John Gooden

Presenter. Commentator. Writer. Producer

John Gooden is an international presenter, sports commentator, voice over artist and writer

Filtering by Tag: the bloody vegan

An Englishman in Turkmenistan

If Turkmenistan was to feature as a classified, it might be worded something like this:

‘Do you like all-year-round warm temperatures of 30 degrees or higher?

Do you have a penchant for all things white?

Do you subscribe to the saying that cleanliness is next to godliness?

…then Turkmenistan is for you!'


And like many brochures and creatively worded advertisements, it would not technically be wrong.


So you might be asking, what is this place Turkmenistan you speak of and what's with the clean white references?  Well, it just so happened to be my place of work for two weeks in September and boy was it an experience!  Let me tell you more…


I count myself lucky to have a job that I love which allows me to indulge in my passion of martial arts and also travel the world visiting new places and meeting incredible people.  In my work with the UFC, I have stayed in some beautiful hotels in some of the world's greatest cities including the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, The Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, The Crown Melbourne in Australia- the list goes on.  All wonderfully cosmopolitan cities, rich in culture and never suggesting a requirement for a hepatitis vaccination.  But before I reached the lofty heights of the world's most prestigious combat sports organisation, I would join a troop of MMA-loving enthusiasts and travel to far less welcoming and much more heavily armed destinations like Beirut, Lebanon, and Grozny in Chechnya.  And you know what, I missed it.  There's nothing quite like departing for a trip, never knowing what lies in wait at the other end.  Will I make it across the border with this folder of stamped paperwork and 3 copies of my passport?  Will my very specific dietary requirements be catered for?  Will my delicate Hertfordshire-born immune system stand up to exotic bacteria? Last, but not least, will I live to write to tell the tale on my personal web site???

The things you are guaranteed on any trip are memories and stories.  From passing armoured vehicles mounted with machine guns in the Beirut rush hour to facing flash lights and Kalashnikovs (I can't be sure they were Kalashnikovs, but it sounded cool, plus they were also weapons of destruction) in the small hours somewhere in Dagestan.  What stories would the Asian Indoor Martial Arts Games give birth to?  Well, read on!

Like any worthwhile destination, there needs to be multiple stop overs. Tick: London to Frankfurt to Baku to Ashgabat.  And then the immigration queue needs to be gnarly and intimidating.  Nope.  My first taste of Turkmenistan was marble, more marble, lots of lights and volunteers in multi-coloured uniforms with what at first appeared to be propeller hats, but then wasn't.  It was late and I was clearly jet-lagged. 

The drive to our Olympic Park residence was more of the same really.  Lots and lots of white buildings and even more lights that changed the colour of the buildings, like a super-charged Griswold's Family Christmas in 30-degree heat.  Just to remind us of the far away world we had just entered, we did experience multiple security checks, scanners, questioned about why we would possess a laptop and were warned to never forget or lose our credentials, which we were to wear around our necks. We were bar coded accordingly and the much desired laminated pendant would determine which doors and gates we could cross.  It would also bear a sought-after code that would allow us to access the internet and even social media, something the Turkmen people were not typically given access to.



My first impressions were that a whole lot of money had been spent on building the airport, roads and Olympic park where the games would shortly commence.  Turkmenistan is a wealthy (although was wealthier until they lost some energy contracts) country with huge natural gas reserves which indirectly explains the lights.  The Turkmen people don't receive electricity bills, so they fiercely indulge in thousands of lights.  Basically, all those moments we spend chasing family members around the house turning lights off and switching off the stand by lights on our television- completely futile when you consider how ‘turned on' Turkmenistan operates 24 hours a day.

On my first day, I was given a quick run-down of local etiquette including the correct hand shaking method (far easier than the masons), no hugging of the local ladies and no public displays of affection.  I was cool with the latter as my producer, Rob, and I had only just met.  Also on the first date agenda was Turkmen tummy; an unfortunate, but amusingly named term to describe frequent loose bowel movements and cramping.  Another important gem of knowledge was that the US dollars I had travelled with were to be changed at the place which sells the cleaning products on the first floor of the mall.  Apparently, they give the best rate, but you have to be discreet, perhaps in the same way you might be if you were trying to procure a little bit of blue off the top shelf!  

