Balancing work, life and bikes

Apologies for radio silence. February was busy and then March it felt like I had been swallowed by a black cloud. I’ve been really struggling with my mood, motivation and finding any time to balance training with work. Now that the clocks are about to spring forward an hour to announce the start of British Summer Time (YES!) I’m shaking off my black cloud and ready to bound into spring.

It has been hard. The cold, dark British winter really got to me. My job allows for flexible hours but when you have an hour commute either side it gets tough. If you have to be in for a 9.30am meeting and all of your friends are off on the Tuesday morning DRK ride, combine Strava FOMO and you start to worry that you’re just not training enough.

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Incredibly grateful to Audax Club Bristol’s weekly rides for some company on cold Wednesday nights.

Something I’ve learned is that there is no point being too harsh on yourself about these things. When the Transcontinental is over I will need to go back to my job, life, family and friends. I also want to keep cycling, keep my love of cycling and think about other events and adventures to do in the future. Worrying myself, letting myself be worried and comparing myself to others will not help. I’ve also got the added pressure of my PhD corrections which also need to be prioritised. All of these things require energy, motivation and concentration. If I’m going to be balancing everything I need to be realistic.

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I got ill. Once I got over the fever and sleeping all day bit I managed to get some route planning done in bed.

So what?

Well I’m trying to manage it all. I wrote down on a piece of paper all the things that I have to do. Then I broke it down, what will I achieve each month, each week, then break that down into a plan for each day the week ahead. It doesn’t always involve cycling and if I feel exhausted or ill I give myself a break.

I have no idea if this strategy will work. I make no pretences about knowing what I’m doing. I’m making this up as I go along. It is more of a coping strategy than ‘how to properly approach training for the Transcontinental’. Let’s be honest. We can’t all be professional bike adventurers. I’m a real woman trying to have a real job, a life and an adventure. Stressing myself out about not doing it ‘by the book’ is not constructive. This is a personal challenge. I’m not competing against anyone else. I’m not racing against anyone else. I’m competing against me

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Where did my motivation go? Oh look! I found it in the daffodils! 

I’ll do anything for free kit but I won’t do that…

Sometime last year I saw an advert for a brand that was looking for ambassadors. That brand was Pearl Izumi. From the information available it sounded pretty sweet.

“We are looking for a diverse group of athletes…”

“Successful champions will receive limited edition Pearl Izumi kit, online discounts, invitations to exclusive events, entrance to races, monthly fitness goals and expert tuition to really test themselves.”

So I threw my hat into the ring and applied. I was successful. Wopeee!

Then today…

“For the 2017 season, you will be pink, black & hi-viz yellow (women) and blue, black & hi-viz yellow (men).”

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Gender isn’t a black and white issue. Nor is it pink and blue.

Now these kits are the same as what had been shown in the promo shots. Perhaps foolishly, I assumed that they wouldn’t do that again! I mean who is that backwards to make that mistake twice?! Turns out Pearl Izumi is that backwards.

So today I requested to withdraw from the programme.

I am not willing to be an ambassador for a brand that requires/encourages individuals to wear colours that are assigned to them according to their gender. 

People are individuals. We are not defined by gender. Yes I wear pink and I am a woman but this is a choice. Not all women wear pink, some men would like to have more choice of pink kit. Some people don’t identify by the gender they were born with, or with any gender at all! We should not stereotype and we should challenge those that do. Research shows that giving children blue or pink to wear affects how others treat them. Gender stereotypes can lead to little girls thinking that brilliance is a male trait. Over use of pink in advertising campaigns actually renders these campaigns less effective at targeting women. The cycling industry has a huge diversity problem. How are we supposed to build an increasingly inclusive cycling community when we reinforce gender stereotypes? 

Gender and stereotypes are not a black and white matter. Nor are they blue and pink. 

In other news, anyone looking to sponsor a ‘difficult’ woman?!

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One of the reasons I love my Casquette cap. It’s YELLOW! Happy yellow.

Solo and unsupported, but not alone.

