Dunwich Dynamo - ride report

19 July 2016, 14:35

The Dunwich Dynamo is not a race. Nor is it a sportive. Nor is it organised (by anyone!). The Dunwich Dynamo is a rite of passage – an annual 120 mile bike ride from London Fields in east London to Dunwich, on the Suffolk coast. It’s been going for over 20 years and the route is just “known”, and the date is the Saturday closest to the full moon in July. Riders set off sometime between 7 and 9pm, and generally don’t make it to the beach at Dunwich until sunrise, or some hours thereafter.

James is the cyclist in our relationship (I prefer to think of myself as “a runner who’s sometimes on a bike”) and I urged him to ride it last year as I think it’s good to challenge yourself and go outside your comfort zone every now and then. He absolutely loved the experience and camaraderie on the road through the night, and assured me that there’s plenty of slower riders, riders on Bromptons, wacky races-style antics, and plenty of burger vans and pubs open all night along the way, and that he really thought I could do it. So I agreed, as long it the forecast wasn’t really wet (as it turned out, it was super warm and just about perfect!).

Dunwich Dynamo
selfie at the start

I’ve been cycle commuting regularly since January when we moved moorings, but my route is only 11km each way, and my longest ride ever is still just some 30 mile sportives we did last year. But I figured I’d just take it at my own pace, and well, it’d be good to challenge myself a bit. I should also probably point out that I do all my cycling on a 25 year old, heavy ass (14kg) mountain bike with road tires, and that I haven’t worn my clippy shoes in nearly a year either. But I’ve got marathon running legs and good cardio, so I figured the flat-ish route shouldn’t be too big of an issue. What worried me much more was the overnight aspect, as I start nodding off every night at 11pm on the dot – I pretty much wind down like a clockwork toy. And I was right to worry, as fighting sleep deprivation was by far the hardest part about the Dynamo for me.

We set off at London Fields in a big group of riders around 8pm, and the streets through London were quite fun – really congested with cyclists but good banter and there were just SO many of us that drivers just gave us the right of way, which was great. Things spread out a bit once we got to Waltham Forest, and by the time we got to the first pub stop I was feeling hungry, but otherwise fine. I resisted the siren call of a chandy and had some bar snacks and some flapjacks instead.

Dunwich Dynamo
at the first pub, around 10pm, with tea!

It’s probably a good point now to list out a few things I liked about the ride, and a few things I didn’t.

Things I liked

  • The pit stops were great – full of happy people, food, chatter, and friendly support. These each felt like a mini festival!
  • The inventive light displays – loads of riders decorated their bikes and helmets with fairy lights, and a good amount had the wheel LED displays, too, which made it feel really festive.
  • The Sudbury Fire Station halfway point – a true beacon in the darkness and my own personal Mile21 moment!
  • Especially in the second half, the country lanes were utterly gorgeous. Early in the morning, there was hardly any traffic, so you could just concentrate on the views and fresh air
  • The people who set up chairs in their front gardens just to wave and cheer us on. I made sure to give them a toot and a wave in return!
  • Spending time with my husband in a shared pursuit. He doesn’t run, so this was a great way for us to do an athletic activity together.
  • Dunwich beach and a dip in the sea – best ice bath EVER.

Dunwich Dynamo
Dawn at Barking

Things I didn’t like

  • The overnight aspect. Losing a night’s sleep was far, far harder than the ride itself. It would’ve been 100% more enjoyable for me if it was an 8am-8pm ride.
  • Being passed by thousands of riders, over and over again, for hours on end. I’m not a particularly slow cyclist, but I’d be going at a fair clip and then be passed by a group of riders like I was standing still. It’s really dispiriting to be passed like that over and over again, and it means you can’t chat to anyone, either. I wished there was a dedicated social/casual wave to allow more camraderie outside the pit stops.
  • Descents with blind corners in the dark. I cannot stress how much these stress me out. I don’t mind descents when I can see what’s coming up, but if I can’t see the road surface, or if there are any riders or cars ahead of me, I’m going to lay on that brake like a freaking granny so I don’t end up with full body road rash.
  • The asshole who shouted at me while on a dark descent just before dawn, while passing really closely, causing me to fucking lose my last remaining nerve and burst into tears, requiring 15 minutes of hugs and chocolate by the roadside before continuing. Fuck you, mister man in backpack. I hope you feel big and proud.