My role in Turkmenistan was as an announcer for the Muay Thai and Kickboxing competitions within the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games (AIMAG).  Pretty straight forward right? Well, it was until I saw the names of the athletes.  Thai, Turkem, Tajiki, Chinese and Uzbekistani names had me tripping over myself worse than the first time I drank a bottle of Thunderbird at 15.  After a few days, I started to get a feel for the symbols and patterns.  I began rolling my ‘r's, coughing into my ‘kh's and tuning into my inner Russian!  Some of these pronunciations were actually helped by the onset of a rubbish cold which was just lovely in the 30-degree heat. Even better for my new colleagues who kept slipping past me on my freshly discarded snot-filled tissues.

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That said, I love a good challenge and I was blessed to be working with a great team in two disciplines of combat sports that I loved.  There was, however, a continuing theme that irked me on a regular basis; barriers.  I have never seen so many barriers and gates in my life!  I think Warren Buffet made another couple of mill out of the steel sector given the metal fabrications supplied to Turkmenistan.  They were everywhere; blocking, funnelling, confusing and frustrating AIMAG attendees every damn minute.  Despite this massive expanse of land whereby you have to cross 12 lanes of carriageways to get from one side of the road to another, you are dropped into an ever-changing maze of galvanised steel and tall white gates, narrowing you into much more modest lanes of human traffic.  It got so bad I once wore my Garmin Forerunner to measure the additional steps I was taking due to what seemed like a human experiment of orientation.  The result- 1,000 extra steps every day, before we even got to the Olympic Park.  Add that to the daily walk of 16,000 steps to just get to and from work.  (I've just realised how much of a geek I sound, but that was how angry I got).  One day the gate nearest my hotel block was open (still meant I was travelling in the opposite direction but it would have saved about 600 steps, as a rough estimate-hee hee) to allow a dust cart through, so I made a bee line for it only to be met by a local security guy imitating Dr Dre in Xzibit's X video. Not one to be intimidated by fake rappers I dropped the shoulder, went the other way, sold him but was quickly faced with his mate…the middle-eastern-looking muscle to the fake rapper. Typically, if I had been in the WD (Watford) postcode for those unawares I would have continued my quest for freedom through the gates, but I was in full view of numerous cameras, in a country which I had recently learned had an appalling record for human rights and had just sentenced a local to life imprisonment for stealing a packet of cigarettes.  So I abandoned the more direct route and continued further in the wrong direction from anywhere in order to abide by the rules and stay out of jail.

I didn't get much free time over the couple of weeks I was there, so I can't report back on the nature of Turkmenistan.  Although, a couple of colleagues had managed to venture out beyond the gates to actual Turkmenistan and checked out The Gates of Hell!  They came back with fascinating photos of huge craters in the earth that were alight after geologists decided to set fire to the natural gas that was emitting from them back in 1971.  They even managed to get back to the compound before the 11pm curfew. Yes, that's right there is a curfew in place.

Photo by darkydoors/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by darkydoors/iStock / Getty Images

What's even more bizarre than a curfew is what takes place when the President decides to leave his residence.  I'm not sure if he is a sociophobe, but it would seem he doesn't like to be seen as we were all ordered to basically lock down in our rooms, close the curtains and do not look out!  I actually heard of people being stuck in subways (lots of them due to the huge roads which have absolutely no traffic on them) for a couple of hours because the President was out and about. Madness!

While we’re on the bizarre, let's talk about significant fines to any car owners if their cars are considered dirty. Any entrepreneurial types reading this might consider importing second-hand vehicles from Turkmenistan as they are kept pristine!  On the same theme, I noted local women scrubbing the white lines on the road each night.  Down on their hands and knees in the middle of the road swashing the hatched lines etc! Maybe less weird, how about serving beer out of teapots and teacups?  I'm still not clear whether this was to hide the fact that alcohol was being consumed or whether this particular establishment was trying to be cool.  A bit like how my wife now drinks from old marmalade jars and through metal straws.   

