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Episode One: Prisoners of Corral

Enter Corral was an extremely short lived attempt at a podcast I made in 2016. I enjoyed the fun of putting it together, but lacked the organisation to do it more than… twice.

Enjoyed this? Try the second episode, and a short story based on this episode

Welcome to the first ever episode of Enter Corral.

Introducing Mac, Drake, Virt and Roberta as they deal with the challenges of being social pariahs, and entirely at the railroading whim of the GM.

Attached below is a rough representation of the prison cell, if you feel that your imagination can’t paint the picture for you…

Like, it’s a room, with bars on the window. There’s no way out. Pretty standard prison cell stuff.

Chapter One: Prisoners of Corral

Enter Corral was an extremely short lived attempt at a podcast I made in 2016. I enjoyed the fun of putting it together, but lacked the organisation to do it more than… twice.

Enjoyed this? Try the recordings of the first episode, and the second episode

I always love a bit of creative writing, so several years ago, I turned an episode of our short-lived RPG podcast into prose…

Mac opened one eye, gingerly. Beyond his blurry, grisled cheek, an expanse of grimy flagstone presented itself.  He considered cracking open his other eyelid, but the familiar shards of hangover slicing into his skull persuaded him against it. With a moan, he pulled himself into a sitting position, and surveyed his current situation.

This was clearly a cell. Mac groaned inwardly. It reminded him of many similar cells, each one a night spent at the pleasure of the Watch.

He threw a canny gaze over the other inhabitants. Opposite him, languishing against the wall, stood a incongruously well dressed young man, with a mischievous glint to his eye.

“So. What did you do?”, said Virt.

A regular sight at various levels of social fluffery, Virt “Tempts-the-Virtuous” was also depressingly well aquainted with the hospitality of the Watch. Sadly, par for the course for any self respecting conman, and Virt was undoubtedly one of those.

“A lot of drinking. My head is killing”, said a voice at floor level.

The two inmates turned their attention to the speaker, another of the five inhabitants of the room. A tall man, with a number of cuts and bruises visible on his face, Drake had no personal experience of imprisonment, but years in the military meant he knew a cell when he saw one.

He glared at Mac. “Its fuzzy, but I know you. Don’t really remember much, but I do remember you starting—”

“Yeh want some more? Anytime, boy”, snarled Mac.

“Sorry, let me just get this straight”, interjected Virt. “You two were arrested for fighting each other, and someone decided to put you in the same cell?!”

Drake nodded slowly, “Yep, I was thinking that, actually”.

Virt slow-clapped and laughed. “Top notch policing from Corral’s finest, as usual.”

“This is out of order”, stated Drake, indignantly, glaring at Mac whilst nursing a significant sized bruise above one eye.

Grinning at the animosity, Virt turned his charm toward the angry looking young lady sat across the room.”Well, not the first time I’ve woken up in a cell, but not often I get such fine company! Hello, young lady!”

Sat on the bare wooden bench, in battered fatigues, Roberta Skyhunter stared past Virt at the window. Her short black hair escaped a faded medic company cap, stopping above her distant blue eyes. She looked Virt up and down.

“Hey.” she said, in a guarded manner.

On the bench next to her, a pale thin man stared blankly at the door. Nondescript, and shabbily dressed, with a large gash on his forehead, Bernard had the air of someone slightly concussed.

The five of them quickly ascertained their total lack of any helpful pick pocketing tools, keys or handy bribes. Mac rose unsteadily to his feet, and started examining the windows. Around the size of his head, with two rows of thick concrete embedded bars, it didn’t appear to be a promising point of exit. He pulled defeatedly at one, just in case.

“Don’t think you’ll be getting through there”, jibed Virt, with a smile.

“You might be…” said Mac threateningly.

Virt took in Mac’s bulking shoulders and missing teeth, and decided that his personal brand of humour was not going to serve him very well. He decided to call on the less aggressive side of the cell.

“So we know how our two bar brawlers ended up at the Watch’s disposure. Why are the rest of us here?”

“I was just picked up, as I was walking past the Ministry”, said Roberta, “No one said why”.

“I’ve got no idea why we’re here”, said Bernard, distractedly.

Virt nodded, “I mean, I had quite a successful night and – for a change – what I was doing was fairly legal, so I’m not quite sure what happened”.

“Is the door locked?” said Mac, without optimism. Drake tried the handle, unsuccessfully, and fell back to silence.

Visibly frustrated, Mac paced over and hammered on the door. There was no response. He tried again, and after a lengthy delay, footsteps were heard coming down the corridor. Mac turned expectantly towards the small communication slot set high in the metal door.

The hidden walker stomped to a stop, and the slot slammed shut. As the bolt ground to a stop and the footsteps faded away into the distance, the cellmates settled down to an inevitable wait – “As usual”, remarked Mac.

Drake squinted at Virt, “Why are you dressed like that?”

“Thinks he’s King Shit”, sneered Mac from the corner.

Virt surveyed himself. For a drinks reception at the Ministry of the Interior, a full suit with tails seemed appropriate. Sharing a grimy cell with 4 commoners, at least one of whom kept giving him murderous glances, he was feeling decidedly overdressed. Putting his nerves aside, he strode to the door, and made a few sharp knocks.

