Thursday, May 31, 2012

Triathlon in a day

I came in to work running this morning, I went swimming at lunch time and soon I will go home on the bike (with new front inner tube). I even had a photo shoot at lunchtime for a book showing the various activities that employees get up to. In my case I got to ride my bike in the forest nearby (it's actually a private area open only to employees - I personally prefer to use the rest of the forest as the whole point of training outside for me is not to feel like I'm fenced in).

With the logistical challenge of a triathlon (with press photo shoot!) during the week, it was inevitable that I would end up cutting some corners, some intentional (like wearing my RunAmoc Dash shoes which were small enough and light enough to carry in my backpack) and some unintentional (let's just say I forgot a couple of key items of clothing). I think I was really pushing the envelope of what can be considered formal business attire. I think I play the "oh, he's English so he's a bit eccentric" card a bit too often...

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Never mention the puncture demon

I was telling someone only today about the last time I got a puncture on my mountain bike and how I ended up with a broken elbow as a result. Never mention the p word. I haven't had a puncture since then. Damn, I just said it again.

I went to get my bike and found the front tire was completely flat. If it hadn't been for the fact that I realized that I had over inflate it last night before letting some air out again, I would have thought that it was the work of a malicious security guard for having parked the bike outside the rack. When you over inflate a tire, i the inner tube expands into the holes where the spokes go and potentially creates a massive rip. Not only that, but you may have to put new tape over the spoke holes to stop it from happening again (note to self). As it has been so long since I last got a puncture (shut up!!) it turned out that the spare inner tube I had was actually for a road bike. Never mind, I thought, I have some patches. Fixed up the tire, got it to a reasonable pressure, one more pump should do it then psshhhhh.

Had to call the bike rescue service (my long suffering wife) to pick me up. I could either go in running and cycle back or - what seems like a better plan - drive in and drive the damn thing back home (supposing it hasn't been nicked in the meantime).

Mixed bag

Last week I slacked off a little - I didn't do a single hard workout. Fact is, I just didn't feel like it and work was stressful enough without piling on any extra stress. I decided to do a set of 3 long, progressive series of 15 minutes running on the treadmill last night, starting off at 15.5 kph and ending at 16.5 kph (while watching "Hellraiser VII"!). It didn't feel as tough a workout as the shorter, more intense series I had been doing a few weeks ago but it was still hard enough. It probably did more more good self-esteem-wise than physically. I really don't need to worry that I will "go to pot" if I don't have someone cracking a whip over my back. It feels good to run fast now and again!

Talking of running fast, I decided to sign up for the race organized by my company, the II Carrera Solidaria Santander. I opted for the 5k race even though I prefer longer races where I don't have to push the envelope so far, but the 5k route is much flatter. The race is a week on Sunday and, if you live in Madrid, Valencia or Santander and haven't already done so, then sign up! The proceeds go to Unicef.

This morning I came in by bike even though it took a huge effort to get out of bed the prerequisite hour earlier, especially with my heavy legs from the running series the night before. It's the perfect weather for commuting right now - cool enough in the morning that I don't work up a sweat, not so cold that I have to wear anything more than shorts and a t-shirt - and so it is no coincidence that two colleagues have approached me this week asking for advice on coming in to work by bike. There is still a chance that it catches on here as this is the first summer since the official cycle routes were announced back in October last year. (By the way, the cycle racks they have used only support the bikes from the wheel and are too wide for a racing bike wheel and too narrow for a freshly pumped mountain bike wheel. I'll have to see whether I get told off for chaining the bike to the signpost this morning.)

I enjoyed cycling along the same route that I went with Luca on Sunday, imagining he was there with me this morning. It's been a while since I have used that particular route to get to work because it is 99% off road and lately I have preferred to take a more roundabout route that allows me to cycle faster, getting a better workout and in less time. But, in terms of cycling pleasure, there is no doubt that the off road route is best. Luca had to write a short paragraph about his family for his homework last night. He wrote:

My dad is big and strong and likes to do training every day. My mum is kind of the opposite. She is short and has long hair. When I go cycling with my dad she says "Don't push him too hard!".

