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!

Smash’N Grab in Bahrain

img_1322In my last post I posed the question “what could possibly go wrong with my audacious plan to do a smash and grab raid in Bahrain on a place for 2019 70.3 World Champs?

As I stood around in the dark looking up at all the bright lights reflecting off the shiny new high rise buildings that envelop Bahrain Bay I was eager to get started. The last 8 week training block had been tough mentally. I was ready for a break but knew I had one last race in me and felt confident that it should be a good one. Lets go do it.

My pre race tinkering in transition went smoothly. It was all done and it was still dark. Sunrise was at 6:13, the pro race started at 6:20 and the rolling start for Age Groupers was at 6:30. I positioned myself amongst the 35 minute swimmers . Nerves were evident amongst the athletes around me and I had to keep reminding myself that I’d prepared well but once the gun sounded and we began to edge closer to the steps down into the water of Bahrain Bay I felt calm.

The sun started to rise, bringing with it the promise of yet another beautiful sunny day. Colours bounced off the angles of the steel and glass buildings that provided a spectacular arena for the swim.

The swim course was pretty simple. A short section to get away from the shore, turn right and then head straight down the bay for approximately 850 m, turn left, left again and head back up 850m before a final left turn to head back to swim exit. I remember thinking that I should have counted the number of intermediate bouys there were down the two long sides of the course as this would have helped me to tick off in my mind where I was upto. Sighting was tricky as the sun was really bright, even though it was just rising and so I had to keep checking where I was heading more often than usual. Even so, I felt I swam well and I got out of the water bang on 33 minutes which is another PB over this distance for me. I love it that I’m getting quicker. All the hard work in the pool continues to pay off. From the exit steps it was only a short way into the bag area where wetsuit came off, helmet, glasses and race belt went on, bag with wetsuit was replaced on same hook on the racking. This was a new process that replaced the usual bag drop area and it seemed to work pretty well. I was in and out of T1 in 3 mins without any confusion.

Out onto the bike course I went. The first thing I noticed was how super smooth the road surfaces were (and not a pothole in sight). This made for very fast riding, but I did feel that only closing down one lane of the 3 lane highway led to a number of close calls especially in the early stages where there were lots of riders in a condensed part of the course. By the time I was coming back into town on the opposite carriageway thankfully there weren’t many other bikes around me as the car traffic was getting very heavy and it felt like we were racing on the outside lane of M1. You really had to have your wits about you at all times as the odd cone that was separating us from cars travelling at 70mph had been knocked over ( either by cars or bikes) so it did feel a bit scary, particularly as I was starting to fatigue. I remember being really irritated by the noise and close proximity of the car traffic and really looking forward to getting off the busy highway.

The highlight of the bike course was the F1 circuit, which ironically was the one part of the course that was totally quiet. It was a thrill to smash it around the beautifully designed circuit, but I was surprised that the surface here was much grippier than the other roads of Bahrain.

I do need to have a bit of a whinge at Ironman referees. There were so many packs of cyclists blatantly drafting each other and the referees seemed reluctant to do anything about it. Just after the first feed station at 25km I was caught by a pack of about 15 guys riding together. Initially I let them all come past me and then tried to overtake to ensure that I didn’t get mixed up in their games. To get past I had to put in such a huge effort that I was going way over threshold and all they did was latch onto my back wheel. After this huge effort I had to ease back so they all cruised through again.  Frustrated, I sat up, drifted back about 15 metres to observe what was going on and then used it as an opportunity to eat and recover from my big effort. I know drafting goes on and I was determined not to let it affect my mindset during the race so I just hoped they would get their just “reward” for this blatant cheating. Magically, at this point a referee appeared on the back of a scooter and I smiled to myself and thought here we go, penalties are going to be dished out. He went up alongside the group, observed for a while and then without penalising any of them simply turned off the highway. Meanwhile, on the opposite carriageway I could see other large groups all working together. I find it very frustrating especially as Ironman talk so strongly about drafting during briefings, and yet when referees see it in action they don’t follow through with the punishment.

Whinge over.

Into T2 I came feeling more fatigued than I’d planned to be. I knew I’d put in a fast bike split but had no idea what this meant in relation to the race as others were likely to have also fared well on that course. Maybe I’d gone a little too hard in the first part of the bike, but probably the heat was having a greater impact on me than I’d hoped. Also, I probably underestimated the course. Flat courses don’t necessarily mean easy courses. Because it was so flat I spent almost the whole way not moving from the aero position and as a result had worked my glutes much more than usual. As I ran into transition with my bike I was aware that the tops of my legs where the hamstrings and glutes join was incredibly tight and was restricting movement.

Over the first kilometre it was a real struggle. I was so far away from the mental picture I’d carried forward from my last race in South Africa where I’d been flowing along so effortlessly and smoothly. Instead I felt like I was having to consciously remember how to run.  Gradually, ever so gradually, I loosened up and then established a rhythm that I felt was sustainable throughout the three laps. By now the sun was high and the temperature was rising way beyond the 6-7 degrees that I’d left behind at home a few days before. Thankfully the aid stations were frequent and really well stocked so I got into a routine of ice cold sponges to cool me down and water to keep me hydrated. For the first two laps this worked brilliantly but then on the last lap they started to run out of both ice and water. For me this was a little inconvenient but I did hope that the majority of the field who were behind me would be ok. ( I later found out that this did cause significant problems for many of the later finishers)

The run leg was a real mental battle. It was hot, I was tired. The course was pretty anonymous. It was very flat, with long straights and a few dead turns. Not having Kathy there to cheer me on and provide a highlight each lap also made it harder so I had to try and take myself away from the fatigue I was feeling and just keep focussed on the positive which was that I had found a rhythm. I didn’t look at my watch as I didn’t want to risk getting downhearted by the speed ( or lack of it) that I was covering the miles but I did take encouragement from the fact that I was passing many more people than were passing me.

