New Year, New Niggle

For the last few years January seems to have been the month of set backs in my training. I seem to greet a new year with a new injury or a recurrence of an old one. January 2019 has brought with it the gift of a new niggle, this one being a bit of a mystery.

I’ve been struggling with my left calf. It’s not like all the calf injuries of the past that have been straightforward tears or strains in the belly of the muscle. This one is on the inside of the muscle, very close to where it connects with the shin bone. It doesn’t feel like it’s about to tear, but rather it seems to get inflamed and create a significant area of tenderness down the inside of the calf/ shin or specifically the medial tibial periosteal region. It causes lots of soreness during the first 15 minutes of running and then as I warm up it seems settle down and the intensity of the pain dissipates. As a result, it hasn’t stop me from training but it is restricting the type of run sessions I can do and it does cause lots of discomfort between sessions. My massage therapist has been working hard on it to relieve the symptoms and I’ve been icing the whole area every day but it doesn’t want to go away.

Because its not been an acute injury, a moment in time where I can pinpoint something that happened that caused the injury and because it’s not been preventing me from training I’ve been guilty of ignoring its significance, or potential significance.

But as its a massive year for me I can’t afford to ignore the signals my body is giving me and run the risk of creating a really chronic injury for myself.

So after a full 4 weeks of being in denial I finally did the smart thing and reached out to some experts for help. Firstly I found an excellent physio, Kathryn Fishlock in Newport who gave me a thorough examination and then introduced me to a bit of funky kit called an anti-gravity treadmill. It works by pulling on a pair of sealed shorts that can then be inflated to hold the body above the treadmill in such a way that only a limited percentage of overall bodyweight is being put through the legs. Thus running can still be possible whilst carrying an injury. Kathryn wanted to assess how my running gait would change as more of my body weight was reintroduced. The good news was that nothing changed and she was happy with my running action. So she came up with a few exercises to try to help strengthen this area.

Anti-gravity treadmill running is amazing. Removing 10% body weight makes a massive difference. I felt like I was running on a cloud, it was effortless. For an experienced and competent runner like me it was such a revelation so I can’t begin to comprehend just how much of a difference it would make for others who are significantly heavier and less used to running.  For anyone who knows that they are carrying too much weight and wonders what it would feel like to run without these extra kilos then go and try one of these things. It is incredible. It is a powerful way of understanding just how much better you will feel once you have got the weight off and thus should provide an enormous boost in motivation for sticking with the process of shedding excess weight.

So I got stuck into the rehab exercises but frustratingly, two weeks on nothing had improved and so I decided to take up a referral from Kathryn to see an eminent sports doctor, Geoff Davies in Cardiff . Geoff examined my lower legs and decided that an MRI was required so a few days later I was back in Cardiff for the scan.

I think he was concerned that there may have been a stress fracture in my shin. The results came back really quickly and the good news was that there was no evidence of any stress fracture and the only anomaly was a build up of scar tissue in the area of pain. His report noted that the scarring was clearly a relic of previous calf injuries as at the area of maximal tenderness there is quite florid scarring and abnormal signal in the tibial origin of the tendon of the medial head of soleus. There is some ossification in the tendon at the origin with some low-grade oedema around it. The scarring of the central tendon extends distally in the calf. The tibia is normal with no evidence of stress fracture. There is also scarring of the myo-aponuerosis between the soleus and the medial head of gastrocnemius compatible with previous injury.

 Reassuringly there is no evidence of tibial stress fracture, which was my major concern. His symptoms appear to be related to chronic scarring of medial soleus / calf which does fit with his history.

However, the scarring was almost identical on the right leg and so it was confusing to me that it could be causing pain on the left leg but not on the right. But what do I know?

Geoff’s recommendation was to continue with physiotherapy and consider a formal biomechanical assessment with Podiatrist Tom Cooper at Ace feet in Motion in Cardiff.

So off I went to meet Tom. This was another fascinating experience. Tom also works with lots of elite sports people and so I knew I was in good hands. He got me to walk barefoot over his sensor pad that built a digital picture of how my feet were striking the ground, especially where the pressure points were throughout the process of making a forward step. Again, good news in that there was nothing dramatic that was going on that could be contributing to my discomfort. He did identify a minor flaw in my big toe ( the same on both left and right foot) that creates a slight restriction in the drive phase of a step, but felt that this was not creating the pain and was concerned that if he tried to correct it we may cause problems elsewhere and so it was best to leave it be. Everyone is different and very few of us have perfect biomechanics and we don’t require perfection to perform consistently well.

