The sheer audacity of it all…

Having decided that Ironman Hamburg 2018 was not for me… as a result of the whole thought of it slowly dragging the enjoyment out of swimming, cycling and running for me… I guess I initially decided to not really have any focus on a “goal”, as such.

I tend not to need a “raison d’etre”… so I was in no rush to find one.

But then, I got to thinking;

Maybe, whilst I don’t need something to aim for, a goal of some sort would be nice to have all the same.

Goals need to be challenging… otherwise they’re not really goals – they’re just boxes to be ticked off whenever you can be bothered.

Goals need to involve effort.

Goals need to be something that’ll make you feel that you’ve achieved something!

And what better discipline in which to set myself a goal than cycling?… the discipline which led to the whole lack of “mojo” in the first place!

As you know, it was my failure to complete two successive 200km rides (a distance I used to eat for breakfast) that got me into that whole spiral of self-doubt in the first place.

So maybe a few successful 200km rides would be a good place to start in terms of setting myself a new goal.

But why stop at a few?

A number of my cycling buddies are members of “Audax UK” – the club for long distance cyclists.

The very word “Audax” is basically the Latin word for “bold”… (and it’s from this word that we derive our words “audacious”, “audacity” etc etc)

Yep… serial “Audaxers” are proper, bona-fide, hardcore, BOLD, cyclists.

Most of my long rides, as it happens, have been organised by “Audax UK” (they’re superb rides – check them out) but I’ve never been inclined to “join the club”

Until now.

You see – a few of my buddies who, themselves are members of “Audax UK” are in the process of earning themselves an “Audax” title; “Randonneur Round The Year” (or RRTY for short)

To get this title, you need to cycle an approved 200km ride every month – for 12 consecutive months.

That means cycling throughout those dark and miserable winter months as well as the more pleasing summer period.

You can see where I’m going with this, can’t you?!

Having decided to set myself the goal of completing a few 200km rides – to make up for those two failed attempts – it makes sense (to me, at least!) to set myself the goal of one a month, for twelve consecutive months… thereby earning myself the RRTY title!

How hard can that be?

No – really – how hard?

So, the other day, I formally joined “Audax UK” and entered my first ride, in May, to start off the RRTY attempt.

And I’m champing at the bit to start.

As for the Ironman… I’m not totally done with that – not yet.

Instead of cancelling my entry for the event, I’ve taken my option of deferring it until next year… and let me tell you, as happy that I am that I won’t be doing it this year, I’m equally happy that I still have it in the diary.

If, this time next year, I am still finding the whole idea less than motivational, then I’ll simply not do it… but, until then, I have retained the option of turning up in 2019.

That feels like the right decision to have made  and, in my experience, if it feels right – it is right.

As a quick aside – those of you with a keener eye on my wider social media presences will have noticed that I’ve been taking more photos and videos whilst out on bike rides, recently.

This is all part of me making cycling more pleasurable again – and it’s working!

If you’re finding yourself where I was, with a lack of desire to be on the saddle, I’d advise you to do the same, actually… give yourself permission to stop when you see a beautiful view… drink it in… take a photo. It’ll remind you why cycling is so great.

I’m genuinely back to loving being on the bike again – which feels great.

So, for your viewing pleasure, below is my latest video on YouTube.

If you’re about to watch it on a desktop, you can click that little image of me at the bottom right of the screen to subscribe to my channel – but if you’re watching it on a mobile, you’ll need to click here to subscribe

For my photos, you can find me on Instagram by clicking here – feel free to follow me if you like what you see!

Thanks, as always, for reading (and watching) – and stay tuned for my RRTY attempt!

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Off the beaten track

Whenever I head out on a medium length solo bike ride (I’m talking 50 – 80 miles), I always head south.

When I go south, I know where the flat roads are.

When I go south, I know where the climbs are.

(I also know where the cafes are, too!)

South is where I’m comfortable.

A couple of weeks ago, as a family, we went for a day out at Slimbridge – a lovely tourist attraction around 35 miles north of where we live – where you get to observe all manner of water-birds (I can’t think of the correct term but, you know… ducks, swans etc) in a stunning and serene setting.

As we drove up towards the entrance of said tourist attraction, I had a bit of a flashback; a few hundred yards before arriving, we passed by a little cafe which sits right on the side of a canal and right next to a lock.

I recognised it immediately!

A few others and I had stopped there for a cuppa and a cake, whilst out on a group ride, at some point in my dim and distant past.

Instantly, I knew where my next solo cycle was going to take me.

It was going to take me north.

Not south.

North – to this very cafe.

I set about planning a route using t’internet, since I really don’t know that area at all so certainly couldn’t be trusted to accidentally stumble upon a series of cycle-friendly roads.

Crucially, I was keen to avoid the miserably boring (and borderline dangerous) A-road that constitutes the most direct option.

