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.

“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry”

Where to start?

I guess to reassure everyone that I’m ok. I’ll be out of action for a little while, whilst I try to get to the bottom of what caused my problems during the race but I’ll be back stronger and better prepared for having endured what I went through on the streets of Jonkoping!

I’d never been more excited in the days leading up to a race. It was going to be my first official Ironman 70.3 race and it was our first time in Sweden. The scale of the whole event dwarfed most other things I’ve been involved with for the way it took over the whole community. ITU and ÉTU championships are great and have brilliant atmospheres but the excitement around the town of Jonkoping for their first ever Ironman event was captivating and a privilege to be part of.

I felt ready and my performances over the previous couple of weeks suggested I was hitting a peak level of fitness and form just at the right time. This was the race I’d been looking forward to all year and I had a well of confidence that was building inside.

We arrived in Jonkoping a couple of days early and had a chance to look around. It’s somewhere that we would never think of coming to unless it was for a race and I’m so glad that we’ve been. The setting on the enormous Lake Vattern is stunning and for a town of less than 100,000 it has amazing facilities for its people (and having visited the inside of its leading edge hospital it was like being transported into a very bright future compared to our overstretched NHS ). We enjoyed a relaxing day exploring the bike course which took us through some stunning countryside, stumbled across a fabulous restaurant for lunch and most importantly took even more confidence from the terrain. The toughest section was over the 1st 40km and so once I’d ridden this as practice I knew how hard to push to ensure that I could really go to town over the second half. Confidence was building even more.

2016-07-09 12.25.06Race day arrived and the conditions were pretty much perfect. It was cool, overcast and the high winds of the previous days had dropped to simply a steady breeze. It was going to be a memorable day.

The added complications of transition with red and blue bags and changing tents all seemed to be falling my way as I had the ideal slots at the end of racks and would have no problems finding my things. The stars were aligning beautifully!

2016-07-09 14.36.30A short warm up swim calmed me down and helped get me in the zone for the start. An enchanting rendition of the Swedish national anthem just before the Pro start brought a tear to my eye and reinforced what a special day this was going to be.

Ironman races seem to begin with a rolling start to minimize the washing machine effect and so the 2000 competitors slowly edged their way to the start line with 4 swimmers at a time being released down the ramp and into the water.

The swim course could not have been more straight forward. Up the lake for 900m, turn left for 100m, turn left again and swim back for 900m. Easy. I swam ok and did not get passed by too many others. The last 400m was hard as I was beginning to get a combination of tired, bored of swimming in a straight line with nothing else to think about and a tad anxious that my heart rate was a bit high. I was glad to reach the swim exit and pleased with my legs as they got immediately into a smooth run along the blue carpet towards transition.

My thoughts now turned to getting out of the wetsuit. Would I be able to execute this today or struggle as I’ve been doing recently?  Zip down, Velcro released, out popped my shoulders and my arms were out without any drama. Easy. “Can’t wait to tell Annie” I thought as I ran towards T1.

It must have been 800m to transition and so plenty of time to take stock of how I was feeling. My most over-riding thought was that my heart was still racing and this felt very odd and so I tried to breathe deeply and slowly to bring it down, without any joy.2016-07-09 14.35.15

Once into T1 I grabbed my bike bag and headed into the tent. Wetsuit was removed seamlessly, helmet on quickly, swim stuff put back into the bag and away I went, dropping the bag into the big bins en route to my bike. There seemed to be plenty of bikes in my area which is an encouraging sign of my swim progress and off I went. As I got into my riding I was still very aware of just how high my HR was and so I continued to focus on slowing down my breathing to get it more under control.

I then settled into a strong TT position for the first few kilometres as I headed out of town towards the 1st big climb. I’d practiced this climb and so was pleased to find that the gears I thought I’d need were the ones that I used. This race was going to plan. I reached the high point of the bike course in good time and then felt it was time to push on. I’d been taking plenty of fluid on board and swapped a bottle for a new one at the 40km feed station.

During the 2nd half of the bike things began to unravel. I was getting distracted by strong sensations of the need to pee and yet I couldn’t manage it. This was creating tension in my body and I felt an increasing need to get out of the aero position and stretch off a bit.

2016-07-10 19.33.53-1I was pleased to get back to T2 and get on my feet again as I thought this would unlock my ability to pee once I got going. I had a good transition and flew out onto the run course feeling momentarily invigorated. My legs felt great and I thought I was about to put in a strong run. However after 200m I suddenly felt odd and vomited in full stride. It seemed like the gels I’d been taking throughout the bike course had been rejected by my body. My stomach was churning violently and I had to slow down and hang on for the 1st aid station. I made it and felt a bit better after a visit to the toilets but was still concerned that I hadn’t really managed to pee properly. Despite this, I thought that I needed to get some water inside me to help dilute the gel concentrations that were probably still sitting in my stomach. I was now feeling pretty rubbish but concocted a plan to jog between the aid stations and walk whilst taking on bananas and water until i felt better. However, everytime I tried to increase my pace I felt the waves of nausea returning together with an increasing frequency and intensity of the need to pee ( but I simply couldn’t).

So I now had a choice. Do the sensible thing, pull out and accept its not my day or battle on and reach the finish line?