After calling “Guard?!” a few times, the slot slammed open.

“What?”, the gruff voice of a mercenary.

“I wondered if you could tell us what we are supposed to have done? Because I have literally no idea.”

“You’ve got no idea?”

“I genuinely have no idea. I was having a nice drink with the Deputy Minister for the Interior—”

“So you were having drinks with the Deputy?”

“Yup”

“At the Ministry building?”

“Yup”.

“And then half an hour later, after you had been seen leaving the building…”

“Yup?”

“The Minister for the Interior was murdered.”

“Ah”.

“By four men, and a woman—”

Virt burst out with indignation, “Hang on a second, you’ve literally just said I was seen leaving the building, I’d left, I’d gone. How could I have done it?”

Mac interjected with a rawkish grin, “To be fair guard, he just confessed to all of us that he killed ‘im”.

Drake frowned at Mac, “So he’s meant to have gone back half an hour later, back into the building? What about us, why are we here? I wasn’t even in the Ministry—”

“Look mate, you’ve got the wrong guys. You know he did it”, said Mac, thrusting a grubby finger towards Virt, “Set the rest of us free, and we’ll help you round up the others in his gang…”

The guard’s steel toed boot hit the outside of the door with a crash. “SHUT IT! Look, I know your game, trying to talk me in circles, it ain’t gonna work. We were told to find four men, and a woman, near the Ministry. We looked in the area, found the five of you. Problem solved.”

“That was it?”, objected Virt. “All you had to work on was ‘four men and a woman’?”

“Nope, there were descriptions; man in a suit, an old bloke, a tall, paramil type, a girl dressed as a medic, and a skinny bloke.”

“But—”

“And you were all found, at 2 in the morning, outside the Ministry. I’m done with this; you are here whilst we wait for the Tigers”.

“The Tigers?” exclaimed Virt. Torsen’s Tigers were the biggest paramilitary guild in the system. Whilst simple policing was left to the unaligned mercs in the suburbs, the Tigers had money, organisation and prestige. Even Mac looked a bit concerned at this news.

“Yeh, they are taking you to the city jail, they’ll do all the paperwork there. Nothing more to say, all this is above my pay grade. Keep it down!”

As the slot hammered shut again, Virt cried out “I demand to speak to a lawyer”. A muffled guffaw echoed down the corridor, as the footsteps faded away.

Silence reigned for a few minutes, as each person glumly reflected on their likely future. Stories of brutality and missing people were not unusual when Torsen’s Tigers came up in conversation.

Mac broke the stillness gruffly, “So, you were talking to this Minister?”, he asked Virt.

“No, I only spoke to the Deputy Minister. Nice bloke actually. We were making a, shall we say, ‘business transaction’—”

“About the mines?”, Mac’s eyes flared as he said this.

“Nah, it was about the monorail”.

“Are you in monorail construction?” piped in Drake.

Everyone turned towards Drake. Virt gestured to his finely pressed suit, admittedly somewhat less exquisite after a night on the floor. “Do I look like I work in monorail construction?”

Drake flared, “I don’t know, I’ve never met anyone who works in monorail construction!”

Roberta stared at him, with one raised eyebrow. After a suitably withering pause, she said “So what does the Minister actually do?”

The exact role of government on Corral was unclear to most residents, and fully opaque to the rest. A farm based economy, with little in the way of metropolitan areas, most newsworthy events generally revolved around the huge carnivorous prairie lizards that roamed the grasslands.

Historically unimpressive, the beleaguered Corral mines had undergone huge growth in recent years. Whilst the exact source of the new found mining wealth remained a closely guarded industrial secret, the economic impacts to the system had been unmistakeable.

The construction of the continent spanning monorail was the most visible effect of this financial development, but anyone living in Guinea was well aware of the hugely increased numbers of offworlders in the capital. Whilst the majority of visitors seemed to be mining contractors, there was a significant volume of professional and security guilds, and the general hodge-podge of opportunistic planet jumpers common to any thriving spaceport.

All this change came under the scrutiny of the Ministry of the Interior. Ultimately, key decisions were likely overseen by Lord Sway, the planetary ruler, but the Minister would act with autonomy in all matters of development, guild authorisation, and employment. His death would leave a power vacuum that would disrupt the upper echelons of Corral’s change-averse society.

“He built the monorail, didn’t he?”, said Drake.

“I could tell you all about the monorail…”, hinted Mac, with a dark expression.

Drake took in the ominous pause, “I take it the monorail isn’t exactly to your liking?”

“Nah. We don’t need it. Nothing wrong with the farms, nothing wrong with the ranches: we don’t need it.”

“You’re not a fan of all this new fangled technology, then?”

“Oh, technology is okay, but the monorail’s a waste of money. What do we need it for? It’s just Lord Sway’s penis extension”

Virt interjected, “Ooh, let me guess… you’re a rancher, right?”

Mac grunted, a slight nod of pride subdued by his obvious dislike for the fancy dressed conman.

Virt considered speaking his mind about his general experiences of solid-skulled ranchers, and decided silence was the wiser choice. He rapped on the cell door again, “Do you know who I am?!”, he shouted, imperiously. The two inch thick steel door did not appear particularly impressed by this statement.