Seeing the leading pro’s was a brilliant distraction and I managed to convince myself at one point that they were going so fast as they didn’t want me to catch them!

With a kilometre to go my thoughts turned to my finish time for the first time during the race. I knew that with a strong swim and a fast bike split I had given myself a huge buffer in my own personal challenge to break 4:45 but maybe the slower run would cost me today. Still, a time close to 4:45 would surely be enough to gain me that all important slot for Nice next year. As I took the right turn and onto the magic red carpet I looked up at the screen to try and calculate my time but in my fatigued state I simply couldn’t do the maths. Oh well, give it everything down that last 50 metres and then it will all become clear. I crossed the line, looked up and saw my time as 4:42:29. I was overjoyed. That was a new PB for the distance and I quickly learnt that it was good enough for 2nd place in my AG in this regional championship. How cool is that?

That’s my first medal in an Ironman 70.3 Championship race. I am super happy and feel really privileged to have had this opportunity.  But I didn’t come all the way to Bahrain to simply compete in Middle East championships. I came to try and win a spot at 2019 World Champs. I had a very nervous wait for the award ceremony to discover how many places would be allocated to my AG. If there was only one, which is often the case, then I was likely to be very disappointed  and my audacious plan would have proved fruitless. Fortunately for me, the field was large enough to justify two slots and so I eagerly accepted my place and the qualification coin.

I’d done it. My smash and grab raid to Bahrain was a huge success and I’d finished the year with a new personal best. Faster after 50 continues to be real.

 

I’m off to Nice in 2019. Super excited.

Dealing with an Unexpectedly Difficult Period

It’s been a while since I last shared my thoughts.

I’ve found the last few months to be a very difficult period and this has surprised me, especially as I was feeling so positive after my marathon performance in Manchester.

It’s been difficult emotionally and more latterly physically and I’m pretty sure that one has led to the other.

From the outside it would appear as though I’ve been doing really well. I’ve not been injured, I’ve not missed any training sessions, warm up events have gone well and everything seemed to be building towards some outstanding race performances, but that just hasn’t happened yet. There is something not quite right and putting my finger on what, has proved challenging.

When things become difficult I tend to internalise my thoughts’ until i can work out what is going on. My crazy mixed up emotions and thoughts can contradict each other and so I need to allow them to percolate around inside me for a while before it makes any sense in sharing them. I’m now ready, so here goes….

 

The passing away of my parents has affected me much, much, more than I ever imagined it would. Their deaths were hardly a surprise, with both of them requiring 24 hour care for almost the last two years of their lives. Observing their decline and helping to care for them during this final life stage took much more out of me than I’d expected. My rational self understood that whilst the daily caring might be emotionally tough it does at least it prepare (or I thought it did) you for a future without them. Training everyday gave me the space to process all the emotion and get ready for the next session of caring for them. I really don’t know how I would have been able to cope without the gift of swim, bike and run sessions. When they died I knew they were ready, I knew they were at peace, I knew they had thoroughly enjoyed their lives and I knew they had passed on amazing values to their children and grandchildren. Their work was complete and this helped me to understand, accept and embrace their passing away. I thought I was at ease with it.

 

So why have I found the months since Mums death so difficult? I’m not quite sure is the honest answer. Maybe, it’s something to do with the responsibility of dealing with their will and tying up all the loose ends of their lives? I’m not good on admin at the best of times and this feels like an administrative task that is designed to file them neatly away. Hence I’m struggling with it.

How do you deal with a pair of lifetimes that have now ended? Why do we have to put a monetary value on it and create a set of “estate accounts” that summarises their lives? Surely it’s about more than this? Their home for the last 55 years, full of possessions accumulated along the way, nothing ever discarded because you “never know when it might be needed”, has had to be dealt with. How do you decide what to do? Some things have sentimental value and will be kept and distributed amongst the family as prized memories. That’s the really positive and rewarding part of this responsibility. Other things can be taken to the tip because they were never needed again (surprise surprise) but with a bit of luck they may get recycled. Wardrobes full of clothes can be taken to charity shops and may prove useful to others. Again there has been something mildly satisfying about these two functions. Then there is a whole mass of other stuff that has helped to define and colour their lives and makes the important difference between a house and a home. All the things from furniture, ornaments, bits and pieces that they accumulated along their journey, every piece chosen for reasons that will never now be known. Everything they possessed was hard earned and so they didn’t make any purchase decisions lightly. Whilst some of this stuff would still have been useful to them for the next twenty years it now seems that it has become redundant. When these things are taken out of the setting of the home they simply become a random collection of odd things. Its value to the world is seemingly minimal and yet to them it was priceless. Should I really be making the choice between a charity shop and ebay for the things they worked so hard to possess? Is that really all dismantling their home has come to? I realize I’m over thinking all this but maybe its part of my grieving process….certainly getting it all down in this blog is helping me to identify what has been going on in my subconscious.

