It’s life, gym, but not as we know it

A long time ago… in a galaxy far away (I know.. I’m committing the cardinal sin of mixing a Star TREK related blog title with a Star WARS related opening line)… I was a gym-bunny.

And I don’t mean; someone who would go to the gym on a Saturday morning… I mean a proper, bona-fide, “go as often as I could”, paid up member of the gym-bunny community.

I think, at one point, I used to go pretty much daily and I even put together a fairly well equipped gym at home… you know… because just going once in a day is never enough.

All of that was really before I re-discovered the joys of triathlon which, for me at least , generally involves training either outdoors, in a pool or at home on a turbo trainer. The gym doesn’t really figure in that equation.

But now that I’ve started to allow myself to think about Ironman Hamburg, in July, I also needed to think about how I wanted to approach my training for it.

It’s a conversation I’ve had with myself through the pages of this blog before (I’m assuming that no-one else reads it, of course)… Do I simply repeat 2014 and my Ironman Sweden training approach?

Or do I try something different?

We all know the saying; “If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got”.

Well I think that’s relevant here.

I actually don’t WANT to get the same result that I got in Sweden… my natural competitiveness with myself urges me to try to better my first result… whether I can or not is besides the point.. I’m 4 years older now, don’t forget.

But – it’s clear that if I want a different result, I need to do different things.

The most straightforward route to an improved Ironman time for me, let’s not forget, is to be a better runner.

The run leg of Ironman Sweden took me the biggest part of 7 hours and that was wholly down to the fact that, all year, I’d barely run more than 25 miles combined… so asking myself to run 26 in one go… after a long swim and bike… was “ambitious”.

I did it… but it was painful, as many of you will know.

These days, the fear of injuring my artificial hip (which held me back from doing any real running training ahead of Sweden) has diminished for some reason (and I genuinely can’t explain that) although I’m still not keen on repeatedly running distances in excess of 3 miles so I need to do something to make the 26 on the day a little more palatable.

I also wonder whether a generally physically stronger version of me might be able to drag myself around an Iron-distance a little quicker than I did on that sunny August day in 2014. Previously, my cardiovascular fitness has been wholly responsible for my having reached the finish line of any event in which I’m entered… that and my ability to “endure”.

And it’s this desire to improve my running and general strength that has re-ignited my interest in the gym.

On Tuesday evening, then, I turned up at the leisure centre where I generally head for the swimming pool – all bright eyed and bushy tailed – and found myself following the people wearing their nice new gym-attire.

I’ve no doubt that, to the regulars there, I looked like another “New Year’s Resolutioner” whom they’d see for a few weeks… but no more.

I started by pointing myself towards the cardio machines – and one particular unit stood out… almost like a cross trainer, but not quite – this piece of equipment seems to mimic the action of running without the impact that tends to come with slapping one foot repeatedly in front of the other for mile after mile.

The forwards/backwards motion of your legs is almost entirely free – rather than “fixed” as would be the case on a cross-trainer. So it’s your muscles that are engaged in making sure that your back leg ends up in front of you, repeatedly – as opposed to the concept that sheer mechanical momentum will force your legs to keep swapping places

It’s also your muscles that dictate how high you raise your legs on each “step”, how far forward you stretch out your front leg and how close your heel gets to your backside as you flick it at the end of the “stride”.

All of this, though, is done with your feet planted firmly on the “pedals” so there’s no impact whatsoever.

That sounds ideal for someone who wants to run but doesn’t want to damage anything!

I got on and, after a minute or two spent looking like a baby deer trying to take its first steps, got into my stride. It’s a clever “gadget” – the screen in front of you continually shows a real-time trace of the “shape” that your feet are making (as if viewed from the side) and so encourages you to not only make sure that each leg is doing the same thing (which mine tend not to!) but also makes you consciously raise your knees a bit more rather than just lolloping (yes – it IS a word) along.

Elsewhere in the gym, I huffed and puffed my way through various upper-body weight routines… training all major muscle groups… as well as various leg weights exercises (at which I discovered myself to be surprisingly weak).

Whilst, from a weight’s perspective, I think I’d intended on going in there and “finding my feet” – not necessarily pushing myself too hard at this first visit – I quickly remembered what it was all about and was selecting challenging weights pretty much from the off.

Realistically, I have the opportunity to visit the gym once or twice a week – any more than that and my other training activities would need to start reducing, which I’m not really keen to do – and I’m genuinely not sure whether a gym visit or two will make the kind of difference that I want it to… one thing is for sure, though… it can’t harm to try.

And what about the most important aspect of anyone’s training; enjoyment?

Did I enjoy it?

Well, before I answer that question, I’ll point out my own observation that some of those who prefer the great outdoors (which, I should add, I still do) can be found almost sneering at those who frequent the gym instead – almost as if there is some kind of superiority thing about breathing fresh-air while you train.

I’ve never been one to subscribe to that notion, to be honest… I’ve always felt that, as long as you’re enjoying your training, it makes little difference to me whether you do it in a gym or outside.

And, yes… I did enjoy my training in the gym.

I enjoyed it quite a lot, if truth be told… I could sense the improvements to be had and I find that hugely motivational.

Sure – for me – if I had to choose between the gym and, say, cycling outdoors, the gym wouldn’t get a look-in but, thankfully, I don’t have to choose… I thoroughly enjoyed the change in direction and have no intention of stopping.

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Together in Electra Dreams

Many years ago, when I was but a kid, I was absolutely appalling at sport.

Just jaw-droppingly inept.