Another strange bit of info was to learn that the President gives a significant gift to any families that have 8 children or more!  That's right, 8 kids. Apparently, Turkmen folk tend to marry at between 16 and 18 (not arranged), move in with the husband's family and get to work on creating a mini tribe.  The woman who told me this also spoke of her neighbour who has 10 children and was given a new apartment by the President as a reward.  You can imagine her response when I told her I was on my third marriage and had no children!  FYI, that was a lie to get a reaction from her. Definitely worth it too!

Finding vegan food was a bit of a challenge for me.  I'm pretty sure they don't even have a word for it in the Turkmen language, but I was lucky to have Russian friends who could explain the requirements (most Turkmen speak Russian too).  Plain pasta, plain rice and some salad were pretty much my staples for lunch, but that was better than the gluten-free oats I was having in boiled water served in what seemed like infant cups and toy miniature spoons.  Dinner was similar to lunch, but I might find a tomato based sauce for the pasta or some fries.  I actually found a place where they did a pretty good vegan burger (by accident), so you might say I almost had a gastronomic experience!  The biggest challenge for food was that the place was so vast that it was nearly 30 minutes to walk to the supermarket and mall where restaurants would be.  The onsite café had a buffet and very limited options for The Bloody Vegan.   Tough at times and I lost 3 kilos by the time I came home.    


But this trip was made good by all the people I met.  The local people were really lovely.  The volunteers that we worked closely with were so happy and willing to help.  They were all trying to picking up the English language and get something out of the crazy experience of the Olympic Games.  More than that though was the team I worked with.  There’s somethingabout a bond created when you’re really in a bizarre environment.  At one point I actually thought that we might all be trapped in this Truman Show, type world.  One of oppression, routine, limited freedom and cleanliness.  I say cleanliness,  however, I was only given one, triple XL polo shirt for my stay, so my relative cleanliness wasn’t up to my usual standards.  But the roads…well you could eat (and cook) your tofu off them! I should also mention I mentioned UFC fighter Valentina Shevchenko’s mum whilst on a trip to a restaurant to celebrate the end of the Muay Thai competition. What a lovely lady!

From singing Daddy Cool loudly in the back of a cab somewhere in Ashgabat, to gate crashing the posh hotel to use their gym and spa facilities, Team Muay Thai had great Ashgabants (see what we did there, merged Ashgabat with bants).  We laughed, we nearly cried and we sometimes feared for our freedom, but we’re all home safely now to tell the tale. It was a trip I probably wont repeat in a hurry, but I have satisfied my need for a trip to a shady, foreign land.  Rob aptly described Turkmenistan as Dubai meets North Korea. Brilliant assessment.

Oh and before I go, some of you might be interested in the fight results?  Well, I was most impressed with Turkmenistan.  I’d never even heard of the country before going there and they had a very high standard in both Muay Thai and Kickboxing.  Of course the Thai fighters cleaned up in the Muay Thai with the Iranians doing best in the Kickboxing.  The fighters from Kazakhstan were ferocious and did well and the fighting spirit of the Afghan representatives shone through too.  There were also a few stand-out fighters from Iraq.  I’m confident we’ll see more high level fighters transition to MMA from the region.





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Becoming competitive again! Part 3

Becoming competitive again! Part 3. The longest part of a triathlon is the bike ride. That means a lot of time in the saddle and cycling is actually pretty damn technical. I made a few rookie errors and some wise decisions.

I was in a bit of hurry to get my ‘bike legs’, so I decided to buy a cheap ‘fixie’ or single speed bike. I bought a Quella single speed and thought this would help me get used to life on 2 wheels until I properly researched the best race bike for my budget. My Quella in baby blue came within a couple of days and after a few minutes work with a spanner and allen key, I was road-ready.

bike 3
bike 3

Now although I looked cool with my funky bike, Bern lid and wild face hair (or at least I thought I did), the realisation hit home pretty quick that I lived on a hill and bikes tend to have numerous gears for a reason! The notion of swapping the car for the bike to pop to the shops was quickly dismissed as my maiden voyage to the shops ended with what felt like an inferno in my lungs and stretched ankle ligaments from poor form and incorrect bike set up. Brilliant. My first set-back and reminder that injuries are always lurking around the corner. Oh and no one looks like cool in any guise when you’re panting in distress, grimacing and barely moving forwards.

I don’t regret buying the Quella and I now enjoy going out on gentle rides in the opposite direction to the nasty hills.