The five of them settled back into a tense, reticent quiet. Escape was clearly impractical, and reasoning with the guard was more likely to lead to a beating than freedom.

Bernard stirred, an agitated look to his brow. He began pacing back and forth in the grubby confines of the cell, muttering to himself, “Something to remember, something to remember”.

The others watched him uneasily. Weedy or not, no one wanted a crazy person in their cell.

Outside the barred window, the city clocks began to chime the hour, tolling their way to 9AM. Bernard looked up, thunderstruck, letting out a high pitched repeat of his mantry “Something to remember!”, and ran to peer through the bars.

His body tumbled back, ragdoll, as the wall exploded inwards.

Rubble and dust filled the air, and the other four cellmates scrambled back, frantically trying to move out of the path of the debris. Through the smoke, a battered armoured van hazed into existence, its bonnet dented and scratched from the trauma of crashing through a foot of solid concrete.

A klaxon started wailing from deeper within the building. The door to the cell, structurally unaffected by the chaos on the other side of the room, slammed open as the guard rushed in. Obviously alerted by the noise and general commotion, he managed only two steps before the distinctive noise of a tazer discharge crackled out, and he fell to the floor, his unconscious body jerking rhythmically.

“BERNARD? Is there a Bernard here?!”, a voice called out, from the general direction of the van.

Still blinking away the dust from their eyes, and shellshocked by the sudden turn of events, the cellmates looked at the indistinct form of Bernard, mostly hidden under several tons of debris.

Impatient with the lack of response, the voice repeated, “Seriously, is there a Bernard here? Syndicate have ordered a rescue – I’m to collect Bernard, and those in his party”.

“I’m Bernard!” said Virt, mind racing at the implications of the mysterious man realising his charge had been killed.

“Okay, great. Thought I might have got the wrong cell for a moment there!”, said the stranger. He whipped open the rear doors of the van, “What are you waiting for, get in! We need to go!  The Tigers are going to be on their way.”

Virt strode over to the front of the vehicle, jumping into the passenger seat, pausing only to kick the recumbent guard on his way past. Roberta followed, clambering over the wreckage into the back door.

“I ain’t going nowhere without Lucille”, grunted Mac. He and Drake sprinted into the corridor, where they found a guard station with its handily unlocked evidence locker. Pocketing various wallets and identity bundles, they returned, Mac cradling a large, battered shotgun with an almost maternal relief, and both scrambled in to the van.

The stranger kicked the armoured truck into reverse. With enough revs, and fair amounts of jolting and rocking, it extricated itself from the remains of the once impregnable cell, then, back wheels squealling, the gang accelerated off into the night.

2019

I’ve set myself a few goals this year. No big massive resolutions, just a few incremental bits I’d like to do or change.

I’m going to use my blog to reflect on them. I may write something every week or just when something stands out for me – blogging regularly was not one of my plans for the year…

Writing

I’ve been working on a book. Finally.
Currently at 34,000 words and counting. I hope to use this site to showcase it a bit better.

Commitment 1: Write 2000 words a week.

Enough that I can nail it in a day if I want to, but also achievable in 15 minute chunks through the week. Also enough that I’ll write 100,000 words this year, which should be enough to finish it, surely!

Music

I love listening to music, and have played guitar for many years.

For Christmas I got a Chromatic Harmonica from my lovely wife, an instrument I’ve dreamed of owning for years. It became clear to me that owning is not the same as knowing how to play it. Much the same as our piano. So…

Commitment 2: 30 minutes of Harmonica, and 30 minutes of Piano practice a week.

You’ll see a similar theme emerging: I can sort this in one session, or tackle it at my leisure. Or not! No pressure.

Fitness

Last year, I ran 1,000 miles. It was a great challenge, and I enjoyed it – the photo on the right was taken after my final run of 2018, during which I completed the challenge. This year, I fancied a change to something slightly less intense, but also flexing my fitness muscles in a different direction: cycling. 

Commitment 3: 5000 kilometres of cycling

This sounds like a lot. But its actually about 40 minutes cycling a day. Which I already do on days that I work anyway. We’ll see! Given that I also want to be a good example to my kids…

Commitment 4: 30 minutes cycling with the kids each week.

And finally, because I’m about as flexible as a piece of wood…

Commitment 5: 30 minutes Pilates per week.

Bible

I continue to aim to rise each morning, make a coffee, and read a few chapters of the Bible. I hope to finish working all the way through this year…

Commitment 6: Finish reading the entire Bible.

 

That’s all folks. Let’s see how it goes down…

The Pirate Republic – a megagame review

Last Saturday, I dressed myself in a waistcoat, popped on a jaunty hat, and asked my wife to apply my eyeliner for me.

Of course I did, because I was going to a Pirate Megagame! “What is a megagame?“, I hear you asking….

A megagame is a a room full of people all roleplaying as different characters, playing out some grand scenario. Imagine a combination of board game, role play game and hugely overcrowded dinner party with people that keep lying to you.

I’d never attended one, but I’ve been very keen on the idea ever since reading the Shut Up and Sit Down review of Watch the Skies. The amazing Pennine Megagames team have been running multiple games likes this for several years, and hearing about the Pirate Republic, it seemed time to put my oar in the waters…

The Pirate Republic!