I have been incredibly touched by supportive and encouraging messages from the cycling twittersphere. Women that I look up to like Kajsa Tylen, Emily Chappell, Rickie Cotter and Juliete Elliot, women that I’ve watched as they achieve incredible things on two wheels are interested in my riding, cheering me on, telling me that I’m made of tough stuff. And also the men, Steve Abraham is never far away when I’m in need of a little encouragement or straight talking!

Someone that I’ve never met said that I had inspired them to ride a 200km solo Audax in February.

Still, my non-cycling friends think I’m insane and I’m still not comfortable telling my mum what I’m up to. She knows I’m doing the Transcon but I’m not embellishing too much about how much I plan on suffering in the saddle. She probably reads this so knows full well what I’m up to, but I haven’t got the guts to tell her directly. Probably because I’m afraid she’ll worry.

There are still a lot of cyclists who think I’m nuts, out of my depth and taken on a challenge that is beyond my capability. Tonight at the Bristol Bike Project a guy asked me ‘How long is your longest ride?’

(FYI this is probably the most common question asked by men after announcing that I’m doing the TCR. Women mostly go ‘WOW! Good luck!’. Maybe this comes form an innate male desire to compare sizes… anyway..  )

There are some reasons why this is a valid question.

  1. It is an ultra endurance cycling race. One does need to be able to travel far and fast.

There are a lot of reasons why this isn’t a valid question.

  1. Yes it is a bike race, but it isn’t just about the physical challenge. A lot of it is up here *points to head*.
  2. Nothing prepares you for riding the Transcontinental like riding the Transcontinental. Yes, experience is important but it doesn’t guarantee success. I posted on the TCR Women’s facebook group to say how intimidated I was to find myself considering athletes like Juliana Buhring (fastest woman around the world) and Shu Pillinger (first Bristish woman to complete the race across america or RAAM) ‘peers’. Shu responded with ‘Most of us are newbies to this race! Welcome to the level playing field’. TCR veteran Fran added ‘And as the last races have shown, experience doesn’t necessarily mean a guarantee for success.. TCR is a very special beast!’
  3. I’m not going to ride it tomorrow. I’m going to cycle my little legs of between now and July. I’m going to spend the next 6 or so months becoming the most competent rider I can be.
  4. If I fail it isn’t a ‘failure’. It will be a bloody good adventure and has been the start of a new chapter in my life where I stop doubting myself and start doing.

SO… in a very roundabout way. The point I was trying to make is:

Yes you are riding solo and unsupported, but you’re being cheered on by friends, strangers, fellow riders. Everyone loves a nutter on a bike and they are willing you to succeed.

The Adventure Syndicate are really the embodiment of this spirit. Emily contacted me around Christmas time asking if she could use one of the pictures from our Wales adventure on the Syndicate’s blog. It seemed appropriate as the Syndicate were instrumental in us getting our act off the ground. Her response wasn’t what I expected (because we look up to our heroes and think they are infallible)

‘This blog post is making me reflect on what it is we’re actually doing, and how we’re doing it, and sometimes I’m not even sure’

Well I think it does come down creating a supportive community of people who will support eachother, answer questions, share advice, encourage and empower. Then this can drown out the voices of the haters and non-believers.

The Syndicate also introduced me to Rickie Cotter who is THE most fearless and endearing person I have ever had the pleasure to meet. Oh and she is an incredible athlete to boot!

Rickie, 24h MTB beast and great taste in jumpers

So often we (and especially I think as women) are told that some things are too much/dangerous/stupid/silly/difficult. No wonder there was a shocking headline last week that little girls feel they are less capable and talented than little boys.

This is why the This Girl Can campaign is so strong. It strikes a message in nearly every woman. That fear of judgement. That fear of failure. The Adventure Syndicate just takes this to the next level my making a niche community for women who like to do unorthodox things on two wheels. I’m a scientist and to use science speak – they lower the activation energy required for an adventure (chemical reaction) to take place.

Other people believe in out abilities. We just need to believe them ourselves! I shall close with a quote from the organisers of London Edinburgh London.

‘My experience is that woman are more capable than they think whilst men are less capable than they say. Believe in yourself.’

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Some of the Adventure Syndicate doing their thing and rocking inspirational stand up!

Cambridge to Bristol. Popping my 200km+ cherry.

