Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Duathlon El Amogable, Soria

Even the name was deceptive as "amogable" makes me think of "amigable" or amiable, friendly. I'm convinced that last time I checked, it was a only small detour on the way to Asturias, where we spent Semana Santa or the Catholic version of Easter, but it turned out to be anything but the case, and added a couple of hours on to the already long trip up north. At the last moment my wife suggested I went there and back on my own, and then we went as a family to Asturias from Madrid, but I managed to convince her to drive me all the way there and spend 5 hours waiting for me, all the while looking after the two kids and a dog (on heat). I'm a lucky man.

Triathlons and duathlons are always a bit of a logistical headache but I knew better than to complain about it. In fact, I was more relaxed than I usually am when we go to Asturias; normally, I am agitating about leaving the house - for example, standing near the door with my coat on - while everyone else is doing last minute preparations. Apart from not testing the patience of my wife, it was important not to waste precious mental energy on the journey: I would need it for later.

When we finally arrived at the place, it turned out to be much more in the middle of nowhere than I had anticipated. I had discovered that there was an adventure park nearby with ziplines and other activities, so I suggested that Ana took the kids (and the dog) there while I did my thing. Unfortunately, the park turned out to be closed for the day - probably because of road closures for the Duathlon...

It was all very low cost but there was a good atmosphere and people (organizers and competitors alike) were very friendly and helpful. I had remembered to pack toilet paper - which was just as well because there wasn't any available in a radius of at least 10 kilometers - but I had forgotten to take sun screen. In spite of being at 1,000 m altitude in March, it was very hot and the sun was beating down relentlessly. Once I had done all the requisite fiddling with my bike and other equipment, I tried to find Dani who I knew had brought sun screen (it's funny now to think that we used to call it "sun tan lotion"). It shouldn't have been difficult to spot his 6'5" frame among the other 200 or so athletes but unfortunately I didn't find him in time before we were lining up at the start. (Although, inexplicably for such an out of the way location, the start was delayed by at least 10 minutes, more than enough time to splash on some protection.) I left my bike on the rack but had to figure out an ingenious way of stopping it from flapping about in the wind, with the disc wheel acting like a sail. As I have one of those sawn-off saddles (Adamo), it probably would have fallen off the rack otherwise.

The fist leg of the duathlon was a 12 km run (actually, it was more than 13 km, but hey). The route was an out-and-back loop along a sandy path which we had to complete 4 times. Not the most inspiring course but the surroundings were quite pleasant and at least this way you got to see how you were doing compared to the others. The leader was way out ahead, running with a smile on his face and apparently not even having to breathe. Just before we set off, Chema had asked me at what pace I was thinking of running and, for some reason, I said 3:45 /km - which, I suppose, is the pace I had done some of my brick (bike-run) sessions at, and corresponds, more or less, to my Half Marathon pace. Ivan sensibly pointed out that it would probably be prudent to take account of the heat, so I figured I would go off at around 4:00 /km. It proved to be harder work than I had expected - maybe the altitude also had something to do with it - so I let myself slow down a bit as the run wore on. After all, there were still more than 2 hours effort ahead of me.

Finally, the moment I had been waiting for: a chance to try out my superbike on a flat course with no-drafting! If only there were pure time-trial bike races available in Spain to us amateurs - but no, the federation in control of this sport only organizes time-trial races for professional teams. I have often wondered why someone doesn't just organize a cheeky duatlon consisting of a 1K run + 100K no drafting bike leg. Anyway, I set off and soon discovered that this was not going to be a piece of cake by any standards. I distinctly remember thinking my Garmin was off because I couldn't be going that slowly, surely. But it was quite windy on the way out and not as flat as one might hope. That, coupled with two 180 degree turns per lap (of which there were 3, making a total of 61 kms), meant that the course was far from ideal. The turning circle on my bike is so wide that I found it better to unclip one of my shoes and do a kind of pirouette, but this meant that I lost a lot of speed on the following descent trying to clip my shoe back in without risking falling off the bike (if you try to clip in with the pedal upside down there is a good chance your foot will slip off completely and you will end up leaving a streak of skin on the road). It was slightly hair-raising to be belting along those narrow roads with people coming in the opposite direction, especially when several people were overtaking on both sides of the road at the same time. Then, of course, there were the cows which would occasionally decide that the grass was greener on the other side of the road.