Despite having not cycled anything longer than an hour in the past year and not having trained at all, my legs and lungs were actually fine throughout. My right hip started bothering me and my bum started chafing a bit after about 80 miles, and I was fighting low-level nausea for the second half, but I think I held up okay, all considering.

Dunwich Dynamo
Pancake & Gu pick-me-up…

Despite all the unenjoyable bits, I’m still really glad I did this. I’m proud that I was able to cycle for 9.5hrs (12.5 hrs elapsed time) with relatively few consequences. I’m proud that I didn’t fall over in my clippy shoes, not even once. I’m proud that I didn’t walk up any of the hills, even at the end when lots of others were doing so. And I’m proud that I did it in entirely self-sewn gear, too (more on this over at fehrtrade.com).

Dunwich Dynamo
Obligatory finish photo!

I feel the need to give a special shout out to two people who really and truly got me through this when I might not have otherwise. First, my Run dem Crew friend Vicky, who not only stayed up all night at Sudbury Fire Station to cheer me and a handful of other RDC friends on, but she also made trays and trays of sandwiches, cakes, orange slices, crisps, and even gluten free options and really helped boost morale when I felt about 90% done at the halfway point. And second, my husband James, without whom I really don’t know whether I’d have finished. He stayed with me the entire ride, picked me up when I needed it, hugged me when I needed it, got food and drinks while I stayed with the bikes, and brought some magic chocolate and pancakes from his bag at exactly the right point (pancakes topped with salted caramel Gu gels is a wonderful thing, btw). Basically, he sacrificed his ride so that I could get through it.

Dunwich Dynamo
Beach finish. Thank god!

I really do think it’s something that everyone who’s able should experience at least once, and I’m glad I did it. But right now I don’t think I feel the need to do it again!

Dunwich Dynamo, 16-17 July. 9:33:29

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Maffetone and Recovery

20 October 2015, 13:32

September was not good. Looking back, the entire month was pretty much a blur of exhaustion for me. I’m sure some of it was recovery from Argentina, but on top of that, we were having building work done on the rental cabin on our boat, and we were away every single weekend – first, a sportive in Surrey (much hillier than my first but I gained loads of confidence), then a trip to Southampton for a friend’s 40th, then a crazy long weekend roadtrip through France for a friend’s wedding in Provence. All fantastic reasons to be away, but feeling so utterly shattered left me unable to sleep properly, then unable to get out of bed, unable to think clearly at any times, plus bad skin and even hair loss(!!).

September montage

So I hit October feeling like something had to change, and I was feeling so bad that I said to my husband that if I didn’t feel better by the end of the week, I’d email my haematology nurse and arrange for a blood test, just to make sure it wasn’t a bone marrow problem. Yeah, I felt that bad.

But lingering in the back of my mind was also that it might have a nutrition cause – I’d been on my coach’s “no starchy carbs” pre-track competition training diet all summer, so when the competition was all over, we hit Argentina’s dulce de leche reserves with abandon. Then came home to enjoy foods that were previously forbidden (I love you, peanut butter filled pretzel nuggets!), plus weekends away eating in restaurants, and then driving through France, eating pastries for breakfast, enjoying the Jamon Iberico, champagne, and copious amounts of rosé at the wedding, not to mention freebies at the Valhrona chocolate factory on the way home… You get the picture.

So I figured nutrition was the easiest of the possibilities for the root cause of my fatigue to rule out (much easier than track recovery or bone marrow issues), so I went back to my “no starchy carbs” training diet for two days, and then started the Maffetone Two Week Test on the third. And by the end of the week, I felt so significantly better than I didn’t even bother to email my nurse.

So what’s this Two Week Test business? Well, essentially you take away all carbohydrates for two weeks. Everything. No fruit, sugars, oats, beats, pulses, corn, wheat, etc. Even milk is off the menu because its lactose (a sugar) content is too high, so I’ve been having cream in my tea instead. Then, after two weeks you start to add carbs back in one at a time and see how they make you feel. That’s it. No long term “you must follow these rules”, no cheat days, no nothing – mostly because it’s not really a diet, it’s a self-diagnosis tool. Which suits me just fine, because I really don’t like doing diets at all anyway – I’d choose to run an extra hour or two and eat whatever I want any day. I love my food way too much to deny myself for no good reason!