Lots of people will tell you that they were last person to be picked in team events… almost as some kind of “reverse pride” claim… but I genuinely was… and with good reason; I’ll happily admit that a football team, for example, would, quite frankly, have been better off with one too few members than it would have been with me frantically running the other way every time the ball came close.

I only knew one way of throwing a rugby ball; Straight up in the air – with enough force such that I was nowhere near it by the time it came back down.

You might be smiling at my use of artistic licence now but, trust me, I am not exaggerating one bit! – That rugby ball trick of throwing it straight up and running away was a genuine tactic that I employed to stop people even passing it to me in the first place.

I had a couple of moments where I exceeded my own expectations (as well as those of everyone else), and, prophetically, they were in solo-sports where endurance and stamina was key to a good result.

One in particular stands out; a middle-distance track event which I went into with my usual sense of “why me?” but then, surprisingly, went on to find myself on the heels of the leader with just 200 metres to go. What’s more, we were a country mile ahead of everyone else.

Alas, there was no fairy-tale ending involving me sprinting past said leader down the finishing straight and raising my arms aloft in a victorious celebration… I finished 2nd… but in a race of 8 people. And that was a clear 6 places ahead of where I had expected to finish.

As an aside, it’s strange that I never noticed where my strengths did actually lie. I guess the term “sports” (at my school, at least) generally meant football and rugby, so my own preferences weren’t really noticed by anyone else… hence they were never really noticed by me.

And then… I found cycling.

As did a few of my mates.

I was okay at it… probably because my legs would take sustained effort much more happily than they would take sprinting down the side-line of a football pitch with an over-enthusiastic, 16 stone, PE teacher bearing down on me like a tiger chasing the weakest link of the herd.

Cycling gave me a place.

I started getting into bikes.

The ravages of time have taken their toll on my memory of that era so it’s all a little unclear, but I guess I was around the age of 13 when I got my first “proper” road bike – a “British Eagle”… nowadays, that name doesn’t shout “quality” but, back then, it was a revered piece of machinery, which I acquired from a cycling friend of my parents.

By comparison to me at the time, said “friend of my parents” was an old man (he was in his late thirties, for goodness’ sake!) and, consequently, the bike was a bit “old-man”ish. My love affair with it never really got past the first date stage… and it certainly didn’t get as far as “come back to mine for coffee”!

I harbored ambitions of a bike that I could be proud of.

And then my hip decided to throw a huge spanner in the works… but this blog isn’t about my hip so that’s all I’ll say on the matter. After a number of months out, and once I was fully recovered from the “hip-issue that will take up no blog-space here”, I returned to thoughts of buying my dream bike.

I’d actually seen it.

It had been one of those moments when, like in a film, the clouds had parted and a single column of light descended.. illuminating nothing except this bike in front of me.

It was a “Peugeot Electra”… Reynolds 501 frame… Shimano groupset and Mavic Open 4CD rims.

It was purple with yellow flecks and, where my British Eagle hadn’t inspired even a slight flutter of the heart, the Peugeot Electra was “love at first sight”… it was a case of “wine it, dine it, take it home to meet my Mother and marry it as fast as I could”.

There was the small issue of price, however – in the specification I wanted, along with accessories, it came in at a hefty £500 and, in around 1989, that was not a small sum for a 14 year old to be parting with.

I had two morning paper-rounds (I was just as committed to 5am morning starts then as I am now) paying me a grand total of £12 per week… a full year of saving £10 per week gave me the money I needed.

So I bought it.

It was everything I wanted it to be.

I was king of the road and went everywhere on it.

I’d clean it obsessively and, whilst it was also my “get to school bike”, the bike-sheds, with all the “riff-raff”, were simply not good enough for it. I convinced a lady who lived next door to the school to give me keys to her garage so I could leave it there during the day… locked up and safely away from would-be thieves.

My relationship (for that is exactly what it was) with that beloved bike lasted just a matter of 6 months, or so, though.

One morning, as I went down to my parent’s garden shed to retrieve my favourite girl for another good ride (get your minds out of the gutter, please!), I noticed something that would make anyone feel sick to the stomach… a broken padlock and a door flapping in the breeze.

My much adored Peugeot Electra was gone… stolen… never to be seen again.

The insurance company were great and, as it happened, I ended up with an even nicer bike at the end of the whole episode; the next one up in the Peugeot range thanks to some nifty negotiating between the chap in the bike shop and the insurance company.

But that replacement never felt as good.

It just wasn’t the same.

I ended up selling that bike to, of all things, a “triathlete” (whom I thought must be some kind of god to even take part in a triathlon) in exchange for enough money to buy my first motor-racing helmet, at the age of 17.

Motorsport took over for the next 8 or 9 years.

Then came the second round of hip issues which, again, I’ll not go on about in this blog besides just saying that I physically couldn’t even get on a bike for a fair few years, let alone ride one, so thoughts of cycling were far from my mind.

Then, with hip-issues resolved, in 2009, I tentatively returned to cycling.

Since then, I’ve gone through a few bikes.

By the end of summer this year, my current collection numbered 4; a gorgeous road bike (named Linda), a bone-rattling winter steed (Vanessa), a rugged cyclo-cross bike (Brenda) and a hipster single-speed (Margot).

BUT

You know what?

I have always had a soft spot for that Peugeot Electra that won my heart as a teenager.

From time to time, since it was stolen, I’ve looked out for another one but, once again, time had done funny things to my memory and I’d actually forgotten the model name, aside from the fact that it was a Peugeot, which made finding one challenging.

The vast range of “vintage Peugeot bikes” that came up in any internet search made it akin to looking for half a needle in a field of haystacks.

I even e-mailed “Peugeot Bikes”, describing it and asking if they could tell me the model name or, better still, whether they could help me find one.