The real problem, though, was that I started to get the dreaded cramps after only about 10 km. They didn't bother me too much on the bike as long as I adjusted my pedal stroke or stood up now and again, but they were a warning of what was to come. I tried to put them out of my mind and pretend that they would go away. All in all, I enjoyed the bike ride and seemed to get faster as my confidence grew. I was disappointed with my time - my average speed was slower than my bike leg of the Ironman in Brazil, and that was on a "normal" road bike. I still haven't managed to prove to myself that my superbike is any faster and I am left with the nagging doubt that, although it is clearly more aerodynamic - something that I did notice on certain flat and windy stretches compared to others riding on road bikes - maybe I am losing too much power from the tight angle between my hips and my torso. Who knows. All I know is that I don't want to go down that road of obsessing over bike fitting etc: at least my bike looks cool. The good news is that I found the aero position reasonably comfortable in spite of it being so aggressive.

The cramps seemed to ease up a little bit in the final straight of the final lap. Somehow I managed to do the second slowest transition out of everybody so maybe I did something wrong, although I'm pretty sure that you had to basically loop all the way around the bike racks. As mine was parked close to the start of the run, I think this maximized the amount of running I had to do while wearing cycling shoes, so maybe this was the reason.

This was the image that came to mind 100 m into the 6.5 km run: that of Mike Allen in the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii, when he got passed by Dave Scott. My legs completely seized up to the point that I was actually rooted to the spot. I couldn't bend my legs at all and I couldn't move either without risking all kinds of muscular havoc. One generous athlete offered to help me stretch but I refused the offer because I wasn't sure quite how we would go about it. Eventually I managed to crouch down and then lie down. At this point someone asked if they should call the Red Cross but I said I was only 100 m from the finish line (well, start line really) and I was fairly sure I could at least make it back that far. I began to understand why the loops of the running course were so short.

Some time passed and my legs began to ease up, so I started off at an easy pace. This is the sort of pace at which it is actually more tiring to run any more slowly. Of course, the cramps soon came back and I had to repeat the whole charade. I saw Ivan looking a little stressed but he'd evidently started the run before me - something that I found slightly depressing because I wasn't just paying in cramps for overcooking the bike leg: the bike leg hadn't been so great either. Then I saw Chema looking breezy and he gave me some encouragement as he swept past. I tagged on for a bit but then started to find myself getting short of breath and feeling nauseous. Maybe it was those gels which I greedily gulped down as I racked my bike or maybe it was the altitude. Or maybe I should have done not only "BRicks" in training but "RuBRics" - Run-Bike-Run sessions. In the end, this feeling of drowning in air became more of a stopper than the cramps but I soldiered on and - in spite of stopping a last time some 50 m before the finish line in full view of my expectant family - I "ran" with my eldest son across the line in a time of around 3 and a half hours.

My wife was understandably impatient to get moving but, another of those hassley things about triathlons / duathlons that I'd forgotten about, is that you can't get your bike until the last person has finished the bike leg. While I was waiting around, I found myself standing next to the winner, who looked a bit like an albino version of Mo Farah. As I have often found to be the case with people in a class of their own, he was very natural and asked how I'd done, noting elegantly that "everyone does what they can".

I didn't get to see Dani after the race as he'd had a similar experience to me but Chema and Ivan were at the finish having both done a good time (3:09 and 3:14 respectively). Now I only had a 4 hour car journey left to endure...

Epilogue: I felt very nauseous in the car and looked quite pale with sunken eyes. It's hard to make sure you drink enough and this is especially the case in the aero position on the tri-bike. As usually happens whenever I have suffered from the dreaded cramps, it took several days before I could walk again normally, let alone run. Probably not an experience I will rush to repeat but a worthwhile one, nonetheless.

In spite of this, when I spotted the following publicity for a 30 km race (with 3,000 m climbing) that just happened to be taking place the coming weekend near to our place in Asturias, I was very tempted to enter without any specific preparation whatsoever.