The Pirate Republic was a one day swashbuckling adventure in Manchester, involving 60 or so fantastically well dressed players. The official description is below:

“The year is 1712 and the foul war of the Spanish Succession is finally coming to an end. Having fought for years, in some cases with honour, many fine sailors in the Caribbean find themselves unemployed and unwanted by their previous masters. Nothing to look forward to apart from poverty, starvation, scurvy and a miserable life.

So, do they roll over and die? No! They do what any self-respecting freedom loving sailor desires and follow the path well trodden by the buccaneers of old. Taking to the high seas, in fine ships stolen or borrowed from those who are better off, even sometimes bought, for a life of adventure, riches and partying until they drop.”

Basically, we got a boat, a crew, and the open sea, with ports to visit or attack (also run by other players), other pirates to attack and a mervant navy to hijack (run by a particular well dressed individual and his nation team). And we had to say “AAARRR!” a lot.

That sounds… weird. How was it?

Firstly, megagames are, well, Mega. There are 60 different stories going on, countless plans, subterfuge and miscommunication. Nobody has a full idea of what is happening everywhere, and its easy to be completely out of the loop of huge swathes of action – but it doesn’t really matter! For example, we completely missed the battle for Nassau, the Pirate Island, we didn’t attack a single merchant ship, and only visited 5 out of about 30 ports.

Of the 70 players present, I estimate there were 30 people I didn’t speak to, and others who I heard of only through reputation. We faked a poisoning at one point, and spread the rumour simply by wandering up to randomers and telling them there had been a poisoning and wandering off. Yet, somehow, news of it spread to the very port we were trying to deceive without us telling them directly. Beckybecky just shared a brilliant blog post about her adventures on the day, and whilst I don’t think I was directly involved in any of them, its amazing how much of it I heard through hearsay, frantic whispers and glancing at the huge central board map.

There was an annual Pirate council, which was helpful for hearing about some of the larger plans and escapades, as well as the opportunity to stand to be the new Pirate King each year. I only stood for this once, and even I didn’t vote for me!

In the process of plotting a mass poisoning

Secondly, plans will fail, but putting them together can be very satisfying. Your day will involve constantly, excitedly, talking to different people trying to scrape together plans, fervently promising to support your new friend to the bitter end, only for events to lead you to be at the other end of the map at the exact moment they said they needed you. But it doesn’t matter, because a different event meant their plans changed too – or they died horrifically, but who cares, they were only a scurvy pirate anyway…

We planned our grand poisoning and betrayal of Portabello colony intricately. This involved striking deals with other pirates to get them co-ordinated, getting the Control to agree to new rules for poisoning a water supply, and getting the Dutch colony to make us some fake uniforms for tricking the Spanish guards. Despite needing to postone the entire thing three times, we actually managed to pull it off, with the lovely guys on the Portabello table rather disappointed to discover that rather than allies we were just terrible, terrible people.

The French proved extremely happy to direct and fund terrorism.

Thirdly, abandoning plans can be equally enjoyable. As the port of Portabello fell, the other pirates sailed to chase a Spanish galleon, whilst we were left to guard the new pirate port we had taken. Instead of this, we did a runner with all the treasure, hiding out in tiny French colonies for the rest of the year. We had multiple people coming to us asking what we did with the treasure, but disingenuously showing a blank face and feigning confusion created enough uncertainty for safety.

After a year in game had passed, our treachery was forgotten, and we sailed forth in our newly purchased and outfitted fleet, and tackled a single Dutch merchant vessel (seen in the photos above). Unfortunately, they fled, and were replaced with a newly built fleet from a nearby Spanish port… Portabello. We outgunned them effortlessly, but unfortunately ended up outmanned when we boarded them. Despite a heroic one-to-one duel with their captain, the Governor of Portabello, who died at our hands, we lost the battle overall, and our entire crew was executed…

Fourthly, there’s a lot of fun to be had outside the normal arc of the game. After our unfortunate demise, we reincarnated back as new characters in the same French port we had hidden in for a year. We decided the life of pirates wasn’t for us, so asked them if they had any potential terrorist acts they would like to see performed. They asked us to try to burn down a Spanish port. After a quick discussion with Central Control (who were getting a little exasperated by our constant requests for poisoning rules, hidden uniforms and similar) we came up with a plan. The French gave us a small fishing vessel, and we set sail as an unarmed ship to a small Spanish port… Portabello!

The longsuffering Portabello port team. Every one of us ended up executed as a result of the actions of my ridiculous crew.

We sent Mike, our least vocal player to the Portabello table to haggle for hiring a warehouse for our (hypothetical) new fishing business. I knew they would never consider such an offer from me, as I had been central in the betrayal previously, but Mike won them over with his honest face and 3 remaining teeth. For one gold, they allowed us to hire a warehouse, and then we managed to buy an entire shipload of gunpowder from another colony. Port Control came up with a rule for the explosion, and we detonated the warehouse at the base of their fort, causing… not enough damage. We returned to the French to see if they wanted us to target any other colony: they gleefully gave us a handful of gold, and pointed us towards the current Reputation leaders, Havana.