Instead, the little series of country lanes that I plotted to take would have me go through numerous tiny little villages, as well as the best of British countryside, on what promised to be a very pleasant 72 mile (36 miles each way) journey.

I’d originally planned to do the ride on Wednesday but the depressingly long winter is still rumbling on here in the UK, and I awoke on “the day” to rain hammering against the bedroom window… a 5am look at my weather forecast app, through eyes that didn’t seem to want to open, showed that the rain wasn’t about to ease up.

Call me a big wuss if you want but I’ve suffered so many soakings on my bike of late, that I’ve just about had enough.. the weather forecast for the following day was better anyway… so I deferred the ride by 24 hours (don’t worry, though, I punished my lack of “badass-ery” on Wednesday with a Zwift assault on Alpe Du Zwift… the online equivalent of Alpe D’Huez).

As it happens, Thursday started with misty and drizzly conditions, too, but I’d deferred once and wasn’t about to defer again… no chance.

I dropped the boys off at school and had 6 whole hours to do the ride (before school pick-up time)… that was a clear hour more than I expected to take – factoring in a generous amount of time for a cake stop (gotta have that cake!)… so I had plenty of contingency time built in for mechanical issues, just in case.

It was never going to be about pace, though… this was always going to be about riding different roads to my normal stomping ground… and taking in the scenery.

Now, rather that give a written review of the ride, like I normally would, I’ll share my highlights video, instead! (Yep – that’s new, eh???)

If you’re a YouTuber and you want to subscribe to my channel – click here: https://www.youtube.com/user/philcollard

It was lovely to ride on different roads, for once, and, by virtue of the fact that I had a lot of fun doing it, I reckon I’ll make more of an effort on these solo-sorties of mine to steer clear of familiarity in future.

My mind has already started racing with new places to go!

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Unfinished business

I so wanted this blog to be a positive and uplifting account of a 133 mile bike ride taking place last Sunday… one which I (and a few riding buddies) we’re going to bump up by a handful of miles just by riding to and from the start.

It had all the hallmarks of a positive day, too.

It was sunny.

It wasn’t especially windy.

There was a great group of people taking part.

But, despite these positives, I’m afraid to say that my account of that ride isn’t going to be what I would have liked it to be.

The first 60 miles or so were broadly without incident… if anything, my legs were feeling strong (as evidenced by a whole series of Strava segment “achievements”).

With those 60 miles in the legs, we all pulled into an organised cake stop and stocked up on cake, tea and camaraderie.

The rest of the ride was scheduled to be broadly split into two stints of 40 miles. How hard could that be?

15 miles beyond the stop, at about 75 miles in to the day, having lost touch with one group and eased away from another, I was alone, with just my own thoughts keeping me company, and that probably wasn’t a good place to be.

My legs were slowing… and they weren’t showing any positive signs of being able to drag me ’round another 65 miles.

For the second time in just a few weeks, I found myself in serious trouble whilst out on a bike.

I pulled up at the side of the road to grab a gel from my back pocket and tried to figure out whether my problems were physical or mental.

I’m genuinely not sure whether I physically could have completed the ride – I believe I could have but I don’t know and I don’t want give a fake impression of confidence.

Either way, I do know that my mind wasn’t about to let me carry on.

There, by the side of the road, I was forced to reach the conclusion that I simply wasn’t enjoying myself enough to bother trying.

I was even contemplating whether my love for the bike was there at all.

Not just on Sunday… but every day.

I dwelled on the fact that every time my face feels even the faintest breeze against it, I whinge about the “horrendous headwind”.

I dwelled on the fact that every time the road starts to resemble even the steadiest of inclines, I whinge about another cliff-face to get up.

I dwelled on the fact that every time I hit a pot-hole (and the roads where I live are, basically, a string of pot-holes stitched together with small lumps of poor-quality tarmac), I whinge about how the council need to carry out urgent repairs.

The list of whinges goes on and on.

Lots of whinging, basically.

At no point does my focus ever seem to be on positives.

Added to the above came other questions I found myself asking, whilst out there on Sunday, all alone;

1) I just want to be at home with Lisa and the boys. Why can’t I be? What’s stopping me?

2) What’s the point in all this nonsense?

So I made a call to Lisa to let her know that a very dejected Phil was on his way home, sent a “sorry, I’m bailing” text message to Russ, up ahead (so he didn’t feel the need to wait), and turned on my heels.

Incidentally, I bailed out on that ride at exactly the same spot where I’d been forced to make the same decision… for the same reasons… riding the same route… only a handful of weeks ago.

I proceeded to ride 25 miles in as close to a straight line as our roads allow. Those miles took me home (and, incidentally, just through the 100 mile barrier for the day).

I was upset at myself and grumpy that I’d fallen out of love with what has become such a large part of my life.

I was mentally defeated and a bit lost.

Within 24 hours, I’d typed out a whole blog in which I gave notice of my decision to stop cycling altogether.

