Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Walking on, walking on the moon...

I once read a book called "Blue Ocean Strategy" (which I unfortunately keep misremembering as "Blue Sky Strategy") which puts forward the idea that you should look for wide open oceans to compete in rather than densely populated jungles. The much cited Cirque de Soleil is an example of this - by combining aspects of theater and circus they created a show which appealed to a different audience and for which they could sell tickets at a premium.

So what would happen if the inventor of the bouncy castle were to join forces with the inventor of the treadmill? They would probably come up with something like the AlterG:

The AlterG is an "anti-gravity treadmill" which allows you to specify not only how fast you'd like to run but also how much you'd like to weigh (although it can't change how much you appear to weigh). You wear a pair of neoprene shorts which zip onto the machine, forming a sort of bubble in which you run: by increasing the pressure of the air in the bubble you can achieve weightlessness. There are several reasons why you might want to do this. The most obvious is if you are injured. Alistair Brownlee, the current Olympic Triathlon Champion, used one of these devices to run back to health after tearing his Achilles Tendon, by reducing the associated impact forces. Even for non-injured athletes, it is useful to be able to run at higher speeds without the corresponding muscle damage. In this way, you can train and ingrain the biomechanics of race pace and above.

There are only 12 of these machines in Spain of which only four can be found in Madrid. One of them happens to be owned by a friend and ex-colleague of mine, Antonio Ciardo. Antonio recently left the bank to concentrate on his osteopathy clinic which, judging by his clientele and his swanky new premises in the posh part of town, looks like it was a very good decision. He invited me to try out last night and warned me to bring a towel as I was likely to work up a sweat.

Love the decoration
At first it feels a little strange to be so constrained but I soon got used to it. Once you step on to the belt and get zipped in, the treadmill calibrates itself based on your weight. The first thing we tried was reducing my weight to just 20% - just a tad more than what it would be on the Moon - and, of course, my feet hardly touched the ground. It reminded me of a recurring dream I have where I can't quite fly but I can run really fast effortlessly by just occasionally tapping the ground with my foot. Then we started piling on the pounds until I weighed only 80% of my normal weight - about 17 kilos lighter. After Moonwalking, even a 20% discount seemed depressingly unnoticeable, although I was able to run at my Marathon pace of 15 km/h (4:00 min/km) while still keeping my pulse very low (less than 140). It did start to get quite hot in there after a while - Antonio explained to me that he still has to set up the ventilation - so my pulse gradually crept up. This model designed for rehabilitation has a maximum speed of 19.2 km/h which I tested out at 80% body weight. It was still hard to run at that speed - after all, you still have to move your legs quite fast - but the impact was noticeably lower and I was able to concentrate more on form. After the problems I have been having with my feet (Hallux Limitus, Morton's Neuroma) I was interested to see whether the pain was more likely to be provoked by a different running gait at high speed, or by higher impact forces - the AlterG allowed me to decouple these two effects and seemed to confirm my suspicion that the latter was more to blame.

One aspect that I found interesting was that the machine obliged you to run upright and to minimize hip movements laterally, transversely as well as vertically, especially when the skirt was inflated (that's to say, when running with less than 100% body weight). This strikes me as a good thing as far as running technique goes. For the second half of the workout I ran at 17 kph (3:30 min/km) or just over 10K pace and then gradually put the weight back on. It was so depressing!! I felt so much heavier and more sluggish than I had before I started and, as the cushion deflated, my hips started to move around much more - left, right, backwards, forwards, not to mention bouncing up and down more. Antonio had stressed that it was important to return to weightfulness before stepping off, otherwise the shock might make me lose balance. However, I wish I had left with the memory of lightness as it was so much more pleasant.

Luckily I don't have too much of a need for one of these things (my wife asked me if I would be buying one!) - apart from being extraordinarily expensive, I'm just glad that I am not injured at the moment (touch wood). But it would have come in very handy as a way to get back to weight bearing when I got a stress fracture in my foot.

Monday, September 15, 2014

La Behobia Week 0 / 8

It's about time I made peace with those "annoying hills" that I like so much to complain about, especially now that I am preparing a hilly race.

The first step was to start doing weights again - probably a good thing anyway - so I went to the gym on Thursday and did a fairly light (2x12x50% RM) workout with squats, calf raises, leg curls and leg extensions. Even so I was still walking like the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz on Sunday!

One of the cool things about my treadmill is that you can program it to follow a route that you design and it then sets the incline appropriately all the while showing you stills from the Google Streetview as you run. It's a surprisingly effective way of distracting you from the boredom of running indoors. I drew the Behobia course in two sections of 10 kilometers each (part I and part II) and did the first of these on Saturday morning. Then on Sunday, we were in Salamanca with some friends where we bought some excellent jamón and I went on another run which made the one on Saturday seem easy. I've been taking it easy for long enough now that I have to go through the process of hardening the skin on my feel all over again, to which the blisters I obtained at the weekend were testament.