They couldn’t assist, sadly.

And then.. all of a sudden… a chance search on eBay, a few years ago now, found a bike that looked just like mine had, all of those years before… and there it was… a “Peugeot Electra”.

My memory came flooding back. I recognised the model name and I just knew that, unlike U2, I’d finally found what I’d been looking for… but, sadly, it was the wrong size.. by a large margin… about three sizes too big.

I immediately set up an eBay alert, emailing me whenever a “Peugeot Electra” was listed… desperate to find one in the right size.

At a guess, once every year, I get an e-mail from eBay telling me about one that’s been put on their site. Bizarrely, though, it always seems to be the same one – as if the person selling it is unsuccessful and gives it a year before trying again.

In the meantime, I’ve looked elsewhere online a fair few times – always without success.

So, essentially, I’d still only ever seen one for sale in all the years I’d been looking… and the fact that it was the wrong size was intensely frustrating… if only I was taller!

And then, a few weeks ago, an e-mail came through from eBay telling me of yet another listing… I clicked on the link, fully expecting to see the same bike that I see every year or so but no.. this was a different one… and it was in my size!!

Furthermore, it was an immaculate example with pretty much exactly the same spec that mine had had!

It was quite a distance from where I live but I don’t have to tell you how much I wanted, nay “needed”, that bike… distance was irrelevant.

I messaged the chap who was selling it – almost begging him to close the auction and just sell it straight to me… which he agreed to… so she’s mine!

At this point, I should clarify that my ever loving and supporting wife, Lisa, actually did the “parting with money” bit – it’s a fantastic Christmas present from her to me and I’m massively grateful! THANK YOU, LISA!

And here she is (the bike, that is… not Lisa!).

From this day forth (and in keeping with my propensity to name my bikes) she will be known as “Carmen”.

“Carmen Electra”.

She makes an incredibly welcome, and pretty, addition to my collection, I’m sure you’ll agree .

After the disappointment of having my first “bike love” stolen almost three decades ago… and having searched high and low for a replacement for many years… I can’t tell you how happy I am that I’ve finally got this one.

Well, I guess I can tell you… but it’ll take a mammoth 1772 words and take the format of this blog-post.

 

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He shoots. He scores

As we approach the end of the year, it’s the focus of many-a-blogger to consider a “year in review” style post… for me, I don’t have to wait for another couple weeks… I might just as well get this done now!

At the beginning of the year. I set myself a swimming target, a cycling target and a running target.

I’ll not get drawn into telling you what those targets were… I see no positives in going down that road because, after all, your reaction will be either “wow, I could never achieve that!” or “Is that all?”… neither reaction is especially positive and, what’s more, you’d then breeze through the rest of this blog with that initial reaction at the forefront of your mind and you’d barely focus on the words you’re reading.

No – the important thing is that I set myself targets that, come hell or high water, I was going to achieve… notwithstanding the fact that I broke my wrist so badly just three weeks into the year that it needed a permanent plate and screws just to hold it together (it actually is bigger now than it was before, thanks to the extra metalwork inside!).

A few weeks ago, I turned up at the local swimming pool with just 2,500 metres to swim in order to achieve my 2017 swim distance goal. Against a typical distance of 1 mile / 1,600 metres per swim, it would have been quite easy to think about taking another two “bites” to hit that target.

But I had other plans.

I switched my endurance swimming head on… the one that I developed when training for the 14km swim I did in the Thames… the one which can just drift off into another world while my arms and legs just carry on as if they are on auto-pilot.

I was determined not to get back out of that pool until I’d got through the 2,500 metre mark.

And I didn’t.

In fact, my mind was so divorced from the outside world that I swam some distance beyond the target distance for the day before I even thought about looking at my watch.

My 2017 swim target was ticked off.

Highlights of my swimming year include the night swim I did in October, about which I blogged so I won’t repeat the glorious details here – click here to read that blog!

Other highlights of my swimming year, bizarrely, don’t even involve “swimming” and both happened in the height of the British summer.. which was essentially two days long.

“Day one” of the summer was when the cycling club with which I ride, on a Wednesday evening, all cycled down to the local marine lake and, after stripping down to just our cycling shorts (and cycling top for the one lady involved, I should add), jumped in for a bob-around before heading off to a pub for a post “swim/ride” drink.

“Day two” of the summer, the very next day, was when I, along with Lisa and the boys, went along to the same lake and had a family dip.

The summer ended after that – but what a glorious two days it was!

Just a couple of days after hitting my 2017 swimming target was the turn of running.

I’d got to within 1 mile of my 2017 mileage target following a gentle 3.5 mile jog around Liverpool… kind of an “early morning run to shake off the excesses of a night out on the town” sort of affair.

So, having completed a daylight 45 mile bike ride on the Wednesday – with another few hours to go before I had to pick the boys up from school… and not much work left to do (I do have a job, after all!!), I thought it would be just plain rude not to combine a chance to experience the joy of “running off the bike” with “hitting my 2017 running mileage target”.

I finished the ride, threw my tracksuit bottoms over my cycling shorts, changed into my running shoes (almost “triathlon transition” style) and jogged off up the road.

I only intended to run the 1 mile I needed to hit my target… That was always going to be plenty to both hit the annual goal and to remind my legs what running off the back of a bike ride felt like.

I ran 0.6 miles in one direction (to give myself a margin of error), turned on my heels, and ran back to the start.

1.2 miles and my annual running target was surpassed.