In said blog, I also gave up running, swimming, triathlon, Strava and even writing this blog.

I was clearly feeling quite low and I wasn’t much fun to be around on Sunday night/Monday morning – Lisa and the boys can testify to that!

On Monday night, though, a wave of defiance swept over me.

I don’t know quite where it came from but it was pretty uplifting.

I wasn’t going to give up.

I was going to fight.

So, on Wednesday, I resolved to head out early on my bike… ride to the spot which had been my undoing on that route twice in the space of a month, and “complete” it, once and for all.

I had unfinished business and I needed to attend to it.

I was out for enjoyment and nothing else.

I deliberately gave myself no time pressures – I started just before 6am and I played around with my bike computer such that it was only giving me a map – no indication of “miles ridden” or “miles yet to ride”.

I just went wherever the 83 mile route, loaded on to the navigation page in front of me, told me to go.

The ride possibly warrants a blog to itself (not that it’ll get one) but suffice to say that it was characterised by conditions.

From beginning to end, it was raining heavily… torrentially so for prolonged periods.

It was also bitterly cold and the combination of that, plus being soaked to the skin, was making it a tough day.

Between miles 30 and 60, I couldn’t feel my hands at all… and from mile 45, I was essentially riding a single-speed because I simply couldn’t summon the dexterity in my fingers to change gear.

With 20 or so miles to go, I knew that the sensible thing to do would be to try to warm up so I stopped for a cup of tea.

I was shivering so badly that the other  customers were enquiring as to my well-being… and I discovered a temporary party trick, mainly because I couldn’t hold the teaspoon, of being able to plunge my fingers into the hot water to get the teabag out by hand – I genuinely couldn’t feel any heat at all (and, yes, I know that this was a daft thing to do because I could still have scolded myself – so don’t point it out to me!)

Incidentally, at that stop, I was only 5 miles from home so, particularly given how I was feeling, cutting the ride short was an option… but my legs were holding up well and I’d set out to ride a fixed route so nothing was going to stop me… not even the fear of mild hypothermia!

I was determined to complete what I’d set out to achieve.

Anyway – to cut to the chase, I got to the end and was immensely satisfied to have done so – especially after how I’d felt about not just cycling but everything sport related, just 48 hours before.

So what started out as a negative blog on Monday, ended up with an unexpectedly positive editing session.

I’d twice hit insurmountable mental obstacles on that route… but had finally battled through to succeed.

It’s not all what you’ll interpret as “positive” news, though.

The thing that got me ’round yesterday was the fact that I went out with pure enjoyment as a target… no sense of having “one eye on target average speeds” (which, trust me, were slow!) or “Ironman training”.

As such, I was forced to accept that the fact that training for the Ironman is detracting from enjoyment, rather than enhancing it.

With that in mind, I have decided that I’m highly unlikely to take part in Ironman Hamburg.

I am, after all, already an Ironman and completing another one will make no difference to that… and I do know that I would complete it, I should add (although, incidentally, failing to complete it would leave me forever doubting the validity of the first so there’s another reason not to go again!).

I’ll not officially withdraw just yet… but unless, suddenly, the idea of turning up at the start line becomes the thing that gets me out of bed every morning, like it was in the run up to Ironman Sweden, I really can’t see myself taking my place at the water’s edge on July 29th.

Please don’t see that as a negative, though – it’s not meant to be… it’s a positive decision to do what I always tell everyone else to do; enjoy your hobby.

I feel a sense of relief in my decision – It’s clear from my last few blogs (and I’ve repeatedly said as much) that my mind has been veering wildly between positive and negative for quite a while and I now put that down to the added pressure of the Ironman.

As it is, I’m free to just enjoy myself once again.

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Get back to where you once belonged….

You’ve probably picked up, in my blogs, a bit of an “up and down” trend to my emotional state when it comes to my training.

One minute, I’m having a nightmare bike ride which is shaking my confidence to its very core… the next minute I’m walking tall having found that hill-repeats on my bike seem to be the key to me getting my mojo back.

The whole thing left me, and still leaves me, wondering if, mentally, I still have what it takes to complete another Ironman event… not to mention physically.

I look back to my last Ironman year and recall being able to mentally overcome virtually everything and yet I now find myself sometimes questioning obstacles before they even become obstacles.

Then I wonder whether I am looking back at my previous conquest through rose-tinted spectacles… I have a read of my book (cheeky Amazon link here) and realise that it certainly wasn’t all plain-sailing then, either… from the near-drowning episode in open water to the time when I did not finish a ride due to poor conditions and, frankly, a lack of will-power.

So perhaps I’m not so different now, after all.

Anyway, all of this has led me to continually search for that confidence in my own mental determination… I’m sure it is there… it’s just a matter of doing things that remind me of its presence.

A week or so ago, having realised that hill-repeats on my bike were such fun, I thought I’d go in search of said mind-control and do something that, frankly, I never thought I’d want to do; hill-repeats on a run.