The Cubans were so nice to us we (almost) felt guilty. Not only did they happily rent us a warehouse inside their harbour, but they even offered to buy fish from us! Central Control were too tired to be annoyed when we asked for a mechanic for getting fish, and just sighed at us “Whatever! Look, here’s a card for 3 fish, just have it and leave me alone!” Learning from our previous mistake of under-powered terrorism, this time we attempted to smuggle in three entire boatloads of gunpowder, then, after brazenly taking gold payment for our 3 fish, we called over Port Control for a further detonation. Little did we know that Cuba had also gone off piste, and had a card they’d bought from Central that made them extra vigilant against fire or explosions! We caused 50% damage to their fort, but two of the three of us were executed as a result.

Our performance sheet for the last year. Most of the actions detailed are not present in the games rules.

For the final year of the game, our remaining living crew member returned to the French, and gleefully accepted a small bucket load of gold to buy and outfit a reasonable sized brig, and immediately set sail to the first battle we could see, where 4 Spanish ships were attacking a single Spanish ship that had recently turned pirate! Joined at the last moment by a captured Spanish galleon, we fought tooth and nail, sinking a larger frigate, but losing our own ship in the process. Overall, the pirates won the battle, and Ship Control ruled that our crew member survived, clinging to wreckage, as the final moments of the last turn ended…

Final thoughts?

We had a great day. It was exhausting – I literally sat down twice for a total of about 3 minutes in 8 hours – and I was very ready to be done by the end, but I’ve been left with amazing stories, and a feeling of having taken part in something much larger than myself.

There was definitely stuff that didn’t work: there were crew morale, ship gold and rum trackers that were rendered completely pointless within the first year. Some of our friends who attended found this quite frustrating as it rendered their initial plans pointless.

I suspect that most introverts would find the process a little daunting, and you need a willingness to accept “flexible” rules (ie. Control making them up on the spot). Despite any other issues, it was a unique experience, and I’d be very willing to participate in another one in future; just don’t make me play Portabello port!

Fancy taking part in a megagame? Visit Pennine Megagames and sign up for one today.
I may even see you there Matey! Aaaarrrr!

Soylents: a comparative review of future foods

Check out my currently recommended review: Huel.
Skip straight to specific reviews for Joylent, Queal, Ambronite & Jake.

An introduction to “future food”

soylent_2-0A few years ago, a man called Rob Rhinehart got annoyed with the state of food. He was fed up with spending time and money on just staying alive.

Sure, food can be super enjoyable. Nothing is going to tear me away from the many pizzas in my life. But his point holds firm: much of the time, food is just nutrition, just fuel to keep us alive. Why have we not made it cheaper and simpler?

His answer to that question was Soylent. It’s powdered food that contains 100% of the vitamins, the minerals, the calories, the carbs, the proteins; every tiny thing we need to survive and flourish. Not only that, but its super convenient – simply add powder to water.

Soylents in my life

In my work day, lunchtime is not a time for sitting down to a tasty home cooked meal. Midday is a time when I want the absolute minimum hassle, and soylents, or “future foods” are a great solution to that. I’ve found them to be very helpful from many perspectives:

  • low cost: much cheaper than grabbing a sandwich every day
  • fast: much simpler than defrosting or buying and eating a meal
  • low hassle: I can drink it at my desk as I work, no down time needed. If I want some down time, I go outside for a walk, trading time on eating for time on exercise and fresh air!
  • a weight management technique: future foods have a very known calorie portion, and I find them satisfying to the degree I’m not tempted to snack – and not needing to shop reduces temptation.
  • more stable energy release: I start drinking one around 11:30, and finish it around 2:30. Drinking it so slowly keeps me satiated, and avoids the desire to nap I often hit an hour after I wolf down a medium sized meal at lunch.

Soylent is not available in the UK, so I’ve been experimenting with some of the available options, and thought I would review them for others interested in the concept.

Disclaimer: I was sent free samples of many of these products. Several of them have had changes to their recipe over the year I’ve been testing, so your mileage may vary. I’ve tested all of them for at least a week, usually several weeks.

A “meal” is ~700kcal, I’ve noted if the supplied sizes vary from this. The price per meal is for a starter pack, and then the cheapest bulk price available is in brackets. Cost of postage, if applicable, is included. 

Joylent

joylentPrice per meal: £1.79 (£1.49 bulk)
Website: http://joylent.eu

Joylent was the first future food I tried. I was attracted by its pretty packaging, range of flavours and cheap pricing; all of which stood them apart from Soylent.

Unlike many of their competitors, I found all the flavours enjoyable, none of them too sweet or too artificial. The texture was a little gritty – which I actually came to enjoy, after a little adjustment. It did mean the mix was prone to seperating out over time, so you’d need to shake it up fairly regularly. Not a big problem for me, it’s in a shaker already for a reason.

The effect on my body of switching to Joylent was entirely amicable. No exciting flatulence, and stable energy levels throughout. Replacing regular work meals with it was painless and enjoyable.

The pretty packaging is an interesting plus point as well: I genuinely looked forwards to each meal more than with some of the blandly bagged futurefoods. Eating is not purely about nourishment, and there’s something to be said for taking steps to replicate the aesthetic enjoyment of food…

All in, I’d definitely give Joylent another go!

