Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Feeling crap

A combination of the cold weather in San Francisco, the lack of "real" food and the air conditioning on the flight home - not to mention the jet lag - has left me with the first head cold I've had since the beginning of the year. Combined with the shock of coming back to work I think it's safe to say that I am not in my best spirits.

I spent a good five or ten minutes having a debate with myself as to whether to do the workout I had programmed (20 minutes easy + 20, 12 and 8 minutes hard) before finally bottling it after about 5 minutes into the hard session. What was odd was that I was running pretty fast for the heart rate I was registering but I was feeling quite bad for it. I spent another five or ten minutes afterwards debating with myself whether I was just being a "pansy" or whether I was actually being sensible and avoiding prolonging this head cold. The times when I have cut short a training session I have tended to feel very angry with myself and quite down about it afterwards; in fact, knowing that this is how I will feel is a big part of my motivation to get the work done in the first place. However, I think I made the right decision and I'm actually quite pleased with myself: I think I am actually beginning to have a more holistic approach to my training at last. The workout today was actually one that I should have done on Sunday, had it not been for the fact that I was flying back that day. Sometimes it is better to skip one workout than to try and make up for lost time by cramming it in. I can't imagine that it will make any (positive) difference to my goal to run a Marathon in under 3 hours in November.

Hopefully I'll feel more able to do the hard session I have down for Thursday.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Eating in America

I picked up an interesting book in San Francisco, called "In Defense of Food" by Michael Pollan. Quite the opposite of most books in its genre, it gives away the punchline in the first paragraph ("Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much") as opposed to the usual style of obliging the reader to wade through a whole book to make him feel as though he is getting his money's worth. The first part book is a fascinating history of how we ended up with the so-called "Western diet" and helps make sense of the seemingly schizophrenic advice received from bodies such as the FDA ("Eat margarine, it's better for you than butter". "Don't eat margarine, it's bad for you."). The alternative is to be completely skeptical and ignore any official recommendations. Actually, this is not far from the position of the author, although a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and this book definitely helps fill in the gaps.

I found it very hard to eat well in America. Half of the time we were in big cities relying on restaurant food with finickity menus and elaborate sauces to cover up a multitude of culinary sins. The rest of the time we were camping and so we got a fairly good idea of the American Supermarket. What surprised me was the absolute lack of fresh produce, especially meat and fish. These had already been chopped up, sanitized, smothered in barbecue sauce and wrapped up in plastic as if it were somehow offensive to eat something that resembled a once living creature. Perhaps everyone caught their own fish and hunted their own meat. I was also surprised by the number of "super drinks" - bottles of flavoured water with added vitamins, anti-oxidants, supposedly all the things that had been taken out of the food - compared to water, say. It's no wonder that there is a `problem with obesity: the number of calories in these drinks that you have to pack in makes them the nutritional equivalent of a salad heaped with sugar.

The book calls this phenomena "nutritionalism" - the tendency born of science to reduce every food to its constituent parts - if only we knew the complete list and there were no interactions between the constituents. In processing food to increase its shelf life, many nutrients are lost, some of which are added back by the manufacturers, others of which can be taken as supplements but we cannot be sure that we are not missing something. This is applied all the way down the food chain to the soil used to grow the plants which the animals which we end up eating feed off. The result is more calorifically dense food with less nutrients. It may be that our organism craves for certain nutrients and forces us to take in more calories than we need as a result. How else can you explain the obese and yet malnutritioned children (with rickets!) admitted to a clinic in Oakland, mentioned in the book?

It is actually very difficult to find "real" food - even so-called organic food sold in supermarkets may be "old" food that has had to travel from afar and has therefore undergone some degree of processing. You have to go out of your way to find it, that is for sure, but you also need to know what you are looking for and the book gives some very practical advice on this issue such as "don't buy any food your Grandma wouldn't recognize as such" and "avoid any food that makes health claims". One bit of advice he gives I think is a bit silly, though. He says that there is no evidence to support the claims that supplementation helps in any way although people who take supplements tend to be more healthy, perhaps because they spend more time thinking about their health. He proposes, therefore, that you should not take supplements but that you should behave like someone who does - whatever that means. Firstly, the claim he makes about food not being a "zero sum game" - that is to say, food can be more than the sum of its parts - could be applied to supplementation. In the same way that we may be missing something by applying reductionist science to deconstructing food, perhaps taking certain combinations of supplements is more effective than taking one in isolation, as would be the hypothesis of any scientific test. What may in fact be the case is that people taking supplements are in fact much more physically active on the whole. The only valid reason I have heard for taking supplements as opposed to looking to food to get all the necessary nutrients is that training for something like an Ironman is an "unnatural" stress on the body and may need unnatural supplementation to repair the damage and bolster the immune system.

None of this is terribly surprising but it is interesting to take a step back and see the problem with a bit of perspective. Even some of the more health conscious amongst us can fall in to the trap of the latest fad. It is not to say that food science has nothing to tell us but just that we should take it with a pinch of salt because, as yet, we do not know the full picture.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Race around Lake Merced in San Francisco

It's actually quicker to run

 It was quite a schlep to get to the start of the race by 6:30pm - it took about an hour and a half from Fisherman's Wharf on San Francisco's quaintly inefficient public transport system. I had to run the last mile and a half to get there on time but it was well worth the effort. When I travel abroad I like to go on at least one "mission" which takes me off the beaten track and submerges me briefly in local life: it could be searching for rare vinyl records on Spanish Harlem or, in this case, taking part in a tiny local race. This was the last in a series of weekly meets organized by the DSE Runners and consisted of a 4.5 mile run around Lake Merced.