We then moved into his run studio where a larger sensor mat is set up. Run shoes were put on and then I was asked to run up and down over the matting. Tom observed and built a similar footstrike profile using the data that was coming from the sensor mat. The result was consistent with the barefoot walking. Apparently, I have good biomechanics and have a very consistent, efficient and balanced run pattern. I strike the ground with my midfoot, am not overstriding and thus put very little weight through my heels. All in all, excellent feedback.

So my third expert is telling me that all the essential ingredients to effective running are in place and looking good. This is obviously great to know, but frustratingly doesn’t mean that the pain in my medial tibial periosteal region is any less!

So Tom suggested three possible routes for solving my problem. Firstly I could try orthotics, but I’ve been down this road before and found that whilst it helped in the short term it created much bigger problems in the longer term, so I am really adverse to going this route again. Secondly he is having some positive results with shock wave therapy that fires sound waves into the tissue to accelerate blood flow and healing. He has been using it for achilles and plantar fasciitis injuries and thinks it could help. I’m thinking this through right now.

The third route is a strength and conditioning programme for the Tibialis Posterior region.

My instinct told me to go with the strengthening programme first and see if we can deal with it that way.

So I’m now having to spend time, several times a day rigorously executing these tiny exercises that hopefully will help to rebuild my muscles so that the pain will disappear.

The good news is that I get feedback every time I run. Encouragingly, the length of time that I am experiencing pain at the start of every run is shortening and so this gives me motivation to continue with the rehab programme. I’m now confident that I’ll overcome this latest niggle and that it wont derail my season.

So whilst I haven’t yet resolved the problem and I haven’t discovered the definitive answer to the question about what is causing the pain, I’m really glad that I didn’t just ignore it as I’ve learnt so much by meeting these three experts over the last month.

And, importantly, I’ve now got an even wider team that I can turn to when I need help in the future.

I’ve learnt that the human body is a complex and sometimes contrary being. It can flummox experts and often there isn’t a simple linear answer to what may appear to be a simple problem. Thus, we need to be open to a test and learn approach to problem solving. Furthermore, niggles are often a result of a slight imbalance that requires a disciplined dedicated time consuming programme of dull exercises to remedy. As we get older we ignore the basics of strength, conditioning and balance at our peril.

Keep at it, its worth it!

Why am I here?

Today is 7th December. I’m sat in the sunshine in Bahrain reflecting on what feels like a very long year.

Why am I here? Well that’s a big question….the straightforward answer is to compete in one last race of the season. After the euphoria of Ironman70.3 World Champs in September I really wanted another hit of the world championship buzz and so decided to try and secure my place as quickly as possible for 2019 by finding a race somewhere in the world that could give me that all important qualification spot. Bahrain provided the first opportunity so here I am.

 In the days after the race in Port Elizabeth in September it all seemed so simple. Take a few weeks off then put together a solid block of ten weeks training, travel out to Bahrain five days before, adjust to the warmer climate, relax, put in another performance like South Africa and fly home with the 2019 place in the bag. What could possibly go wrong?

I guess the next 24 hours will provide the answer ….

Back to the big question….why am I here?

I started this blog a few years ago with the grand ambition of providing inspiration to others to follow their dreams. I’d always wanted to be a sportsman and not just a weekend warrior or Sunday footballer. I wanted it to be what I did. Its taken me over 50 years but I’m now living that dream. Sport provides my focus and influences what I do, how I do it….. Its completely changed my life to the point where I feel so much more confident, I have self belief ( although I still struggle with self doubt in the days leading up to races!!) and has allowed us to make such radical steps in our late 50’s that we have bought an old farm in the Brecon Beacons with the intention of creating a cycling business from it. This really is living the dream.

Living the dream though is never a bed of roses. Over the last few years both of my parents have passed away following tragically slow painful journeys to the end. Dementia is a cruel condition that slowly strips away everything from those that are unfortunate enough to suffer with it. Currently there is so little that can be done to arrest the onset once it has taken hold and I feel a little traumatised still by the emotional pain that I could sense both of my parents struggling with as the condition stole from them even the most basic human skills that enable us to exist independently. Having observed, experienced and helped care for them through this awful process I have tried to learn more about it. Through reading and asking questions I’ve developed my own view on what we can do to try and prevent dementia from attacking our own brains. “Constantly challenging ourselves in new ways” is my over-riding view of how we can improve our chances of beating dementia.