Positive: range of flavours, good prices, vegan option, pretty packaging.

Negative: slightly gritty.

Queal

QuealPrice per meal: £2.10 (£1.88 bulk)
Website: https://queal.com/

After Joylent, the next inviting range of packages I opened was Queal . I say “inviting”; what I mean is “a little bit amateurish”.

Whilst the Joylent branding might be a bit colourful for some, the Queal logo was in underlined Ariel. My immediate impression of the packaging was that my mum could have designed it in Word.

Also, “Queal”? I know they are getting at Quick-Meal, but the first thing that jumped to mind for the three people I asked? “Queasy”. To be fair to them, over the last 6 months they have a new logo that is both prettier, and includes a “Quick Meal” tagline. I imagine their packaging will update in time.

The strength of Queal is twofold: texture and range of flavours.

It has a finer powder mixture than Joylent, resulting in a smoother, creamier mix that separates less. The downside of this is the mixture can clump together on mixing – imagine adding flour to water compared to adding sand to water. The sand will be gritty, but the flour might form lumps. That said though, the lumps are rare, and when well mixed or even blended, not a problem at all. I quite enjoyed chewing the odd bit of tasty Queal lump anyway – if textures are a deal breaker for you, something to be aware of.

Queal is available in 10 flavours currently, including such treats as “Crazy Chocolate Peanut” and “Banana Mania”. I found the flavours a bit hit and miss. Whereas every Joylent was nice enough, but not distractingly so, Queal had some overly sweet flavours – especially Berry – and some tasted overly artificial at points. Still, the benefit of 10 options is you are bound to find some that suit you, and the entire range is available in Lite, Standard, Plus and Athletic, allowing a varied mix of calories and macros.

Overall, I enjoyed Queal, but I found it a slightly less good product that Joylent, at a slightly higher price.

Plus sides: Smooth texture, range of flavours, decent price, 4 different calorie mixes available.

Downsides: basic packaging, inadvisable name, flavours a little more sickly/artificial, can form lumps.

Ambronite

Price per meal: £12.10 (£8.05 bulk, but that would cost you £322 for 40). Plus the meals are only 500kcal. For a comparable 700kcal portion, the numbers are £16.94 and £11.27 bulk!
Website: https://ambronite.com/

Wow. That was my first thought on seeing the price on this bad boy. One of my significant motivating factors for using future foods is the cost savings, compared to buying lunch. At the rate I use future foods, I could feed myself on Joylent for a month of workdays for the same price as a single meal of Ambronite.

Or indeed, for the cost of a Ambronite meal, could head to Subway and buy a 2 footlong Veggie Patty subs, 2 large side salads, 2 drinks and 3 cookies, for a total of 2,200 calories.

Or indeed, head to Aldi, and buy 10.8 kilos of butter, for a total of 73,800 calories.

If you can get past the price, Ambronite is clearly a quality product. None of the other foods on this list feel, look or taste so clearly like natural ingredients. Here is the full list: Oat protein, almond, oats, apple, agave syrup, oat fiber, nettle leaf, spinach, flaxseed, chlorella, spirulina, cranberry, bilberry, black currant, sea buckthorn, nutritional yeast, mineral salt, natural aromas, guar gum, vanilla. 20 items, all of which have grown and lived. If trees-are-our-family values are dear to you, Ambronite may be your – very expensive – friend.

As long as you don’t mind the flavour. Because, no doubt about it, Ambronite tastes… healthy. Healthy like a good walk up a mountain. In October. In pouring rain. In Scotland.

The finished mix is a textured greenish colour – much as one would imagine true Soylent Green, I suddenly realise. It tastes very earthy; a little bitter, a little bland; with a soft but slightly gritty texture. It definitely has a sour aftertaste – when I first tasted it, my immediate thought was that the packet must be past its sell by date.

After a few more sips though, I started not to notice the negatives, and became aware of just how satiating it felt. In fact, it didn’t take long for me to decide that its probably my favourite flavour of futurefood. I like to barely notice I’m drinking the stuff, and Ambronite quickly fades into the background, leaving you feel surprisingly refreshed. That said, I can imagine 60-70% of people just deciding its disgusting.

Plus sides: Organic. Fruits and nuts and berries and seeds. Wildly satiating. Flavour doesn’t linger.

Downsides: Crazily, ludicrously, never-gonna-buy-it expensive. Tastes “healthy” ie. possibly a little bit horrible.

Jake

Price per meal: £2.69 (£2.08 bulk subscription).

Jake has solid branding, and they know what message they want to get across. Futurefoods have a battle on their hands regarding who they are for, and why. Jake make it clear that this is a product for people who value quick, healthy and cheap nutrition.

I like their claim “Jake is made from real food”. I was regularly finding little pieces of slightly gooey texture, which were quite tasty. At first I assumed they were some kind of processed ingredient to supply healthy fats, but on closer examination I realised they were whole flax seeds. Tasty regardless, but somehow more appetising than artificially generated components.