I selected a nice quiet hill – a country lane where, realistically, the only cars you encounter belong to the people that live along it – drove to the start (so that the whole run would be either running up the hill or back down it), got out and started stretching.

I could see the top of the hill looming over me… it was quite intimidating. I’ll give you some numbers;  It’s just over 0.6 miles long from bottom to top, and rises around 200 feet with gradients approaching 15% in places.

I started running at a very steady pace… and onto the hill I went.

The first ascent was far less eventful than I’d expected it to be so I ran back down, picked a spot to turn around at the bottom and went again.

Second time to the top… no more difficult than the first.

I was holding up both physically and mentally.

A second time at the bottom, a turn on my heals, and a third time running up the hill.

I’d targeted three ascents and three ascents was what I did.

I got back to my car having covered almost 4 miles and a little over 600 feet of climbing… and I felt great.

As I drove home, I had a little smile to myself – perhaps that mental determination I seem to have been looking for was a little more tangible than it had been 35 minutes previously.

On to my second example of searching for that “I can do this” attitude that I fear I may have lost and, this time, it was at the pool.

Put simply, I am keen (nay desperate) to get rid of my nose-clip when I am swimming.

I’ve always used one, ever since I started to swim properly – I even credit it with being the key ingredient in me discovering the ability to swim. I simply couldn’t do it without that clip – the water going up my nose (especially chlorinated swimming pool water) actually hurts so I genuinely couldn’t swim with my head under-water before some bright spark suggested the nose-clip.

I recall trying, and failing, to ditch that clip a little while ago. I previously set myself the same target of swimming without it – I even publicised what I was trying to achieve – but I quietly dropped the target when it became obvious to me that I was setting myself up for failure.

So, back to the present – You have to realise that the whole nose-clip thing is a bit of a faff which I could well do without;

Try sitting on the pool for ages before you start swimming, trying to stop it slipping off your nose due to the lubricating nature of the water – you look like a bit of a numpty.

Try worrying that it will be knocked off, spelling the end of your race, in the scrum of a mass open water start – always a concern.

Try spontaneously splashing around in the pool with your kids if you need to clip your nose every time you go under-water – it takes something away from the fun, let me tell you.

So, I set myself this target of weening myself off of the crutch that it has become.

I was planning on achieving my target by, initially, swimming the last 4 lengths of a given swimming session without it.. then I’d do the last 8 lengths.. then the last 16 and so on… until I wasn’t using it at all.

Thursday was going to see my second attempt at swimming without it (the first had been achieved without too much drama, in a pool only lightly “polluted” by chlorine) so I was planning on just a short swim – a mile – where, in keeping with my plan, the last 8 lengths were “sans-clip“.

I lowered myself into the pool only to find that I’d left the nose-clip in my locker.

Ordinarily, I’d be getting back out of the pool at that point – to go and fetch it – but on Thursday, I figured I had a choice to make;

Do I just try to press on without it… no “weening myself off” of the crutch… just a straight-forward “cold turkey”?

Or do I go back to plan.. get the clip.. and swim the majority of the session with it?

And that’s where my focus turned towards this whole search for my “mental determination”.

I decided that “mentally determined Phil” would just press on without it… so that’s what I did.

I pushed off the wall.

I stopped around 10 metres into the first length – the pool I was in on Thursday is particularly chlorinated and my nose was actually in physical pain.

I composed myself and went again.

I managed another 10 metres before stopping again.

I repeated this a fair few times before one of the lifeguards, clearly good at reading the situation (and spotting me frantically rubbing my nose each time I stopped), came over to me and offered me a nose-clip that he had gone to take from the pool-shop.

I explained the situation and my target so politely declined the clip – I actually turned it down!

The offer of external help was almost embarrassing – it was certainly enough to make me “harden up” a bit and I pushed of the wall again but, this time, with added purpose.

I managed 4 lengths – not pretty lengths, admittedly, but 4 lengths all the same.

Then I did 8 lengths.

I then did another 8 lengths – still not pretty but I was getting better.

I then casually stepped it up to 32 lengths non-stop.. all without the clip.. and with each length, the pain I was experiencing was either disappearing or becoming easier to cope with – one or the other and I’m not sure which.

Finally, with more composure than I ever thought possible without a clip, I threw in a final 12 lengths to make my swim up to a mile.

Having targeted 8 lengths without a nose-clip… and having felt that even that was ambitious.. by forgetting to take this poxy bit of plastic out of my swim-bag, I’d inadvertently put myself in a position whereby swimming 64 lengths without it was my only realistic option.

And I’d done it.

I’m a long way from saying I’ve conquered the “clip-less” swimming… my pace was fairly poor compared to the norm… but that’s okay. I took a big step and that’s what counts.

Again, I journeyed home from this success, just as I had after my running hill-repeats,  with a smile on my face and a deep sense of satisfaction that I’d pushed through something which, to me, is a big deal.

