.
I used to belong to a rural brigade near Toodyay, but I haven't been active since I left the area several years ago. I missed the sense of achievement and community involvement, so a few months ago I joined the Kalamunda brigade. We have training sessions every Sunday morning throughout the winter, in preparation for the summer fire season, and it has been a very worthwhile and enjoyable experience refreshing my skills and learning new ones.
Back in the distant past when I was at agricultural college, I got my truck licence in order to help with the grain carting on farms, and this later came in handy in the Julimar BFB, because it meant I could be what was officially (but rather rudely) called a "Heavy Driver". This was nothing to do with body weight, thank goodness, but referred to the "heavy tanker" as opposed to the "light tanker", which required just a car license.

The Kalamunda BFB has a much larger fleet of appliances (3 "heavies" and 3 "lights"), but also a much larger membership, so I did not expect to be needed as a driver, which suited me fine, as I have done no truck driving at all for a few years, and had only a little experience at Julimar in the previous five years. In other words, I had a license but minimal current skills, which was an extremely good reason not to get behind the wheel!

So it was with a mixture of excitement (20%) and terror (80%) that I found myself on an emergency vehicle driver training and assessment course last weekend. The Saturday theory session was so sobering that some of us decided we would rather walk to fires, pushing handcarts as in days of old. The lethal potential of several tons of fully-loaded, out-of control water tanker; the legal responsibility of the driver for all other crew members in the vehicle; the inexorable laws of physics opposing the efforts of the driver to effect an emergency stop; and the balance needed between safety and speed when responding to an emergency - these were aspects many of us had never properly considered in the excitement of "turning out" to a fire.
Consequently by the time it was my turn for the practical session on Sunday, the above percentages had shifted to nausea (10%) and terror (90%). There were two of us doing the "heavy tanker" course that morning, and I was mortified to discover, on the 40 minute drive to a disused airfield) that I was to be comprehensively shown up by an extremely competent and experienced fellow volunteer. The instructor sitting beside him remarked on several occasions that he felt a bit superfluous, and that there was nothing he needed to say. Oh dear, I thought. (Or silent words to that effect.)

The next few hours passed in an adrenaline-fuelled, dry-mouthed, and excessively apologetic haze, with a couple of "highlights" burned into my memory.

1. The emergency braking practice, particularly the short but heart-stopping skid - not an enjoyable manoeuvre in a big truck with 2000L of water sloshing wildly around a few feet behind your head. (Although we did avoid the experience of one team the day before, when the lid flew off the water tank during one emergency stop, and a tsunami broke over the cab.)

2. the instructor (ignoring my pleas) gave me the task of driving home through the Sunday afternoon traffic, complete with inattentive sightseers, weekend motorcyclists weaving enthusiastically and inexpertly across the lanes, arguing families on their way home from lunch at the inlaws, and death-defying kids on skateboards and bicycles.

I'm enormously relieved to report that I managed to deliver the truck and all its occupants back to the station undamaged, although I sincerely hope it is a very long while until I am required to drive one of those trucks under "lights and sirens" to an actual fire.


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