Satiation is good with Jake, and I feel that it gives me a nice even energy flow throughout the day. That said, every future food has impressed me with its stable energy release: my habit of slowly drinking a shake over 3 hours is likely a key contributor, but that’s still valid, as there’s no way I would be that self controlled with a sandwich.

The vanilla flavour is a little strong for me, possibly slightly sickly. It certainly sticks around in my mouth many minutes after I’ve last sipped it. That said, its fairly unassuming, and it hasn’t stopped me being satisfied with the product; I just prefer milder flavours in my soylents. I also miss the opportunity to try other flavours; whilst Jake offer a Light and a Sports mix, they seem oddly proud of being available in “Only Vanilla”.

On eating Jake for a week, I feel like I’m in the ideal “natural” territory that Ambronite want to inhabit. Whilst I don’t believe in the “non-organic food is poison” mantra, its undeniable that oats, pea protein and flaxseed have a certain appeal over emulsifying agent Z3004 and flavouring E382-AB. And I may even be willing to pay for that appeal, to an extent. That extent is where a premium of £1-per-meal is reasonable… and £11-per-meal is not.

Plus sides: Has real life seeds! Good branding, nice energy release, mostly whole foods.

Downsides: If you don’t like texture, you might not like tasty lumps, only one flavour, vanilla a bit strong.

Huel

Price per meal: £1.61 (£1.33 bulk subscription).

Huel have been advertising a fair amount in the UK, probably to the point that they have more brand recognition than Soylent. With a solid (if unimaginative) logo, and a bold proclamation to be “the future of food”, they have made a great product, and at a fantastic price.

Part of the reason for the price is likely their large container sizes. Compared to single use or 3 meal bags used by all the other groups, Huel supply you with a 14 meal bag. It’s a little daunting at points, and if I was travelling I would probably pop a few servings into a smaller packet, but the fact they use around 8% of the packaging of some of their rivals is to be applauded. It’s also 100% vegan!

One thing I particularly enjoy about Huel is that it is somehow more dense than most futurefoods. Most of them need 120g per shaker (around 3 scoops) to provide a full tasting shake, whereas Huel manages this with 80g (around 2 small scoops). This hugely helps me to feel satiated at lunchtime, whilst helping me to calorie restrict for weight management.

Texture is similar to Queal: fine mixture, with a tendency to form (tasty) lumps. The sieve style shaker provided by Huel is somewhat less effective than the metal ball mixer provided by most other companies: its also more hassle to clean.

Vanilla is your option, flavour-wise, although Huel also offer an interesting “unflavoured” option, as well as gluten free. I found the vanilla to be fairly appetising and uncontroversial. If, however, you don’t like vanilla, Huel also offer a range of flavours supplied seperately. I’ve not tried these, but I very much like the option, if not the extra preparation.

A month with Huel left me very satisfied. It tastes fine, I get to have more than one shaker of futurefood at lunch, for the same calories a single shaker of other brands, and its more ecological than many of its competitors, thanks to the hugely reduced packaging. If you are looking for my currently recommended futurefood, Huel is my go to.

Plus sides: Great price! Good taste, extra shake for same calories, large range of optional flavours, 100% vegan, eco friendly packaging decision, unflavoured option.

Downsides: Flavours cost extra, forms lumps, bulky packaging, less good quality shaker.

 

Richard, about our bikes…

Dear Mr Branson.

I write this as a huge appreciator of magnificent beards, and of your tie-less philosophy. I’m a GP, who generally appears rugged and agile (read, “lazily unshaven and unwilling to iron his shirts”). I do own a tie, but I’m not sure where it currently is.

virgintrainsI also write it as an avid bike user, who feels a little like an unwanted guest on your trains. On the Virgin Trains website, its mentioned that VT is looking for “new and innovative ways” to improve on their green credentials. If you want to be a green company, encouraging people to travel carbon free after their train arrives is a key one.

Here’s a few simple things:

  • Are you aware that its not possible to prebook a reservation for a bike on your train online?
  • That one has to ring a phone line after buying your non-refundable ticket online to add on the bike?
  • That there’s only 4 spaces for bikes on an 10-11 carriage train? East Midlands regularly fit 6 on a 2 carriage train.
  • The space for bikes has enough vertical space that you could hang bikes above the ones currently there, easily doubling space.
  • People can hop on a train with 2 Great Danes, 3 huge bags and a triple pram without pre-booking. Wouldn’t a green approach allow this for bikes?

Recently I was at a conference where someone advised “If you haven’t got a seat at the table, you are probably on the menu”. I’ve definitely felt a bit gnawed on my recent bike travel on your trains.

If you have a task force for this stuff, are there cycling advocates at it? If not, I’d be keen to offer my services. I’m a local GP, on the board of Active Warrington, Health Improvement Latchford, and team doctor to Warrington Town FC, so I have a range of applicable experience.

Thanks for reading. If you feel like rewarding me for my passion with a free trip to the moon on Virgin Galactic, or even a free pass on the trains, that’d be awesome, but ultimately I’d like to help you guys help people to travel better.

Thanks,

Chris

PS. Wasn’t lying about the tie. No idea.

Half Marathon Chris

imag0171I’ve been steadily getting more interested in fitness, running, and healthy living. Over the last couple of years, I’ve lost a decent chunk of weight, and started running and cycling a lot more. I still sweat like a geriatric horse, unfortunately.