I realized today that I am much less obsessed about running, shoes, gadgets, triathlon, bikes, the blog (sorry), personal best times, injuries, etc. I'd love to know how to control my obsessions, how to turn them on and off, how to direct them. It's great that I was able to go from not having ridden a bike for ten years or even knowing how to swim with any semblance of technique to completing an Ironman in a decent time only a year and a half later and certainly shows a level of dedication (obsession?) - but if only it could have been in doing something more useful! To be fair, it is very "useful" to be in good physical shape - not only has my life expectancy been extended but, according to advocates of regular exercise, I should even have more energy and be more alert as a consequence (I also believe this). But this could have been achieved in a less dramatic fashion, surely...

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Anything is Possible

"Anything is Possible" is actually a trademark owned by the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), best known as organizers of the Ironman (TM) series of long distance triathlons. I'd always thought that Adidas had chosen the "Impossible is Nothing" as a kind of tongue-in-cheek reference to the same, being sufficiently different for the lawyers to let it slip. I hadn't realized until now, that "Impossible is nothing" was taken from a famous quote by Mohamed Ali.

"Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live the world they've been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It's an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It's a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing." (Mohamed Ali)

Monday, May 28, 2012

Weekend sun

The Casa de Campo was completely overrun by triathlon events all weekend. I popped down there on my bike on Saturday to watch a bit of the "popular" races. It was great to see such a mixture of abilities and bikes. I didn't manage to figure out a way to get there using only cycle routes and back streets, so my plan to run with Luca on his bike to see the triathlon on Sunday turned out to be a bit too ambitious. Just as well, because we would have had to go there during the hottest part of the day.

Instead, we got up fairly early and we did a 16 kilometre out and back route that was 100% pavement, cycle path and forest. We managed to keep up an average speed of about 10 kph and Luca seemed to enjoy it, as long as we stopped for breaks now and again. He also got to eat a Donut, a Kitkat and a Magnum ice cream because I figured he would have burnt that many calories. I really enjoyed it, I suspect much more than he did. Even though we weren't going fast, there were stretches where I had to run quite hard to keep up and I felt like I got a good workout. He had to walk up some of the hills because his bike weighs nearly as much as he does.

I'm not sure that we will make our (my?) goal of completing the "anillo verde" (64 km bike path all around Madrid) as it would mean repeating this feat another three times and would take about 6 hours. My wife is worried that I will push him too hard - some kind of Münchausen training by proxy - but we will just see how it goes. Now he knows what the deal is, if he wants to go on another training ride we can try to go a little further; if not, then we just leave it for another year. The absolute last thing I want to do is put him off doing sports. I looked into a racing bike in his size and Decatlon had one but it was the best part of €300. What a bad dad, you may think, to spend €€€'s on bikes for himself but to balk at shelling out a fraction on a bike for his son... That's not the problem: he needs to feel like he has earned it first. It's not a question of getting a better or more expensive bike, I just wish there were cheaper, lighter, simpler bikes available, like there used to be when I was growing up. Maybe I can find one second hand.

In the afternoon we went down to the Casa de Campo again, to watch the elite men compete. It was a bit difficult to work out who was where from the blur of bikes as they whizzed past

but I did manage to catch the bike-run transition which was impressive for the sheer number of people arriving at the transition zone at once and for the speedy dismount. Jonathan Brownlee (the younger brother of former World Champion Alistair) was the eventual winner. What I found even more exciting, was to watch the para-triathletes because, if the elite (able bodied) men all finished within minutes of each other, there was much more to separate these athletes. It was also moving, of course, to see how each one of them was locked in their own personal version of "superación" (overcoming their own limits). The athletes compete in categories of people with similar disabilities but, even so, it is inevitable that you wonder whether those who could only swim with one arm will be able to catch up those who can only pedal with one leg on the bike. Or imagine having to swim, ride a hand-bike and then push yourself in a wheelchair: your arms would get no respite. I like to think that if (God forbid) something happened to me that left me with a disability that I, too, would attack life like these guys but there is no way of knowing how you would respond: you have to remember that these people are at the top of their game. It's like when I see an 80 year old running a Marathon - I may think "I'd like to be like that when I get to his age" but I am comparing a complete outlier (unless it becomes standard fare) with a middle-of-the-pack. Won't stop me trying, though...