It was just as well that my family talked me out of it (my son said "Daddy, don't you think you should recover from the last one before you think of doing another?"). Apart from the winner taking about 3 hours to complete giving an indication of the difficulty, this YouTube video shows just how technical some parts of it are. Having said that I am very tempted to enter next year.

What we did do, though, was a flight with a paraglider in Gijón (Asturias) - this was my Father's day present. It was absolutely awesome, even if I did land face down in a muddy puddle with 90 kgs of pilot on top of me. If I find the time, I'll upload the video to YouTube.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Father's day

It was so much easier when my posts were titled "Such and such race week x / y"; now I actually have to think of something.

Last week Father's day in Spain fell on Thursday, which, as it was San José was also a Bank Holiday throughout most of the country. It was just as well because I felt like I needed a bit of breathing space to psych myself up for what I find to be a quite demanding workout: 2 x 5K at 3:38 with 3% incline. (In the past I have done as much as 10K like this.) It is psychologically tough because my training usually prepares me well for two types of suffering: long and boring or short and sharp. The problem with this workout is that 18 minutes is quite a long time to go without a break. The trick I found was to watch the video I recorded of running around London with "macarra" drum 'n' bass music in the background: this was just the right level of distraction as I wouldn't have been able to concentrate on anything more intellectual. And, by the way, I had a very enjoyable Father's day, thanks to my lovely family.

I have had to juggle my running shoes to manage the blister that cropped up on my foot from running a little too enthusiastically with my new shoes last week. Amazingly I managed to conserve the flap of skin which very conveniently attached itself back on to my foot while the new skin grew underneath (who needs Compex?) but it wasn't hardy enough to withstand much abuse. On the other hand, the discomfort from my Morton's Neuromas (what is the plural of neuroma? Neuromae?) came back almost immediately with the Vibrams, something to do with the extra compression around the metatarsal heads. It's a shame that I have to more or less abandon running in them, when I was going so well.

The plan for Sunday's brick was something shorter but more intense and close to race pace. I ran 25 minutes at 16 kph (3:45 /km) followed by an hour on the turbo trainer more or less in the aero position (more less than more) and 20 minutes running at 16 kph - although I have to confess that I found my heart rate climbing and I started to get out of breath, so I broke this last section into more manageable chunks of 5 minutes with a short break to get my breath back. The idea wasn't to "kill myself" but, of course, it would have been nice to have completed the workout as originally planned. Still, I was pretty happy with myself and felt correspondingly tired the rest of the day.

As far as my weight goes, I think I've done a pretty good job of shaking off the excesses of the festive period and getting down to racing weight, as my Withings scale shows:

You can also see how, in spite of the variability - in the case of "fat mass", due to measurement error, but in the case of "weight", due to water retention / sweating etc - that there is a clear downward trend. Apart from it being a nice gimmick to have your scales automatically record and upload your stats, it really is the only way to see if you are on track or not.

Monday, March 16, 2015

What a difference a centimetre makes...

Considering I have used my triathlon bike the least out of all my bikes, I was surprised to see that I had worn out one of the arm rest cushions already. I found a place on the web that makes cushions for a wide range of aero bars, including those that are fitted as standard on my Giant Trinity Advanced. Apart from being much more comfy, they have the advantage of being about 1 cm thicker which may not sound like much, but it makes a noticeable difference to my comfort in the aero position. Given that I don't really have any other options to raise my position (other than paying 200 € for a special piece of carbon or - it occurred to me - putting on some more forearm muscle) every little help is welcome. In any case, I feel relatively happy with the position now and was able to maintain it without any breaks on the turbo trainer.

Other workouts of note were the split 10K which I ran at 17.5 kph (3:25 /km) in sections of 1, 3, 2, 3, 1 km, with 1 minute rest in between each. Then the brick this week consisted of 2 hours on the bike with a middle section of 40 minutes at Half Ironman intensity, followed by a 12.5 km run (20 minutes at 13.5 kph or 4:27 /km and 30 minutes at 16 kph or 3:45 /km). I chose about the flattest course I could find starting from my house and took the triathlon bike - even thought there was less climbing according to my Garmin watch, the roads were more bumpy (making the aero position more tiring) and the hills were steeper and more frequent or, at least, that's how it felt.