So, back to the point of this blog; What with forcing myself to run hills and forcing myself to swim without my clip, it feels as though I have had glimpses of that mental determination which seems to have been missing in action for a little while now.

So maybe I really still am the Phil that can mentally conquer obstacles after all – let’s hope that that Phil sticks around!

 

 

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What goes up… must go up

I’ve been pretty down on myself for the last couple of weeks, dear reader.

I would be easy to say that it started on “that” ride which shall be discussed no further (save to say that I bailed out early and found myself hating cycling in a way I never thought possible – read about it here if, you must).

Easy… but inaccurate… I think it’s been coming for much longer.

Bit by bit, issues I’ve been having have chipped away at my usual self-assured nature and I think I’ve just let it all get to a point where I am spending too much time being particularly self-critical.

I’ve been lacking pace on my bike… on both flats and ascents alike.

And that ride, along with a few other medium distance sorties I’ve done in recent weeks, have shown me that my endurance has, inexplicably, drifted since a fairly positive 140 mile event I took part in only 6 weeks or so ago. How on earth can that happen so quickly?

My running pace has also slowed and I can’t seem to pinpoint why. Try as I might, I just can’t get close to the speeds I was running only a few months ago.

My swimming has been going well enough, I guess, but even that hasn’t really been inspiring me towards self-congratulations.

I’ve tried rest.

I’ve tried stepping down my miles.

I’ve tried stepping up my miles.

I’ve tried different eating strategies.

And I’ve tried just about everything else that I can think of.

Nothing has made any difference – either positive or negative.

So I’ve ended up just settling for being annoyed and frustrated at myself.

In fact… I’ve been being so hard on myself that I’ve been questioning whether to just call the whole Ironman Hamburg thing off (and I still am questioning, if truth be told)… not just because I’m unsure as to whether I could complete it (although that is part of it) but also because I always maintain that enjoyment is the number one priority and if I’m not enjoying the prospect of taking part then why the hell am I bothering?

You see my predicament?

I have no idea whether the whole “it’s all in the mind” thing is the issue here… after all, there must be at least some of it which is “in the body”… but, earlier this week, I decided that a change of mindset is worth a go.

And since my training is primarily spent on the bike (in terms of hours spent doing each different activity), it seemed to me that the bike would be a good place to start.

A couple of years ago, as a cycle commuter, I recall forcing myself to choose a hilly route home from where I was working at that time, at least twice a week – whatever the weather… and however much I didn’t want to – just so that I could see some improvements in my hill climbing.

I did improve on hills – the improvement over time was remarkable and I watched the length of time it took me to get up one particular hill tumble from over 8 minutes to around 6 and a half.

My ability to get up a hill quite that well has since disappeared but the memory of how much confidence and, ultimately, enjoyment it gave me hasn’t… and, since enjoyment is what I find myself in search of now, I figured that getting better on hills again might just be the ticket.

So, on Tuesday, I wrapped up warm in this week’s icy conditions, and headed out for hill repeats.

Those words alone… “hill repeats”… weren’t filling me with joy, though.

More recently, whenever I’ve hit a hill, my heart has sunk a little bit as I’ve watched the majority of those with whom I ride slowly edge away from me with my legs seemingly unable to respond.

But I parked that sentiment… I convinced myself that hills were my route to confidence and, therefore, enjoyment, and eyed up a hilly route that pretty much starts at the end of my road.

In short, my route was going to take in two hills – repeatedly.

The first hill; an average gradient of c7% but with ramps of up to c15%.

At the top, I’d “about turn” and come back down.

On reaching the bottom of the first hill, I’d head along a short stretch of road (itself a steady incline averaging c5%) before taking on the second hill; averaging c10% gradient with sections of up to c20%.

I’d then come back down the second hill, return to the bottom of the first and start all over again.

I decided that I would target time – being 1 hour – rather than a specific number of repetitions – it just felt like a more palatable measure than forcing myself to do a set number of climbs… there’s logic in there somewhere!

I set off and had one hour to go before I could get off the horrible merry-go-round that I’d created for myself.

I got to the end of the third repetition (so that’s three times up and down each hill) and my hour was up. I’d covered just under 14 miles but, crucially, over 2,000 feet of climbing.

At the start, I’d expected to welcome the end of the hour with open arms.

As it was, I didn’t really want it to be over.

I’d loved every minute of my hill-repeats and actually had to persuade myself to go home and get on with my work!

I wanted to do at least another 30 minutes but just felt that leaving myself wanting more was better, psychologically, than running out of enthusiasm and having to drag myself home.

I put a large part of my enjoyment down to the fact that I was solo – and I mean no disrespect to anyone with whom I normally ride, I should add – it’s just that, with no-one else around, I wasn’t experiencing that frustrating sense that I get from watching people disappear ahead of me.