Thursday, May 24, 2012

ITU Triathlon World Championship Series (Madrid)

What better way to celebrate my one year Ironman anniversary (Ironman Florianópolis 2012 takes place on Sunday) than to go down to the Casa de Campo to watch the World's best Olympic distance triathletes battling it out for first place.

One thing that I really like about triathlon is the way that "popular" atheletes (or "age groupers") rub shoulders with the professional, elite athletes - in Ironman distance events, perhaps even literally in the swim. The elite men's race is at 13:56 on Sunday but there are a series of events open to all on the Saturday, before the elite women's race. As none of the three disciplines in Triathlon involve football or basketball, there has been very little publicity; the only reason I know about it is that I happened to cycle past the start line last night, where the boxes are already set up.

I think I will go there either running or cycling alongside my eldest son - this can be his first "training" for the ride around Madrid. My wife and my youngest can take their bikes in the car and meet us there. Now there just remains the question of who I will support - the Brownlees or Javier Gómez Noya?

Monday, May 21, 2012


When I was ten years old, my dad decided on the spur of the moment that we would go to London, on our bikes. At the time we lived in Cambridge and London was about 50 miles (80 kilometres) away. I don't remember if the plan had always been to get as far as London or whether we just kept going, but to London we did get, after about 6 hours of pedalling and a long pub lunch in the middle. About the only thing I do remember clearly was the feeling of lead in my legs after that lunch. I think we even had the idea of going back home by bike but, in the end, we caught the train from Finsbury Park.

This trip became a bit of a legend in our household to the point that my brother also made the pilgrimage with my dad when he turned 10, 8 years after I had done it. The feeling of achievement was fantastic although, for some reason, I never thought of it as a "sporting achievement" - that is, not until now. In fact, it was 5 years later before I even understood the concept of endurance sports - for me, sport was synonymous with "games". In team sports I excelled in the skill of looking like I gave a shit when in fact I did not. Having spent all of my life up to that point in Cambridge in a family with no car (neither of my parents can drive), I was used to getting around everywhere by bike so it was perhaps not as crazy as it might sound to ride 80 kilometres without any kind of specific preparation. The bike was not a leisure or sporting activity: it was a means of transport. It was my freedom.

My eldest son is about to turn 10 and I thought that it would be nice to try to continue the tradition. Unlike me and my brother, he lives in a place where not having a car would be the equivalent to not having shoes so he doesn't have the background training that we had. Once, a couple of years ago, we went from Pozuelo to Majadahonda and back through the forest - some 10 kilometers. He was tired (his bike didn't have gears) but very proud to have done it. Why is it that kid's bikes these days are so heavy? If it tips out of balance while he is stopped, the weight is more than he can manage and the bike crashes to the ground. Do they really need a replica mountain bike? I have had to disable the front derailleur because it was too confusing and unnecessary to have so many gears. Now, if I were to buy him a racing bike like the one I used to have, it would cost a small fortune.

We have quite a long time before he turns 10 in November so we can train for it. My idea is to complete a full circuit of Madrid cycling along the "Anillo Verde" which is more or less the same distance as Cambridge to London (if you include the bit to and from our house).

All hail...

I'd been planning to take my tri-bike on a nice, long, flat ride for some weeks. I'd done my research on wikiloc and found just about the flattest course in town, starting about 30km from my house. I don't usually like to drive  somewhere to go cycling but I'm very bored by now of the route from my house to Brunete, the gateway to all cycle routes to the west of Madrid.

The first challenge was to upload the course to my Garmin 310XT. This proved to be as hard as doing the course itself and almost certainly took longer. In the end I had to roll back the software on my Mac to a "legacy" version and do a hard reset on the watch, wiping out all my user data. These days I hardly use it anyway, as I am not too bothered about my heart rate or indeed how fast I am going. But it is very useful for following a route like this one (if you can get it to work), especially as the route itself was a bit more complicated than it first looks.