 

Another factor in my emotional struggle recently has been the question of what next. We moved our lives three years ago to be close to my parents to help them adjust to a less independent lifestyle. This is now over and so we can choose to do something else and choose to go anywhere we like. Now that my parents have gone we feel that we want to move on and so we have spent lots of time discussing all the places we might like to move to. This is exciting, but also destabilizing at the same time. I think I’m realizing that unlike in the Paul Young song from 1980’s wherever I lay my hat is not really my home. I think I do need to have a physical base that I can call home in order to function at my best. Our decision to move on is crystalising for me that Chester is not going to be home, nor is Windsor where we brought up our boys but moved on from 3 years ago. So where will our home be? It’s too early to say yet but I know we’ll find the right place and when we find it, it will also prove to be the springboard for a new business venture for us both to share. That’s really exciting but currently not knowing where is proving a distraction to my current goals in middle distance racing as it destabilizes me when something doesn’t go to plan.

 

For example, my first A race of the year was two weeks ago in Sankt Wendel Germany. It was the European Middle Distance Duathlon Championships. Last year I performed really well and picked up the bronze medal for 3rd place in my AG and going into this years race I thought I was on top form. I’d had a really good block of training following on from my marathon achievement in April and I really believed I was ready for another outstanding performance. But it just didn’t happen.

 

The first run went perfectly to plan. I managed my effort faultlessly around two laps of what was a brutal run course and came into transition in 3rd place with two Dutch guys exactly where I wanted them. I thought I would be stronger on the bike and so would be able to build up a lead that would give me half a chance of holding them off on the 2nd run. However, to execute that plan I needed to bike well and deliver the power numbers that I knew I was capable of holding over the 60 km leg. To prevent me from going too hard up the climbs I knew the power number to stay below but frustratingly I couldn’t get anywhere near this number. I just didn’t feel right on the bike that day. My legs struggled to find the power and strength that was required. Over the first two laps I did at least manage to hold a respectable, if below par, level of output on the bike but as I went onto the climbs for the third lap my legs just died. I was suffering badly and almost cramping with the effort I was putting in to produce such a reduced level of power.

I couldn’t understand it as I had taken on board lots of fluids and fuel so I couldn’t be dehydrated or empty. Had the hills just sapped my strength more than I’d imagined they could?

I went out onto the 2nd run in 3rd place. A German guy had passed me on the bike and I’d got past one of the Dutchmen. The first part of the run lap was ok as it was slightly down hill but then I hit the hills for the first time. Bang, I could hardly lift my legs to keep them moving. My quads went into cramp immediately so I had to stretch and then walk. I was suffering, but determined to keep pressing on. It wasn’t long before the Dutch athlete came past and at that point I realized my medal hopes were gone. I just couldn’t get up those stinging hills to stick with him and on the way back down I had to be even more careful as my hamstrings were ready to pop into cramp if I went too quickly. I kept going and have taken a huge positive from the race that I did not become at all negative about my performance whilst I was in the middle of it ( I have certainly given myself an unnecessary and unjustified kicking about it since the race though!). I didn’t need to remind myself about how lucky I was to be doing this, I simply maintained focus on the task in hand which was to get to the finish as quickly as possible and I still managed a huge smile as I crossed the line in what proved to be 4th place. I was proud but hugely disappointed at the same time. I felt I was in shape to win a medal but for some reason I just couldn’t deliver on the bike and then suffered even more on that final run. I did under perform. It’s certainly not about fitness, but maybe I just wasn’t strong enough to take on such a brutal course. Or maybe it was one of those mysterious days that I hear elite cyclists talk about when they just didn’t have the legs? Or maybe, and this is what I believe its much more about, it was something to do with all of the stress I’d been unknowingly carrying since the funeral? Maybe the mental fatigue that is stress, converted itself into physical fatigue.

I now recognise that 4th in Europe is a great achievement, but with Jake, my eldest son alongside me for this race I so wanted to win a medal as I misguidedly felt that this would cap a really special weekend together. I now realise that I’d been unconsciously putting way too much emphasis on the result of this race whereas the really important thing to value is that we had a fabulous 5 day road trip together.

When I finished the race I knew it was the hardest course I’d ever competed on and the physical punishment that it created was still evident a week later. I normally bounce back pretty quickly but it took a week before my legs felt like they belonged to me again and almost two weeks on I’m still not feeling as though I’m executing my training sessions at the levels that I should be reaching. I think I can be assured that I pushed myself to the max in Sankt Wendel and have no regrets that I could have given more!

Ultimately all you can ask of yourself is that you gave it your best and this I certainly did. It didn’t work out how I wanted and I’ve accepted that it’s ok. Importantly, it’s not going to derail me from working towards the rest of my goals for this year and the next two years. I heard a helpful comment from Dave Brailsford of Team Sky after the Giro D’Italia finished when he said that what he’d learnt from the race was that even when things go wrong, if you keep knocking on the door and doing the right things then eventually the door will open and you will get your deserved reward. That’s exactly what I will keep doing, knocking on the door.

 

It’s now a triathlon door for the rest of the year, beginning this weekend with one of my favorite races, Deva Triathlon in Chester. It’s such a beautiful setting with the river swim and the natural arena of The Groves for the climax of the run. Lets hope this inspiring setting can kick me out of the lethargy I’m feeling and get me firing again towards my next A race in Denmark in a few weeks.

 

I’ll let you know how it goes.

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.

 

Listen to Coach not Chimp

I was a week out from running my 1st marathon for 8 years and the training plan told me to follow up my longish run on Saturday morning with a 2hour cycle on Sunday. Coach had described the cycle session as steady. Nothing more please!

It was a beautiful late March morning when I set off towards the Welsh Mountains with not a care in the world. My mind was wandering back to the same week 27 years earlier when our 1st son was born. Such amazing memories. The weather then was beautifully warm and sunny too and at that time I couldn’t wait to take our new son out into the world. I remember like it was yesterday showing him things for the first time. It truly was the most exciting thing that had ever happened and the memories of that momentous personal time are still as vivid today. And every year since during the last few days in March the weather seems to be unseasonably superb and this always has the effect of transporting me back to that wonderful time.