As I predicted, my Vivobarefoot Ultras attracted a fair bit of attention. Even so, they were met with less of a raised eyebrow than my Vibram Five Fingers were two years ago in New York: thanks to Born to Run, "minimalist" running shoes are now part of the lingo. There was one guy running in VFFs and I spotted another wearing the Merrel Trail Glove, which he said he had used in a 50km race recently. So, based on my unscientific sample of one, it does seem as though minimalist is here to stay.

At the start of the race the starter announced that we had someone from Spain amongst us, at which point all the people from Latin America came up to greet me in Spanish. I tend to say I am from Spain when I register for a race: I think it is because it was in Spain that I rediscovered running not to mention other life changing events like getting married and having kids. I may never be Spanish but I feel affiliated with Spain.

We went off at a cracking pace and I settled in to my rhythm. It was nice and cold in the San Franciscan fog that had settled down over the lake so my heart rate was pretty much under control. I was in 7th position for most of the race but I got overtaken by another runner as we reached the crest of a gentle hill. I came in 8th position in a time of 27:11 - an average pace of 3:47 per kilometer. Not bad considering it was the shortest race I had run in over a year by a long stretch.

I really enjoyed the after race atmosphere and immediately felt part of something albeit fleetingly. I was given a lift back to the nearest Muni (Metro) stop at which point I gradually slipped back into my role of slightly confused and naive tourist.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Barefoot in America

When I was last in the States, two years ago, people were equally amused by and curious to know more about the Vibram 5 Fingers I was running around Central Park in. "Born to Run" hadn't yet been published and the so-called barefoot running scene was very much underground and undiscovered. I tried to buy some racing flats in New York to complement my VFFs (would that I had: I was unknowingly only a few miles away from a stress fracture from overdoing it) but no shop stocked any shoes that could remotely be described as "minimalist" in my size; only small runners were considered suitable for lightweight shoes.

I was surprised, then, to see an advert on mainstream TV for the New Balance Minimus, the shoes developed in conjunction with the ultra marathoner Anton Krupicka. I also finally found a copy of Runner's World in a Safeways: it features reviews of oxymoronic "barefoot shoes". Rather disappointingly, most of these look like moonboots to my eyes, the only exception being the Vibram Five Fingers Bikila, the model which has gone so far from the original versions that they look more like an ordinary trainer with the gimmick of separate toe pockets. I think what made the VFFs special was the hard but flat and thin sole - the toe pockets allow your toes to splay but no more than a wide toe box. But most depressingly of all, the reviewer is asked a few questions, of which one is "what hurts after I run": "my Achilles tension" is his answer. It seems like the idea of barefoot or minimalist running has finally permeated Runner's World but I can't help thinking it isn't without a certain dose of cynicism.

On Thursday I plan to do a race in San Francisco - I will be checking out what shoes the other runners are wearing.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Running in America

I think it's fair to say that America can be credited with the surge in popular running (and jogging) so I've been surprised by how few runners I've actually come across. On the other hand, judging by how incredibly civic people are towards runners - walking in single file to let them pass, for example - they seem very used to them and, what is more, to respect them. The other thing I find surprising is, unlike in Spain and the UK where virtually every newsagents or equivalent carries a copy of Runner's World (if not several other competing publications too), here I have not seen a single running or triathlon magazine; the only "sports" oriented magazines seem to be about bodybuilding (or fishing, if you count that as a sport).

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Chia Running

The other day I was browsing Amazon (which, by the way, started up around here, in Seattle) and I was recommended some Chia seeds. These are used by the Tarahumara Indians who feature in the bestselling book "Born to Run". Apparently these seeds were considered by the Aztecs to be a food of the gods. They reportedly have excellent antioxidant properties as well as containing omega 3 and omega 6 in a favorable ratio.

I managed to find some in a trendy pharmacy in the public market in Seattle. I haven't noticed the energizing properties that some say they have but it is still early days. The seeds are not unpleasant to break open with your teeth and they have a strange gelatinous quality, especially if you dissolve them in water. The seeds absorb a lot of water and it is just possible that they help you hyperhydrate rather like taking glycerol (which I recently read was added to the banned substance list last year for it's use as a masking agent).

Good news...

It turned out that my Garmin is in fact working. I'd come to the conclusion that the battery was dead because, after charging it fully two days in a row, I found it with no charge on both occasions. I think it must have turned itself on in my bag both times, unlikely as it sounds.

So I was able to do my series today and now I should be able to go on "random runs" where I make up the route on the fly and use the GPS to get me back.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Sleeping in Seattle

I spent much of the 9 hour flight looking forward to putting on my running shoes (metaphorically speaking, as I was already wearing them in fact) and exploring Seattle. Yesterday it had transpired that each of the four adults had thought that one of the other three had booked the hotel and so it seemed a miracle to have found a decent hotel right down town. A miracle it would have been - it turned out that our booking had been successful but for the month of September. For some reason that no-one seems to know, the whole of Seattle is fully booked. We managed to get a couple of dingy smoking rooms in one of those iconic motels, even further out of town than the airport. Add to that the sad demise of my Garmin watch - just like it's younger brother a year ago, the battery no longer retains any charge; it may have something to do with me having dropped it. The upshot is that, unless I take my iPhone (which has GPS) with me, I can't afford to get lost.