After some decent research and taking advice from an old pal and new GB triathlete, Paul Suett, I bought my race bike. I went for a Specialized Allez Elite. It’s an attractive and slightly aggressive road bike. I was never going to know the difference between this bike and another, but I would certainly notice a hole in my wallet if I had gone shopping for a bike to use in a triathlon. A proper triathlon bike will set you back the cost of a tax’d and MOT’d VW golf with a decent service history! With my wife’s company discount I got kitted out with the bike, lid, gloves, bottle, repair bag/ kit, pedals and triathlon cycling shoes. I opted for cleats as it’s what the pros use and it is the correct choice, though they take some getting used to and things get interesting during transitions!

With a newly purchased 2-piece tri suit in my ruck sack I collected my new bike and accessories and rode back from Hendon, North London down a notoriously fast and, as I nearly discovered, treacherous stretch of road. Apart from my hipster cruises on the Quella I had not been on the open road since I was a teenager and self-titled fastest kid on the block. It was a dicey ride home to say the least. The thin tyres and lightweight frame are not very forgiving and neither is the light padding of a tri suit (proper cycling shorts are far more cushioned but running in them would be like watching a man baby learning to walk again). What are also not very forgiving are other road users. I must apologize to any cyclists that I have not given adequate room to when passing. Now I have been known to get a little hot under the collar when using the road, but my first trip on the bike had my blood boiling. I also realised why cyclists don’t always like to stop at lights etc…it’s those damn cleats. I didn’t exactly fall off when clipping my shoes in and out, but it wasn’t an elegantly executed procedure and had me take to the pavements on a few occasions to get straight before tearing up the tarmac again.

bike 2
bike 2

Once again I learned the lesson of a poorly set up bike. I aggravated my ankle ligaments on both sides. After taking my bike into the Giant store (not just a big establishment, but a bike manufacturer) I had the bike set up including the cleats on the shoes which had been wrongly fitted putting extra force through the outside of my ankles. Money well spent and now I’m happily powering through without injury.

The last and most recent piece of cycling kit I purchased is a turbo trainer. It’s a means of transforming your bike into an exercise bike so you can watch Netflix and get a work out in simultaneously. If Netflix wasn’t worth the subscription before, it sure is now. I think you get what you pay for with these, but they can be noisy, hot and difficult to store so chose well. It’s a tough work out and you get a good sweat on whilst giving you the feel of the bike you’ll race with. Plenty of towels are needed to mop up and make sure those bottles are filled up. I chuck a NUUN tablet in there too in order to replace salts etc.

These days I look forward to riding my bikes. I really want a mountain bike now so that I can go off road and properly hurt myself on uneven surfaces and bang into trees! Bikes are a very eco-friendly way of getting around too, so you’re ticking that box. Peace!

As for biking in triathlons, it gets more technical. The transitions are tricky and the actual motion of peddling needs attention. No longer are you pushing your foot down, you are apparently wiping the shit off the sole of your shoe and trying to transfer equal(ish) power through the 360 degree motion of that big ring. Since being aware of this I have noticed an improvement on the hill climbs, but more work is needed. A watt meter/ wattometer/ wattever…a device that can help you monitor how much power you are pushing through the pedals will help you work this real time. Apparently this should be tried using just one leg (and probably best to stick to the turbo trainer) and then swapping over to the other leg. Then when you have two legs working in perfect balance, you’ll be ready for that yellow jersey!

bike 1
bike 1

As regards the swim to bike transition, I watched lots of YouTube stuff and thought I’d do what the pros do at this early stage of my triathlon journey so that I’m not learning new stuff later on. This involves climbing onto the bike with the cycling shoes already clipped into the pedals and suspended by elastic bands that keep them level rather than grounding out as you run to the mount/ dismount point. On the bike to run transition, once again you leave the shoes clipped in and remove your foot whilst in transit and pedal on top of the shoes to the dismount point. If you are following this, you will understand that you are therefore running barefoot from through the transitions. Now the YouTube clips I watched were in Australia, Hawaii and the States….places where the sun shines and the ground is favourable. Not in the UK where it’s cold, it rains loads, the ground is muddy and then there are lots of stony paths! I should have taken Paul’s advice and got mountain bike cycling shoes (and pedals), which have enough grip to allow you to run in. My experience so far has meant I have tried to squeeze my size 12 foot into a cycling shoe, covered in a cocktail of mud and stones, which renders it a good size 13. This has made for a rough transition and dirty cycling shoes. And lets face it, if you can’t race well at least look the bollocks whilst competing!!