I've still got a long way to go but now I feel ready to start my 8 week training schedule (TBD!)

Monday: 40' @ 4:37
Tuesday: 15' easy + 20 @ 4:37
Wednesday: 40' @ 4:37
Thursday: Weights 2x12x50%, 40' @ 4:37
Friday: -
Saturday: Behobia part I (10 km @ 4:34 w/ 184 m ascent)
Sunday: 10.5 km @ 4:29 w/ 276 m ascent

Sunday, September 14, 2014


As you may know, I kickstarted my first project in 2012 - the Altum dress shoes - basically zero drop shoes that I could wear to work (and in fact still do). Although they kickstarted well, it seems like they ran out of steam (or maybe fell out with each other) because there is no news on that front and meanwhile several other credible options have come to market.

I was very tempted by the Fly6 Kickstarter project but decided to wait until they went to market. I was reminded of it when in Singapore, where every taxi driver has a camera recording everything that happens on a loop, just in case there is an accident. Ever wondered why there are so many accidents on Youtube in Russia? Well, its because everybody has one of these little cameras - it might even be a legal requirement. The Fly6 is an equivalent for bikes which faces backwards, naturally, as this is the most likely source of any problems you might have. It masquerades as a red light but don't be fooled - it has a decent quality camera with a very wide angle. It also has a sensor which detects whether your bike has been lying down for more than a few seconds, after which it waits a further hour before automatically shutting down, thereby conserving any important footage just in case you are not in a position to stop the camera yourself. Hopefully it will never come in handy but it could be interesting to catch cars driving dangerously close or, for that matter, fellow triathletes drafting in non-drafting races (they have even thought of including mounts for aero seat posts in the package). On the website there are a number of quite amusing as well as shocking videos of people driving badly, people falling of bikes spectacularly as well as - in one particular case - a woman being groped by a passing motorcyclist!

As a result of buying the production model Fly6, I was just browsing Kickstarter when I came across a fascinating product. It sounded a little too good to be true until I read the review by Steve Magness on his blog. The runScribe is a tiny little device that you hook on to the back of your running shoe which is able to measure such things as contact time, stride length as well as how much you pronate. The applications are pretty much endless: you can compare shoes, analyse differences between your feet, see what happens to your stride length as you tire, try out different running styles etc. As well as this, they are planning to harvest all the data into a Big Database which they can use to analyse trends and try to reach unbiased conclusions on which shoes are best for preventing injuries and other such questions. Of course, it is also good business sense that they set up a subscription model rather than a one off payment for the device itself, but they claim that this will be low-cost or no-cost and, if the data proves to be useful to shoe companies, this may well be the case. Anyway, the Kickstarter still has a few days to go so, if you are interested, you can grab one for yourself and have a share in the excitement of what I think could be a groundbreaking project. If you'd rather wait for the early adopters like myself to get through all the teething problems then keep an eye out for when this product hits the shelves.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Hello again

In the past I have tended to at least mention the fact I was going on holiday on this blog, if not to actually keep on posting, albeit slightly less frequently. Much the same can be said about my "training" which I have let slip to unfamiliar levels of slackdom. We've been in Malaysia, Singapore and Borneo where doing any kind of sport was quite inconvenient - partly due to the humidity and partly due to lack of opportunity (for example, we spent several days on an island which only permitted a circuit of about 500m!). I did some swimming (with sharks) and a few runs on a treadmill but it was probably about time anyway that I took a real break from training. Previously I had an unwritten rule that I would not take more than 1 consecutive day off training, something I have managed to stick to with the exception of the odd Marathon or sickness and, even then, never more than 2. This belies a fear that I will get used to the luxury of not training and just fall back into my old ways. Well, I don't think that is going to be an issue - I actually enjoyed running yesterday for the first time in months, back on my home treadmill and back in my favourite shoes, the Vibram Seeyas. I've decided to go back to the Vibrams as long as I don't get that pain from the Morton's Neuroma again - hopefully, I can build back to a reasonable level in time for the Behobia race in San Sebastian.

Just before going on holiday, I went for another long ride with Dani - this time, the same route but in reverse. And this time, with enough cereal bars and gels to get me up the hills. I was more conservative going up the first puerto to avoid the embarrassment I suffered the week before when I ran out of steam going up the second one. The extra fuel seemed to do the trick as well as perhaps being a bit more used to the bike. I was also a bit more conservative going down and, even so, managed to lose my water bottle going over a bump. You can see from the video I took that the road is some state of disrepair...