Nor was I desperately trying to stay ahead of someone behind me.

It was just me… and the hill.

And that was nice.

When I got back through my door, I was buzzing.

Okay – I didn’t set any personal records on Strava up either of the hills that I chose (although I got reasonably close, unexpectedly) but I’d smiled my way ’round a route that I’d expected to find horrendous.

I finally had something to congratulate myself about… which felt different, at least.

I went out on another hilly route yesterday, too – more distance (at 21 miles) with less climbing (c1,800 feet), granted, but still much hillier than I would have previously chosen of my own volition.

Despite the icy surface (I took my CX bike for extra grip) and bitterly cold winds, that second hilly ride did nothing to undo the sense of enjoyment I got from the first, so it’s looking like I might really make this into something that I can get behind.

Stick with me, then, to see if this experiment helps me to find my mojo… it has to be somewhere… and it’s not down the back of the sofa… I’ve looked!

 

 

 

 

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I get knocked down… I get up again.

Saturday 17th February had been pencilled in the diary as the day of my (once-a-month) long ride.

It was always going to be weather-dependant at this time of year… a forecast of ice or snow would have meant deferring it… but the forecast all week was for pretty much perfect conditions; barely any wind, mild and sunny.

So at 7am on said Saturday morning, Russ (my erstwhile cycling buddy) and I set off with a 135 mile route programmed into our bike computers.

It was basically the same route that we’ll both be doing as an Audax event towards the end of March, so Saturday was the “warm up”, if you like.

It was a gentle start… we were in no rush.

We headed towards Bristol where we’d find the first of many climbs for the day… a sneaky little hill which may be short but gets pretty steep in places and generally catches me out.

My legs felt strong as I span my way up there with barely a huff or puff.

Onwards we rode… over the gorgeous Bristol Suspension Bridge (google some images of it, if you’re not familiar).

It wasn’t too long before we were hitting the next climb of the day… another little blighter that I tend always to wish wasn’t there.

Again, though, these old legs of mine were playing ball quite nicely and it felt almost as if someone had ironed-out the hill such that it was merely a bump.

We were 10 or 15 miles in to the ride and life was feeling good.

The next 20 miles or so was spent chatting our way around the rolling English countryside… I don’t think either of us had the upper-hand in terms of how strong we were feeling for the day, which was filling me with confidence that we’d stay broadly side by side for the remaining 100 miles.

And then…

All of that abundant positivity looked in jeopardy as Russ fell foul to a very muddy road at around 40 miles – as he hit the mud, we think that some got caught between his front wheel and the forks… the wheel locked up and he was down!

Happily, aside from a bloodied knee, he and his bike escaped unharmed and, after a few minutes by the side of the road just “regrouping”, we were ready to ride on.

Looming ahead of us was what was to be the most challenging climb of the day… it was the kind of hill that has its own reputation… you know; “oh, wow – you’re riding up THAT? Good luck!”

As the climb started, I guess the first signs of what were to come for me were apparent… although that’s with the benefit of hindsight – I didn’t pick up on them at the time.

I got up the climb without any real drama – aside from a couple of times when my rear wheel slipped under load on the damp and greasy road surface.

But – my legs seemed to be losing the sprightliness with which they’d attacked the other hills we’d encountered.

As I say, I can’t pretend to have thought about it at the time… Russ and I were still side by side at the top… and we were still able to chat fairly freely so our breathing wasn’t especially laboured.

These were the signs I was picking up on… and they were good signs.

Bizarrely, though, I started to lose contact with Russ over the next few miles.

Only a few yards here and there.

But, increasingly, he started having to wait for me at junctions.

It was time for a cup of tea and a cake in a cafe.

We were c50 miles in with c80 to go.

Fed and watered… we set off up the road.

To say that the next 30 miles were hard is to vastly understate the extent of the trouble I found myself in.

I can honestly say that it was the most hateful 30 miles I’ve ever spent on a bike.

I don’t think I enjoyed even a single pedal stroke.

I have no idea what happened but Russ repeatedly disappeared into the distance, trying his hardest to drag me along with him, but my legs were having absolutely none of it.

Consequently, our only real conversation was had each time he stopped to wait and I caught him up.

“Sorry, Russ… I’m holding you up”

“Don’t worry, Phil.. it’s fine”

And on we’d go only to repeat the same conversation a few miles further on.

I’d eaten and drank so I had no idea why my speed readout didn’t seem to want to display anything even approaching normal.

I seemed to have to pedal hard even to go down hills… flats were downright painful… and I don’t even want to start talking about what was happening to my forward motion whenever we went up a hill!

My mind started to give in under the strain, too… it wandered in the general direction of the Ironman in July and I started to ponder what the refund policy might be.

At 80 miles, after Russ had had to stop yet again for me – this time, I think, for a very long wait – I did something I’m really not happy about despite the fact I had no choice.

I gave up.

I gave up!!!