Maffetone foods

But the two weeks hasn’t been too bad – I’ve missed fruit, oats, and dark chocolate more than chips, to be honest, and I’ve managed to eat out, have dinner at friends, get my coworkers to adjust to putting cream in my tea, and generally just adapt. It’s forced my husband and I to expand our cooking repertoire a bit and try new things (like cauliflower “rice”!), but also got me into the habit of eating vegetables and eggs for nearly every breakfast. My own food highlights of the week were the roasted aubergines with homemade pesto and my own chicken satay using almond butter, chillies, garlic, and ginger. When you can’t have anything sugary, carrots start to taste like candy and I found myself eating more spicy and smoky flavours to compensate. And I’ve been eating a lot of nuts and cheese!

Since I’m on Day 14 today, I’m kinda stupidly excited about adding pulses back in tomorrow, and fruits on Thursday (figures my office would get free fruit baskets on my last day of the test)! To be perfectly honest, I have a sneaking suspicion that my problem food is refined sugars, but I’m curious to see if anything else makes me feel equally as bad.

There’s actually a second exercise part to this whole Maffetone thing, which I’m also doing, but I’ll save that for another post and instead leave you with a (quite boring, but probably very interesting to a few people) food log of what I’ve actually eaten during my zero carb fortnight. Minus dinner tonight, as I’ve not worked out what I’m having yet!

My Maffetone Two Week Test Food Log

Day 1 (Wed 7 October)

Breakfast: handful nuts, tea w/cream, 2 eggs scrambled with butter, leek, chia, pumpkin & sunflower seeds
Lunch: cauliflower “rice” with cheese & olive oil, kale, prawns & pat of butter
Dinner: lettuce, chicken breast, mushrooms, homemade salsa & guac, radishes, hot sauce
Snacks: 2 sticks celery with almond butter, tea w/cream x4, handful nuts, triangle of blue cheese

Day 2 – Thurs 8 Oct

Breakfast: 2 egg omelette with pat of butter, 2 mushrooms, leaf of kale & thyme & goats cheese. Tea w/ cream
Lunch: lettuce, radishes, cucumber, tomato, sautéed chicken breast, olive oil, pine nuts
Dinner: block halloumi, 3 mushrooms, kale, sunflower seeds, olive oil, homemade salsa
Snacks: carrot sticks & celery sticks, tea w/cream x3, handful nuts, graze BBQ pistachios, spoonful almond butter, hot lemon & Ginger, handful nuts

Day 3 – Fri 9 Oct

Breakfast: 2 microwaved scrambled eggs eggs w/2 mushrooms, pat of butter & dollop of cream, tea w/cream
Lunch: leftover cauliflower “rice”, sautéed chicken breast, half avocado, hot sauce. Chia seed pudding: almond milk, cream, 1T cocoa, 3T chia seeds & pumpkin pie spice
Dinner: pork chop with smoked Chili paste, kale & sprouting broccoli with butter, wine, cheeseboard
Snacks: 2 celery w/almond butter, handful nuts, assorted mini cheeses, tea w/cream x2

Day 4 – Sat 10 Oct

Breakfast: 2egg omelette with mushrooms, pat butter & goats cheese. Tea w/cream
Lunch: salad with lettuce, radishes, cucumber, pine nuts, half avocado, olive oil & grilled chicken breast. Tea w/cream.
Dinner: stew: onions, pork mince, Hungarian sausage, mushrooms, celery, carrots, courgette, tomatoes, green olives, olive oil, chili. Chia pudding: almond milk, coconut oil, cocoa, chia seeds.
Snacks: handful nuts x2, spoonful almond butter, tea w/cream x2. Ginger tea w/lemon

Day 5 – Sun 11 Oct

Breakfast: handful nuts, spoon almond butter, scrambled eggs with mushrooms, cheddar & pat butter. Tea w/cream
Lunch: salad with lettuce, half avocado, pine nuts, pumpkin & sunflower seeds, pinch of ground flax seed, grilled chicken, tahini & lemon dressing
Dinner: 2 roast pork slices, roast fennel with olive oil, steamed carrot, courgette & peas with salted butter. Cheeseboard.
Snacks: handful nuts, almond butter with coconut, piece Edam cheese, tea w/cream x1