Since I found the last brick I did with similar intensities to be so tough, I was a little bit nervous about how I would find the run. Perhaps it was helped slightly by a short break that I took in order to catch a bird which had got into the house and was causing quite a scene with the dog. I felt very strong, no wobbly legs and certainly no early onset cramps and, although I allowed myself the option to cut it 10 minutes short, I made it to the end without any problems. It looks like the training is starting to have an effect at last.

The other reason I was a bit nervous about the run was because I had managed to rub a piece of skin off the side of my big toe the size of my thumbnail while doing my split 10K. This was because I had just taken delivery of my new Merrill Trail Glove 3 shoes to replace my already worn out Trail Glove 2. The important thing to note here is the change from 2 to 3. While the new version looks a lot more sturdy and has what looks to be a more stone proof sole, they weigh an extra 30 grammes each (at my oversized EUR 50 / UK 14 / US 15) and rub in new and different ways. I went for a very big size (only available in Germany) so that my toes would have ample wiggle space, particularly my bunion, and it was my bunion which got rubbed raw. As usual, the endorphins coursing through my veins meant that I didn't notice it until it was too late, although I did manage to conserve the flap of skin which I considered supergluing back on. I thought that this might put a temporary stop to my running but I discovered that I could run without problems in my Vibram SeeYas which I had stopped training in, just reserving them for races. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

I won!

Yes, for the first time in my life I actually got to break the tape in a running race! It's not that I have never won anything outright before, it's just that in a rowing race there is obviously no tape to break...

The race was organized for the shareholders of the company I work for so, seen in those terms, I was first out of over 3.2 million people. Perhaps it is slightly more representative to say that I was first out of 100. If I were more paranoid, I might suspect that there was a conspiracy against me taking part because, in spite of the race taking place in the nature reserve built by my employer just outside the campus, I found it difficult to get any information about the race and, when I tried (several times) to sign up for it, I got no reply. In the end, I just turned up and managed to snag race number 100.

The park was designed for employees to be able to go running and cycling and enjoy the wildlife; I prefer to run around outside the park because I don't like feeling hemmed in and, besides, there are too many hills. Talking of which, the course of the 5K race was quite tough with said hills, lots of switchbacks and sandy paths which my trainers had very little purchase on.

I almost didn't take part in the race as I had to accompany my wife to the hospital for a minor operation that afternoon and the timing was very tight. So I decided to stick to my original training plan the day before of 7K at a pulse rate of 172 bpm (which I did in 26:41 or a pace of 3:40 /km); normally I would have taken it a bit more easy the day before a race.

As people get ready you can often tell who the main contenders are going to be. The first clue is their body composition (i.e, how lean) and the second is their body language (i.e., how mean). Someone asking about the course gave away their attitude and it turned out to be his breath I could hear chasing me over the first half. I lead from the start line to the finish but this guy made me work hard; on the other hand, as long as I didn't get lost, I had it in the bag. I was following a little buggy which sometimes had to go ahead to move some of the tape marking the course: in fact, I actually had to jump over the tape before entering the final straight as I got there before the buggy. As I crossed the finishing line I instinctively raised my arms to an appropriate height somewhere in between "this was easy" and "this victory is the best thing that has ever happened to me".

I now had to worry about my next race, the race against time to get home to take my wife to the hospital, but I wasn't about to miss my first ever podium for overall winner in a running race! A nice surprise was that I not only won a trophy but also a bag of goodies including a portable DVD player with two screens for the car as well as some waterproof headphones and armband for listening to music while swimming. I didn't quite make it home in time so my wife went in the car and I ordered a taxi with the last few seconds of mobile battery I had left. The whole day seemed to just fit together by the smallest of margins: I got home just as the taxi was about to leave, I arrived at the hospital at the exact moment that my wife was checking in and we got sent home just in time to get to the car as the parking ticket ran out. And, most importantly, my wife's operation went well.

