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

Guarachando

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

Thursday, July 31, 2014

If it ain't fixed don't broke it

My various bikes have been passing through the LBS (Local Bike Store) in a steady procession over the last few weeks. First up was the Conor mountain bike I keep up in Asturias which finally succumbed to the humidity, in spite of being kept indoors. The gear cables had completely rusted up and I ended up having to have the cables and the controls replaced. But just like when you go to the doctor for a routine checkup and he finds something completely asymptomatic that you didn't know you had, it turned out that the chain had stretched so much that the the cogs on the back and the front had all worn out prematurely, so I basically had to have the whole drive chain and cranks replaced too! I couldn't help thinking about the old adage of whether an axe with a new handle and stone is still the same axe or not. Just when I was worrying whether I should have scrapped the bike entirely and bought a new one instead, the total bill turned out to be only €150 (the bike cost €500 originally). Still, that's €150 I wasn't counting on spending. The good news is that, as a result, I now have permission to keep the bike in a room upstairs which should hopefully avoid the humidity problem recurring; the chain stretching is another matter - I'm surprised, really, that I had done enough kilometers on it for it to have become so chronic. Perhaps the lower end components on the bike wear out that much more quickly.

After the cautionary tale of not replacing the chain in time, I bought a little device to measure how much give there is in a bike chain. Armed with my new gadget I set about measuring the chains of my other bikes and, sure enough, almost all of them needed replacing, some more urgently than others. Next up was the Giant (or "Gant" as my wife refers to it) road bike for which the chain measuring tool's verdict was "replace immediately". Within two seconds of handing it over to the LBS, the mechanic noticed that the head assembly was loose - thank goodness he had spotted it as the frame could have ended up becoming damaged as well as it leading to a very nasty accident if it had decided to give while descending a hill, for example. He told me off (nicely) for letting my chain accumulate so much gunk but thought that I had probably got away with not having to replace the sprockets or chain rings. He also noticed that I had the handlebars at a slightly unusual angle - having never known which bit of the curved handlebars was supposed to be horizontal, I had set them to exactly 0 degrees according to the marker. Apparently, the bit which is supposed to be horizontal is just behind the brake hoods. He was surprised that I could ride the bike comfortably like that but I guess I have got used to it being that way.

While the road bike was being tended to, I took the Giant triathlon bike for a spin. For some reason I had never paid much attention to the creaking noises it would make when I put on the torque - for example, when standing up on the pedals. I assumed it was something to do with my shoes, the cleats or the cranks, the noise being amplified by the massive bottom bracket but after the scare of the loose head assembly, I thought I should probably do something about it. When the mechanic got his hands on the bike, he noticed that the noise was in fact coming from the rear wheel which twists ever so slightly, making a very worrying sound - worrying because it clearly shouldn't have any give at all. Not quite so dangerous as a loose head assembly I guess, but potentially as expensive, as we are talking about a Zipp disc wheel here... Considering I have probably done less than 500 kilometers on that wheel, it is surprising and a bit disappointing, especially is it is out of guarantee by now. I can't remember when I first noticed that creaking noise and I feel a bit silly for not having checked it out sooner - not unlike someone who refuses to go to the doctor. I don't avoid going to the LBS because of the cost - it is a bit of a false economy if you let the problems get to a expensive extreme - but rather that bikes represent self sufficiency for me: I hate the idea of depending on some external infrastructure. I like to think that even if there were a Zombie Holocaust, I'd still have my bikes (although perhaps the triathlon one wouldn't be the most practical choice).

The mechanic was also surprised that I could tolerate the aero position on the bike. It's true that it is a very aggressive position but I'd always followed the philosophy that I could train the position so why compromise and it's true that I did manage to do a Half Ironman on the aero bars (even though the run afterwards was a bit of a disaster, but that's another story). What was interesting was that he reckoned I couldn't deliver as much power if I couldn't pull on the bars, thereby using my arms and back to propel the bike forward. Quite a few people seem to have put upward sloping aero bars on the Giant - not least of which Timo Bracht - so I have invested in some with a "ski bend". I want to avoid spending lots of money tinkering with the position especially when I am not planning to do any triathlons any time soon but, on the other hand, it is a shame to have spent so much cash on a bike that is neither comfortable nor even significantly faster than my road bike, The other advantage of raising the hands is that it is often accompanied by lowering the head, thus obtaining an even more aerodynamic position. This is perhaps an extreme, but some people - Floyd Landis to name just one - have adopted a kind of "praying mantis" position:


The only bike not to have paid a visit to the LBS yet is the Merida mountain bike which is also the bike I most use. The chain stretching measurement tool thingy didn't detect any problems but after the experience with the other bikes perhaps it is due for a check up after all. All in all, this is becoming quite expensive... A bit of a shock after the relative low cost of just replacing running shoes every now and again.