After a scorching week of temperatures in the 30s, the weather decided to cool off at the weekend. It was actually a pretty grim day, with winds around 20kph and those "scattered showers" they so like to talk about in the weather reports back in the UK. The route was OK, a bit ugly with lots of traffic calming measures at the beginning which slowed me down a bit. The winds were blowing from west to east but it just felt like I was riding into a headwind all the way down - it was only when I went back up that I realised that I wasn't going to enjoy a tailwind on the way back. It also explained how I was able to zip along the west-east section at the bottom at more than 50kph.

As I came back into town, I found that the road had been closed off for a local cycle race. The participants looked to be between about 10 and 15 years old, in spite of many of them riding bikes that must have cost 2-3,000 euros! As I stopped to watch, two boys skidded off their bikes going round a roundabout (the road was wet and even I had felt the back wheel slip out from under me at one point). It was heartbreaking to see this young kid bawling his eyes out - it wasn't clear whether it was from the sting of road rash or the bitter disappointment of a "Did Not Finish". I caught a young spectator taking a photo of me on my bike - I suppose it must have looked pretty cool. I can remember what it is like to be that age and to desire something - in my case, when I was that age, I would spend hours drooling over computers.

I finished the route in just over 2 and a half hours (31.6 kph average, 141 bpm average - just a tad over "Ironman intensity"). Nothing spectacular but a good, solid, workout. In the end, with all the roundabouts and the gusting sidewinds, I didn't ride as much as I would have liked in the aero position.

Just as well that I went in the morning. The afternoon brightened up to the point that we considered playing some board games in the garden. Only ten minutes later and the garden looked like this:

The weather seems as unpredictable and depressing as the economy right now.

Friday, May 18, 2012

It's all going swimmingly

I think that I have reached an important point in my efforts to improve my swimming. With all things that require mastering a skill, motivation is very important. For example, I find the incremental rewards of learning to ski are completely outweighed by the frustration associated with falling down or losing control: the only time I really enjoyed skiing was the first time, when for zero investment I was able to career down the mountain (in albeit a very dangerous fashion). I've never managed to learn to play an instrument because I have been unable to get over that initial hurdle of being too crap to care. It's not for lack of want but rather for lack of perceived progress. And this is something that swimming makes difficult to gauge as you can't see yourself swim, it's difficult to measure how fast you are moving or how hard you are having to work and, if you look at other swimmers, it's impossible to know how much effort they are putting in compared to you.

Having said all that, I notice that most of the time I am now one of the people swimming fastest when before I was one of the slower swimmers. If I make an effort I can now keep up with anyone I choose although I suspect I still have to make more effort than the best swimmers who share the pool with me. The point is that I have noticed (as has Luis, my swimming coach) that I have made a distinct jump in speed. It is normal that this comes at perhaps an exaggerated energetic cost as it will take time for my muscles to adapt to the new style, just as it did when I changed my running gait.

Coupled with this is a change in attitude which I think is what really marks a new phase. Previously, if someone pointed out that I wasn't keeping my left elbow up (for example), I would think "Oh, not again! I still can't get that right even though I am thinking about doing it right. This is impossible. Why is it so important anyway?". Then it occurred to me that even the best swimmers in the world probably have to continually be reminded to work on their faults. The point is that it is all relative. Of course my left elbow position needs working on but it is getting better and I am able to maintain it for longer. I no longer see this kind of thing as something negative but rather something positive, that there is still margin for improvement.

Monday, May 14, 2012


I've now been training "free-style" for a few weeks now and, I have to say, I am enjoying the freedom and reduction in stress. My friends have commented on my relative abstention when it comes to eating, something I found rather alarming as I must really have stuffed my face before. My wife says she has noticed that I am less tired (I'm sleeping less hours) and, of course, I am around more of the time.This has to be counterbalanced by the slight increase in guilt I feel for not "pushing myself" as well as the potential lack of revenue for my self-esteem fund, for which competing in races was a major benefactor. These two negative points are definitely there but currently pale into insignificance when compared to the positive aspects.