I kept hearing the voice of the race director in my head explaining that the finisher medal was the same for the pro’s as it was for the age groupers. I wanted that medal and the worse I began to feel the more I wanted that little bit of metal on the end of a yellow ribbon. Getting that medal drove me on, even though I was getting slower and slower.

As I passed Kathy on each lap I stopped to reassure her that I was ok, even though I was becoming increasingly aware of how much I was struggling. To her credit she didn’t once try to get me to pull out but just gently asked me to re-evaluate each time. To me this was a critical moment, a test of how well I understood my limits. I wasn’t going to put myself in danger but I did want to see how much I could suffer in the pursuit of something I wanted to achieve. I had plenty of time ( two and a half hours on that run, if you can call it that!!) to listen to my body and assess what was going on. I had a pretty good idea that this was a recurrence of a urine retention problem I’d had last year and it would probably end up with a visit to hospital but in that moment I just had to believe that I could reach the finish line.

On I went getting slower and slower. The encouragement from the crowds were overwhelming and small children almost brought me to tears with their words of support in perfect English.

I finally crossed the line 3 minutes short of 6 hours to proudly receive my finisher medal. I knew deep down that I needed to find a medic quickly but it took Kathy’s arrival to make me do it. I was put straight into an ambulance and taken to the hospital where a brilliant team were waiting to sort me out.

Total relief. Total admiration for the skills of these people.

2016-07-12 13.10.115 hours later, following a series of tests I was allowed to leave, still proudly wearing that Finisher medal. I feel huge gratitude to the whole team who helped me at Jonkoping Hospital.

Ironman 70.3 Jonkoping did not work out the way I’d hoped or planned but I loved the experience, loved the weekend in Sweden and it will most definitely rank very highly in terms of my most memorable races!

As ever, thanks for the continued support of Erdinger Alkoholfrei, thanks to Coach Annie for all the guidance and preparation and thanks to Kathy, friends and family for all the love shown to me.

I’ll be back!

Listening to the body is key to learning the ability to adapt

It’s been a challenging week, but such an important one as I’ve learnt more new lessons that I hope I can hold onto as I continue to develop as a triathlete.

I woke up on Monday morning feeling rubbish and for a couple of days continued to go downhill physically and mentally. I was struggling with an overwhelming lethargy, a grogginess as I wasn’t sleeping well, an aching body and a sense of not been in focus. Everything was fuzzy and the physical niggles that I’ve been dealing with in my right hip and left achilles just suddenly seemed to be much more intense (they weren’t, it just felt like it).

Now, over the weekend I’d decided that this week was going to be a big training week. I’d recovered (or so I thought from Windsor) and with no business deadlines to get in my way I was going to focus on putting together some strong training as I build up to the next part of the season which is going to be about racing longer. So waking up feeling rubbish wasn’t a great start. Not being able to put a label on it made it more difficult for me to accept that there was some real going on and that I wasn’t just making an excuse to forgo training.

Unlike the normal me, I made the smart decision, took the day off and replaced training with rest but this only seemed to make things worse. A chat with Coach Annie the next day helped and she reassured me that taking a few more days to let my body heal itself was what I needed. Now, getting Coach’s approval to ease back is crucial for me to get my head right and in doing this it freed me up to reframe the way I saw the week. I was still going to train hard but rather than these sessions being swim, bike, run sets my training was now going to be based around lying down, stretching, foam rolling, reading. The time I had planned for training was still going to be used but in a different way.

One of the things I read was this brilliant article by Brett Sutton and it really resonated with me. http://trisutto.com/?s=ability+to+adapt

Brett really understands the Age Grouper psyche and in his article he identifies the very common challenge for successful people of juggling multiple important balls that include career, family, friendships, sport. (Maybe its part of the appeal of triathlon that it involves yet more juggling). We do often fall victim to the delusion of wanting it all,  thinking that we can fit it all in and that is probably the driver behind the 3.30am turbo session that Brett alludes to. He is quite right to point out the madness of it as it will have a negative impact down the line. We probably all know this, but need reminding of it so that we can change our behavior when its getting out of control. Hence the importance of a coach.

However, there is something else that is going on inside the Age Grouper psyche, I think, and this relates to the misguided view that we are supposed to be superhuman. Our contemporaries and colleagues admire us for our energy and invincibility and therefore we are not supposed to have bad days at work, at home, at play. We are not allowed to have days when we are off colour. We are supposed to set an example.

The dreaded “Man flu” is one thing and being injured is part “badge of honour”, part “comes with the territory”, but having a non specific sense of not being right is seen as not an excuse for not continuing to live our lives at 100 miles an hour, 24/7.

And that’s where we get it wrong. We wont be super humans unless we listen to our bodies and know when we are in danger of tipping ourselves over the edge.

There is a difference between the pleasurable fatigue the body knows when it has put in a block of hard training and the sense of lethargy, the aching deep in the bones and the general weariness that are signs that we are putting ourselves in danger. We need to learn to recognize this difference. If we can, then we will know when to step back and adapt and we can work towards being super humans rather than chasing the madness of superhuman status.

So, to build on Bretts mirror conversation. Lets really take a look long at that person reflected in the mirror and ask “what is my body telling me today and do I need to adapt my training ?”

By replacing swim bike run for a few days with lie, roll, stretch I’m now really alive again and enjoyed a lovely run along river this morning.

Long may I continue to listen to and trust in what my body is telling me!

Thanks Annie, thanks Brett.