I ended up running alongside the motorway that runs from the town center out to the airport; it was only at the end of my second run that I realized that there was actually a nice lake I could have run around right next to the hotel.

It was interesting if not a little depressing. At the other end of the spectrum from the middle class granola eating Seattle town, one in every two restaurants was out of business succumbing, presumably, to the overwhelming pressure from the plethora of Denny's, Taco Bell and, of course, MacDonald's. What I found depressing was the quality of food that the locals had - somehow I doubted that their home cooking was any better.

At one point I passed a homeless person who was asleep, sitting on a wall with a blanket draped over his head. As I ran by a tool shouted "Boo!!" from the open window of a car.

I'll have to do the rest of my training without any heart rate reference. I particularly hate doing series like this because I don't know when to ease back a little nor can I have the satisfaction of knowing that I did them hard enough. It could have been worse, I suppose: there's never a good time for your Garmin to break but during a race would have been far worse.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Holidays... Wahey!

One more day at work and then I'm off to the States for a couple of weeks (Seattle and San Francisco). My training plan says that I should aim to do a race around the end of the month and after consulting the excellent Running in the USA website (it's amazing just how many races there are and how well organized everything seems to be) I found a race in San Francisco around Lake Merced on the 25th of August - perfect! I think it will be fun to rock up as an "international" (mind you, I have no illusions about how well I will do - there are some seriously fast runners who have taken part in the past, including some quite well known ones from the ultra circuit).

I really enjoy running in other countries. It probably sounds unbelievably sad, but some of the most lasting memories I have of a holiday abroad are the runs I have gone on. There is something so exhilarating about just setting off in a random direction, seeing slices of life and discovering places along the way that are perhaps worth visiting later with the family. In Kyoto, I remember it being so humid that I would run with ice cubes wrapped in a towel around my neck and have to stop every kilometer or so to buy a drink from the ubiquitous vending machines. In Khajuraho (India), people would cycle alongside me and ask me (in a very friendly way) whether they could have my trainers when I had finished with them. I still remember a very picturesque run along the Danube in Budapest that I did several years ago, as if it were yesterday. Or running in Central Park (New York) at night and seeing a couple of raccoons. I have also run in Florianópolis (Brazil), Lisbon, Mexico DF, Cambridge, London, Brighton, Odense (Denmark), Rome and Paris, not to mention various other cities in Spain. Not a bad tally for less than 4 years.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

No bike son, you gotta work late

So, as you know if you've been reading this blog, it is currently prohibited to move around my work campus on a bicycle. In fact, it has always been the case but, until very recently, it was one of that type of rule which is quite common in Spain, one that you can basically ignore. The current state of affairs is that they will allow me in to the campus on the bike, provided I go straight to the gym and do not attempt to reach the office bikewise. You have to fight these rules like-for-like: just as there is no name behind the decision, I am contesting it by pulling some strings behind the scenes. So far I have been told on good authority that there will be a "solution" in September. This rather begs the question, what kind of solution can there be other than the obvious, immediate one of just simply letting us ride our bikes on campus again?

Today my heart skipped a beat as it occurred to me that the reason they are resurfacing the road might just be that they are going to put a bike lane! Could it really be? That would be quite simply awesome. It would also have the result of forcing the cars to go in slightly narrower lanes which would give the added benefit of reducing their speed and it being more likely that they stuck to the 40kph speed limit. The punishment for speeding on campus is very severe, much worse than a fine or points on your license: they may banish you to the outside world by taking away your parking space, thus adding a lot of hassle (to the tune of about an hour a day) to your life.


I borrowed this photo from here. The guy on the right must have felt very pleased with himself aftterwards
I'm the first to admit that it is a very silly goal to try to beat 3 hours in the Marathon. Why? Firstly, because every Marathon is different be it due to weather conditions or hills and, secondly, because being able to say that you ran a Marathon in "2 hours something" shouldn't really apply to being just one second faster than someone who took 3 hours to complete it. But, as I have said many times before on this blog, running a Marathon or an Ironman is hardly what would be classified as "sensible behaviour" in the first place, so who is to criticize the setting of a somewhat arbitrary goal.

The three hour mark in the Marathon happens to be a bit of a Holy Grail for many amateur runners. It's quite fast but by no means elite level. I have one friend who has been oh-so-close to breaking it - for example, in Seville he stopped to argue with a police car that crossed in front of him (later the policeman paid him a visit at his house after looking up his race number!) and ended up finishing in 3:00:12.

Yesterday I read an interesting article in Lava magazine, which was based on interviews with the male and female Ironman World record holders (although, if you include Challenge Roth, this record was beaten a week later): Marino Vanhoenacker and Chrissie Wellington. In it, they both say that "age groupers" (the commonly accepted euphemism for non-professional triathlete) shouldn't obsess with results and should remember to enjoy it. Chrissie put it like this: "I see people cross the finish line and the first thing they do is look down at their watch. Stop it! Get an awesome finish line photo and bank that memory. The timing chip can sort the rest out later.” On the one hand it's tempting to say, "It's alright for you to say that - you are the fastest in the World, ever!" but it's also true that she has a good point. I've said before that one of the things I like about the Ironman distance is that you really can't compare one race to another, not even from one year to another over the same course.