I knew that my legs didn’t have another 55 miles in them and I also knew that it was unfair to pretend to Russ that they did.

Given the almost “figure of eight” nature of our route, we were actually only 12 miles from home so it was a sensible time to call it a day – better that than get further away and have further to ride back.

After checking that I’d be okay to get myself home, Russ went on his way to finish the pre-planned route on his own.

And with me now being solo, I effectively had permission to just pootle home at whatever pace my legs could manage.

And that’s what I did… a ride home with my tail between my legs.

It really wasn’t pretty. Even in that 12 miles, I must have stopped about 5 times to rest!

As I got to the end of my street, I’d ridden a disappointing (all things considered) 92.5 miles and I managed to summon, from somewhere deep within myself, the mental strength to add an 8 mile loop to the end to make it up to 100 miles for the day.

I don’t know what caused me to feel like I did… and to “fail” so badly.

It could have been the fact that I’d been on holiday for the whole week before it and, honestly, eaten really poorly… by my own choice, I’d add.

It could have been simply “one of those days”.

I even considered whether I might be coming down with an illness of some sort that was about to present itself over the coming days.

I do know that I’ve been left questioning Ironman Hamburg in July, though.

Whilst that’s a clear 5 months away, I can guarantee that I felt far more than 5 months away from being able to complete it, on Saturday.

The worst part, though, was that I genuinely found myself hating riding my bike… I’ve never felt like that before.

I didn’t even wanted to look at it as I hurled it back into the garage.

So – I got knocked down such that I needed to get back up again.

And 24 hours later (give or take an hour or two) I did just that.

There wasn’t much of me that really wanted to head out for a 20 mile bike ride (again with Russ) on Sunday night… but the bit that did knew that I kind of had to… if nothing else, I needed to ride so that the Saturday ride could be banished from my mind for good.

I reluctantly dragged my still filthy bike out of the garage at 6:45pm (breaking the rule that I have agreed with Lisa in the process; the rule that if I do a long ride on Saturday, I commit my whole day to the family on Sunday – sorry, Lisa!) and gingerly started to pedal, unsure of what my legs were going to do.

And what a lovely ride it turned out to be… just enough pace to conclude that my legs hadn’t totally lost the ability to move me forwards… but steady enough to qualify as social.

I was back in love with cycling and, wow, that felt good!

So let’s try to not mention that Saturday ride ever again, shall we? After all, as it stands, it’s just a small blip on the journey… and we don’t need to worry about small blips… right?

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Let’s talk about sets

If anything has characterised my early training for Ironman Hamburg, it’s that I’m going about it with some marked differences to the way I approached Ironman Sweden.

How easy it would be to replicate everything I did back then… after all, I know it worked.

How easy… but how boring!

To search for a quicker way to get to the finishing line (don’t we all want that?) means to search for new ways to improve.

Sure, it also means to potentially find new and exciting ways to fail… but that can only add to the sense of anticipation on the day, right?

The quest for a “brave new world” led me to seek out someone who, as it happens, was part of the “brave old world”… being that he played a key role in getting me to the start line of Ironman Sweden.

Let me explain.

Around four years ago, just a handful of months before I was due to find myself swimming 2.4 miles in the Baltic Sea, no less, I found, to my horror, that my body simply didn’t want to be in open-water.

Every fibre of my being would just seize up and I had at least one moment where I genuinely feared that I was drowning.

My mind refused to see open-water as just a variation of pool swimming and, instead, saw it as a wholly different world – a world that it wanted nothing to do with.

BUT – just 15 minutes into an open-water swim coaching session with a chap called John Wood (link to his website, here) and I was a convert.. even preferring it to pool swimming.

Ironman Sweden, which my fear of open-water had cast a serious doubt over, became a possibility because of that coaching session and I’ve done lots of pretty serious open-water swimming since… including a 14km river swim in 2016.

This time, though, I (along with a friend, Rob, who is taking part in Ironman Copenhagen later this year), approached John (the aforementioned swim coach… try to keep up!) with a view to improving our swimming technique.

You hear it all the time, don’t you? – Swimming is all about technique.

You can get a great visual representation of the fact that technique is “king” in any pool in the country, every day of the week.

I don’t know if you want to admit to this at all, but I will; Many times, I’ve found myself climbing into a swimming pool alongside someone who is, let’s be sensitive about this, challenged in the “height-to-weight ratio” department… I’ve gone on to assume that I, with my comparatively lean physique, will naturally be quicker through the water than them… only to be completely blown away once swimming gets underway.

And, let’s all be honest, if you hadn’t ever heard of Ellie Symonds (look her up, if you haven’t) and you lined up alongside her for a swimming race, you’d think you stand a pretty good chance based on her appearance alone… and then you’d quickly realise that she can cover two lengths to your one.

Yep – it seems to me that technique is by far the most important thing… and comfortably trumps merely “looking the part”.