As for the highlights of my running years; I’ve already referred to those, really – they were probably the 2 runs I did in Liverpool over a three week period. I was up there for a combination of business and pleasure… and taking running shoes is much more practical than taking a bike… besides, a jog around the streets of Liverpool at a “sight-seeing pace” proved to be a lovely way to spend some spare time indeed.

And now, on to cycling.. the last of my annual targets to be achieved.

Three days after I’d hit my running target and I was looking pretty “nailed on” to hit my annual cycling mileage objective, too (and, in case you’re not paying attention, that meant that all three targets were hit in one 6 day period).

It was the day of the “Abbey’s and Roads” Audax – the topic of my last stupidly long blog (click here for that!).

I only needed to complete 18 miles of that 130 mile ride to push through my 2017 mileage.

If you read the blog, you’ll know that I suffered 3 punctures at around mile 30.

I noted in my last blog that, with those three punctures and the bitterly cold, icy, conditions, my resolve for completing the ride had been wavering as I stood by the side of the road carrying our repairs and, truth be told, the fact that I knew I’d achieved my annual target prior to suffering those punctures did play a part in my being happy enough to call it a day with a broken bike.

As you’ll know, however, if you read that blog, I didn’t call it a day and so, by the time I got to the end of the 130 mile ride, I hadn’t just “fallen” over the line, so to speak… I’d sprinted through it.

The highlights of my cycling year are harder to pinpoint since I spend so much more time on a bike than I do either swimming or running.. consequently, there are far more memories upon which to look back.

I guess, in terms of sheer dogged determination, one highlight must be the 100 mile turbo trainer ride I did with my broken wrist in a cast and my elbow propped onto the handlebar to keep it as elevated as possible throughout. I did that, to be honest, just to see if I could mentally stomach the biggest part of 6 hours on a turbo trainer… and, clearly, I could.

Cycling highlights must also include the 130 mile ride I have referred to earlier – the focus of my last blog.

At 130 miles, it was a long way from being my longest ever single-day ride (almost 140 miles short!).

At c8,500 feet of climbing, it falls well short of the ride with the most elevation, too… a ride I did earlier in the year had that much elevation over just 90 miles and even that falls quite a long way short of the hilliest rides I’ve done this year (i.e judged on an “elevation per mile” basis).

It also falls well short of the longest period of time that my backside has been in contact with the saddle.

So, on paper, it was not particularly remarkable… but it was most definitely a “highlight” given just how tough the conditions made it… as I mentioned in the blog that focused on it, I class it as my most difficult day on a bike… ever… and that is saying something!

Anyway – there you have it… a single week where all three of my targets were achieved.

I can now take stock and ease off a little bit over Christmas, before getting back on it in 2018… the year or the Ironman #2!

 

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I feel that ice is slowly melting

When George Harrison sat down to pen the words to the iconic Beatles track; “Here Comes The Sun”, including the dreamy line; “I feel that ice is slowly melting”… and when the Beatles then went on to include the song on the album named “Abbey Road”, who’d have known how prophetic he was being?!

Sunday was the day of the inaugural Audax-organised, “Abbeys and Roads”-named, bike ride… and, in keeping with George’s prediction, the sun did “come” and the ice did “melt”… eventually!

I’d entered the ride some while ago… forgetting that a 200km ride in December might be a tough day out!

The first thing I’d overlooked that it was going to be dark at the start, so turning up at 6:30am on Saturday and having to pull my bike off of the back of my car (it was a “drive to the start-line” kind of event for me) with the only light being that which emanated from the courtesy bulb inside the cabin came as something of a shock.

It was bitterly cold, too – so much so that it was the main topic of conversation between Russ, my intended riding companion, and me as we readied ourselves for the day ahead.

Each of our cars’ external temperature gauges were synchronized at a rather nippy minus 3 degrees Celcius.

There was, consequently, plenty of ice on the roads.

The fact that, in lieu of a proper “scraper”, I’d (fittingly) used my British Cycling membership card to clear the ice off my windscreen before I’d set off should have given me a clue as to what we were facing.

Add that to the fact that I’m still suffering a dent in my confidence on any roads, let alone icy ones, following that incident where I was knocked off my bike by a car some weeks ago, and you’ll understand why I was feeling a little nervous about the whole thing as we sat and drank our pre-ride cup of tea.

Russ and I rolled out of the start, along with a few others (including another friend, Julian – who’d elected to ride the 16 miles to the start as well – the madman!!) and, as expected, the combination of having to navigate by the lights on our handlebars and the inevitable ice that was all over the road, meant that our pace was best described as “cautious”!

As the miles slowly ticked by, the temperature remained stubbornly low and, even when we caught our first sight of the sun peeping over the horizon, it was still firmly in “negative” territory.

At one point in that first 20 miles, which was largely made up of country lanes, we found ourselves on a more main road – it had been “salted” and there was no ice.

Still, though, the opportunity to pick up pace was denied us… I accelerated up to something approaching 22mph and, immediately, the rate at which the freezing cold wind was hitting my face caused me to develop a bit of an “ice-cream headache” which could easily have made me feel a bit sick. I recall recounting to Russ that going any faster than we were was simply not conducive to me getting ’round the whole route.

The first stop of the day came in at around 20 miles – by which time Russ and I had dropped the few people we’d been riding with at the start and we were now just a hard-core duo, battling the conditions together.

Whilst it was now pretty much full daylight, the ice was not showing any signs of abating – as is shown by this photo of me – taken at that first stop.

A few miles later and I jubilantly exclaimed to Russ that we had less than 100 miles to go… this was psychologically quite a big moment.

Shortly after I had done so, we rounded a corner and were faced with a descent which, on any normal day, would have offered a lovely opportunity to rest our legs.