I think that there is something to be said for trying to get a personal best time. In Spanish there is a word which is hard to translate into English - "superación"  - it means the act of trying to better oneself. That I think is a very laudable goal - the mistake is to convert it into numbers. Just to know that you have done your best and that you have experienced or learned something new is "superación" enough.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Air conditioning in gyms

(Gets on hobby horse).

There must be some kind of standard for air conditioning in gyms but I have yet to find it; so far all I have found is someone else (who also happens to be based in Madrid) asking the same question. Today, I made the mistake of trying to do relatively long series (15 minutes) on the treadmill at work and got completely overheated. It may be that it was just an excuse to stop but it was very unpleasant. How can the gym be full in August? Aren't people supposed to be on holiday? Or maybe that's it, they are on holiday and have decided to come to the gym to work out. It was noticeably cooler to run outside where the sun was beating out a respectable 30 degrees Celsius and so I finished my workout on the running track. That, surely, is an indication that the temperature of the air con is too high.

One day I will take a thermometer along and measure how hot it gets where I am running. It definitely gets distinctly more uncomfortable when other people are running next to me and especially if it is a full house. I've had complaints (not to my face, of course) about the amount that I sweat, in spite of my efforts to clean up afterwards. What can I do? Even if I went naked I'd still be too hot and then there would be even more complaints.

The answer is that the cardiovascular machines, like the spinning bikes, should be in a separate room or divided from the weights section (although I also sweat a lot when doing weights). Either that or people who feel cold should wear jerseys for f's sake. I know it's nice to show off your muscles but there are plenty of warm, skin-tight garments available these days.

Armed with my measurements I'll see if I can find some kind of norm (surely from another country like the United States because I very much doubt that one exists in Spain) that is being contravened. On the other hand, we are talking about the same body that organized a 5K race at 5pm in July a few years ago - this actually did break the rules for the maximum effective ("wet bulb") temperature that it is allowed for a running race - and the first two finishers ended up being hospitalized. It was the only race ever that I didn't manage to finish, almost collapsing only 200 meters from the finish line. There is a higher risk of heatstroke in shorter races because you tend to run much closer to your limit.

(Gets off hobby horse)

I am the Count, hahaha

I wonder if I am the only one who does this. Somehow I doubt it. When I am doing series (or anything mildly unpleasant and self-inflicted) I have ways of passing the time. In a race, for example, I will typically break it into three parts: the middle part is usually the part where I have to focus most because I am neither fresh, nor particularly near the finish line. When I am training I take this even further and start to think in terms of fractions. I've run one sixth, one fifth, a quarter, a third - halfway! I do this mainly because it keeps my brain busy as it is surprisingly hard to do fractions when most of your blood is anywhere but in the brain. Then I complicate things by thinking thinks like, "I'm a third of the way there, now I only have to run - what is it - a sixth? - to get to halfway, and a sixth is half the distance I've already run". Once I get past the halfway mark, then it's easier to trick myself because each milestone (less than a third to go, less than a quarter, etc) comes by quicker than the one before it. Maybe there is some science behind it and we actually perceive time on a logarithmic scale... One particular thought that invariably comes to mind after I have been running for 11 minutes and 34 seconds (and will no doubt always happen to you from now on if you continue reading) is that 11:34 is "Hell" upside down. When I get to the final minute, I start counting down in seconds. What I notice is that, if I visualize a clock counting down in my head then I am surprisingly accurate; as soon as I start counting the seconds in my head, however, I get ahead of the clock, counting more quickly the more I am suffering...

I'd be interested to hear what strategies other people use to get through a tough session.

De Rodríguez

I am, as the Spanish say, "de Rodríguez" this week. It means being at work / home, while the family is on holiday. Actually the expression comes from the idea that an adulterous couple would check in under a false name at a hotel (e.g., Mr & Mrs Rodríguez). I think I'll just stick to taking advantage of the extra free time to do my training comfortably, to read some books and watch some trashy films. The week hasn't got off to a terribly auspicious start, after I found my son's only goldfish at the bottom of the tank this morning.

Last week was a recovery week, or a week that was substantially easier than the ones before it (or this week, for that matter). Still, I did find the weights circuit on Friday a bit of a killer. The routine was to do 4 circuits of 12 lifts at 60% of maximum and then to do 40 lifts (at a lower resistance, of course) 30 seconds after finishing the 4th set of each exercise. The first 10 lifts feel stupidly easy but then the fatigue creeps up insidiously and the last 10 are an absolute b*astard. I could hardly walk to the next exercise! I also did a circuit of jumping and skipping type exercises - which also looks like a walk in the park until you try it - and I felt that it translated into my running more crisply, although it was probably just my imagination.