Lastly, I finally got the 50cc moped up and running, so it really has been a week of mucking about with bikes. It was just a question of buying some petrol in a canister and charging the battery (which I managed to connect the wrong way round when I installed it in the moped, blowing a couple of fuses - doh!).

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Royal City

I'm actually looking forward to spending a weekend at home for once. Having said that, i managed to relax on my Father in-laws little farm in the countryside of Ciudad Real. I took my road bike along as the thought of the soaring temperatures put me off the idea of going for a run. Instead, I set off in the direction of Puertollano and did a round trip of about 47 kilometers in an hour and a half. I did see a few other cyclists, but surprisingly I thought. As we have to go back next weekend to pick up the kids we left behind, I'll probably repeat the experience, maybe venturing a little further this time, as I have to say that I did enjoy it.

I also enjoyed very much commuting to work on the mountain bike for the first time in ages. It was a beautiful fresh morning, the rabbits were out in full view, and I arrived at work nice an early and bright as a button. On the way back, I was accompanied by Manuel and we took the long way round, via the Casa de Campo and a bar on the way.

The motivation is coming back, slowly...

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Happier Feet

I was going to title this post "Un-Happy Feet" or "Not so Happy Feet" but, after going to the podiatrist yesterday with the results from my MRI scan, I'm feeling more upbeat, relieved even.

There's a reason why medical reports are handed to the patients in a sealed envelope and that is because they are quite terrifying to read. Raúl, the podiatrist, seemed a lot more relaxed about it since I last saw him after reading it and seeing me. It's true that the pain from the Morton's Neuroma has almost completely subsided - I only notice a sharp pain if I happen to tread on a stone in just the right (or wrong) way, and a tiny amount of numbness in my toes when I stand barefoot - but it's also true that I have radically cut down on running volume and intensity, as well as having changed to slightly less minimal (a little more maximal?) running shoes. There is a big difference between pain that is just discomfort to pain which is actually telling you that you are damaging yourself. In this case, the discriminating factor is what Raúl had to say about it. He verdict was that I should just keep an eye on it and come back after the summer when we could evaluate how things had gone and decide whether or not to go for orthotics (not surgery ). He didn't seem too concerned about my choice of footwear (Merrell Trail Gloves) stressing only that it was important to have a wide toe box.

In fact, the worry is more about the bunion than the neuroma. The scan basically confirmed that my unfortunate accident last year (of tripping over a paving stone) was to blame for the evolution in the bunion and the calcification around the big toe joint: it was possible to see some damage to the cartilage from the frontal impact. Although it shouldn't really make any difference, being able to attribute the blame to a stupid accident made it easier for me to swallow than it being due to, say, my choice (against all advice) to run in minimalist shoes. Strictly speaking, I blame the shoes I was wearing at the time for the accident - the combination of being very flexible and having an extremely generous toe box meant that it was relatively easy to trip over in them - but it is not as though anyone warned me against the dangers of tripping over in minimalist running shoes. In fact, this incident (not to mention the "red carpet incident") is what convinced me to switch over definitively to Vibram Five Fingers, whose footprint is no bigger than that of the foot itself (and employ reassuringly artificial dyes).

So, nothing has changed except I need not be quite so cautious and worried as I have been over the last few weeks. The timing is good - if it can ever be a good time to have an injury - as summer has started and I usually do more cycling and generally reduce the intensity of my runs. But now I can run freely and, if it hurts, it is just a nuisance, not a reason to turn back.

Having said all this, what I continue to struggle with is the balance between competition and simply keeping fit. I have had no problems whatsoever to motivate myself to endure a grueling and often boring workout when it has been part of the preparation for an upcoming race, but lately I have found it difficult to even complete what I would have previously considered an easy recovery run. The problem is that I continue to measure myself by the same standards, so I insist on setting off at 15 kph, thinking that anything else "doesn't count". What doesn't count is not to do anything, and of this I am the most scared: of losing my motivation altogether and just flopping into a state of eternal sofa-dom. I find it strangely difficult to run or ride at a "reasonable" pace, just enjoying the fresh air and the scenery. It's certainly easier with company but it is also a question of attitude. Will I continue to compete? Maybe. I don't have to decide anything now. Still, I would like to be able to derive sufficient motivation from just keeping active, without feeling like I have to monitor my 10K times, my weight or my percentage body fat.