So I was in a very happy place as I got the legs and body warmed up over the first few miles heading towards Wales. My awareness was brought back to the present when I spotted a road I’d never been down before and thought I’d give it a go as it seemed to be heading towards the Mountains where I wanted to end up. Sure enough it took me directly to where I wanted, revealing the perfect long drag into the foothills that I’d hoped.

I reached the bottom of a familiar longish climb sooner than I’d expected and quickly calculated that I could probably afford to take it halfway and then peel off back towards home. That would give me a really good two hour circuit.

Off I set at a comfortable tempo, remembering the advice from Coach Annie to keep it nice and steady. My Chimp was woken up when I saw a group of riders ahead. Let’s just get to them, and then either sit in and take a ride the rest of the way or cruise past, I thought to myself. I added a few percent to my power and started to close them down but just as I was about to join them, a couple of cars came past me but couldn’t get around the group. I was now caught behind the cars and frustratingly found I was having to constantly brake going up hill to avoid running into the back of the cars. I knew it didn’t matter, it was a lovely sunny day, I’d only got to knock out 35 miles or so, so what was the problem. Just relax and go with the flow. Chimp however was getting irritated. I needed to get past these riders and show them the speed they should be going up the climb ( weird I know!). After a few minutes the road opened up, the cars went past and I was also able to cruise past. Having done this manoeuvre I now felt the need to settle into a slightly harder rhythm when bang, I got a shock, as two new cyclists came from nowhere, cruised around me as though I was stationary and with a jolly “good morning” sped off up the road.

This was the moment where my chimp truly took over. “Don’t accept that” he told me. “Get after them and show them whose a stronger rider. Is it you or them?” So that’s what I did. It was as though I had no control over myself. This horribly competitive side of me kicked in and wouldn’t let go. I latched onto the back of these two poor guys who were out for a pleasant Sunday ride and I’m convinced that very soon after this my chimp woke theirs up and the fun now started. I could sense that they squeezed a bit more out of their pedals to shake me off, but I wasn’t giving in. At times the power numbers were way over 300w and we were only half way up the climb. On and on we went. They pushing harder, I responded to hang on. As the minutes went by my thoughts turned to what must they be thinking. It’s hurting me, so it must be hurting them. They are putting in even more effort on the front so maybe it’s time that I should come around and do a turn. But I was hanging on. How could I possibly do this? A few more minutes went by and we had now settled into, what for me, was a top end threshold effort. It was uncomfortable but I knew I could hold it and I also felt like we had now imperceptibly formed into a group (rather than me simply sitting uninvited on their wheels). It’s weird how that happens without any words being spoken, but it did. This was the moment where it felt right for me to come to the front and take a turn at keeping the tempo up. As I came past I sensed that my effort was welcomed. Now I needed to dig in and hold on. There was still a mile or so to the top but I was beginning to enjoy the pain of being on the edge and knew that it was sustainable. Just before the very top there was one last junction on the right and the two strangers came past to tell me they were peeling off and acknowledged a good effort all round. Our chimps had a metaphorical group hug as the strangers headed off right and I was left to push on over the last few hundred metres to the top.

Wow where did that effort come from? That wasn’t part of the plan for the day, but it was such a buzz to push it with those apparently like minded lycra clad strangers. My chimp was now happy and for the next thirty minutes or so I cruised along recovering from the effort I’d put in. I realised I’d gone further than planned and the loop to get home would mean I’d be out for longer, but not to worry it was worth it for that blast up the climb.

By the time I got home I was now feeling fatigued but content that I’d got an extra 45 minutes in the legs. This would surely be helpful. But no.

The next day was an easy run day. Just 4 miles very gentle alongside the river bank in the sunshine was all that was required. Easy! My legs felt like lead weights, my body did not want to play. I can’t remember the last time I found it so hard to keep putting one leg in front of the other and all I was supposed to be doing was an easy jog.

I struggled home and posted my comments on the session for Annie on Training Peaks. Within an hour I got an email reply. “There was a reason why yesterday was supposed to be a two hour steady ride and not almost 3 hours with a 15 minute threshold blast in the middle. You have a marathon next week and you are supposed to be getting ready for it!” Oops. Sorry Coach. I got carried away. Or more to the point I allowed my chimp to run riot.

A few days on I feel like I’ve recovered and not done any real damage, but I also now recognise just how every session is there for a reason. The lesson is to listen to Coach and not Chimp and the moral of this little story is to never lose sight of the bigger picture. This particular block of training is leading me into the marathon and if I want to perform well in it then I need to remain disciplined about how I prepare.

Fingers crossed for Sunday in Manchester.

Peak District Triathlon 3 July

 

What a cracker of a race!

The Chatsworth Estate is an inspiring venue for a race right in the heart of the beautiful Peak District, and when coupled with a still, sunny early morning it created a magical environment that more than made up for the fact that all bikes had to be racked and ready to go by 6:30am (despite my start time not being until 8:20am).

After the torrential rain of the previous day, the race village was pretty wet, but the roads had dried up nicely and the conditions were set for great racing.

Xtramile Events, the race organizer are very good at putting on a race and when it became clear that there was congestion trying to get 1000 competitors onto the site between 5:30 and 6:30 a.m they dealt with it all very quickly and put the start of the race back by 15 minutes. It’s not what they did, but the calm way that they did it that seemed to relax everyone and prevent any unnecessary stress so early on a race day. Well done Xtramile.