This wasn’t any normal day.

The surface was covered in sheet ice.

Russ and I decided that “being heroes” could wait… “being in one piece” was the priority.

We got off and walked… very gingerly indeed… trying to use the cleats in our shoes to gain traction whilst, at the same time, stopping our bikes slipping away from our grasps.

Most people taking part in the ride walked down that hill.

In fact, I only heard of one person who attempted it “on the saddle”… and he had come off his bike quite heavily, apparently, although, thankfully, it seemed that he had not been injured.

In walking down that hill, we’d done the right thing.

Sadly, though, I had also combined the right thing with the wrong thing; when presented with a grass verge towards the bottom of that hill, I spied the opportunity to walk even more assuredly than trying to do so on sheet ice, and dragged my bike on to it.

Why was that the “wrong thing?”

Well – the decision came back to haunt me a few miles further on – my front tyre, having seemingly picked up something on that grass verge, went flat very quickly indeed.

A puncture isn’t nice at any time but when your hands are so cold you can’t feel them, it’s especially unpleasant.

Which is why what happened next wasn’t great.

Despite having checked the inside of the tyre for offending articles, the same one suffered another puncture just a mile or two further up the road.

This time, recognising my discomfort, Russ removed his gloves and got stuck with helping me to sort the problem… and, joy of joys, whilst he was unravelling replacement inner tube number 2, I located the cause of the puncture in my tyre – a nasty little thorn which I removed with my teeth as opposed to trying to summon up the dexterity to do it with my fingers!

New inner tube installed, tyre back “on rim”… and all we needed to do now was get it inflated and be on our way.

I attached my CO2 canister and let rip… it put air into the tube perfectly.

The tube promptly let it all back out.

I tried again,

Air in… air straight back out.

A faulty inner tube valve!

Russ offered me one of his tubes (although that wasn’t ideal as I have deeper rims which tend to need longer valves) but, honestly, I’d had enough.

The combination of the cold, the ice, the wind (did I mention the wind?) and the punctures were taking their toll on my mindset.

I told Russ to go on without me.

I was ready to bail-out, arrange for a large taxi to come to collect me and go home with my tail between my legs.

“Ready to bail out” almost implies that it would have been “against my will”… what I probably should have said to Russ was that I “wanted ” to stop… I really did… desperately

I just couldn’t see myself riding the biggest part of 100 miles in what remained of the day…  we’d wasted so much time by the side of the road, effectively changing three punctures without any real control over our own fingers, and, what’s more,  we were pretty sure that everyone else doing the ride had, by now, gone past us making us comfortably the “lanterne rouge” duo.

Russ did for me what I would, no doubt, have done for him had the situation been reversed; he told me to buck up and get on with it.

His inner tube worked… the tyre was inflated (albeit a bit “spongy” which, actually, I was thankful for on the ice)… and off we road.

In a bid to make back a bit of time, we got a little bit braver for the next 20 miles or so and upped the pace.

The sun was slowly melting the ice such that, by the 45 mile point, the roads were much more passable but the temperature stubbornly refused to rise above freezing point, save for one brief period where it reached the positively balmy heights of 1 degree Celcius – although the wind-chill factor stifled any joy that might have brought!

In the interest of avoiding making this an even longer blog than it looks set to be, the next 50 or so miles ticked by without notable drama.

Please re-read that last sentence and place an emphasis on the word “notable”… the truth is that the whole ride was a drama, thanks to the conditions… I just mean that “notable” episodes seemed in short supply… until we reached the final stop.

At that final stop with just 30 miles to go and the light fading, Russ and I (along with two other cycling companions whom we had caught back up on our way through the field – a lovely cycling couple called Ollie and Rebecca) could finally start having thoughts of reaching the end.

But then another participant in the ride gave us the news that there was a hill yet to climb where the gradient was sufficiently steep, and the surface was sufficiently slippery (being a single track country lane and all), that, in his estimation, getting off and walking would be pretty much the only option.

Our little group of 4 headed off into the now dark conditions and, at each hill we encountered, we wondered if “this was the one” which had been the topic of the discussion.

We needn’t have wondered.

It was very obvious when we reached it.

It would have been properly steep on any normal day in the summer sun – with the gradient comfortably topping 20% for a significant portion of the climb… but in the pitch black with muddy residue all over the slowly re-icing roads, it was not something that I could contemplate riding up, that’s for sure.

As soon as my back wheel started slipping under load, with my pedals spinning freely beneath my feet, I knew that I was better off pushing the bike… Russ and Rebecca reached the same conclusion at the same time as me… although, if I’m not mistaken, Ollie somehow disappeared, still pedalling.

He got much closer to the top than us, for sure, before dismounting… I genuinely have no idea how!

So, there we were; pushing our bikes up a steep hill in the freezing cold and pitch black conditions… hearing barely more than the sound of “cleats on road” and three lots of heavy breathing.

The walk went on for around half a mile according to my Strava data… that’s quite a long way to push a bike in those conditions but, unlike with those earlier punctures, there was never a point where I was anything other than positive… the end of the ride was almost in touching distance and we were going to make it.

The inevitable descent down the other side of the hill was equally treacherous – although we’d all mounted up by that point – so, as had seemed to be the order of the day, utmost caution was being exercised and I was spending more time with my brakes on than off.

Having overcome that “obstacle”, we knew that all that remained was a fairly speedy glide to the finish.

My legs managed a few solid pushes up some of the final gradients, which was reassuring, but I can’t pretend to have been anything other than spent by the time we actually got back to our cars… both mentally and physically.

It’s not often that I’m pleased to put my bike on the back of my car and rely on petrol power to get me to where I’m going… but this was one such occasion!