On Sunday I rode 245km from Cambridge to Bristol. On my own. In a headwind. In the rain. I feel like I have permanently remodelled my lady parts from so long in the saddle!

https://www.strava.com/activities/848934314#kudos

Why?

  1. My friend Caroline had got engaged, my friend Jo had an offer accepted on a house, Ellie had just finished a round of exams and I had passed my PhD defence. We had a lot to celebrate and a catch up was required.
  2. Because of the aforementioned PhD defence I hadn’t spent much time riding my bike in January and I was feeling training guilt.
  3. I was aware that TCR training would conflict a lot with my social life. If there is even the possibility of having my cake an eating it then I’ll try my hardest. I love cake.
  4. It came up at a nice round distance of 150 miles. Longer than I’d ridden before. Not far off the sort of miles I should be putting in on average per day on the TCR.
  5. I’d missed out on doing any sort of proper Audax ride in January. I’m one of those ‘start as you mean to go on’ sort of people and felt that I needed to do one epic ride this month.

Why not?

  1. It is quite far.
  2. It is winter.
  3. The forecast wasn’t good.
  4. Due to aforementioned time off the bike I wasn’t exactly in peak winter form, far from it. I was actually feeling quite tired and exhausted and nearly cancelled on the weekend.

I spoke to Caroline on Wednesday evening, offering my congratulations and precocious apologies incase I didn’t make the weekend. Then I did a 30 minute HIIT session on my new turbo (more about that another time). I felt better from speaking with her, and better for having done some exercise. Mentally, I started making a kit list.

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Hanging out with great friends and baking ugly yet amazing cakes is essential pre long ride prep!

I’d only be cycling one way, so I could travel very light. I could borrow things like jumpers. My saddle pack was so light I could still bunny hop (important in winter when the roads are full of potholes!).

I set off at 6.30 am from Cambridge on Sunday morning. I had meant to set off earlier but with so much to celebrate with the girls I had drunk quite a lot of wine, not had much sleep and my head was sore. One day I will start behaving responsibly, that day was not today! Fuelled by a banana and with an emergency flapjack in my pocket I pedalled off into the darkness.

Oxford was approximately half way, I really wanted to make it there by lunchtime to meet my old friends from the Condors for lunch/coffee/cake. Cambridge and surrounds were dead flat = speed but there was a pretty constant headwind = not speed and my garmin was having difficulty = faff. I managed to find a coffee and a waffle for breakfast and purchase more flapjacks. I ate a flapjack an hour to keep fuelled.

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Tired and having drunk a bit too much wine the night before, I was so glad to find coffee!

La la la off we go. I had a suspicion that I wouldn’t make Oxford for 12. Probably more a late lunch. In spite of the hangover, wind, garmin faff I was maintaining an average speed over 14 miles per hour, which felt comfortable. I’d had a bike fitting with Tony Corke ((FYI this man is a bike fitting genius (in preparation for my custom Quirk frame)) and he had made a few modifications to my trusty Bianchi which had already been fitted to me but made it much more comfortable for endurance riding. My legs were spinning happily, feeling strong. My back felt good. Kit worked out well for the conditions and once the sun was up I felt comfortable temperature wise.

Somewhere after the turning off to Milton Keynes it started to rain. Lightly at first, but by the time I cycled in to Oxford it was pouring. I stopped at Peloton for a coffee, hoping that the Condor ladies might have been running late but alas. Nevermind, there was cyclocross on the telly and coffee and cake. Unfortunately they had been busy and run out of all substantial food, I’d need to pop to a supermarket to get some sandwiches later.

I was travelling light, this meant that I’d just chucked everything in a seat post bag and got on my way. I didn’t have the fuel pod I usually have on longer rides. So despite having a power pack, there was no way of charging my garmin while riding because there was no way of keeping the power pack wired in to the little GPS unit. Error. I had to wait about an hour in Oxford to recharge things. Still, I was glad of the chance to dry off and chat to a guy who built his own frames.