In other news, we were in Asturias again this weekend. I thought I would use the bike so I made sure to fit the bike carrier to the roof of the car, just in case. But the bike had not survived the winter: the humidity was too much for it and the gear cables had rusted up. I couldn't help comparing the gear cables grating up and down in their housing with the inflamed nerves in my feet. I brought the bike back to Madrid in the end, for a bit of R&R.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Oxford blues

This weekend I spent in Oxford, at my 21 years since graduation reunion (or "gaudy" as they insist on calling it there). I shouldn't really have been surprised to have found myself the only person not wearing black-tie (I was wearing a suit and tie, mind) but I couldn't find that naff clip on bow tie I used to use and I refused to buy a new one (and my Oxford education didn't extend so far as showing me how to tie one). I sent a photo to my kids (not reproduced here out to protect the reputations of my fellow colleagues) as I knew they would appreciate just how Harry Potter the whole thing was. It was pretty freaky staying in my old room and seeing all these familiar but strangely different faces. As you can imagine, it was a fairly alcohol fueled evening (I even smoked a cigarette!) that went on late by my recent standards. To really emulate a weekend of my youth, I had arranged for a friend to pick me up at 7 am, slightly hungover and only 4 hours sleep the better, to take me down to the river for an "outing" (in a rowing boat).

I don't think I have seen Mike since he kindly brought my records from Oxford to my parents' house in Cambridge, where I was recovering from glandular fever, almost exactly 22 years ago to the day. I had been rowing in a boat with him the day I discovered I was ill - it was the day after the intercollegiate Summer Eights rowing race, and we were training for Henley in a City of Oxford crew (Henley Royal Regatta is taking place as I write). I felt so weak that I couldn't even row "light pressure" and the others had to row me back to the boathouse. Mike was also in the crew I had rowed in the previous year, which I had joined just after having been dropped from the Oxford University squad.

Just as well I had a lot less records in those days
I may not have found my clip on bow-tie, but I was able to find my old City of Oxford lycra one-piece as well as some OUBC (Oxford University Boat Club) attire, complete with the then ubiquitous Beefeater Gin sponsorship. We drove down to Wallingford, to the very same stretch of water I had splashed incessantly up and down with the university squad all those years ago, but had not been back to since. We were very lucky to have a window of beautiful weather which only just lasted longer than the outing itself. We were quite a motley crew: Mike had assembled a couple of other friends - one of whom was an "ex-blue" (that is to say, had rowed in the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race) and past Henley champion, in incredible shape considering that he was 70(!) years old. I assumed the "stroke" position (the one at the front, setting the rhythm), while Mike steered - if he remembered to - using a rudder which was attached to his foot via cables. I was pleased to see that not much had changed since I had last been in a boat (I think I have rowed about 3 times in the last 20 years). We used the "hatchet blades" which have an asymmetric spoon and were introduced around the time I was rowing seriously. In fact, on the last day of that Summer Eights competition in 1992, we switched to them for the first time in a desperate attempt to get our "blades" (oars awarded to those who finish first or "Head of the River"). Otherwise, it was just like riding a bike: I didn't have to think about what I was doing (although the others were probably just being polite in not criticizing my technique).

One thing that I had forgotten as it was the sort of thing that only "novices" suffered from, was that you tend to get terrible blisters - more precisely, open wounds - from the wooden handles of the oar, and the twisting motion ("feathering"). It's actually pretty disgusting to think of all that human blood and sweat which has soaked into the handle and starts to seep out in a kind of greasy gunk as you row.

A picture of my hand: makes a change from pictures of my feet
Apart from the soreness of my hands which only became an issue towards the end, I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially the amusing running commentary from Mike a couple of seats behind me. We did a round trip of about 14 kilometers and we weren't too shabby. I mean, I wouldn't describe ourselves as spritely, but the boat was stable enough (presumably because the experienced guys behind me were able to compensate for me) to be able to row without worrying about "catching a crab" (when your oar suddenly gets stuck in the water, with the possible consequence of the handle jumping up and hitting you in the chest). I have to admit that it was tiring, though and I didn't feel as though I could wimp out. I'd forgotten what it was like to have that pressure of not letting your fellow crew members down: a crew is more than just a team - if you stop, you get whacked in the back by the oar of the guy behind you. Since I fell off my bike and tore the ligaments in my shoulder, I have had surprisingly little trouble (so far) - I was able to complete an Ironman soon after - but my shoulder did feel worse for wear the next few days.


After the outing, we had a shower in the boat club and had some breakfast in a local cafe. I felt slightly jealous of Mike living in a quaint village, where he seemed to know everyone we passed, all of whom seemed to be rowers. I made a resolution to get back into cycling in a group when I got back to Madrid. When I am preparing for a specific competition I like to train on my own and I tend to be very focused end self-motivated, but these days I am suffering from a bit of a lack of direction and motivation, especially with the problems I am having with my foot. I got the MRI scan back today, and the conclusion is indeed that I have a Morton's Neuroma (if not two of them in the same foot). I'm seeing the podiatrist next week so I await slightly nervously the prognosis and recommended course of action. In the meantime, I have been cycling a lot more and running a lot less; also, finally, my feet have recovered from my rather unwise sockless run some weeks ago, so I can again run in my slightly more than minimalist Merrill Trail Gloves.