Today I was racing the sprint as a warm up and a bit of speed training before my next “A” race (Ironman 70.3 Jonkoping) in Sweden next weekend. This season I’ve used a similar strategy to prepare for my other “A” races and its proved successful so I was hoping to keep it going.

Given that I had 2 hours between racking my bike and my start I was under no pressure and took things very gently. It was great to catch up with Erdinger Pete and Cath and have a warm up with fellow Erdinger team-mate Garry. All was going well as I went back into transition to put on my wetsuit and get ready for the swim start. However, the zip on my trusty Erdinger tri suit jammed and wouldn’t zip up. Despite the help of the full Erdinger crew we couldn’t dislodge it and so had to improvise so that I could start. It’s amazing what a few safety pins and some packing tape can do!

CmbNn3EXEAEPrDgRelieved, I headed off to the swim start arriving just in time for my wave to enter the water. 12 degrees was mighty bracing and the 60 second wait for the start gun seemed like an eternity.

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Once we got going I forgot about how cold the water was as I was too focused on trying to find a small amount of it that I could swim in. It was so crowded and the River Derwent through the Chatsworth estate is fairly narrow and shallow at the edges so the swimmable channel was limited to say the least. The downside of improving my swim speed is that it takes a lot longer for me to find any clear water and it wasn’t until we got to the turn buoy at 375 m that it seemed to settle down. The good news though is that my improving technique now gives me the confidence to hold my lines and fight for my position in the water. I’m definitely getting there. I felt like I swam well on the return and was soon exiting the river to head back up the field to transition, dodging the sheep pooh along the way!

My new wetsuit has proved tricky to get off to date and today I probably had more challenges than before. During the run back to T1 I would usually have the upper part of the wetsuit off ready to kick it free from my legs as I get to the bike. Today however I didn’t manage to get it off my arms and ran into transition with both arms trapped. So I lost time doing my Houdini impression and then made things worse by getting the clasps on both my helmet and race belt stuck. 1:51 in T1 was not v impressive and probably cost me all the time I’d made up through swimming faster! Heh ho, at least this is something that should be easy to correct and then I’ll be really hunting down the fast swimmers.

Out onto the bike I went. Today, we were being given special access to the private drive of the Devonshire family which led us alongside the river and out onto the public roads. I don’t know what they have been doing on this road but it was covered the whole way with a thick layer of, what I assume were, animal droppings. By the time we reached the road my bike was coated in this thick slime….nice ( 1st job when I got home was to give my flying machine a good clean!).

After 3km we entered the village of Beeley and headed up the 3-4km steady climb to the top of Curbar Edge. This was my kind of climb as it was not too steep and by tapping out a nice cadence I went past dozens of fellow competitors. Over the top I went and slotted straight back into the big ring and found a superb rhythm that powered me all the way back to Chatsworth. Even the section of road on the return that had its top layer skimmed off didn’t cause me any issues as I decided to take my lead from the Paris-Roubaix boys who talk about going hard to skim across the cobbles. It worked for me and I was soon arriving back at T2. There was a long run across the sodden fields from the dismount line and I was feeling very pleased with my decision to race sockless for the 1st time. Bare feet dealt with the mud and puddles very easily. A much quicker T2 got me back out and onto the run course. This was a brute. It’s all off road on a combination of muddy paths, fields and rough tracks. Its 2.5km up hill and then 2.5km straight back down again. The ascent is a leg burner, pace is irrelevant its just about getting to the top in one piece so that you can then let it all go on the way down.

With a thousand competitors on the course at the same time it created a great atmosphere on the run as friends and family generated lots of noise and encouragement.

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I crossed the line smiling from ear to ear in 1:19:34, after a 23:14 run which is the slowest 5km time I’ve recorded for a long time. But this is not a fast course. Its got long transitions and each of the 3 legs has its own special challenges. So the time doesn’t matter here, it’s the experience that counts and this is what makes it a very special race. I had a real buzz and spring in my step.

As I helped out pouring Erdinger for all the finishers I could see that it wasn’t just me that thought this was such a special race. Everyone was smiling, exhilarated, swapping stories of their own race and their own interpretations of the brute of the hill at the end, the shock of the river, the challenge of the bike course. I think they’ll all be back again.

Well done XtraMile for putting on such a great event. Huge thanks to Erdinger for their continued support to me and especially today for the running repairs that got me to the start line.

Oh, and I later found out that I finished 2nd in my AG and given that this was a 2017 European Champs Qualifier and therefore attracted a pretty high quality field it shows just how much I’m improving as a triathlete.

Chuffed!

What great preparation for next week. If I can get my wetsuit off (and wear a trisuit that works), who knows what I might be able to do !

Picking Up The Gauntlet

Over a few drinks last Christmas the gauntlet was thrown down by my eldest son Jake and his girlfriend Becky. They wanted to join me in a team triathlon and so fittingly, we entered a race called “The Gauntlet”, a Middle Distance triathlon that formed part of the Castle Series. Cholmondeley Castle is only around the corner from where we are living in Cheshire and so it was the ideal venue for us to put together our scratch team.

Becky was to be our nominated swimmer, Jake our cyclist and I became the runner. Jake had done a few triathlons in the past, but nothing since 2013 when he decided to focus exclusively on cycling, and boy what a cyclist he is becoming.

Becky swam as a young girl but had not trained for a number of years and so this event was designed to be a huge goal for her to aim at. She clearly trained well as her performance on the day was outstanding, easily beating her target time for the swim.