Day 6 – Mon 12 Oct

Breakfast: 2 eggs scrambled with a leek, goats cheese & pat butter. Tea w/cream
Lunch: stew: onions, pork mince, Hungarian sausage, mushrooms, celery, carrots, courgette, tomatoes, green olives, olive oil, chili.
Dinner: chowder with smoked haddock, leek, butter, cream, mushrooms, 4 carrots
Snacks: almond butter with coconut, pumpkin, sunflower & ground flax seeds. Mixed nuts x2. Edam cheese. Tea w/cream x2

Day 7 – Tues 13 Oct

Breakfast: 2 eggs scrambled with pat butter, 3 mushrooms & goats cheese. Tea w/cream.
Lunch: salad with lettuce, cucumber, radish, pine nuts, grilled chicken, half avocado & tahini lemon dressing
Dinner: pork medallions with butter, mushrooms, aubergine, tinned tomatoes, fresh basil. Tea w/cream.
Snacks: kale crisps w/olive oil. Carrot sticks. Piece Edam cheese. Handful nuts. Tea w/cream x3

Day 8 – Wed 14 oct

Breakfast: scrambled eggs with pat butter, 2 mushrooms, courgette & chia seeds. Tea w/cream.
Lunch: salad with lettuce, carrot, cucumber, half avocado & pine nuts, drizzle olive oil.
Dinner: slow cooker pork ragout with onions, garlic, olive oil, mushrooms, carrots, peas, sour cream, cream, fresh tarragon.
Snacks: carrot sticks. Piece Edam cheese. Tea w/cream x3. Handful nuts

Day 9 – Thur 15 Oct

Breakfast: 2 eggs scrambled with pat of butter, courgette, fresh tarragon & goats cheese. Tea w/cream
Lunch: slow cooker pork ragout with onions, garlic, olive oil, mushrooms, carrots, peas, sour cream, cream, fresh tarragon. Half a hard boiled egg.
Dinner: roast aubergines with olive oil & homemade pesto: cashews, garlic, chili, fresh basil, feta cheese & olive oil. Lemon & Ginger “tea”.
Snacks: piece Edam cheese. Radishes. Tea w/cream x3. Handful mixed nuts.

Day 10 – Fri 16 Oct

Breakfast: handful nuts. 2 scrambled eggs with pat butter, mushroom, leek & grated parmaggiano. Tea w/cream.
Lunch: salad with lettuce, radishes, half avocado & pesto: cashews, garlic, chili, fresh basil, feta cheese & olive oil.
Dinner: curry: onions, garlic, chili, olive oil, ginger, mushrooms, carrots, courgette, yellow pepper, coconut milk, coconut, prawns. Polar bear tea.
Snacks: mixed nuts, almond butter. Carrot. Tea w/cream x2

Day 11 – Sat 17 Oct

Breakfast: 2 dippy eggs with kale, butter & olive oil. Tea w/cream
Lunch: leftover curry: onions, garlic, chili, olive oil, ginger, mushrooms, carrots, courgette, yellow pepper, coconut milk, coconut, prawns.
Dinner: chicken breast with satay sauce: almond butter, garlic, ginger, chilies, lime juice. Bok choy, carrots, courgette & olive oil. Dry white wine++
Snacks: mixed nuts. Tea w/cream.

Day 12 – Sun 18 Oct

Breakfast: tea w/cream x2. 2 eggs with kale & olive oil.
Lunch: cheeseboard, jambon & olives
Dinner: roast chicken with herbs, roast fennel w/olive oil. Steamed bok choy & carrots with butter. Polar bear tea.
Snacks: smoked almonds & cashews. Tea w/cream x2. Handful mixed nuts.

Day 13 – Mon 19 Oct

Breakfast: 2 eggs scrambled with pat butter, mushroom, courgette. Tea w/cream.
Lunch: salad with lettuce, radishes, mushrooms, goats cheese, pine nuts & satay marinated grilled chicken (see Sat)
Dinner: green tea, salmon & scallop sashimi, miso roast aubergine, stir fried bok choy, miso soup.
Snacks: mixed nuts. Carrot sticks. Smoked almonds & cashews. More mixed nuts. Tea w/cream x3

Day 14 – Tues 20 Oct

Breakfast: 2 eggs scrambled with pat of butter, leek, courgette & smoked cheddar. Tea w/cream.
Lunch: lettuce, courgette, radishes, pine nuts, goats cheese
Dinner: TBC?
Snacks: olives. Mixed nuts. Tea w/cream x2.