Rob and I consequently met up with John at the pool, full of enthusiasm – mine was possibly even more buoyed (pun intended) by the previous very positive experience I’d had of John’s methods.

First things first; we were asked to swim a couple of lengths just so that John could see what he was working with.

As I touched the wall at the end of the second length and raised my eyes in John’s direction, he wasn’t even smirking… I assume that he’d managed to stop laughing just before I looked.. now that’s a real pro, right there!

His initial feedback included some positives as well as focusing on things I can change.

The one bit of that initial guidance that sticks out the most was that I’ve been misinterpreting the notion of “gliding” through the water…. all these years, my desire to achieve that “glide” has been manifesting itself in a propensity to “over-reach” with my outstretched arm and, basically, stop swimming. I’ve always assumed that “gliding” means “not moving your arms” and simply floating forwards powered by nothing but momentum. This has meant that I’ve essentially had to use my next downwards stroke to “re-accelerate” just to get the forward motion going again.

John also surprised me by talking about my kick.

“Surprised” because I never really thought I DID kick… I’ve always been useless at it, as far as I could gather, and just assumed that my legs trailed behind me with my toes scraping along the bottom of the pool…. but, no – I actually WAS kicking… not very well, of course, but it was something to work with!

And work with it, we did.

Over the course of the session, Rob and I, with John’s guidance, focused on kicking, rolling, buoyancy, breathing and, for  me, stopping my arms reaching too far in front of my body.

I even got to show John just how useless I am at back-stroke – I don’t think he’ll ask me to do that again!

We went away from that session with a number of drills and sets that we could do to isolate things that we were being taught and I’m very much at the point of trying to shoe-horn in an extra swim session each week, in addition to my normal Monday night endurance swim set, to do nothing but the drills that we’d learned.

It was really very interesting having someone dismantle my technique when, all joking aside, I consider myself to be reasonably strong at it (by comparison to the “average punter”… not by comparison to a “good swimmer”, I should add).

Interesting and useful.

By the end of the session, I was even able to summon up the mental capacity to concentrate on more than one thing at once – arms AND legs!

Me… a man… multitasking!

That’s something I’ve not managed since I was a kid, when simultaneously patting my stomach and rubbing my head represented the limit of my physical prowess!

When it comes to swimming, my body has always typically told me that I can either get my legs moving… OR my arms… but I can’t have both at the same time… hence the fact that I’ve always relegated my legs to being “those things that that my upper body just has to tow along like a dead weight”.

But, all of a sudden, I was able to kick such that my feet were breaking the water without apparently compromising the action of my arms – that was a huge thing.

I’ll level with you now – one of my biggest fears of improving my technique was that, somehow, I would compromise my endurance.

I guess I’d always felt that there was something in my “in need of improvement” technique that, somehow, made me an energy efficient swimmer (albeit not hugely fast) – hence the fact that I can apparently swim any distance I desire without getting tired.

I’d feared that improving my technique would, all of a sudden, mean losing whatever it was that made endurance my strength.

Having swam a maximum of just 20 lengths with John, there was no way I could tell whether the improvements he’d set me on the road to making were going to make longer distances harder for me.

There was only one thing to do; try a longer swim (2,500 metres) and focus on each new element as much as my mind would allow.

As I pushed off at the start of said swim, I made sure I was thinking about what John had said as much as possible.

I was not letting my arms extend too far in front of me and, consequently, my cadence (for the uninitiated; that would be the speed that my arms were moving) was certainly faster – spending less time on what I previously assumed was “gliding” but which, in reality, was actually “slowing down and having to employ extra energy to speed back up”.

Happily, the step up in “arm-speed” didn’t seem to be tiring me out as I’d feared –  since my forward momentum was now being maintained, my arms were actually feeling like they were working LESS hard, which came as a surprise.

I’m not going to pretend that my kicking and rolling were flawless for the whole 2,500 metres – they really weren’t – I’d go a few lengths before realising that I was just reverting to my old habits…. BUT… I certainly kicked and rolled an awful lot more than I’m used to.

My legs were spending much longer at the surface and much less time dragging along the floor and my shoulders were definitely moving around much more freely than I’m used to.

So I know what you’re thinking… what was the verdict on the technique?

Well – the stopwatch doesn’t lie and I was a clear 3 minutes faster over 2,500 metres than I think I’ve EVER been… and that isn’t to be sniffed at for someone who’s been swimming for as long as I have.

And did I feel any more fatigue, as I’d feared I would? – Not a hint of it.

With John’s advice, I’d upped my speed considerably for no more investment of energy.

I’ve never been one to get too excited by one off results – only once I demonstrate that successes are repeatable do I allow myself to celebrate… after all, it could have just been “one of those days” – but the initial sentiment is extremely positive.

Rob and I will continue to do our “homework” before re-engaging John in a handful of weeks for another session… I’m very sure that it’ll be worth it.

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