I have no doubt that Russ felt the same.

The day had many ups and downs – both literally and figuratively… but it really was a great one, looking back on it from the warmth of my living room!

Without Russ, I certainly wouldn’t have got ’round and I like to think that, with both of us agreeing that it was our respective toughest days on bikes ever, I had a similar effect on him getting to the finish line too… it certainly felt like a real team effort.

And, for real Beatles aficionados, to go full circle and return to the angle I adopted at the start of this blog, the album “Abbey Road” contains those very “hippy” lyrics; “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make”… which, in the context of this “Abbeys and Roads” Audax ride, I take to mean that the satisfaction I took was equal to the effort I gave.

Which was, in a word, “Immense”.

 

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What’s in a name?

A number of years ago, now, I guess, people started to log their various activities using smart-phone based apps.

They were pretty clunky to start with – of course.

Slowly but surely, said apps evolved into much more sophisticated tools… to include allowing people to see the activities of others as well as their own… and, ultimately, the ongoing evolution turned these apps into a whole genre of social media in their own right.

The most prominent, of course, is Strava and I’m a self-confessed Strava addict (notwithstanding the recent updates, which I just can’t get on-board with, I should add!).

If you’re a non-Strava user then you might want to either stop reading now or take a crash course in what it is!

Anyone who is on Strava knows that, just like the genre of apps to which it belongs, it has also developed over time, particularly in terms of how people use it – personally, I’ve gone from simply uploading my rides and checking out my performance over key “segments” to now taking in a whole host of other things.

Chief amongst the development, of course, is that I, along with just about every other user, upload a lot more than just bike rides or runs… there’s swimming, walking (which I like to refer to as “hiking” – that seems a bit more “rugged” – I even have a particular set of walking boots which, so long as I feel the need to wear them, the activity is ripe for uploading…. my “Strava boots”) and any number of gym based activities – I regularly upload my Cross-Trainer antics, for example.

Then there’s the expansion of the social side of it – I’ve genuinely made friends through Strava. Many times have I got home from a ride which I’ve largely spent chatting with a stranger going the same way as I am, had a look on “fly-bys” (for the uninitiated, this is a facility whereby the user can see any other users who broadly shared the same route as them) and struck up an online conversation with said stranger (it usually starts with me thanking them for letting me sit on their wheel for half a dozen miles into that headwind) – all of a sudden, they are a stranger-no-more… and I’ve gone from “creepy online stalker” to “buddy” in just a few words.

And this brings me on to the last of the developments – the title that the user gives to the activity.

Way back in history, the Strava app automatically gave all activities a “default name” which was, basically, the date that the activity happened (remember that?!?! – it all looked very scientific back then, didn’t it?).

A small tweak in the last couple of years or so meant a more user-friendly default name was automatically added – along the lines of “Morning ride” or “Afternoon run” etc etc.

More user-friendly – sure… but… *yawn*.. oh so boring.

As regular users will know, then, rather than just accepting that the default title will stick, we spend half of any given activity pondering what name to give the Strava upload, mainly for the benefit of others (ok – that’s not quite right… we probably spend the first third of the activity pondering the title… the second third tweaking it to perfection… and the final third feeling smug that we’ve come up with such a good title.). I know one guy, for instance, who tends to select title themes which last for a few weeks or so – it’s always fun to anticipate what his next one will be.

Initially, when we were all a bit “green” at all this stuff, activity names tended to just refer to the route that the activity took… but, goodness, how things have changed… we now see all manner of titles up and down our Strava timelines, don’t we?

From complaints about the weather (guilty) to references to near-misses with other road users (also guilty) and occasional references to punctures or sprained ankles (guilty). We even sometimes come up with titles that are designed to make others laugh (yep – guilty)- almost as if we all log on to Strava for some light relief and we just can’t wait to share how hilariously funny we are.

Another key thing that the titles of activities are used for, of course, is to let everyone know how very little effort the the user was employing… so we get words like “pootle” (guilty), “gentle” (guilty) or “steady” (again – guilty).

Let’s face it – words such as “pootle”, “gentle” and “steady” (I’ll also add “leg stretching”, in to the mix) are often there so that anyone else checking out said activity in any more detail (i.e delving further so as to find out the underlying pace achieved) doesn’t think that the person posting was at anything approaching maximum effort to get that result… because that level of honesty just won’t do… no – we need everyone to believe that we could have gone much faster if we’d wanted… we just chose to take that long to cover that distance.

Now – I categorically refuse to believe that I’m the only one who has used such words to mask my disappointment at my pace on a given swim, bike or run when, actually, a more accurate title would have been; “Goodness knows why I wasn’t faster… I was pushing so hard that I felt like blood was about to come out of my eyes!”

Of course, there’s also the converse of this… of which I’m also guilty.

Titles to include “disappointing”, “unfit” or “no energy” tend to mean that the user doesn’t want to appear proud of the activity just in case someone much fitter than them silently mocks them for their pride. In these instances, a more appropriate title might be; “Okay – I’m not as fit as some of you gits but I’m bloody trying… I’m proud of what I’ve done… and I’m getting there!”

Of course, when I (and, no doubt, you) use any of the words I’m referring to, they are sometimes a totally accurate reflection of the activity… a good portion of my “pootles” are actually “pootles”, for instance… so that leaves everyone guessing as to whether the user is being honest or not… which results in a “trust” issue… and that’s not right – it’s meant to be fun, after all!

Now – I’m very conscious that I’ve put myself on the line by admitting to this “cloak and dagger” treatment of some of my activity titles and I’d rather like to think that some of you will step forward and admit to the same. I can’t be the only one and I’d hate to be all alone out here, on this limb of brutal honesty!