Stay tuned for part two, in which I run literally twice as slowly as my “comfortable” pace. Over and over…

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Sportives are not like Running Races

19 May 2015, 12:46

I am a runner. Yoga bores me to tears, I can’t be bothered doing traditional gym classes, and I really only do strength and core work when my coach forces me to. I owned a bike when I was in school, and even rode it a few times back and forth to uni when it was cheaper than paying for parking. Since I moved to London, though, I really only cycled on holiday, because, well, cycling in London traffic feels like a death sentence and I don’t need that kind of stress.

My husband, however, is a cyclist. He detests running, so our only shared exercise tends to be those aforementioned holiday cycle rides. But he recently went and bought his third bike, and said I could use his old one (a 20+ year old, but very well loved Trek mountain bike). So we went out on a few rides around London to get me a bit more comfortable with light traffic and how the gears work (I highly recommend Southwark’s Healthy Rides if you’re new to cycling), and signed up to ride our first sportive together – a new experience for both of us as he’d never ridden in anything organised, either.

So with the Medway Ride It looming in our calendar, we squeezed in a few rides here and there around my marathon training, but with James’s commuting miles and years of experience, he was always going to be the more prepared of the two of us! This particular sportive was available three lengths – 31mi, 50mi, or 85 mi, or as a shorter, 13mi course on closed roads later that evening as part of the Medway Big Ride festival. We went with the 31 mile, expecting it to be fairly flat considering it’s in the Medway and only rated a 2 out of 5.

Kit layout
I finally got to wear my cycling Surf to Summit Top pattern out in an event!

But before I get into the ride itself, I’d like to start by listing all the differences between this cycling sportive and running races. I’ve run probably somewhere between 50-80 races in the last 13 years, and I (probably naively) expected a cycling sportive to be a pretty similar experience, albeit with more gear. It was not.

  • There’s no real start time. Instead of a massive scrum and a starting gun, with everyone pushing over the start line at once, this was really civilised. The starting time was any time within a 2hr period, and a genteel queue snaked back from the start. We got a safety debriefing, and then rode through the start gates one at a time to activate our timing chip. Very low stress!
  • Prepare to ride mostly alone. Because the start is spread out over a few hours and three different routes, once we got past the first few miles we were on our own. An hour could go by before we saw any other riders. If you cycle a sportive on your own, you have a lot of time to think. Even at the places in the beginning where a bunch of us were queuing together at the stop lights, no one spoke. It was kinda weird when you’re used to chatting to other runners in running races.
  • As a woman, you will be a curiosity (at best). Running races are getting closer to 50/50 these days, but even with this entry-level sportive, I’d say there were only 10% women or thereabouts. And cheers to the douchebag rider who shouted “oh great, now even the women are overtaking us!” as I sailed past.
  • Don’t expect any spectators, or even any way for most people to tell you’re part of an event. If you’re looking for kids to high five or spectators to cheer you on, you need to be doing Ride London or the Tour de France or something. Nobody had any idea that we weren’t just out for a Sunday ride.
  • There are very few (if any) marshals if something goes wrong. At this sportive, we were all given a sheet with a phone number to call if we got into trouble. Other than the feed stations, there were zero marshals along the way.
  • There are very few water/fuel stations Our short route only had one, just after halfway. But then again, you can carry a lot more on a bike than you can when you’re running.
  • A medal is not guaranteed. I expected one. d’oh. We just got a teeshirt at the end.
  • Photographers are not lining the course eager to sell you mementos of yourself looking pained. In fact, I don’t think there was a single photographer at all. Compare this to even a little, local running race, where you’d have photographers at at least 3-4 points along the route. They seem to be missing a marketing opportunity.
  • You may very well have to compete with cars, who have no idea you’re “racing”. This sportive was not on closed roads, so regular traffic was out and about. We had to stop at traffic lights, obey regular highway code rules, and put up with the same drivers you’d have anywhere.
  • No distance markers, so a personal GPS is a must. Unless you’re keeping track yourself, you’ll have zero idea how far you’ve come (or how far away the finish is). Though in this sportive, we were sent the GPX files ahead of time, so you could at least doublecheck against your GPS that you were on the right track.
  • The timing chip gets slapped on your helmet instead of your shoelaces. It’s nice that it was unobtrusive, but this was the only indication we were part of an event, and it was only the size of my pinky finger. No number on our bikes, jerseys, or anything, just a tiny sticker with a bar code. It’s nice in running races to wear a number so people at least know you’re part of an event.
  • Sportives are not races. This was made clear by the big “This is not a race” signs on display at the start, and the results at the end give you no indication of ranking or anything. Just your chip time.