I left Oxford, stopping quickly to grab a supermarket sandwich, sausage rolls and supplies. Laden with emergency hot cross buns. I head out on the old familiar roads south east from Oxford a little after 3pm. The emergency buns are important. Firstly, the plastic packaging was waterproof. Secondly, although I didn’t quite manage to eat enough on this ride I do always like to have more food than I think I might eat. Nothing worse than running out of food, and therefore energy.

It was pissing it down. I can’t comfortably wear contacts all day. My glasses were beading with rain, misting up, and visibility was pretty poor in the rainy dusk. I managed to maintain my average speed until Farringdon (about half way between Oxford and Swindon) until my garmin crashed again. B*gger. I sheltered from the rain under an archway and tried to un-crash it and check the route on my phone so I knew where I was going. By this point not a single bit of me remained that wasn’t soggy. Luckily, thanks to primaloft socks and merino linings in my gloves, I was still warm. Just damp warm, like the warm water that pools in a wetsuit. My bike wasn’t enjoying the weather either. My gears were starting to crunch a bit but trying to clean the chain was futile.

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Night riding. Not always comfortable but a skill I need to work on.

Onwards! It was pitch dark by now. Night riding isn’t something I’m hugely used to or comfortable with, but I know that being good in the night will be key for the TCR. I’d turned off the A420 and the minor roads had very little with which I use to help me see what the road ahead was doing i.e. no road markings or cats eyes. With rain, fog and my glasses reducing visibility this wasn’t ideal. I turned my garmin off battery saver mode and kept the map displayed, at least now I could see the shape of the road and get early warning for any large bends.

The rain got heavier and heavier. I was so drenched I was starting to get cold and my glasses were fogging so badly I really couldn’t see very well. I rode past a pub and made a snap decision to stop, it was around 17.00 by now. The snap decision pub was amazing. There was a roaring fire, I undressed and tried to dry off what I could. Grabbed my battery pack to top up my lights and my garmin and drank sweet tea (a comfort thing of mine). Pubs are the best thing about the UK. Even in a tiny village, on a Sunday evening you can find somewhere warm and welcoming! I’d missed this in the French countryside.

Here I had a hilarious conversation with a family in the pub. The lady told me I was mad, crazy and why didn’t I just get a lift home. The man told me I was very brave to be out cycling. Then I told them I was riding to Bristol – even more batty. Then I told them I’d ridden from Cambridge. Jaws hit the floor! They were very supported and said they admired my courage. I don’t think it is necessarily courageous, or brave. You just need to be stubborn enough to not back down once you’ve put the idea into your head. Whatever the weather.

However, I did get a message from my amazing friend Janine letting me know that she was a bit concerned and would be up late working and if I needed her to come to my rescue then she would. What a mega babe.

On we go.

What followed was slow, wet and painful. Struggling all day in the wind and rain had taken its toll on my body. My hands and feet were water logged. My arse was in agony (more on saddle issues another time). My back was starting to hurt (related to saddle issues). My bike was a little unhappy. My stomach was unhappy and I felt sick. It was pitch black, rainy and I still had 50 miles to cover.

I made more frequent stops. Rode more slowly. Huffed and puffed my way up the smallest incline. Stopping every 30-60 mins to send a few messages to Janine. Me to moan about how difficult this was. Her to offer amazing words of encouragement. Malmesbury was about half way from my pub stop and home. When I got there I popped inside a hotel for the loo (unhappy stomach) and checked my garmin. 26 miles to go. Easy. Well, easy on fresh legs (and arse!). The temptation to call Janine and bail was there, but I was so close. I got back out on the pitch black country lanes, riding ever more slowly, struggling to keep warm. Maybe I should call her? Just keep going legs. What would happen if I gave up now? I’d be really annoyed with myself, I’d still not forgiven myself for my Paris DNF. But I was finding it tough. Tough is what I’m made of right? Hard as nails. That’s what my friends tell me, even if I don’t believe it myself. A few miles of pep talking myself and I had less than 10 miles to go! I started seeing road signs for the areas of Bristol in the north. I could see the light pollution. I have never been so glad to see light pollution. I rolled in to civilisation. Arse screaming, legs aching, bike complaining.