I still do at least one hard workout a week and this has involved running series at 17-17,5 kph on the treadmill. I've come to like this kind of workout or, at least, like having done it. It goes a long way to keeping my guilt and self-esteem in check, not to mention helping me sleep like a log afterwards. It probably even does me some good fitness-wise too. However, I do need to be careful to respect the need to do a warm-up. One of the reasons I got a coach in the first place was because I kept injuring myself and I needed someone to tell me when to ease off - something I found impossible to do without invoking the aforementioned guilt. Jonathan's training plans were designed to provide a safe platform to support the high intensity training sessions; if I just train "willy-nilly" then I run the risk of injuring myself.

Still, (and here I touch wood) I think I have learned some things along the way. I noticed a tiny almost imperceptible twinge in my left Achilles tendon after my hard workout last week. The next day it was only slightly sore compared to the right Achilles tendon if I pinched it hard but this was enough to make me worry. Having had a torn Achilles in the past, it's not something I particularly feel like going through again. So I've taken some days of running and have been using the bike more and I have started to do the "eccentric heel lower exercises" that helped me recover more quickly last time. It's only when you have managed to get to the stage of being able to run completely pain free that you can distinguish between "good pain" and "bad pain". Touch wood again. (To be fair, Jonathan told me some time ago, when we started to do faster workouts, that I should work on conditioning my Achilles tendons to avoid injury.)

Spot the difference! (This was from last time it happened)
If we had spring in Madrid, it must have been last Tuesday when I was in London: when I left, the weather was better in London than in Madrid; on returning it was swelteringly hot in Madrid (30 degrees already). Time to get out those hydration packs again for running.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Swimming no-lesson

Wow, today was the first time I have ever worked up a sweat in the swimming pool. How do I know? Because I am still sweating now, as I write this. It's not like I was really working hard, but rather that I was working well. To give you some idea that my swimming coach has my best interests at heart, he cancelled the class saying that it was a better use of the time for me to just swim up and down and consolidate some of the things we had been going over, rather than to tire me out mentally with endless drills. This and the fact that I haven't been able to squeeze in any practice sessions in between classes. However, he said it as a positive thing  - to take advantage of being on a roll - not as a negative consequence of not having done my "homework".

One of the motivational problems I have with swimming is that it is hard to tell how fast you are going or even whether you are improving. There are moments when everything seems to "flow" and you feel like you are moving forward with surprisingly little effort, but these moments are few and far between and as slippery as fish themselves: as soon as you realize you are touching one of them, they flit away. You get some sense from watching how fast the tiles scroll past but using other swimmers as a reference point is even more demotivating, especially if they are good. These days, now that I am using my legs more, I find that I am one of the swimmers moving fastest through the water and this, in a shamelessly self-deluding sense, helps me feel as though I am improving. But one of the best things about moving faster through the water is the bow wave that your head makes, neatly providing a "hole" in the water that you can breathe through without having to tilt your head too much. This is becoming my indicator of how fast I am moving.

The other thing that is hard to gauge in the water (and here I'm not even going to mention obvious things like body position, orientation etc.) is how much effort you or anyone else for that matter is making. There are ingenious pulse meters available that communicate your heart rate to you by vibrating your jawbone to create the illusion of a little voice in your ear. Maybe for my next birthday... For now, breathing is my best guide but even that can be flawed because it can be that I am not expelling the air properly between strokes and, in any case, the rhythm is dictated by the stroke rate. As for how hard everyone else is swimming around me, I should not care unless I am in a competition, in which case I can safely assume that they are swimming at least as hard as I am.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Puente de Mayo

We had another "bridge" this week - two bank holidays in the middle of the week, requiring only one day's holiday to make a bridge of five days off work. In the end I had to go into work today but it has been nice to spend some time with the family, even if it has been raining (and hailing for god's sake).

I've been enjoying my new found freedom to train as I see fit. I haven't managed to hook up with anyone else yet and, with the awful weather, I've been training mostly indoors accompanied only by a film. My wife pointed out that my training flexibility means in practice that I can just happen to "feel like training" every time the kids need bathing, the dog needs walking, when it's homework time, etc... She has a point, of course, so I'll have to keep an eye on that... So far I have ended up doing about the same amount of training as before, the only difference is that I don't worry too much about when I do it. As a result it often ends up getting split into several shorter sessions. Not the same as doing it all in one go but a lot better than not doing anything at all.