These days I notice that I feel a bit stiff, especially in my feet, when I first wake up. I tend to have to hobble slightly to the bathroom until my feet warm up. Also my knee (torn meniscus) gives me a bit of gip in the morning and I have the sensation that I am placing more of my weight on the inside of my foot of that leg than the other; when I consciously correct for this, the slight pain (and corresponding limp) goes away so I suppose that is a good thing. Again, I don't have any problems with the knee while running, only walking in conventional shoes. Another thing I have noticed is that almost every time I start a run - unless it has been a day or two since I last ran - is that my feet feel very tired the first few minutes of the run, until I get going. In the past I probably would have fought against this and caused some kind of injury but now I just go with the flow and so far, after less than 5 minutes they are back to their springy, responsive and pain-free selves. As I've said before, I never stretch but I do believe in warming up (and cooling down). The first kilometer I run tends to be at around 10-11 kph (5:30-6:00 minutes per kilometer) and this seems to be enough for me. If I'm running series, my coach always explicitly adds a low intensity run of about half an hour beforehand. Rather than thinking that this is going to make running the series even harder, I always remember that it will probably help me hit my target heart rate sooner. If I tried to hit 180 bpm straight off the bat, I'd have to run like the clappers and the subsequent series would show a significant depreciation in speed.

Running really is a drug (not a spelling mistake for "drag"). We drove up to Asturias on Saturday and I only had a 30 minute run in my training plan - that I could easily have skipped as my wife pointed out - but it kept gnawing away at me and, in the end, at a market that we were visiting, I slipped into my running kit and ran down tothe nearest beach and back while my family were watching a competition of "escansiando" cider (pouring from a great height on to the edge of a glass, to make the cider effervesce. (By the way, I'm successfully abstaining from alcohol, even cider which I absolutely love.) I felt so much better after that run, it was scary. I can think of worse addictions to have, though.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Bike fitting

I used to be skeptical about bike fitting until I paid up and did one myself; now I am VERY skeptical about bike fitting. I'm not going to mention any names (unless you get in contact with me directly) because bad reviews and complaints have a tendency to reproduce like rabbits on the internet and end up being taken out of context.

The thing is, I'm planning to buy a triathlon (aero) bike not only because I think it will make me go faster - which is always nice - but because I'm hoping to avoid the severe back ache I had for two weeks after doing the Ironman. Bike fitting is about finding the best compromise between aerodynamics, application of power and comfort. With my current bike this compromise is somewhat restrictive. The first part of the bike fitting involved being "fitted" on my current bike so that, not only could I get the best out of it, but the idea was to get recommendations of triathlon bikes that would suit me best and - most importantly - be advised on what size frame to go for. The last thing I want to end up doing is shedding a whole load of cash on yet another bike only to find that I am just as uncomfortable (and just as slow). All the different triathlon frames have different characteristics and vary how forward you are with respect to the cranks (seatpost angle) as well as the length (reach) and height (stack). So if you have relatively short legs with respect to your torso you'll want a bike with a longer reach for example.

First of all I got on my current bike (mounted on a turbo trainer to measure my power output) and some measurements were taken with a kind of protractor in order to determine my optimum seat height. Since I would be buying a triathlon bike it seemed to make sense to set up the road bike for a road position: this resulted in lowering the seatpost by about 3 millimeters (at a cost of about €50 per millimeter being the only adjustment that was made). To be honest I think that I am perfectly capable of sensing where the optimum seat height is but hey, it's nice to have it confirmed by an expert. If I decide to ride with the aerobars on this bike I'll have to raise the seatpost by those 3 millimeters again. There was a screen in front of me spitting out wattage numbers that no-one seemed to give any importance to but it certainly looked impressive and technical.

Well who cares about the old bike anyway? What I was really interested in was choosing the most suitable triathlon bike for my body shape. I expected the fitters to have tables of measurements from all the major manufacturers, all converted into some consistent format. Instead it was a case of me suggesting a brand that I thought was "cool" and the fitter looking on the website at the quoted dimensions and saying that it was too long, too short, too aggressive, too relaxed. What really annoyed me was that, in many cases, I knew more about the bikes in question than the supposed expert. In any case, he was basing my ideal measurements on my road bike with no clever adjustments to account for passing from a road position to an aero position or anything like that. I couldn't shake off the idea that I was being goaded in to buying a custom bike. These bikes (made by Guru) are carbon fiber bikes that are made to measure and are as expensive as that sounds. Don't get me wrong, they look amazing but if there is an off-the-shelf bike out there that fits me, then my money would go much further on the groupset and the wheels, for example. The point is, how can I be sure that the measurements were taken well enough for even a custom bike to be a good fit? I mean, they took a photo with their iPhone of me standing next to a screwdriver (for scale) so that they could supposedly get any measurements they needed, so I wasn't exactly filled with confidence. Bizarrely, the fitter also offered me a second hand Giant Trinity Advanced SL0 that belongs to Virginia Berasategui, a Basque professional triathlete, in size "S" for small! (I'm 6"2).

Anyway, the reason I post this now is because I came across a very interesting article in Triathlon Plus, written by Chris Boardman (British Olympic Gold Medalist in cycling). If bike fitting seems to me a bit like the black art of voodoo then it was refreshing to see someone - and not just anyone, mind - demystifying the whole bike fitting process. There are some very practical suggestions for how you can improve the fit yourself. Here's a link to the article.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

When something is too good to be true...