I turned up at my house minutes before midnight. Stopped my GPS (I had to recover it from one last crash first). Text friends to let them know I’d got back safely. My awesome housemate put the kettle on and I had a warm shower. I fell asleep without eating anything, I was too tired and I had work in the morning. This in hindsight was an error and I don’t think I’d eaten enough fuel all day.

I’ve spent all on Monday grazing and I’ve only just stopped feeling hungry after some tuna and quinoa but I’m still dehydrated (despite being soggy to the core yesterday!). I got home from work and sorted out my kit and cleaned my bike. I missed out on the pub quiz I normally do with work friends.

This year will be full of compromises. Social life vs bike life. Good things rarely come without hard work and compromise. You’ve got to want it. Luckily I also have amazing friends who will tolerate and support me through this. Cheers folks! I’ll dedicate a few night miles to you when I’m in a dark place!

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So glad when I made it home safely having not given up!

Kit:

1x bicycle

Alpkit seat post bag containing : casual clothes (a dress, pants, tights, shoes, toothbrush, Northface thermoball (upgraded from my Patagonia down because primaloft is still insulating when wet, lesson learned from Paris!), power pack and usb cables).

Wearing:

On my lower half: velocio fly bib shorts (the fly makes for easy comfort breaks and the chamois is the best I have found), madison thermal leg warmers (purchased after I read a review on Total women’s cycling that they didn’t give sausage legs (I have massive thighs)), primaloft socks (again, warm when wet), my usual fizik shoes plus neoprene toe covers and overshoes.

Upper body: M&S sports bra (just the right level of support), Aldi merino (wool keeps you warm even when wet and yes Aldi! It doesn’t need to cost the earth!), Rapha deep winter jersey – this jersey is amazing and toasty, my As Bold As reflective gilet, Rapha merino headband a FDI cap, Giro helmet and a pair of Madison gloves to top it all off.

Front light: Lezyne super drive plus 2 spare batteries.

Rear light: Moon something or other I bought in Winchester when my lezyne rear broke from too much mud and moisture.

Navigation: thanks to Gareth Baines for the route, Garmin Edge 820 supplemented by my phone when it froze.

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Beautiful riding out of the sunrise as I left Cambridge at the start of an epic and challenging day.

Transcontinental El

After the adventure, misadventure and worsening of my lungs after Bristol to Paris I decided to get the train on my return from Paris to Dieppe on the 2nd of January.

The 2nd January was also the day that 850 adventurous cyclists from 52 countries all around the world were frantically refreshing their emails and jumping at every ‘ping’ of a new message appearing in their inbox. It was the day that applicants to the the Transcontinental Race No5 were finding out if they were successful in gaining a place on one of the most brutal bicycle races around.

The Transcontinental isn’t like any other race. There is no set route but a number of checkpoints and riders must navigate their own way between these. The race requires riders to be completely self supported, using only resources that are commercially available. No getting your mum to visit you half way with a fresh supply of inner tubes and some welshcakes! Riders pedal to cover an average of 250km a day (and more) to try and make it to the checkpoints before the cutoff. This year is pretty special as it will see the strongest and largest women’s field take to the race with around 50 female entrants and there are some real superstars in there!

So here I was waiting at train station for a connection in Northern France. Frantically refreshing my email. There is a facebook group for this race and I knew from the posts on there that unsuccessful applicants had been notified. Still I had no email. Does this mean I’ve got in? And then… ping!

Now Mike Hall the race organiser clearly has a sense of humour. The email read

Once again we were very heavily oversubscribed, and this year more so than ever.

We had over 850 entries from 52 countries and even though I have increased the amount of offers again as much as I dare, there are still a lot of people that we’ve had to disappoint.” 

Oh so maybe I haven’t got in….

However, congratulations are in order:


Your application has been successful and we would like to offer you a place in Transcontinental No.5″

Now I wasn’t wearing a heart rate monitor but I could feel my pulse quicken and a surge of adrenaline accompanied with butterflies moshing in my stomach. I was happy, excited, terrified.

Why?

This isn’t straightforward (sorry if you expected it to be!).