bike 4
bike 4

I’m yet to suffer a dreaded puncture during a race (or even a ride for that matter), but I have got a pouch with 2 spare tubes and a CO2 canister to keep me going. There would be nothing worse than not getting to the finish line, so the added weight and even the added time if a puncture occurred are a small price to pay. When looking for self-improvement, you could always pause the stop watch and minus off the repair time to see where you might have come if the universe were more kind on that day.

Becoming competitive again. Part 2

With part 1 describing the why, the following few paragraphs are possibly about the what, how and largely the lessons I learned.  

My mate, Jamie, with whom I have largely been encouraged into this type of training, suggested a triathlon. It sounded challenging enough and much more than ‘just running’ 10k or something. Something that would require training. Oh, and a bike!

Now, Jamie operates on a different time schedule to me. I had slowly started to adjust my body clock to be a little more…nocturnal. The fight game doesn’t tend to get out of bed really early in my experience. In the UK we battle heavy eyelids to watch the finest fighters do battle at 3am. Also, most martial arts classes are in the evening. However, it turns out Jamie has a few friends who also follow the sun rise and on a Saturday morning at 6:30 they descend on various lakes around the country ready for the plunge into the often murky water to grapple with reeds and dodge duck shit.

lake 1
lake 1

So armed with a set of goggles, flip flops and towel, I jumped in Jamie’s car and headed to the lake. Now, I once promised myself that I would only ever get up around the 5am hour to go on holiday. And y’know when you are on the way to the airport really early, but there are quite a few cars on the road? Likelihood is they’re going to the lake! It wasn’t even 7am and the car park was full. A fantastic range of different measured water babies circled the 1000m course. I joined in but not before I squeezed into a hired wet suit (tip: other people have definitely pissed in them- get your own), covered my neck in Vaseline (tip: I later learned not to use Vaseline as the petroleum corrodes the wet suit! Use Glide and apply it to your neck, wrists and calves so you can pull the suit off without looking like you are resisting arrest whilst on speed) and pulled a thin piece of rubber over my carefully coiffured hair.

Despite the early mornings, I actually really enjoyed the swims. It was the summer, so that helped. Also, you can swim the 1000m in about 20 mins and be home with an 8 still showing on the clock. Plenty of time before jiu jitsu at 11am! I didn’t however enjoy swallowing the lake’s water or dealing with leaky goggles. I didn’t particularly enjoy being smoked by old people either, but I was and am getting very used to this. I actually now prefer the open water swim as you can establish a rhythm and you can’t possibly quit after say 20 laps as you’d still be another few hundred metres from the jetty and in the way of super gran and her buddies on their second lap. I just now accept the environment, concentrate on breathing and make sure I look out for traffic ahead every 6 strokes. The next stage is to the tailor the swim for triathlons which means being conservative with the use of your legs as you need them fresh for the bike and run. I am looking to enlist some training for this next season.

I also discovered that lots of cans of Coke are sold at the club house as apparently it kills all the bad stuff you may have just swallowed from the lake (we’ve all seen the video where Coke is used to clean up the chrome car bumpers, right?). I confess I have once partaken in this heathen activity. Jamie telling me about worms, illness, poo and other such things tipped me over the edge whilst I was in a susceptible state i.e. sleep deprived and exhausted. Coca Cola are a frightening, evil company and I can’t recommend this, specially at 8am. It’s a slippery slope, kids! There are concentrated citrus additives that you can get from health stores for cleaning food etc. This could be a better bet.

lake 4
lake 4

I’m yet to do proper interval training for swimming, but I’m keen to give it a go next season. For me, getting into cold water and smashing out 1km will do for this year. I got my own wet suit, but didn’t go mad with the budget. They can be expensive pieces of kit. Also they are not very forgiving in terms of sizing so beware. Mine is still so tight it’s like swimming with a resistance band attached to each arm, but its orange and looks sick!