...it's often simply NOT. A few weeks ago I stumbled upon this advert

As you can see, it's a pretty good deal €1,650 for about €5,000 of ex-demo bike. I was so excited that I didn't even notice until much later the laughably bad Spanish in the advert (Giant Trinity Advanced was translated literally as "Gigante Avancado de Trinidad"). I was sure it must have sold already at that price and I was kicking myself for not having googled "giant advanced trinity madrid" or "gigante avancado de trinidad" for that matter. You can imagine my delight when I got an email to say that it was still on offer but he didn't answer my question about whether the seat post had already been cut, instead saying it had only ever been used on asphalt roads... This got me very suspicious - who would ride such a beauty on anything but an asphalted road? So I googled his email address (joseluisjimenez1974@hotmail.com) and a number of forum topics popped up in everything from saxophones to mountain bikes, all of which were warning of a con. Amazingly he hadn't bothered to change his email address. It's actually just possible that he is really called José Luis Jiménez and was born in 1974 although I would expect his Spanish to be much better.

So then I got this reply, which was identical to the ones that had appeared on the forums:

hola, mi novia es inglesa y vivimos aqui en inglaterra. quiero vender la bicicleta en espana porque la tengo desde alli, fue comprada en espana y tengo los documentos y la garantia desde alli. si quieres comprar yo te la puedo enviar con una mensajeria pero no voy a hacer contrembolso porque hace unas semanas antes, un comprador me dijo que me va a comprar la bicicleta y que solo va a usar contrembolso, yo acepte porque soy una persona de palabra, he enviado la bicicleta a el pero cuando la empresa fue en su direccion para entregarlo, sorpresa, nadie abrio la puerta y su telefono fue siempre cerrado, la empresa ha intentado durante varios dias pero nada. y asi yo he pagado los gastos de envio para mandar la bicicleta y tambien para recibirla devuelta. yo soy un hombre serio, tengo 37 anos, un hermoso restaurante aqui en londres y creame que para mi el tiempo es muy precioso. te digo del principio que la bicicleta no tiene ningun defecto ocultado ( se puede ver en las fotos del anuncio), lo compre nueva, fue usado solo varias veces, tengo factura de compra, creame que la vendo solo porque no la uso mas, trabajo mucho y no tengo tiempo. si quieres comprarla vamos a utilizar una empresa de envios que yo he utilizado antes y creo que es bastante buena para envios internationales porque tienen gastos de envio muy aceptable. ellos tienen un servicio muy practico para las compra-ventas por internet que yo he usado antes y fue muy satisfecho. ellos trabajan asi:
- yo te voy a enviar la bicicleta como usted quieres, envios normal (7-10 dias) o envios express (3-4 dias) cuando usted estas listo para comprarla;
- despues la paqueteria se pondra en contacto con usted con los detalles sobre envio y sobre como debes hacer el pago;
- usted vas a hacer el pago a la empresa de envio;
- despues, usted vas a recibir la bicicleta y tienes 3 dias para comprobarla y decidir si vas a guardarla;
- si estas contento y quieres guardarla entonces usted vas a mandar la confimacion la empresa, yo voy a recibir el pago y todo esta hecho.
- en en caso que por algun razon no quieres guardar la bicicleta, no te gusta o por cualquier otro razon, usted vas a recibir el pago devuelta inmediatamente y yo tambien la bicicleta, pero yo conosco mi bici y estoy seguro vas a guardarla.
asi mi companero, si estas deacuerdo con todo por favor mandame los datos para el envio, nombre, direccion, ciudad, codigo postal, numero de telefono y si estas preparado manana mismo voy a preparar la bicicleta para el envio. tambien necesito saber como quieres el envio, por express o envios normal. si prefieres el envio normal, yo voy a pagar los gastos de envio. lo siento que te escribo tanto, pero necesito un cliente serio para vender la bicicleta. espero requesta. gracias

The sheer length of it would have been enough to ring a few warning bells. As I can't be bothered to translate it myself and it is Googlespanish anyway, here it is Google translated back into English:

hello, my girlfriend is English and live here in England. I want to sell the bike in spain because I have from there, was purchased in Spain and I have the documents and the guarantee from there. if you buy me I can send you the courier with but I will not do because it contrembolso few weeks ago, a buyer told me that I will buy the bike and will only use contrembolso, I accepted because I am a man of my word I sent the bike to him but when the company was in the delivery address, surprise, no one opened the door and his phone was always closed, the company has tried for several days but nothing. and so I paid the cost of shipping the bike and also to receive back. I am a serious man, I have 37 years, a fine restaurant here in London and believe me that my time is very precious. I say the principle that the bike has no hidden defect (seen in photos of the ad), buy it new, it was used only several times, I have proof of purchase, believe that the band just because they use it more, work and I have much time. if you want to buy we will use a shipping company I have used before and I think it's good enough for shipping internationales shipping because they are very acceptable. they have a very practical service for buying and selling online that I've used before and was very satisfied. They work like this:- I'm going to send the bike as you want, normal delivery (7-10 days) or express shipping (3-4 days) when you're ready to buy;- After the parcel will contact you with details on shipping and how you make the payment;- You're going to make payment to the shipping company;- Then you're going to get the bike and you have 3 days to check and decide whether to keep it;- If you are happy and want to save then you'll send the confimacion the company, I'm going to get paid and everything is done.- On if for some reason do not want to put your bike, you do not like or any other reason, you'll get paid immediately and I also returned the bike, but I conosco my bike and I'm sure you save it.so my companion, if they agree with all please send me the data for shipping, name, address, city, zip code, telephone number and your readiness tomorrow I'm going to prepare the bike for shipping. also need to know how you want the shipment by express or regular delivery. if you prefer the normal shipping, I'll pay the shipping. I'm sorry I write so much, but I need a serious customer to sell the bike. I hope request. thanks