I wasn’t sporty as a child. I was active and outdoorsy but loathed lycra and PE lessons. I discovered sport at uni and embraced it. I discovered these amazing communities of supportive, friendly and rock-solid friends for life sorts through rowing and rugby. I also learned that I liked pushing myself. I’d always pushed myself mentally but physical challenge added a whole new dimension. It also turned out that once I’d become active it was very bad for me to stop being active. When I let physical activity take a back seat (exams, heavy lab schedules, injury etc) I found that a mental health ‘wobble’ was never far around the corner. More recently tough times both in my academic and private lives alongside starting my first real job I’ve found it harder and harder to cope. Work life balance went out the window. I fell back into old self destructive habits of serial dating and binge drinking. Surprise surprise! That is not the answer.

Long solo trips on the bike and finding a new community of friends through cycling has been instrumental in helping me regain my feeling of self worth and get the upper hand over some of my anxieties.

Six pretty intense years at university had forced me to put adventure (mostly) on the back burner but I carried on reading. I read about a 600km audax through Wales (the Bryan Chapman Memorial which I will be riding this summer) and I discovered the Transcontinental race and inspiring women like Dervla Murphy, Emily Chappell, Juliana Burhing and Laura Scott. When I started riding my road bike more regularly and with increasing confidence I knew riding a race like the Transcontinental was a goal, I didn’t know if it was achievable and I never gave this goal a timeframe.

OK, the Transcontinental isn’t a team sport but there is this brilliantly supportive and welcoming community around the race to offer advice and encouragement. You might be racing solo but you’re not alone. You’re sharing the roads with 200 or so other nutters. In addition, friends, family and internet randoms will be watching your dot from the GPS tracker and sending encouraging messages as called upon.

Why now?

Because if not now then when? JFDI and all that.

Do I say yes?

Applying to race the Transcon is one thing. I’m not sure what I thought my chances of getting a spot were. Now it was real. My friends (both cycling and non cycling) seemed to be split. Most were full of congratulations, encouragement, excited for me and eager to join me on training rides (bunch of nutters I love you all). I also got the impression that some think that this is something I’m not capable of, whether physically or mentally. This is going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done times a million, squared and then times a million again.

I have a lot of work ahead of me in terms of mental and physical preparation. If I tried to ride it tomorrow I’m not sure I’d get anywhere very far or fast! Luckily, I’m not riding it tomorrow! But no matter how prepared you are, the only thing to prepare you for riding the Transcontinental is…. riding the Transcontinental.

I’m going to give this everything I’ve got. Yes, I’m not an experienced ultra long distance cyclist. I’m not even that experienced when it comes to cycling. Or travelling. I’ve never even been backpacking or interrailing through Europe.

So can I do it?

Fundamentally no one knows the answer to this question until after the fact. There are some things that will not play to my advantage. I had surgery on my right knee 2.5 years ago and that will constantly be playing on my mind. Lots of pilates please! I am less experienced, there is no beating about the bush on this one. I need to be careful not to go out all guns blazing trying to prove myself, exhaust myself and have to scratch from the race.

There are some things that will play to my advantage. I’m optimistic and determined. In the first year of my PhD a friend asked if I wanted to join a team that was going to try and swim a relay of the English Channel. I’d never done long distance swimming before. Never done outdoor swimming besides swimming in the river on a hot day. Few days before the channel swim I fell off my bike and ended up swimming with a bin bag gaffa taped to my leg to cover up a reasonably sized gash. I was in hospital the next day for stitches! You can argue about whether or not that was the most sensible thing to do (sorry mum!) but I know that I don’t give up and that when called upon I can find this reserve of mental and physical strength to get a job done.

Oh… and the best advantage in the book by a country mile… I’m Welsh!

My blogging virginity

Hi. I’m El. 25. I grew up in South West Wales and now I live in Bristol. I like riding bikes. I’ve always cycled but got in to doing it a little more seriously after a knee injury. I ride because I love it. It started off being about physical health but now it’s just as much about the mental health. I find it very rewarding from getting from A to B by the power of my own body (well and cake too). I have decided to write a blog. To share things I’ve learned from trial and error, stories, photos, my journey. At best, I hope that this will inspire and inform others. At worst, no one will bother to read it. What can go wrong…?! img_1843