That means learning new things ( languages are ideal as its really difficult especially as we get older but that’s what makes it ideal), keeping fit, really fit, eating healthily, avoiding becoming set in our ways. Avoiding becoming set in our ways is a really big one in my view. We learn as humans when we are on the very edge of our comfort zones, that place that makes us uncomfortable, makes us nervous, makes us awkward or painful, makes us question why we are bothering and in order to force ourselves to repeatedly go to this uncomfortable place we need a really strong reason or purpose for doing it. Often the difficulty in identifying a purpose leads to that comfortable outcome of unknowingly getting set in our ways. Avoiding dementia seems to me to be a negative reason to fight against inertia and I always encourage people to frame their goals and ambitions around positive thoughts. So this is why I hark back to dreams. What did you dream you’d achieve when you were a child or what do you wish you could make happen now? Use this as your powerful motivator to constantly challenge yourself.

Back to that question, why am I here?….because I want to be world champion. I know my Mum and Dad would be so proud, I know I am gaining so much from the process of learning how to be the best triathlete I can be and I’d love to think that through my trials and tribulations I could inspire a few more people to make their own dreams come true. If this helps in some small way to derail the juggernaut that is dementia then that seems like a really good thing to me.

I’ll take this thought with me into the race tomorrow. Wish me luck.

Another Season of Achieving Faster After 50

Its now the end of November.

My race season has officially ended and I’m keeping myself amused with cyclocross racing through the winter. I’m treating these races very much as fun and they’re really helping to lighten the impact of hard winter training. Cyclocross is new to me and I’m finding it really refreshing to challenge myself with completely new things to learn. Each of the races I’ve entered so far has been different to the others and so I find myself constantly in that invigorating place between being consciously incompetent and consciously competent. Thankfully I can report that as each race progresses I spend more time in the conscious competence zone!

So the focus for this post is a review of the season. It’s certainly had its ups and downs with results seeming to improve as the year went on. I thought it would be useful to look back at my Development Plan for the year and see how I have done as objectively as possible.Slide1

You can see that I broke my 2017 plan into three parts.

Part one is my ambition for the year and whilst I know it is not within my control, it is the articulation of why I do it all. I’m driven by a desire to be the best I can be and recognition of this through winning medals and qualifying for world championships is hugely important to me. The dream of achieving my ambition excites me and motivates me to work hard, to work consistently, to do those sessions that I don’t really feel like doing. It gets me out of bed on cold dark mornings to swim when I’m feeling really tired. It gets me out on the bike when its chucking down with rain outside. Without a clear ambition I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t be as consistent in my approach to training as I have been. So achieving my qualification spot for South Africa next year has been deeply satisfying.

Part two are the performance goals. They represent the “what”. What do I need to nail in order to achieve my ambitions? These were very specific, should be within my control and represented a step change from what I had been doing in performance terms in 2016.

Finally part three are the development objectives, the “how” that provides day to day focus and if I could follow them consistently would give me a fighting chance of improving my performance in line with my goals.

So how did I get on with my development objectives ? These were the key areas where I felt there was most room for improvement. Well, early morning swimming has gone from a chore to a great way to start my day in 2017. I’m proud to confirm that I now enjoy rather than endure swimming and as a result I hit the 15 sessions a month target with an average set of 2500m. This consistency has been key to my improved confidence and speed in the water.

I have definitely been consciously experimenting with my cycling cadence and have also been much more focused on training how I race and thus spending many more hours on the TT bike in the aero position. 3_m-100767682-DIGITAL_HIGHRES-1912_000318-8521799Doing this has helped me to find a cadence that works for me and given me more confidence for race days, so another big tick. However, I have to confess that I failed miserably with my objective to race more TT’s in 2017. ( I think I did one!) I can’t explain this, as I love the simplicity and purity of a TimeTrial and I even have a regular Thursday evening event that goes virtually past my house. Maybe I was just unrealistic in what I could fit into my training programmes?

I set myself some clear nutrition objectives for the first time this year because I thought I would benefit from losing weight for racing. I’m so pleased that I constructed these objectives in such a way that they focused on food types and better meal planning rather than trying to hit a weight number. As a result I really enjoyed learning more about cooking and the way that food influences energy levels and didn’t get negatively hung up on whether I was losing weight. I don’t remember stepping on the scales at all throughout the year but do know that I went into races confident that I was full of the right stuff to perform.