BUT – dear reader – I will make you a promise now – and I plead with you to do the same.

I pledge to, from now on, make my Strava titles a totally accurate reflection of the activity it is linked to.

So, yes, I’ll continue to use the more boring titles such as “Clarken Coombe Loop” (posted yesterday, incidentally) if there really is nothing else to add. But if I use any of those more evocative words, you can rest assured that I’m being honest.

If I say I was “taking it steady”… I was “taking it steady”.

Likewise, if I was pushing myself to within an inch of my life, the title might just mention it… and I’ll simply not care if some of you wonder how anyone could push so hard and achieve so little… it’s my achievement and you’ll just need to deal with that!

And as we all know…  if you’re not being honest, “you’re only cheating yourself!”

And, in true Lieutenant Columbo fashion, just one more thing… Strava has also seen the creation of the (and you’ll need to excuse my language, here) “Stravawanker” – so much so that there is a whole Twitter profile given to exposing these people (all in jest, of course) – look it up – it’s very funny.

These are the people who misuse Strava in some way, shape or form – they’ll upload a gps trace of them cutting their lawn, for instance… or they’ll set a whole host of “segment personal records” without mentioning that they had some form of assistance in so doing (e.g – they were in a car!)… the most bizarre upload I saw was of a marriage proposal (which I personally thought was kind of romantic. After all; if it’s not on Strava, it didn’t happen!)

However – on the whole “Stravawanker” thing, I’m going to stay ominously quiet as word has it that I might be qualifying for that title within the next 4 weeks (some of you might feel that I already do, I guess!)… you’ll need to stay tuned for more detail on that, though!

 

 

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Rattle those POTS and pains

I’m going to level with you, chaps and chapesses.

Not everything has been rosy since having been knocked off my bike a few weeks ago (a previous blog topic, you may recall).

Sure; the bruises have long since vanished and the minor abrasions have healed. The soreness in my knees, shoulders and ankles has sorted itself out too.

Goodness, I’ve even been swimming, riding and running just as much as ever without any ill “physical effects” of that terrifying moment when “Audi met Phil” and “Phil met tarmac”.

But.

And it’s a big “but”.

Firstly; any substantial pressure on my right hip (the kind that might happen if, in bed, I decide to roll over on to my right hand side, for example) continues to leave me in agony, experiencing a very sharp stabbing pain –  enough to make me wince and yelp like a baby!

That worries me – particularly since my right hip is, as you probably know, my metal one.

Secondly; my bravery has been dented.

I seem to have lost no confidence around cars (bizarrely, since the incident involved one) but I am WAY more cautious on descents and around corners – especially when there is any sense of moisture on the road.

I’m just so frightened of falling off that it is impacting on my mentality when riding.

On one particular descent a few rides ago, I was at the front of a group as we started… but at the very back, by a significant margin, by the time we got to the bottom… I swear I almost stopped a few times such was the amount of pace that I was scrubbing off going into corners.

That’s not enjoyable.

I need to shake that!

I know that the “confidence” thing will return in time so I’m not especially concerned by that but I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t anxious about the pain in my hip.

So anxious, in fact, that I did the very “un-bloke-like” thing of getting a doctor’s appointment to check it out.

To cut an already fairly long story short, the doctor sent me for an X-ray at the hospital which, mercifully, revealed no damage to either metal or bone.

So that was good… it was “beyond good”… it was fantastic news!

It still leaves a mild sense of confusion with both me and the medical experts regarding why I experience discomfort when I apply pressure to that area, but they’ve put it down to soft tissue damage which will heal in time. And since it doesn’t actually manifest itself when I’m swimming, cycling or running, I’m broadly happy to remain patient on that front.

Moving on, then.

I’d planned on doing a solo ride, yesterday, of around 50 miles… taking advantage of the flexibility that my boss affords me around my working hours (Hint: I am my boss and I tell myself that, as long as I’ve got a certain amount of work done, I can have the morning off to go for a ride… I’m just that kind of boss!).

On Tuesday, however, a friend happened to mention that the group with which they ride were planning on doing almost exactly the same route that I had in mind.

I was invited to join them – and, at this cold and wintery time of year, a social ride with company is always an attractive alternative to a solo effort with no-one to talk to.

The group is called “POTS”!

That acronym stands for the “Portishead Old Timers” (hailing, as they do, from a town called Portishead, in case you hadn’t heard of it!).

It’s a lovely age that I find myself at isn’t it?

I can join a group referring to themselves as “old timers”(albeit with me being the “youngster”), to whom cycling is a leisurely experience but, equally, and as is normally the case on Wednesday evenings, for instance, be just as “at home” with group which includes maniacs who want to push themselves within an inch of their lives in a bid to see if they can get their quads to explode.

It hadn’t really dawned on me as I entered my 40s what a very versatile age it is!

But it really is!

Young enough to still be able to approach things as a young person might… old enough to understand that enjoyment doesn’t automatically mean that you have to go as fast as you can every time you go out swimming, cycling or running.

The best of both worlds.

Anyway, I turned up at 9:30am, yesterday, and the group gave me a very warm welcome.

As it happened, I’d met a few of them already in various different situations… I shared the often uttered joke of “I didn’t recognise you with your clothes on” with one member whom I’d only ever met in a swimming environment.

I was immediately made to feel part of the group… which was lovely.

It was a bit cold and there was hints of ice around so 10 “cautious” cyclists set off with the half-way cake stop in mind.

The pace was “social” but there were definitely a few efforts in there… the proof of that pudding is that I set one or two “Strava personal records” on fairly well trodden segments.