In the last 18 months I’ve completed my first Triathlon, my first 10K road race, and this weekend, my first Half Marathon…

Location

ehm-course-mapI pretty much got pushed by circumstance into doing the race. A newly fit, running enthusiast friend told me I had to sign up around 6 weeks ago, but it wasn’t until I discovered another friend was travelling over from Sheffield that I decided to give it a go.

Warrington’s slightly pompously titled “English Half Marathon” is a mildly hilly course with total rise and descent of 110m. Click the course map on the left for more details. Its 21km, obviously.

Training

I did better than with my 10K. Not hard, because my training for that was close to non-existent. Sure, I didn’t run quite as much as I’d have liked, but I have been running at least 5km twice a week for the last couple of months, and I even did a training run of 16km!

As usual, 10 days before the race I rang my sports performance specialist friend Jon, asking “How do I train for an event that I should have already trained for”. He remained unimpressed with me.

I settled on trying to run 6km most days for a week, including one longer 16km route. Then, in the week running up to the race I ran 3 times:

Monday 4K
Tuesday 3K (limited by children)
Wednesday 6K before work, 8K after
Thursday Long walk
Friday 8K (up a Welsh hill)
Saturday 5K (personal best 22:50 mins)
Sunday Rest
Monday Rest (planned to run, failed)
Tuesday Rest
Wednesday 5K (slow pace with child)
Thursday 7K before work, 9K after
Friday Rest
Saturday Rest and carb load

Regarding nutrition, I planned to carb load on the two days before, and managed to suck down quite a lot of pizza. Unfortunately, my family caught a nasty virus that gave them nausea and abdominal pain. That hit me a little late on Saturday evening, but thankfully only hit me full force the day after the race.

On the morning of the race, I had two crumpets with loads of jam on them, approximately 80g of carbs, two hours before start time. That’s a bit less than the Runner’s World recommendation, but I was feeling a little queasy already. I also drank around 400ml of decaf coffee, keen to avoid dehydration, but also avoid weeing too much. I find that caffeine can make me feel nauseous on an empty stomach, so I felt it best to give it a miss…

Experience

It was a lot of fun. As has become my habit before parkruns, I started with the group behind where I hoped to finish, joining the 2 hour timing group at the start line. I did this for two reasons: firstly, I hoped their early pacing would be a little slower, and encourage me not to wear myself out in the first 3km, drained prematurely.

The second reason I like to start further back, is that I find gradually overtaking people throughout a race is a huge emotional boom.

Being fairly run fit, and concentrating early on my pacing was key to having a good time.

I kicked off at around a 4:45min/km, consciously slowing myself down, checking my phone for my pace fairly frequently over the first few kilometres. After that, I relaxed into the pace, and didn’t worry too much about going too fast, just used my muscle memory to keep me on track.

Just after 2km I needed a wee, and you can see my detour into Black Bear Park for a desperate pitstop on the GPS route (check the graphs and map further down the page). Immediately following it I sprinted to catch up, so probably made up most of the lost time, although the adrenaline hit was a bit draining. This coupled with my slightly upset stomach to give me some tummy cramps, but luckily a few sips of water settled this before it affected my pace.

The main uphill was between 3 and 8km, so things became a little harder work there, but I actually maintained my pace fairly easily. I got out the other side feeling pretty great – mostly because lots of people around me seemed to be struggling a bit, which helped competitive Chris feel like a winner. From 11km onwards, I felt very energetic, and clocked up 3 sub-5-minute-kilometres in a row. My legs started to cramp up a little from 17km onwards, but, by then, the end was in sight, and my brain forced me through (see me running the final 100m in the video).

Frustratingly, some little niggly plantar ligament in the sole of my foot decided to randomly go on the spritz around 19km. Like a lot of these things, it hurt a bit at the time, but didn’t properly flare up until the next day. 4 days later, its still hurting enough to limit me walking, which is also rather annoying.

Nutrition wise, I’m sure carb loading was the reason my legs retained plenty of bounce past the halfway mark. My glycogen stores only noticeably ran low towards the end. This was not helped by the placement of the carb gel stands on the run – I got one gel at around 7km, and didn’t get another one until I hit 18km – waay too late, although I managed to grab some powerade (off the floor) at around 14km which probably helped a bit…

Results

imag0172I had no particular expectations, nor any frame of reference for this run. One of my sponsors refused to pay up unless I beat 2 hours, so that was my key motivation. Using the Runner’s World Race Time predictor from my 10K result, I was given an estimation of around 1 hour 43 mins. (Although this does assume appropriate training for the distance…)

What did I manage? A respectable 1 hour 47 minutes and 47 seconds (according to my timing chip)I came 619th out of 2,204 (28th centile).

All in all, I had a good time. My thoughts on the event are marred by the fact I still can’t walk due to the foot pain, and I’ve been in bed for nearly two straight days with a stomach bug. That said, I think I’m a long way away from ready for a full marathon. My next plan is to do a bit more trail running, perhaps another 10K race, and see where to go from there.

As ever, most importantly, I got to eat 5 mini pizzas following the race. Win.