For those of you who can read in Spanish (or, for that matter, know how to work Google Translate) Dani did an excellent write up on his blog which you can read here.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Perfect day

Courtesy of Dani
It says something that the verb "to abstain" when used without specifying from what, is generally understood to refer to the non-drinking of alcohol. Sitting outside in a terrace on a lovely day in Madrid, I ordered a cool alcohol free beer and it was sublime: I thought that this was going to be a breeze. It was only after I had greedily gulped it down that I noticed that familiar pleasant buzz and realized that I had been cheated! It did contain alcohol after all. So much for my drought. Still, I find that it is harder to do a little of something than not at all but, having said that, I'm sticking to my plan. My belly already feels better for it, although it is probably a placebo effect. Either that, or the "paliza" I endured on the bike the next day helped trim the fat.

I met up with Dani and Oscar at precisely 8 am the next day (it's nice to have a punctual Spanish friend at last!) and we headed off to la Sierra ("the saw" - the mountain range to the north of Madrid). Manolo was not quite so punctual but it is often the way that the person who has the least distance to travel arrives last, as they don't have to plan so far ahead. I had turned up in a culotte which inadvertently showed a bit too much of my culo because some of the seams had come a bit undone so, after a bit of obligatory ribbing, we set off.

In spite of starting at an altitude of just over 1,000 m, the first part of the ride was very flat. I'd ridden around here once before, with my ex-trainer, Jonathan who used to live in Collado Mediano. I'd forgotten just how much it helps to be drafting (or chupando rueda - sucking the wheel) especially behind Dani who, as a basketball player turned triathlete, moves about as much air as a small truck. At one point a couple of randoms joined onto the back of our little procession. I have no problem with people joining in but one of them made me a bit nervous as he kept on creeping up on my inside every time I had to brake or freewheel to avoid running into Dani's back tire.

By the time we got to the pretty little village of Miraflores ("look at flowers"), we were back to just the four of us. From there we started our ascent of the puerto (mountain pass) of Morcuera. I had only climbed this once before, on a Mountain Bike with my then boss, who insisted on chugging up the hill with full suspension. I remember going down to be quite hair raising and that was with the relative comfort of a Mountain Bike - I wasn't sure what it would be like to fly down on a Road Bike, on which you feel every little bump in the road.

I found that it seemed easier to get into a certain rhythm and I started to pull away from the others. I kept searching for a lower gear (oval rings with 39 teeth on the front, 25 teeth on the back) but my bike was unable to produce one so it meant that I went up at a relatively quick pace. At least it would be over sooner - I can't say I enjoy pedaling uphill. I finally got the the top some way ahead of the others and had some time to myself to enjoy my achievement. I realized that I hadn't spent more than 2 consecutive hours in the saddle (apart from the Half Ironman itself) and that I had actually been a bit nervous before the ride that I would end up holding everyone else up.

Such a perfect day
We regrouped before starting the descent. It was exhilarating bombing down the hills at some unfathomable speed until, on a level curve, I got overtaken by a car which then proceeded to block me all the way down. I tried to get past it but, on the first attempt, a troupe of motorbikes happened to be coming up the other way (they seem to get off on the bends) and, on the second, a bull was in the road. At least, I thought it was a bull because in England (most) cows don't have horns as far as I know, so I am culturally programmed to assume that anything bovine with horns is a bull. I was later informed that it was a cow but, at that speed, it wouldn't have made much difference had it been a sheep. On the third attempt, I managed to get past the car and enjoy an unfettered blistering descent until the road ran out of hills.

We stopped off in Rascafría ("cold chill") where the others had a coke and I abstained (this time from sugary drinks). Mistake. I asked "how much further" and Dani explained that we were going up one more puerto before heading back. I vaguely remembered him saying something about dos puertos in his email but my oxygen deprived brain had inconveniently forgotten the fact as I was climbing the first one. He told us an anecdote of another Robert who had raced up the first puerto only to ran out of gas on the second. Oscar added that this second one was more challenging mentally as it appeared to go on and on for ever. Just to finish it off, Dani reminded us that it would also be a lot hotter now, as the sun had fully risen.