June 26th soon came around for the team. Race day was a beautiful clear, calm morning. The contrast between the weather and emotional state of our swimmer was pretty evident and as Becky sat in the holding pen listening to the race briefing I could see the nerves and tension building on her face. Having never experienced anything like this before to have to listen to the full briefing for a Half Iron distance race must have been pretty terrifying. Thankfully I got the chance to reassure her before she headed off into the lake that she was ready and had nothing to worry about. “Let the fast guys go, position yourself out wide to minimize the start chaos and most all relax and enjoy”.

I’m delighted to report that at least someone listens to my wise words!

After 950 meters the swimmers emerged from the lake, ran back around to the start pontoon and began another lap. Becky came out smiling and celebrating as she heard that she had done the 1st lap in under 19mins. She was swimming really well and clearly enjoying herself. Knowing this, Jake visibly relaxed and headed off to transition to get himself ready for the bike leg.

2016-06-27 13.59.34The leading swimmer entered transition after only 25 mins and the leading lady was just 4 mins behind in 4th place overall. Becky continued to swim brilliantly and soon emerged from the lake and ran up the grassy slope to transition to hand over to Jake in just 38:59. We were the leading relay team and in 44th place overall. Becky’s joy at this news was great to see and we just had to take the opportunity to get her onto the podium at that moment!

2016-06-27 13.59.30Jake disappeared off into the Cheshire countryside settling into his textbook aero position on his Canyon Speedmax flying machine. He makes cycling look effortless, but he even shocked us by reappearing after lap one in 5th place. He had overtaken 39 competitors in 32km and had now got his sights set on the top 4 guys, all of whom were very tasty triathletes. At the end of lap two he was upto 4th and by the end of lap 3 he was only seconds down on Phil Murphy in 3rd place. Jake completed the bike leg in 2:25:03, an amazing 7 minutes faster than anyone else. Admittedly he didn’t have to save himself for the small matter of running a half marathon but it still represented a pretty impressive performance. So says a very proud Dad!

Jake GauntletAs he came past at the end of each bike lap, I found myself becoming more and more nervous. Both he and Becky were performing brilliantly and I didn’t want to let them down. As I warming up my legs felt like jelly and I needed to give myself a good talking to “ you are the experienced one, you know how to perform, so just go out, relax and run”.

2016-06-27 15.45.49We had the advantage over the individuals in the race of a much quicker transition as all we had to do was rack the bike and then transfer the timing chip from Jake to me. So, luckily I got out of T2 ahead of Phil Murphy. I’ve been getting to know Phil over the last few months as he has been helping me with my bike position and I know what a strong and talented triathlete he is. So I decided to go off quite hard to try and put a bit of distance between him and me and then see how long I could hold him off.

The run was three laps of 7km and each lap included an out and back section where you could eyeball the competition and then a stinging hill up and around the castle. As I came back down the out and back on lap one I could see that I was about 400m ahead of Phil and probably 1000m down on Chris Standidge in 2nd place.

By lap two I managed to lengthen my lead on Phil but was now approx. 1500m down on Chris. I was still feeling good and running with a strong rhythm. As I got onto lap 3 I knew that I’d be able to hold on and keep the pace up. All I had to do was tackle the castle hill for the final time and then it was downhill all the way to the finish shute. Jake and Becky were waiting and we crossed the line together, all delighted with our mornings effort. We finished 3rd overall and 1st relay team. 4:28:58 was our finishing time. I really didn’t imagine we could get close to 4:30:00 so to go under this barrier was a hugely satisfying achievement. My run time of 1:23:37 was also way faster than I’d expected and so this provided another little layer of pleasure.

Gauntlet finish lineCrossing the line together was very emotional for me. I felt really proud to have competed alongside Jake and Becky and to have Ben, my other son, Kathy and my sister Judith cheering us all on throughout the day made it really special.

2016-06-27 15.45.48I know that in many of the events that I race I become very focused, lost in my own bubble of concentration, sometimes unaware of the support and sacrifice that the family make on my behalf and so it was brilliant to experience racing in a different way this time. This felt like a real shared experience and one that I’d love to repeat again and again.

So, you can imagine just how delighted I was to be asked later in the day “When can we do that again?”

Glorious, Glorious Copenhagen!

Its funny how things work out.

A week ago I was fretting big time about my troublesome hip after crashing on the bike 3 weeks earlier. I wasn’t sure I’d even be able to start the race in Copenhagen, let alone come away with a bronze medal.

IMG_1998 In the build up to the race I was getting shooting pains through my left thigh every time I tried to run anything beyond a gentle jog. As a result, I reframed my goals for this particular race, the European Long Distance Duathlon Championships, and rather than putting huge expectations (and therefore pressure on myself) of a podium finish I decided that my aim was to enjoy the Championship race atmosphere, manage my way through both runs as well as possible and put in a strong performance on the bike leg. The most important thing was not to make the injury worse as there are three more “A” races to come this year. By acknowledging this change of plan I immediately felt better and I realized just how silly it is to put so much pressure on myself by setting such lofty, but ultimately uncontrollable goals. As a coach I know this, as an athlete I’m still as guilty as the next athlete of falling into the unrealistic goal setting traps. When will I learn?

So we set off for Copenhagen feeling excited about the weekend rather than anxious about how the injury might affect my performance. The journey was a joy, the world seemed to be in a happy place (or perhaps that was the filter I was viewing things through) and Copenhagen looked stunning for our arrival. The weather was glorious, beautiful sunshine for 5 days and not a single cloud to spoil the perfect blue sky. The locals were wonderfully welcoming everywhere we went and I can’t speak highly enough of what a charm there is about Copenhagen. And to top it all, it is a cyclists heaven. We cyclists are given priority throughout the city and everyone respects each other. Why cant all cities follow their lead?