When I put this plan together I remember thinking hard about the specifics of my performance goals. I thought that I needed benchmarks and so deliberately developed a goal for each of the three triathlon disciplines. I imagined that they would remain clearly at the front of my mind throughout the first half of the year and become a real driver for training performance. However, they didn’t. My marathon goal was nailed in early April and this gave me such a boost. Soon after however I was into triathlon race season and so the opportunities to really test myself against the other targets didn’t seem to occur. The reality of my training workload is that most of the time I’m feeling relatively fatigued and so perhaps don’t feel that PB chasing in training is realistic and I didn’t get myself organized sufficiently to enter any individual discipline races during the tri season. Hence, no focus on the PB speed goals. I need to rethink how I approach this for next year. Ultimately though, the important thing to look at is what happened in races and did I manage to improve ? The year was about middle distance racing and I’m pleased to report significant improvements versus 2016. Despite not putting all three disciplines together as well as I’d like I still managed to beat my 70.3 personal best twice throughout the season. I delivered a 10% improvement versus 2016 in my swim splits and a 15 minute or 6% improvement in my bike splits from the previous year. The run, which has always been my strength, was an enigma in 2017. I don’t feel that I went so hard in races on the bike that I’d got nothing left when it came to the run and yet for multiple reasons I didn’t manage to put in a strong run performance until the final race of the year. I’m confident though, that next year I’ll be banging out impressive runs to finish off my races( and maybe set some more PB’s)

My conclusion therefore is that its been another great season. I’m another year older, another year more experienced, I’ve learnt new things and importantly its been another year of getting quicker.

This is really encouraging and a mighty endorsement of Coach Annie’s work.

You really can be FasterAfter50.

A few highlights:

  • Marathon Personal Best of 3:12:33
  • Qualification for Great Britain AG Triathlon team for 2018 Euro Championships at Standard and Middle distance
  • Qualification for Great Britain AG Duathlon team for 2018 Euro Championships at Standard and Middle distance
  • Silver Medal at English National Duathlon Championships ( Standard Distance)
  • 70.3 Personal Best in Dublin of 4:53:16
  • Qualification for Ironman 70.3 World Championships in South Africa 2018

Huge thanks to my Coach Annie Emmerson, my sponsor Erdinger Alkoholfrei, my physio Gemma @ Anatomy in Chester and most of all to my amazing wife Kathy for encouraging me to follow my dreams.

From Terror to Joy. The 60 minutes of a cyclocross race!

Its important to keep learning. Its important to keep taking ourselves out of our comfort zone. And its really important to keep doing it as we get older. Being the wrong side of 50 is no excuse for not experiencing the terror of not really knowing what you are getting yourself into.

Mold Cyclocross race

This happened for me yesterday. For a while I’ve been dreaming about doing some cyclocross racing, but not having a CX bike or even a mountain bike meant that it remained exactly as an idle dream. Most dreams remain just that because we don’t put a plan together to make it real.

So I bought a bike. A beautiful Merida carbon frame CX bike. I took it out a few times off road and loved the freedom and sense of adventure that it instilled in me. Next, I entered a race. North Wales CycloCross Group organise a series of races throughout the region each winter and the first in the new season took place yesterday in Mold. Mold is only about 15 miles away so I had no excuse.

I rocked up nice and early. Picked up my race numbers, got my bike out of the car and set off onto the field to have a bit of a warm up.

Oh dear. Within a couple of minutes I was experiencing total terror. Narrow woodland trails that could only be reached by heading down steep muddy slopes with 90 degree turns at the bottom. How was I going to control my bike down these? The answer was, I wasn’t. during my warm up laps I ended up in a heap more times than I can remember. I withdrew to the car park to get my thoughts together.

DLC50MgXcAAiLPq.jpg-largeIf pottering around slowly was creating challenges that were proving difficult then how would I cope in the heat of the race battle? I was very quickly realizing that riding offroad in deep mud was very different to my usual road cycling. I was way out of my comfort zone, deep in the land of the conscious incompetence and concerned that I may visit unconscious incompetence several times more before the day was out! But, heh I wanted a challenge. I wanted to test myself with some new stuff and it felt like I was being thrown in at the deep end, only this time it was deep mud rather than deep water.