Orderly sportive start queue
The genteel starting queue

Though we only chose the Short Route, at 31 miles this was still the farthest I’ve ever cycled (proper cyclists are forgiven for thinking “Awwwww!” right now), and this was just long enough for me. It was enough of a challenge – in terms of distance, climbs, and time in the saddle. By the end (ok, about 10 miles from the end!) I really was ready for it to be done, despite enjoying the overall experience!

As evidenced by the mammoth list above, I learned a lot from this sportive. I learned how to use all my gears, for starters, and after the 4th or 5th hill, how to actually use them properly instead of just brute-forcing my way up the hills and trashing my quads. Considering you don’t really get hills (or descents) in London, it’s not surprisingly that I’ve never had to learn this before, only needing about 4 of my bike’s 15 gears in my previous rides [Correction: James has informed me that the bike actually has 24 gears!].

I also learned that, like in running, I’m much better on the climbs than the descents. There was a particularly steep descent on this ride, which was terrifying (especially with a car on my tail!), plus sharp, blind switchbacks, and gravel on each turn. I hung onto the brake for dear life and prayed the car would just pass me already, though it never did (you can see all my speed & elevation details on Strava). I did not enjoy this massive descent whatsoever, though the others were better.

Medway sportive elevation
Elevation profiles of our Short route from the Evans Cycles blog

Halfway through (ie: about 90min in for us) there was a feed station with water, High 5 electrolyte (to fill up your own bottles, no cups provided), and a ton of crisps, brownies, flapjacks and coconut macaroons to munch on. We had already filled our pockets with Shot Bloks and gels (James now understands my obsession with the Gu salted caramel gels!), but it’d be rude not to, right?

Halfway at the sportive
At the feed station midway through

The worst part of the ride for me came just after halfway when we were directed off the road and onto a cycle path running alongside. This should’ve been preferable, except that the cycle path surface was so chewed up and bumpy that it was just hell to ride on. It may as well have been cobbles, to be honest! Despite being fitted for a cycle seat that minimises the saddle un-comfort, I still find cycling for anything more than an hour or two really not very pleasant to the bum. And (whisper it) I’m not quite coordinated enough to stand and pedal at the same time, so I can only lift my bum off if I’m coasting. On top of the rotton surface, there were also nettles overgrowing into the path, and James got stung on his legs as we rode through. To top it off, then some sort of insect flew up and stung me on the lip, which really threw me off my game for quite a while until the stinging eventually subsided.

Sportive finish line
Myself and James at the finish

James definitely could’ve gone faster, but he kept waiting for me to catch up, which was very good of him – I would’ve been entirely on my own for 90% of the ride if it wasn’t for him! But it was nice to ride together where we could actually get up some speed and momentum and not have to worry about maps and directions. I kinda feel like the navigation is ultimately what you’re paying for in a sportive – the ability to just turn up and go for a nice ride without worrying whether you’re going the wrong direction or about to head onto a motorway or something. The path for this particular sportive was really well marked, with pink arrows at all the turns and pointing straight ahead in between. The organisers had also thought about the route and chosen quiet roads where possible and some truly beautiful little avenues of trees and vibrant yellow fields of rapeseed. For someone who’d only really cycled in London, not having to stop/start every ten seconds and enjoying beautiful countryside views was a real treat.

James clearly didn’t enjoy it though – after a recovery shake, even-more-recovery-roast-dinner and a shower, he had already signed himself up for another in July, and both of us for one in September, too (thankfully of a similar distance). I’ve got my fingers crossed for beautiful weather again already!

Medway Ride It (31 miles). 17 May 2015. 2:30ish

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