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.

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.

Where does Inspiration Come From?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where did this new found inspiration come from?

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

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

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

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

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

“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!