Having arrived on Thursday we had a really relaxed build up to the race and were able to combine course recce with other touristy type trips. My leg continued to give me shooting pains but not with the same frequency or intensity so I knew I’d be able to complete the race, but just didn’t know how quickly. Lots of the pre race prep was completed on Saturday and I went to bed the night before knowing the bike was safely racked and all I had to do on Sunday morning was check tyre pressures, set shoes up and ensure race nutrition was on board.

I woke feeling good. A positive mindset is always helpful, but strangely, can’t always be guaranteed, so I stood on the start-line ready and excited. Given my injury concerns I didn’t bother fighting my way to the front of the wave queue but put myself somewhere in the middle where I thought id be able to manage my pace without the threat of my race Chimp butting in and encouraging me to go too hard to keep up with the quick boys!

After the 1st kilometer where I experienced lots of shooting pains through the left leg, things settled down and I knocked out a fairly solid 10k, arriving in T1 in around 6th place.

IMG_1867 The start of the bike course was very narrow due to road works and so I treated this as a neutralized zone and used it to fuel up ready for the next 60km. Once onto the open roads I felt strong, powerful and importantly comfortable on my new bike and new position. Having only got the bike a week earlier this was its first test and it felt dreamy compared to my old bike that I’d struggled with over the last 4 years. 60km went by in a flash and I was back in T2 91 minutes later, having worked my way through the field, apparently into 2nd place. The new bike helped me to post the fastest bike split in the AG and whilst I didn’t know my position at the time I did have a sense that I was in contention given that T2 was pretty much empty of bikes as I arrived.

IMG_1885 Out onto the 2nd run I went and I was pleased to find that I wasn’t in danger of cramping even though I knew I was tired. I’d carried out my nutrition plan on the bike perfectly and knew I had enough fuel to get me through this last 10km. The unknown of course was how would my leg deal with it? The answer was pretty well. I couldn’t push hard but I did get into a bit of a rhythm and ground out the miles. As I headed down the final straight towards the finishing chute the crowd was creating a brilliant atmosphere and I remember taking it all in, despite the fatigue that was now bubbling under. I checked behind to ensure there were no national kits coming flying towards me and relaxed to really enjoy the last 100metres.

IMG_1926 I crossed the line with a huge sensation of pride in representing my country, knowing I’d given my absolute best on the day. On this occasion I wasn’t immediately anxious to know my finishing position. It was enough to know I’d put everything out there and I was really happy whatever the outcome. A Dutch athlete, Henry Dullink, came over and introduced himself. He’d won our AG and I was delighted for him. We struck up a rapport straight away and when I discovered I’d finished 3rd and won the bronze medal, I was overjoyed. It was a really special moment to go up and receive the medals together. He is going to be in Aviles next month for the World Champs so it will be fun to have another chance to race against him then.

IMG_1942 As always I owe a huge thanks to Kathy for being there for me and putting up with all my pre race nerves, to Annie for believing in me and helping to get me ready to race, despite the injury, to Charlie my physio for keeping my legs together and to the team at Erdinger Alkholfrei for their generous sponsorship.

On this occasion I also want to give special mention to Barron Mendelson the GB Team Manager who did a tremendous job for the whole team throughout the weekend. I also want to thank Phil Murphy from Total Tri Training in Chester who fitted my new bike for me and the new position feels powerful, aerodynamic and comfortable. Once I get used to the bike, I will be flying!

Winning this medal feels very special. Having won medals at Sprint and Standard distances, this is my first at longer distance racing and its given me a huge boost of confidence for the rest of this season, when I’ll be testing myself much more over the longer distances. Importantly, it’s also the next step towards my crazy dream of contending at Kona one day!

Dream big, work hard and you never know what might happen!

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.

The Windsor Duathlon : Queues, Quagmire, Queen and Query

Wow that was one tough race. A stunning setting with challenging conditions.

My experience of the inaugural Windsor Duathlon, hosting the British Championships, left me with a battered set of legs, a memorable return to Windsor two years after moving away and a sprinkling of confusion over the results.

The executive summary would read: Queues to get into the car park caused the race to be delayed. The race delay led to The Queen’s plans to drive across the course to cause havoc with the race and this led to confusion over finish times that have left me considering querying the result. Oh, and the quagmire around transition added a whole new level of challenge to what was already a pretty tough mornings fun!

So, to my race report.

Race morning was bright and chilly. I only had a two mile ride down to the start so I didn’t have to endure the stress of many of the competitors who were stuck in traffic queues waiting to get into the race car park before 7:30am. Not a great start to their days, I can imagine and the queues just kept getting longer so ultimately the race organisers decided to delay the start of the racing by 30 mins. The heavy ground conditions were making it difficult to park cars safely.

Fun and games really began in transition which was sited in possibly the boggiest part of the Great Park and being a former local I can confirm that this area is always likely to flood with a bit of bad weather!

As athletes began coming in and out of transition to set up bikes etc the whole area was quickly churning up and turning into a mudbath. These unique conditions were playing havoc with mindsets as experienced athletes were changing their normal bike set up regimes as whispers went around about whether the mud would make it more difficult to put bare feet into cycle shoes after running through the quagmire to the mount line. For a minute or two I even found myself questioning my normal strategy, but then quickly came to my senses and reminded myself to stick to what I know. I prepared my bike as normal, with shoes clipped in ready for my feet to slip into at the mount line. This was definitely the right thing to do.