In the hour leading upto the start I picked up a few tips from seasoned racers. “Take the air pressure in the tyres down as far as you dare as this will provide more traction through the sticky stuff” was the technical tip and “enjoy it” was the morale boosting tip. So I set off for the start with a simple goal. Enjoy doing something new.

The race began with a couple of laps around a field to stretch out the 120 riders before heading onto the narrow course. All went well around the field and then we were let loose on the brown stuff. The first 180 degree turn came up more quickly than I’d expected and in trying to get around I took out one competitor going into the corner, managed to stay upright myself for a couple of seconds before colliding with another wheel on the way out. I went down, bringing the wheels’ owner down on-top of me together with several other totally innocent, unlucky riders who just happened to be in the wrong place (ie in my vicinity ). We’d only gone a few hundred yards and I’d caused carnage. Luckily no one was hurt and more importantly nobody took much offence to my incompetence. After apologies all round and I was on my way again. Adrenalin was definitely pumping and we headed across the open field towards the next obstacle, a steep drop down a grassy bank. I think I got down this without incident before creating more mayhem on the next 180 turn. Crikey, this was the only the first part of the first lap and I hadn’t even got to the tricky technical wooded section yet. Simply surviving to tell the tale seemed like a more realistic goal at this stage.

Mold Cyclocross 2Somehow I got through the technical section without causing anymore damage to the other racers, but I did block the route a few times as I lost my balance and ended up in brambles and undergrowth. Once back out onto the open section we headed up hill and my strength became an advantage. I started to overtake people as the first lap ended and this gave me a bit of confidence. With confidence came the ability to assess what was happening. I broke the course down into sections, some of which I could attack full gas and others where I needed to take it steady. As the laps went by I also began to learn how to ride through the thick sticky mud. It needed to be attacked with a high cadence in a straight line. As each lap went by I went quicker and quicker and was definitely making my way through the field. 60 minutes went by in a flash and I could now hear the last lap bell. After a very tricky start I’d really enjoyed my debut at cyclocross and didn’t really want it to end.

I crossed the finish line, totally caked in mud, beaming from ear to ear. Cyclocross is such a buzz. I loved it. I’ll be back to do more of the series and can hopefully shake off my Captain Carnage reputation before the season is out!

Rolling with the rhythm of life

I was sitting on the turbo this morning warming up for an interval session, reflecting on the last couple of days. Things are good. I seem to have turned a corner physically and mentally. Getting some positive feedback from Brett Sutton on my latest blog gave me a boost also. Brett doesn’t hand out compliments lightly so to know that he appreciated the way I’d approached and executed the Deva Tri at the weekend meant a lot. He also summed up the key learning from the race for me and that is just how important it is to take satisfaction from the perfect execution of a race plan, irrespective of the result.

Back to the turbo. After the warm up I got straight into the main set which was 8 x 4min intervals at a strong tempo with 4 minutes steady between each one. Earlier in the year I invested in a set of Powertap P1 Pedals so that I could get some objective feedback from each session to support the all important and yet more subjective feelings of perceived effort that I had been using to judge most my sessions in the past. These pedals measure the amount of power that is being put through them and the numbers are especially useful when doing interval training. With this power data I find it helps me to squeeze out even more from a session. The numbers don’t lie. They simply give real time feedback about what is going on. It tells me exactly how much power in watts I’m produced. However, my little friend, my chimp, is ready to step in and make judgments for me about why, as soon as the numbers start to come through and today I noticed something really odd. When the numbers are low, as in the last few weeks, my Chimp interprets this as “you are rubbish”, “I told you, you’re no good”, never giving me a break around how fatigued I might be etc. On the other hand, when the numbers are high, just like today, my Chimps immediate reaction is that the numbers are wrong, the pedals are playing up and over estimating the power I’m generating! Thankfully, I am feeling really good right now and so I could laugh off the nonsense that was coming from my little friend inside my head. It was however, a great reminder not to take any notice of the negativity that comes from within.