If you can't be bothered to read that either - and I don't blame you - the point is that the bike isn't in Madrid after all. If you stop and think for a minute, you would probably never have responded to a second hand advert in another country (unless it was via some website of international repute like ebay). Here's the rub: you pay a (what turns out to be bogus) shipping company to ship the bike to you and then you can track your delivery on a (bogus) website... What I'm not clear about is whether you get conned for just the shipping charge or for the price of the bike (plus the shipping). I guess he has two versions of the con, one for really desperate and gullible people and another for the more wary. Even if he just gets €75 a pop, it's not bad business considering he has very low overheads. Also it's too small an amount for anyone to really bother about trying to claw back - I expect most people would be too embarrassed even to try. 

I gave him the following address but evidently his Spanish was better than I had been expecting because I didn't hear from him again...

          Calle Atomarporculo, 34
          Gilipollasdemierda 28667

In his message he says that he is a very busy man and that his time is very precious - it's a shame that he has no respect for anyone else's time (or money). Being a good upstanding citizen and all that, I sent an email to the website which had published the advert to warn them that it was a con and that there were likely many others by the same person. Of course I didn't hear anything back from them.

The peak/end rule

I was reading "The Moral Landscape" by Sam Harris last night when I came across an interesting finding. To give you some background, the book (which is well worth reading whether you agree with his premises or not) argues that morality should not be the exclusive domain of religion but that science actually has things to say about it. The book revolves around the concept of well being.

In a study it was found that patients undergoing a colonoscopy (in the days before anesthetics were used), the patients suffered less and were therefore more likely to come back for a routine checkup if the colonoscopy tube was left inserted a few minutes longer than was strictly necessary, artificially prolonging the procedure at a low level of discomfort. The conclusion of this study (and other similar studies) is that our perceived suffering depends much more on the peak suffering and the suffering experienced at the end, than on the duration.

I thought that there might be a way to translate this to training and racing. In the case of a race, it is clear that our memory of those races which we have either won or completed in a personal best time was that we hardly suffered, compared to those races which were a disappointment and we remember as being a living hell. It's hard to say which is the cause and which is the effect: perhaps we won those races because we were in the "zone" and so focused on performing that we didn't notice the pain and were therefore somehow able to push harder. Still, I think it is more interesting to apply the principle to training. A direct analogy with the colonoscopy would imply that we should run for a few minutes at low intensity after completing a series of high intensity workouts, for example. Of course, we should do this anyway, to "cool down" or - more specifically - stimulate the aerobic metabolism to oxidize the lactic acid circulating in our bloodstream.

It's an interesting idea and it may be possible to get further insights on how to better tolerate workouts or, to be more precise, to have a more agreeable memory of them so that we are more motivated to repeat them.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Tattoo envy

I was just perusing a triathlon forum when I came across a post by someone showing off their latest tattoo with lots of very complementary replies. I was amazed to see that it was the tattoo that I had designed for myself by the awesome artist Steven Barrett but then bottled out of having inked. I feel a bit strange to think that it could have been my leg in the photo below because it does look pretty cool, but also I suppose it would have pissed me off if I had had it done to see that someone else had copied it (actually, the final design had a cap on the runner - I didn't like to be reminded of my encroaching hair loss)... On the other hand, I'm happy that it has gone to a good home, so to speak!

Ceci n'est pas ma jambe
 At the weekend we went to a park with water slides and I couldn't help noticing just how many people had tattoos. I'm convinced that about two out of every three adults had one, and that was only counting those that were in visible places. There were some striking ones, of course, but mostly they just seemed to be random drawings that were unlikely to have a life changing significance for their bearers; I almost found myself respecting more the old school "Mum" or "Wife's name here" tattoos which at least mean something. I don't want to come across all snooty and elitist - and maybe that's just what I am being - but I have to say, I was quite glad that I wasn't wearing a tattoo myself.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Training camp in Morocco!

I've decided to join Jonathan (my coach) in Morocco for a training camp at altitude. It's in October so it should fit perfectly into my preparations for the Marathon in Valencia and it also happens to be one of those Spanish bank holidays (called a "puente" or bridge) where you get 5 days off for the price of two day's holiday. One of the star athletes that Jonathan coaches, Youness (1:03 in hallf marathon!!) is from Morocco and will give us the inside track.