After a few kilometers llaneando (on the level), the sign saying "10 km of puerto to go, 7% gradient" came into view. The sensible thing to do would have been to hang back and try to hang on to the group, but the gear I was in (the easiest one) meant that it felt somehow harder on my tired muscles to go at their speed. So with a bit of bravado I set off at what felt like a comfortable rhythm with shouts of "You're crazy! this is a puerto!" coming from behind. I said that they would probably see me again in 5 minutes, half believing what I was saying and half not but certainly totally hoping that I would pull it off. I'm not sure whether it was even as many as 5 minutes later, but I suddenly ran out of steam and couldn't keep up the rhythm any longer. This meant that I had to result to the forced two-stroke rhythm I had been trying to avoid. I heard the whirring of Dani's chain approaching and soon he and Manolo passed me by. After a while I stopped and stood straddling the bike on shaky legs while Oscar went past. He slowed a little for me to catch up but then I once more found myself going slightly faster only to have to stop again to recover. In this way I made my way up the mountain. Now on my own, I wondered whether the plan was to go down the same side of the mountain, in which case the temptation to stop and coast down was enormous. I have to say that I felt embarrassed to have gone off like an inexperienced kid and the punctuality in me made me feel bad that people were waiting for me. I also knew that I'd be very angry with myself and even more embarrassed if I didn't finish the damn thing. Onward and upwards I pressed, stopping every 500 m or so. With 2 km to go, I started counting down from 400 breaths (I never normally start a count down the finish line so high) with a little standing break every 100. At last, I made it to the top where Dani gave me a gel which started to course around my veins and would give me back my legs after a few kilometers drafting behind him.

We decided to go on the flat before coasting practically all of the rest of the way back to our starting point. I definitely preferred to do it that way round, rather than have to do any more work after the descent. Having said that, the gel had started to work its wonders by then and I was feeling much better (but not so much that I would have been up to another bloody puerto!).

I felt quite pleased to have completed a challenging ride - 100 kms, about 3 and a half hours in the saddle and two ascents of about 1000 m, all at altitudes of 1000 - 2000 m. Next time I'll make sure I have a hearty dinner the night before and that I take enough fuel for the ride...

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Statement of Intent

Sometimes it is easier to achieve a goal if you make it public; the shame of not meeting it is motivation in itself (although, it is what I would call a double-negative motivation). With the summer heat and lack of any competitions on the immediate horizon (not to mention my foot problem), I have cut down radically on intensity and it is showing. I'm starting to put on a bit of weight and, unchecked, it could be quite annoying to get rid of after the summer. So I hereby state that I will be abstaining from all alcohol as well as eating more carefully until further notice (and at least until the end of September). I went for a year and a half without touching a drop, so I know it's not that difficult. My vice is the tinto de verano which is a mixture of extremely cheap, bad quality wine (Don Simon) with a watered down lemonade (Casera) - at least the lemonade has zero calories. It is so refreshing that it is all too easy to drink, especially after a sweaty cycle ride. So no more!

I was just thinking about New York this morning - I re-read my own write up of the Marathon I ran last November to relive the experience. It's a while since I last read it so it was quite a coincidence that I received just now an invitation to speak at a conference in New York in December! I can't really say no to that. (Just as well I had already turned down a similar invitation for the same dates in Amsterdam, much as I like Amsterdam it is not New York.)

I've been cycling in to work a fair bit the last few weeks, making the most of having the roads to myself now that everyone else from Madrid seems to have gone to the beach already. This weekend I have agreed, albeit with some trepidation, to go on a fairly challenging ride by my recent standards with Dani and his group of fellow triathletes. We will be taking in a few puertos (or, "annoying hills" as I call them) along the way which I am looking forward to going down and it will be the longest I have spent in the saddle probably since the Ironman itself, over 3 years ago.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014


It was only a matter of time before I found a good enough excuse to buy some Huaraches - the sandals worn by the running tribe of Tarahumaras described in Chris McDougal's best-selling "Born to Run" book. The excuse is that I will soon be going on holiday to Malaysia where it will be ridiculously humid and I know from past experience that it is not fun running with extremely sweaty feet. Arguably, it is not much fun running in those kind of conditions - full stop. To be honest, I'm not sure if I will actually run in them, but I will certainly wear them for walking around as a much more comfortable alternative to the flip flops de rigeur and I'll take it from there.

The other excuse was that I recently discovered that the shop where I recently bought my Merrell Trail Gloves (which, incidentally, are still rubbing the tops of my feet when I run at any kind of lively pace, even with socks) are producing a variation on the Huaraches that tries to combine the best of tradition and technology. Lastly, it just so happened that I was thinking about them when a colleague told me that he had just bought some and it just so happened that I had to get my vaccines done not too far from the shop...

The LightRun Sandals are made from a 5mm Vibram sole (what else?) with a soft leather foot bed and a leather strap to hold your foot in place. They look a little Jesusy (I went for the brown ones) but they are quite elegant if you like that sort of thing. So far I haven't tried running in them but the initial reports are that they are very comfy. I'll keep you posted but in the meantime, here is a link to the product: http://5dedos.es/173-lightrun-sandals.html