Our route to the cake stop took in a whole variety of roads and designated cycle-paths… some of which I wouldn’t dream of taking if average speed was the focus of the day; not “training” friendly but very “social bike ride” friendly, let’s say.

After 28 miles, we arrived at the cafe and I promptly filled up on flap-jack, tea and yet more chat… three of my favourite things!

We’d taken a “round-about” route to the cafe so a more direct route back to the start saw us add a further 22 miles to the tally – a total of 50 for the morning.

Very satisfying, indeed.

As for the eventual average pace… it was probably within 10% or so of what I would have seen had I done the ride solo, if truth be told… particularly had I taken exactly the same route comprising of paths where speed simply wasn’t an option… and, if I momentarily allow myself to relate this ride to Ironman training in general, we all know that varying speeds and distances is part and parcel of putting together a decent endurance package.

So all in all, a very pleasant first experience of POTS… if I’m invited back, I will certainly look to join them again… I’ve got time to grow into the name of the group (I think!)… but settling in to the approach they take was instant!

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You’ve switched off your targeting computer, Luke

To non-Star Wars fans, the title and content of this blog will be a bit meaningless so, if you are in that category, you might just want to move along (because “these are not the droids you are looking for”… sorry… I just can’t help myself!)

But we aficionados of what happened a long time ago in a galaxy far far away will understand… we’ll just understand.

The scene; Luke Skywalker barreling down the trench of the evil, but fully operational, Death Star in his crude X-Wing fighter with its computer making the decision as to EXACTLY when he needs to fire at the target that will ultimately bring about a resounding victory.

And then, just as it’s looking nailed on, he decides to put the computer to sleep and, instead, rely on “the Force” to guide him… an intuition…. a sign. He just knows that something internal will tell him when to fire (or, as is the case in the film, he has his first experience of hearing voices of dead people in his head)

The rest of the iconic scene becomes an exercise in restraint… an exercise in waiting until exactly the right time to push that button.

And he does… he gets it right and the galaxy is saved… or at least it was saved until the next Death Star comes along… and then the next one… and, no doubt (with the latest Star Wars film around the corner), the one after that.

A few weeks ago, within a week or two of my first 100 mile bike ride for a couple of months, a friend asked me whether that ride had effectively marked the start of my Ironman training.

I replied; “no”.

I added that the ride had just been a ride. There had been no wider meaning other than I just like riding my bike.

The same goes for my swimming at the moment.. and my running.

When I’m engaging in my various training, I’m rarely thinking further ahead than the next swimming stroke, the next turn of the pedals or the next strike of my heel on tarmac… and even when I am, my thoughts are likely focused on the cup of tea I will have when I’m done.

By no means would I consider myself “in training” for something that doesn’t take place until next July.

That’s not to say that, in my moments of “downtime” I don’t have one eye on it (I’m writing this blog, after all) and it’s also not to say that I don’t realise how “stuff” I do today or tomorrow will impact on me over the period between now and my next “date with fate” in Hamburg – but let’s just say that, right now, July 29th 2018 is not my focus.

The follow up question from my buddy was; “So when is the right time to start focusing on it then? When do the experts say you should have it as your main objective? Surely you need to take on board what the experts say?”

Experts?

I can’t say I’d ever thought about consulting “experts” for that type of thing… I’ve typically only ever relied on my own gut feeling… so I answered the question with something along the lines of; “Oh.. I don’t know.. I guess I’ll start being a little more structured about it at the beginning of the New Year”

In that instant, I was Luke Skywalker… I’d switched my targeting computer off and I was now firmly on intuition regarding when I would want to “hit that button”.

And, just as in that famous scene, the very act of waiting until the right moment (which I seem to have identified as 1st January 2018) is having the effect of building the anticipation.

When I finally see that “target”, I won’t be able to help but enjoy the process of going for it.

I’m feeling raring to go on the one hand… but keen to wait on the other… knowing that the waiting will make the “event” itself that bit more special.

I reckon that, by the time January comes, I’ll be so ready to start thinking about Ironman Hamburg that it’ll have a positive impact on the physical act of training for it… and that can’t be a bad thing, can it?

Like Luke Skywalker speeding towards that broadly “Whomp Rat” sized, “one chance or you’re out”, target, I’m filled with anticipation as to what I’ll do when I get there, though.

I’ll start upping my distance in the pool… maybe get a few winter open-water swims in, too. I’ve even considered whether some swim-coaching might be in order with a view to getting a bit quicker. That would be nice.

I’ll not really change HOW MUCH time I spend on my bike… I’ll keep up my “one long ride per month” regime, for instance. But I’ll make sure that, when I am on my bike, particularly those longer rides, I make it count by trying to hone my approach to nutrition and pacing. I’ll make the shorter ones count for more, too and there’s a number of ways I’ll approach that.

When it comes to running, I’ll start to throw in the odd “longer” distance – without risking my hip – something I never did before Sweden, for which I suffered (although I have no regrets, I should add). I may switch my Thursday run so that it happens straight off the back of my Wednesday night group ride – just to get the legs used to that feeling of running off the bike.

Just typing it all is exciting… can you imagine how it will feel after another 2 months of build up?

Until then, though, I’m just going to be Luke Skywalker, minding my own business, piloting my way down the trench in the Death Star, enjoying the scenery, dodging bullets – safe in the knowledge that I will know when the time is right… even if others might advocate that I rely on something more “expert” than my own judgement of the situation.

After all, if it’s good enough for Luke Skywalker… it’s good enough for me (except the whole incest thing.. he can keep that!)

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