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Race briefings are a mandatory part of every event and they are a bit like the safety briefing on an airline. Everyone is half listening and half focusing internally on what is about to happen. Right at the end of this briefing however my focus was brought fully back to the briefing as we were informed that the race was due to be held up at some point between 1030 and 1100 as the Queen and some Royal friends and family were going to drive across the course. Was I imagining this? Was it April 1st? No, it was real. The announcer went on to explain that a timing mat would be set up either side of the road that the Royal Party would pass through so that any athletes held up would have their timing chip stopped on one side of the road and restarted when they crossed the mat on the far side plus these affected athletes would be given a 20 second bonus for inconvenience! I can’t imagine a more bizarre set of circumstances for a race, but we were being given the treat of using The Queens back garden so I guess this was the price we were paying for getting access.

The race started at the foot of a stinging climb heading towards the “Copper Horse” with one mass wave of all male standard athletes jostling for a good position. The hill goes up in three steps and was a punishing way to begin. Once at the top we then had a fast flat section that led onto the beautiful polo fields. The first 6k was all on roads and then the terrain changed to footpaths and then a long downhill section on a sandy horse trail. This was the bit I was least looking forward to as it is normally loose sand but fortunately it had all been compacted and so was pretty good to run on. Once we emerged from this forested section it was then cross country across fields of mud before popping out onto the long walk for the final section back to transition. This was a tough first run and so I was pleased to have completed it in a solid time.

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The mud was definitely getting thicker as we approached transition, so I gave myself one tiny reminder to do what I normally do and before I knew it I was heading out after a fairly smooth transition. In hindsight I should have carried my bike “cyclo-cross style” out of transition as the tyres picked up lots of mud which caused a few issues over the first mile on the road but once this cleared I forgot about the mud.

The bike leg was four laps of an undulating technical course which was made even more tricky with the sheer volume of riders on the narrow Park roads. The first half of each lap was twisting with lots of short punchy hills, so very difficult to get into a rhythm. A few close calls with other riders who made unexpected lateral movements in front of me didn’t help to settle me down and I found the first lap very hard mentally. My legs didn’t feel good, I couldn’t get into a relaxed position and then I realised that my saddle had dropped. My “chimp” was now getting into overdrive and I spent the rest of the 1st lap battling with myself to think positively. By the time I got onto lap two I was in a much better mental place. This definitely relaxed me physically and I then began to enjoy the challenge of the two distinct halves of the course. The 1st half brought the twists, the changes of gear on the climbs, a few little moments out of the saddle, the chance to hydrate and take on fuel, whilst the back half of each lap was about sitting in the best aero position I could find given the lower saddle and powering a big gear. I felt I was performing better as each lap went on and once the sprint athletes had completed their two laps it was much easier to navigate the thinned out traffic and push on with confidence.

Turning right at the end of the 4th lap for the final mile down the Long Walk with Windsor Castle in the background was truly spectacular. This for me was possibly the best moment during any race. There did not seem to be anyone else on the road at this precise moment and I had this awesome view to myself. Maybe I got distracted by this because before I knew it I was at the dismount zone and misjudged my dismount by perhaps a quarter of a wheel length. Unlike most events there was not a line across the road so (in my defence!) it was really hard to know exactly where the line was. I should have dismounted a few metres earlier as this mistake cost me time. The official called me back and made me stand for what seemed an eternity before releasing me back into the trenches of transition. Fresh shoes were waiting for me and off I went, gingerly picking my way towards the timing mat at the edge of transition.

I often describe the sensation of running off the bike as being a bit like running through treacle. The legs are heavy, the blood seems to be in all the wrong places and the brain hasn’t yet worked out that you are now trying to propel yourself on foot again. Well imagine this normal sensation combined with actually running through a treacle like muddy field for at least 400 meters to reach the stability of the “Long Walk” metalled road. I almost lost my shoes twice in the mud but managed to navigate my way to safety and was given a real boost as the race commentator recognized me, and flatteringly mentioned me in his announcements. The second run was a dead straight out and back loop of 2.5 km. The first lap was agony as my legs were struggling but then on the second lap I began to feel stronger and think I picked up the pace a bit, although the time for this 2nd run was poor, so maybe I was imagining it!

The beauty of these out and back runs is that you can usually eyeball your competitors but the problem yesterday was that there were no distinguishing features such as colour or letter coding to identify the different age groups. Given that this was the British Championships I think it was a shame that this hadn’t been done.

I finally crossed the line feeling totally spent. I’d given my all and was totally satisfied with how I’d performed. I’d made a couple of errors but overall I’d done a really good job and was delighted to hear on the tannoy that I was across the line in a medal position (unofficially).

Now I’ve never done well in the British Championships so the thought of a medal was massively exciting. For a couple of hours I was elated until I was shown a copy of the updated results that revised my finish position to 4th. Its still unclear to me what happened but I can only assume that the guys who were finally placed 2nd and 3rd were caught up in the Queens crossing incident. If so, they must have been behind me at this point in the race as my wife told me later that I went through the crossing point just before the Queen arrived and so I was blissfully unaware of any disruption this may have caused behind. My split times for each leg of the race appear to add up to a faster overall time than the guys placed 2nd and 3rd and so I am assuming that their “finish time” is their actual chip time whereas the splits represent the times at each point from the start.  I hope that there is a clear explanation and the results can be adjusted to reflect the true reality of what happened. You can see below how the results are currently being shown.

I’ve spoken with BTF and they are going to get back to me.

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Whatever happens it was a great day. We caught up with a number of friends that we haven’t seen for ages, I got cheered on by, hopefully, the next generation of duathletes and I got another strong race in my legs. But, where was the Erdinger Alkoholfrei as we crossed the finish line to recover with? I missed you!

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So now its back to training to prepare for the next biggie, European Long Distance Championships in Copenhagen next month.