IMG_1050

On I went with the session. Each of the intervals got better and I managed to nudge up the average power by 25 watts between the first and 8th interval. I was really happy with this. In between intervals I was riding steady and once my heart rate had come back down under control my thoughts turned each time to the rhythm of life and how it tends to flow in waves. If we want highs (and who doesn’t love them) then we have to accept that there will also be dips in form, motivation, energy etc. I’m learning that its important not to fret about the dips and instead to accept and embrace them. They are normal and necessary for improvement to take place. Objective feedback such as power data can be really helpful to pinpoint a dip and thus make more informed decisions with your coach about backing off for a while. If like me, you want to know why the dip has occurred I am finding that by embracing the process of backing off I can reflect more clearly on what has been happening, seek other opinions and then during this period of lighter training allow my brain to work out the reasons for it. In doing this, we can then adjust our plans or reset strategy so that we can be enjoying the sensations of being back on the way up again in the shortest possible time.

So, not only have I smashed out a great session this morning but I’ve also learnt the value of rolling with the rhythm of life.

Reflections from Manchester 48 hours on

I woke up this morning, now 48 hours on from the marathon, still basking in that warm glow of satisfaction having dealt with my demons and delivered a perfectly executed plan in the race.

The recovery swim and bike sessions from yesterday have done the trick and my legs are feeling much better already. I feel that I’m well on the way to recovering from the battering that the marathon inevitably gives the legs.

I’ve recently been doing some work with one of my clients about what it takes to be a winner and the thing that stands out amongst many success factors is the focus that these winning people have on looking forward. As soon as a victory has been secured they are onto the next thing. Every success is simply a stepping stone towards the next goal.

So I was fascinated to notice that whilst I was in the pool and on the bike yesterday my mind started to whirl again. “I wonder how much faster I really could run the marathon in the future?” Clearly a new goal is forming in my head as I now believe that more is in me than I dared to imagine only a few days ago.

Before moving on though, its important to learn a few lessons from what happened on Sunday. Why did the race go so well? As this blog is all about inspiring the achievement of extraordinary things I thought it may be useful to share why and how I believe I achieved my own extraordinary thing in Manchester.

A huge part of endurance sport is mental. I’ve talked at length about my marathon demon of self doubt that has been festering for many years and it was so important that I’d dealt with it ahead of race day. Standing on the start-line hoping it would be ok is not a recipe for success. For me, having a very explicit conversation about my concerns and doubts with someone that I trusted and whose opinions I valued on this subject was a key step. This conversation clarified that there was much more evidence against the limiting belief that “my body can’t cope with the punishment of a marathon” than there was to support it. As a result of that conversation with Annie I was able to go through a process of reframing for myself. Here are just some of the facts that I used in that exercise to rid my brain of the demon:

  • I am now an experienced endurance athlete
  • I regularly complete and succeed at equally/more demanding events than the marathon
  • I have been clocking up some huge weeks of tri training since the beginning of 2017
  • I have been bouncing back really well from some heavy sessions

I used these facts (importantly, not opinions) to form a new positive belief that I took with me to the start line: Tri training is the best way to prepare my body to perform a marathon.

With this inspiring thought firmly positioned at the front of my head I then set about creating a plan for the race. There is that old saying that “failing to prepare is preparing to fail” and nothing could be truer in relation to the marathon.

You have to go into the race with a very clear plan of what you want to happen. This plan needs to be controllable. Mine looked like this.

  • Go into the race well rested, hydrated and nourished. Eat lots of green veg, good carbs and fats, plus protein during the days leading upto the race. Eat a bowl of my favorite bircher 3 hours before the race. Sip on water with electrolytes during the last few hours pre race.
  • Be disciplined to run an even paced race, know exactly what the mile splits need to be and ensure you don’t get carried away with the euphoria of the early stages. Adjust your pace, even if it feels too easy.
  • Be disciplined about hydration and nutrition. Take advantage of every water station so that you are drinking little and often. Take on board a gel after 45 minutes and then one every half an hour from then on. This keeps the energy levels topped up and avoids hitting the dreaded wall.
  • Stay in the moment. Soak up the atmosphere. Enjoy what is going on around you right now. Avoid thinking ahead. Allow thoughts to appear and drift away again. Consciously run through a technique checklist every mile or so to ensure you remain relaxed. Think hands, arms, shoulders, head, core, foot placement. Relaxation is key.

That was it. There was a physical, mental and nutritional aspect to it. Keep it that simple. Have a plan that is realistic and controllable, and then during the race all you have to do is execute it. However, just because its simple doesn’t make it easy. That in a nutshell is the challenge of the marathon!