I have a special place in my heart for Morocco. When I was 18 years old my rich great Aunt gave me a fantastic present: a holiday anywhere I wanted to go in the world. This is something so much grander than a holiday in any particular place and so I was reluctant to bring it down to earth by choosing my destination. My mum, on the other hand, was worried that things were getting booked up and, one day after school, I came back to find that she had made my decision for me and had booked a trip to Morocco. The irritation I felt was short lived because it was an amazing trip: I went on my own with a group of people in an army truck all over the country, sleeping in tents or, for many mild nights, directly under the stars. It was straight after the Junior World Rowing Championships in Aiguebelette, where I won a bronze medal in the coxed fours, so I was probably in the best form I have ever been in my life. I was keen to at least maintain some semblance of fitness so I remember seeking out people to go running with and I happened upon a local guy, who also had a bike he lent me. I remember setting off with him - I had my relatively flashy Nike Air trainers and he was running with some plimsolls or similar - and then being struck immediately by the inability to breathe, as if I was sucking in the air through a straw. Where we were in the Atlas mountains the air was much thinner. He was very patient and kept slowing down to let me catch up but it was quite a humbling experience!

I had an amazing holiday, getting to see all the contrasts Morocco has to offer. We would prepare food ourselves, washing the vegetables in potassium permanganate but on the last day, I threw caution to the wind and ate a salad in Jemaa al-Fnaa, the main square in Marrakesh. In those days (20 years ago) you had no idea how many flies had laid their eggs on the salad leaves, nor how many faeces they had rubbed their legs in previously. I remember that there were some foods that I was really looking forward to eating when I got back home - for some reason, polo mints were among them - but the diarrhea started more or less as soon as I walked through the front door. I've no idea what kind of awful virus I picked up but it took several months for me to be able to go back to eating normally. I started my first term at Oxford as a good bet for the Blue Boat that year and was immediately put in a coxed pair with Pete Bridge (at the time a junior gold medalist who went on to compete in the Olympic Games in Atlanta). That first (and only outing) was a disaster with Pete asking me why we were going round in circles (which is what happens if one person is pulling much harder than the other). I was told to come when I was feeling better which was some weeks later.

I've been back to Morocco twice since then. The first time was about ten years ago when we went down from Madrid all the way in a bus to spend New Year's Eve in Marrakesh. That was really something, to see how the landscape and the culture gradually changed and then not so gradually in those 30 kilometers separating Tarifa and Tangier. The second time was more recently, when the kids were about 1 and 3 years old. It was one of the best holidays we have had with the kids, they were absolutely mesmerized by the colours, the smells, the hullabaloo, and they would sleep like they never slept at home. I clearly remember having to change one of the boy's nappies in that same square where I had eaten that salad years before. He had done one of those explosive shits that had squirted all the way up his back to his neck. With the soiled baby in one hand and the soiled nappy in the other, I tried to communicate to the amused locals in my rusty french that it would be great if they could get me a plastic bag...

So I am really looking forward to going back. This time I know what to expect from running in the mountains. I won't be able to help wondering whether my anonymous running companion is still out there running somewhere.

By the way, if you are in Madrid and interested (I have nothing to gain from this) then here are the details of the training camp. It is open to anyone.

Compact arm swing

I was thinking about my arms while I was running yesterday. After having watched, "Indulgence", a film about ultrarunning featuring Anton Kupricka, I couldn't help noticing that he runs with very relaxed arms, almost hanging down by his sides.

I tried running like this for a while but it felt so unnatural. In fact it reminded me of how I hold my glass when I am in a disco, something that my wife relentlessly takes the piss out of me for. I hold my glass up against my chest, I suppose because (a) it is less likely to get knocked (although if it does spill, I'm going to get soaked) and (b) there is less distance to travel to my mouth. My wife thinks it is due to my Englishness; Spanish people, on the other hand, hold their glasses at full arm extension, down by their hips.

A compact arm swing should be more efficient because, like a pendulum, it requires less force to swing the shorter the radius. On the other hand, when standing still it is definitely more relaxing to hold your arms as the Spanish hold their drinks. I wonder whether it is better to run like Krupicka does for the sort of ulltralong distances that he covers, or whether this is just his idiosyncratic style.

A few months ago, after putting up this photo of me running in Asturias

a friend of mine compared my running style to that of the President of Spain, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, here seen jogging with the British Prime Minister, David Cameron

I have to admit, it does look weird but once you realize that the arms have to pass each other at the same height at some point however you run, you see that it is just a question of timing...

Please sir, I want some more...

I think that having done the training for the Ironman has made it much easier, both physically and mentally, to tolerate the training load of my preparations for the Marathon. That seems like an obvious thing to say but it isn't really. Doing bursts of high speed running is quite different to plodding along for hours on end, even if both are assigned the same number of TRIMPs (TRaining IMPulses, or a way to equate duration and intensity across sports). Even so, I'm doing far fewer TRIMPs a week than I was doing in the build up to the Ironman - last week I knocked out about half as many as I was doing a week during the month of April, for example. To be fair, running is a high impact activity which employs a very high percentage of muscle mass and so it would be infeasible for me to try to match workload TRIMP for TRIMP; in Triathlon training, riding gives you a break from running and swimming from riding to some extent To give you some idea, the equivalent number of kilometers a week in running (at low intensity) would be 240, which would put me up there with élite Marathon runners! In terms of time, I'm doing 8 hours of training a week compared to up to 25 for the Ironman - that's the advantage of including more high intensity work, which counts for more TRIMPs.
I'm currently in week 9
Having said all this, I told my coach that I was finding the training load quite comfortable and so he has upped the ante. He told me that the new programme is what other athletes that he trains and who have better times than me are following. He also told me not to do any funny business...