I decided to meet up with Dani for the Sunday brick. He lives in a nice flat part to the South of Madrid, on the way out to Toledo, very near to where Alberto Contador is from. The idea was to try out the triathlon bikes and stay in the aero position as much as possible. Dani, very sensibly, has his bike set up with a fairly comfortable position, although I was surprised that his seat was lower than mine in spite of him being noticeably taller - maybe he has longer crank arms or something. I was a bit worried about not having trained much in my much more aggressive aero position but the relative absence of hills, wind and bumpy roads meant that it was quite tolerable and I noticed the speed advantage for perhaps the first time. We got passed by a bunch of road cyclists who - as Dani put it - were going at that perfect speed that would mean we would be foolish to try to overtake them but that was just a bit too slow for us to have a decent workout. They also had the demeanour of those kind of cyclists who don't take well to being overtaken and would have surely seen it as a guantlet being thrown down. Eventually they went left and we went right and had a nice stretch of flat open road with hardly any cars. I had to drive about 40 kilometers to get to the start of the route but it was well worth it and something I may repeat even if I don't have the additional benefit of Dani's company. We rode for about 70 kilometers and then left the bikes propped up, slipped into our running shoes and set off for a 9 kilometer run. It's days like this that make me remember why I like cycling. I also gained a lot of confidence in the aero position, getting out of my head all the fears and ideas of trying to change the position.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Bricking it

Another week, another lame pun on the word "brick".

I had a double headphone fail on Friday: not only did I manage to lose my wireless bluetooth Jaybird headphones, but the Sony wired headphones I bought in Malaysia (to replace the pair I accidentally left lying by the pool) decided to crap out on me. I know that it is completely irrational, but these kind of things really annoy me. The Jaybird headphones have had quite an eventful life. I bought them in New York as a bit of retail therapy to compensate for the cancelling of the Marathon in 2012. Only a few months later they stopped working but, as they were "guaranteed sweat-proof", I sent them back to Jaybird. I'd lost the receipt but, thanks to Best Buy where I bought them, I was able to phone up and get them to send me the till receipt by email! However, the headphones never made it back. Even so, they were good enough to take my word for it and they sent a brand new pair which I had  to pick up from a friend's house in New York, which has lasted until now. More recently, I lost one of the little ear-hooks for which replacements can only be sent to an address in the United States(!) but, as I was due to go to New York a week later, I again had them sent to my friend's house. So three trips to New York just for them to disappear without a trace. Anyway, I decided to try a new brand of wired headphones - the Yurbuds - which are "guaranteed not to fall out". So far the results are very positive, after sweating just under 4 kilos they had no problem staying in running at 16 kph. The sound quality is also much better than I experienced with the Sony ones.

Too aggressive? Maybe, but difficult / expensive to do much about it
Those 4 kilos of sweat were produced doing my "brick" on Sunday. My wife was away in Morocco so I had to do the whole thing indoors while "looking after" the kids who were playing GTA V on the Xbox (you can just about make it out in the photo). I kept myself entertained between watching the latest series of "House of Cards" and occasionally watching the kids antics on GTA: a few times I nearly fell of my bike as watching them doing backflips on their motorbike.

I found the brick a lot harder than the one I did the week before. I'd only added 10 minutes of Half Ironman intensity in the middle of the bike leg and tacked on 10 minutes running at 16 kph at the end. My ex-coach used to equate an hour on the turbo trainer to 75 minutes on the bike (outside) because you can't coast (free-wheel) and it is a lot more monotonous. I'm not sure that there is such a difference but, between this and the fact that I am suffering from the cold that my kids have kindly passed on to me, my heart rate was climbing to 175 on the run, 10 bpm more than in the previous brick. To be honest, I had to stop a number of times and I felt my legs tensing up. As I got tired, my running form became less elastic and more "brute-force" and - in spite of the compression I decided to wear for the first time in ages - I could feel the threat of cramps knocking at the door. I felt pretty wrecked for most of the day but, in my experience, there is usually at least one training session in the build up to a race which feels like a failure and yet, I reckon, that these are often the breakthrough sessions. The danger is that stopping even during a hard workout has a negative psychological price, so it is important to minimize this. In general, the key is to set workouts which are in that sweet spot between being too easy and too challenging.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Half term

Last week was half term for everyone in my family except me. To be fair, I chose not to go skiing and instead stayed at home (when I wasn't working, of course), watched more movies, played more video games and did a bit more training than I would usually do.