This time I was able to execute the plan almost perfectly because I understood what was within my control and I remained focused on the 3 dimensions of it throughout. Also I was fortunate that nothing outside of my control affected me. Sometimes this happens and if so we need to accept it and adjust the plan accordingly.

Reflecting on why things went well is powerful learning for me and I’ll take this forward into my next set of challenges. I hope it can be helpful to others too.

 

Where does Inspiration Come From?

It’s been a very tough year and a half, but I’ve emerged on the other side with a new level of inspiration.

Both my parents have died after long, desperately difficult battles with dementia and strokes. I struggled with the prostate health problem that I’ve discussed previously. Racing didn’t go to plan either in 2016 and whilst I wanted to remain committed to my big long term goal of getting to Kona one day, I think deep down I have been questioning whether or not I’ve got what it takes to achieve this.

I am aware that through this difficult period I’ve been doing a bit of reframing. “Lets aim at 70.3 World Champs and see how I get on with that “ is a conversation that’s been going on in my head. This sounds like an athlete that is doubting himself and showing cracks in his commitment.

This is perhaps not surprising, given the context of the last year and a half. Helping to care for my parents and seeing them very slowly decline towards the inevitable end point of death has been hugely emotional. Without the distraction of training and racing, especially the opportunity to release all the painful emotions through hard exercise I’m not sure I could have kept being strong for them during the difficult final period of their lives. I also believe that my dedication to being fit and strong helped me get through the health scare. So on the one hand, my intensity and commitment to training has been a massive help to me, but on the other I have not been able to convert all the training into desirable performance outcomes that meet with my own expectations.

As a consequence, some disappointing 2016 results have been gnawing away at my commitment and belief to the big hairy goal. The clarity of why I want to go for it has been challenged, especially during those dark days of sitting with dying parents who have worked so hard all their lives only to see them apparently exiting the world so weak and helpless. What is the point of it all? It was pretty bleak at times.

However, out of all this pain and confusion a new level of inspiration has emerged. Inspiration that will be so significant that I’m convinced it will reinforce my commitment to my original long term goal. I started doing triathlon to see how good I could be and so I wanted to give myself the ultimate test by seeing just how good I can be at Ironman World Champs in Kona.

Where did this new found inspiration come from?

My Mum passed away on Jan 26th. She managed to eat her last bit of real food at our house on Christmas day. She was already extremely weak and tired. Her race was seemingly pretty much run. Despite being totally dependant on others for everything at this point, she showed such grace, dignity and joy for what little she had left. Everyday from then her physical condition took another step down and on 12th January she was declared as being in her end of life phase. All medication was stopped. She confounded everyone as she continued to live for a further two weeks with the same poise and courage. She was determined to show what real strength could achieve as she left this world.

I was lucky enough to be with her as she finally passed away and at that moment I realized she was leaving me with one last gift.

So, her parting lesson to me, that I will take as my inspiration for the enormous challenges ahead, was surely that when you think you have nothing left to give, there is still much more within you, if only you have the courage and grace to find it, and when you think that you have been dealt a bad hand, accept it with a smile and find a way of turning it to your advantage.

So when I’m racing in future and I get that inevitable feeling of being empty, when I feel as though I’ve given my all, when the voices in my head are screaming at me to stop, I know I can use my Mum as inspiration and dig deep for those untapped resources of strength and energy that exist within us all.

My inspiration has come from this period of personal sadness and I hope I can use it to drive me forward towards my goal. I know how proud my parents would have been.

Lessons From Jonkoping 70.3

A week on from my body breaking down during Ironman 70.3 Jonkoping I took my first steps back, albeit gingerly and went for a jog. As I was moving ever so slowly through the beautiful fields behind the church in our village one of my favorite songs floated into my brain. Why did this happen at this moment and what is its significance?:

“Now the drugs don’t work

They just make you worse

And I know I’ll see your face again”

The Verve

As I jogged along I thought about it.

Well, I’ve always been anti drugs of any description and yet since the beginning of 2016 I’ve had to take a daily dose of Tamsulosin, a drug designed to manage my enlarged prostate . One tiny pill each day has not been much of an inconvenience and if it was going to prevent a recurrence of the agony of urine retention then I was prepared to swallow my pride and accept that I needed some outside help to keep my body functioning properly.

But here’s the thing. The drugs don’t work for me and they do make me worse as it appears that a relapse could happen at any time and in my case at the worst possible moment during the biggest race of my year. I’ve suddenly lost my confidence and belief in my body to do what I want it to. This sent me to a very dark place and it took a full week to get to the point where I was even prepared to risk something as simple as a jog.

So I’m determined to find a different solution and not simply accept the acknowledged step one (take the drugs and go away) of the medical profession in the management of this increasingly common middle-aged man enlarged prostate problem. I need to find a better solution for me that recognizes my circumstances and my hopes and dreams. I’ve been doing my own research and as a result I’m seeing a Consultant tomorrow!

By coincidence over the last few weeks I’ve been reading a new book by Matthew Syed called “Black Box Thinking”. Its all about high performance and its key message is that success happens as a result of learning from our mistakes and that the “growth mindset rather than fixed mindset” is absolutely critical for winners. I’ll be blogging some more about this soon as I think it’s a brilliant book with some excellent insights but for now I’ll reference it simply to highlight the importance of learning from each race.

So what can I learn from my experience at Jonkoping?

IMG_0685Was I right to chase that medal or should I have cashed in my chips when I was struggling? A week on I still believe it was the correct thing to do. By the time I knew I was suffering a recurrence of urine retention I would have needed medical intervention anyway. Therefore, carrying on did not compromise my health any further. My brain was telling me to stop, but by carrying on I learnt that my body was still capable of achieving my goal and so the real lesson here is that when I’m healthy again and simply on the edge of exhaustion I know that my body can deliver lots more for me than my brain probably wants to allow.

I’ve also learnt that health and fitness are not one and the same thing. They are certainly linked but they are very different.

Unlike fitness, health can change dramatically in the blink of an eye and can appear to some to be out of our control. I accept that there are factors of health that are gifted to us good and bad, but I do believe that there is lots that we can do to give ourselves the best chance of being healthy:

  • Don’t take it for granted. The fitter you are the better chance you have of being healthy (there is the connection). The doctors in Sweden were astonished at my ability to both deal with the condition that they treated and recover so quickly from their intervention. They recognized that this was down to my fitness levels.
  • Take personal responsibility for it. I think I’d abdicated my health to these drugs and assumed because a medical professional had prescribed them then they must be the right answer to my problem. Big mistake.
  • Be as informed as you can about anything that is affecting your healthy balance and keep upto date with new developments and research. The wonderful thing about science and medicine is that as a human race we are still learning so much and therefore, GP’s and even Specialists, can not be on top of everything and we mustn’t assume they are.
  • No one is as interested and curious about your own health as you and so you must influence it as best as possible by asking questions, encouraging reflection and rethinking. What was the best solution yesterday is not necessarily the best solution tomorrow.

I was guilty of failing to heed most of this insight and my body breakdown in Jonkoping has highlighted just how fragile health is and just how much we need to protect and nurture it ourselves. Given that this blog is all about how to achieve extraordinary things after the age of fifty I think the most powerful lesson I’ve learnt recently is that health is the foundation for success and that it should never be taken for granted.

I have never been fitter. Ever. Period. But without being healthy my fitness can not be put to my advantage.

Moving on, I’ve also learnt that despite my passion for life long learning and development I can have a tendancy to get into a fixed mindset without realising it. For example, over recent races I’ve struggled with my new wetsuit and was beginning to “believe” that it is difficult to remove in a race situation. Anecdotes from other people about Xterra wetsuits being tricky helped to confirm this new limiting belief and therefore I was becoming “fixed” around the wetsuit causing the problem rather than me! It was only through repeated conversations with my coach that I realized I was approaching wetsuit removal in the wrong way. Zip down, Velcro ripped, shoulders out works so much better than Velcro ripped, zip down, shoulders out because if the zip is down first then the Velcro will not reaffix itself as soon as its ripped apart, thus allowing the shoulders to pop out. Consciously following the correct steps resulted in a seamless wetsuit removal and brought a real moment of joy within the hurly burly of the race.

Where might you be limiting yourself with a fixed mindset?

My final piece of learning from Jonkoping is that I got my fueling strategy wrong. I drank too much electrolyte and not enough water on the bike and also took on board too many gels, especially caffeine gels. As a result my body couldn’t process it all and it came back on the run. I did this because after my only other race at this distance I totally bonked with one kilometer to go and so this time I think I went too far the other way. Next time I need to find a better balance.

So despite a deeply disappointing outcome at the race there is so much learning that I can take forward to make me a better triathlete in the future.