As I was meeting up with the family in Granada at the weekend and taking my bike there was out of the question, I decided to take the Thursday and Friday off work and get my 2 hour brick session in during the morning. It was quite a hectic day in the end, as shortly after my 50 km bike + 8 km run I had to shower, pop in to work for an unmissable meeting, catch a train into town to meet up with a friend visiting from the UK and then catch another (4 and a half hour) train down to Granada. I had to run (literally) from one appointment to the next but it was one of those days I enjoy, having a chance to do a bit of everything and feeling busy.
I went for a couple of runs around Granada. It was quite a challenge to avoid those "annoying hills" but I managed to invent a 50 minute flat course on the fly by following the river (slow moving rivers tend not to go up or down hill). It was drizzling slightly on the Saturday morning and the pavements were slick and slippery: it was a challenge in itself trying to keep upright while not running in to people. With a bit more planning I could have designed a much more picturesque (albeit hilly) route around the Alhambra. Instead, we explored the area with the kids (who are adverse to walking) on Segways which was a lot of fun and surprisingly challenging to navigate the twisty and narrow paths that were laid many years before Man came up with the idea of the Segway.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Brick by brick

It took a surprising amount of time for my tooth (or lack thereof) to stop hurting. Actually, the constant headaches were more annoying than the gum pain and, for over two weeks, were only punctuated by alternating doses of ibuprofen or paracetamol. By judicious timing of these doses, I was able to continue with my training although I have read that the benefits of training are compromised by taking anti-inflammatories.

Next up on the horizon is the non-drafting duathlon in Soria on the 28th of March. I've done a couple of "bricks" (bike + run) so far - one on the turbo trainer and treadmill as the weather was too grim to go outside, and the other one on my road bike, finishing off with a run on the treadmill. I don't have to build up to Ironman or even Half Ironman proportions as the distances involved in the duathlon are a 6 km run followed by a 60 km bike and a 12 km run. For example, the brick I did yesterday consisted of 80 minutes on the bike, (at least) 40 of which I did at medium or Half Ironman intensity (150-155 bpm), followed by a half hour run (10 minutes at 4:27 /km or 13.5 kph and 20 minutes at 3:45 /km or 16 kph). I definitely notice that I am training different muscles! This week my family is skiing in Granada and I said that I didn't want to go (I just find that the fun of skiing is outweighed by the hassle and frustration) but I will be joining them for the après ski on Thursday night (after a 4 and a half hour train journey...) so I will be taking Thursday off work (except for one meeting I can't miss) and try to get my brick of the week in during the morning.

The other thing I have been working on is being able to tolerate the aero position. Now I have ski bend aero extensions, I think it is a lot more tolerable than it used to be, but it is still a pain in the butt, the back, the backs of my legs and particularly my shoulders and forearms... Having said that, after just a few sessions it has become much easier to put up with. The most important thing is to concentrate on as smooth a pedal stroke as possible, so that my arms don't have to take up the slack. It also helps to have a relatively high cadence. I've found that the "2" setting on the turbo trainer seems to more or less lead to the same bike speed I would obtain for a given heart rate out on the road although this depends very much on wind and hills and so forth. On this setting it feels somehow heavier than battling against air resistance but then the "1" setting is too light: I can easily maintain speeds of 55 kph! I reckon that a turbo trainer with an air turbine would feel much more like cycling on the road but it would also make a racket (perhaps no more than the cooling fan I use already though).

Something pretty funny happened last week. I got contacted by someone over a video I uploaded to Youtube about a year ago, taken with my GoPro of me running around London on a spectacular day and taking in all the sights (Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, etc.). In hasn't exactly gone viral in that only 500 people have seen it in that time (of which several were me) but an advertising agency was looking to use a 15 second clip and they were proposing to pay me a nice chunk of cash for it (enough to cover the cost of the GoPro and the flight to London)! Just as well I didn't hand in my notice at work to start a new life of being paid to fly around the world making videos of my runs because they changed their mind at the last minute and went with another clip. They are keeping me "on file" but it sounds a bit too much like "don't call us, we'll call you".