Wednesday, May 29, 2013

I'M IN!!!!!!

Let's be honest, when we think of running a marathon we think of running through the streets of New York. Boston may be the oldest or the most prestigious but to be able to run down 5th Avenue without a single car - isn't that worth the ridiculously expensive entry fee?

Rewind the clock to the year 2008. I had only recently rediscovered the "pleasure" of running. I was having breakfast at work, as I usually do, but this time with someone I can't even remember who was telling me about his experience in the New York Marathon. Up until then running a marathon was something I thought at best was very unhealthy but, after hearing what this guy had to say, I was hooked. That afternoon I was already registered to run my very first marathon in Amsterdam.

But I have been waiting FIVE YEARS to run the New York Marathon, the one that inspired me. As you may know, I got selected by the lottery process to run last year but was not able to take part as the race was cancelled due to the Sandy Superstorm. I was then given the option to either get my money back or to get a guaranteed spot for this year and I opted for my money back, thinking that I would "easily" get a qualifying time. Well, it turned out that my qualifying time was good enough provided I was one of the 2,000 lucky people pulled out of a hat (after giving priority to those having qualified in a NYRR organised race, mind).

Not only did I get a qualifying time but I got chosen!! YES!! Weather permitting, I will be running this year in the New York City Marathon. It is that much more satisfying to have finally made it by qualifying rather than by sheer luck (well, in the end it was a combination of the two). In my slightly warped way of thinking about things, I effectively "won" $350 in that Half Marathon I ran in January in 1:19:03.

As it happens, I will be passing through New York in the next few weeks on a business trip, so I will get to go to New York twice this year.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Ooh me aching bunions

It's just as well that I like taking pictures of my feet every so often because I can now see the evolution of my "running bunion". I used to think that feet and especially my feet were ugly things, that is, until I started running in minimalist footwear. Now I see them differently - they are a work of art, a scientific miracle, a vital component of my running speed. You may not seem them in the same light so be warned that THE FOLLOWING PHOTOS MIGHT CAUSE DISTRESS

Brooklyn bridge, summer 2009, just before my stress fracture

Hanoi, summer 2012: sweaty feet and red shoes don't mix

January 2013, soon after tripping over (again)

May 2013

These are not my feet

As you can see, if you were able to see anything between the fingers of the hand you had covering your eyes, the bunion on my right foot has got significantly worse since I tripped over that bloody paving stone in London back in January. I was diagnosed with a hallux rigidus (stiff big toe) as part of a general check up I did in 2007, something that I had never noticed before. It was true: I can only lift my right big toe up a fraction of the angle I can lift my left big toe. I never gave it too much importance, to be honest, but I think that now I run using my toes much more (thanks to ultra flexible running shoes), my stiff toe must influence my running gait and my running gait must influence my stiff toe.

Now it seems as though my hallux rigidus has progressed to a hallux valgus or "bunion". In fact, I first heard the Spanish word "juanete" and it took me a while to put two and two together. For me, a bunion was something that my grandma used to complain about when she was alive and, more recently, that my mum has had operated. According to this recent news article from the BBC, there appears to be scientific evidence suggesting that bunions can be inherited (thanks gran! ;-) ).

I've seen some pretty gross pictures on the internet of feet with big toes that curl over the rest of the toes. I haven't quite got to that extreme just yet, but it's obviously getting worse and it is slightly painful sometimes, as well as making my shoes fit badly. One option is to have an operation but I'd really prefer to leave that until the situation becomes unmanageable because it will mean, amonst other things, not being able to run for weeks / months.

What I am going to try instead is the Correct Toes toe spacer, pictured above. You can either just wear them at night or also when you are walking (I'm not sure running with them would be very comfortable or even possible in a pair of Vibram Five Fingers). The problem with wearing them while load bearing is that they might act as a sort of crutch, thus weakening the very muscles you want to strengthen. I don't see an issue with wearing them at night and hopefully the bursa (the soft padding between bones and tendons) will shrink back down over time, helping the toe to realign.

As usual, I'll report my progress here for anyone who might be interested.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Decabike Pozuelo

Continuing with my random training, I ended up doing a fair amount of high intensity work. After a very easy swim to recover from my 10K race the day before I hooked up with some work colleagues to go for a run in the fields out back. What they neglected to tell me until it was too late to turn back, was that they had a session of hill repeats in mind. After a short warm up, we drew a line in the sand with a stick and ran up a short, sharp hill and back, 9 times. What made it psychologically much easier was that we alternated easy, medium and fast climbs - the last of which left me gasping so much for breath that I could barely get back down the hill in time for the next (mercifully easy) one.

The fact is, I find high intensity workouts much more satisfying (and time efficient) than long, easy workouts. So I opted to do some interval training on the treadmill on Tuesday lunchtime. Without my industrial fan and home cinema it was harder than usual to complete and I had to back off a little on the last set of 1km. In fact, I had to take a bit of a break before attempting the 400m "sprints" (well, they are for me) and, by the time I had cooled off a little, the few running machines capable of going that fast were all occupied. Eventually I managed to secure one and felt good about having finished what I set out to do.

The spinning class on Thursday started to feel easier than the previous week when my back suffered from all the standing up on the pedals. Also, the music wasn't quite so grating (still pretty bad, I have to say).

This was where I separated my shoulder a few years ago... particular, where I landed
I've never seen so many wild flowers / weeds (what's the technical difference?) on my route to work as on Friday. It has been so mild and rained so much this year (for Spain) that, now the sun is finally coming out, there are flowers blooming everywhere. By now the Little grass that manages to grow back is usually reduced to a dust bowl.

I took the weekend fairly easy, just doing an hour long run on Saturday. On Sunday, the local branch of the sports giant Decathlon had organized an outing by bike in Pozuelo. Rather like the "Festival de la bici" which I attended last year, it was very chaotic with several hundred meandering cyclists of all ages, trundling along behind a police car. This time we were the whole family plus a friend of my son's who had stayed over. It was a lot of fun, especially trying to avoid clashing with other bikes and running over any of those who had failed to avoid clashing. My only complaint is that, for one time that the roads are closed for bikes, why should we have to wait 5 minutes at every roundabout for the roads to clear? Can the car drivers not find an alternative route for once? It was almost amusing to see the drivers panicking as they saw us approaching, doing hurried three point turns so that they would not be held up by the few minutes it would take for us to be on our way. To be fair, they had no way of knowing how long we would take and a typical road race can lead to roads being closed for well over an hour.

Monday: swim
Tuesday: hill repeats 3 x (easy-med-hard)
Wednesday: 4 x 200m @ 19 kph, 3 x 1,000m @ 17.5 kph (last one at 17 kph), 2 x 400m @ 19 kph
Thursday: spinning
Friday: commute by bike
Saturday: 60' run
Sunday: -

Monday, May 20, 2013

10K Carrera Liberty Seguros VI

I can't believe we are already on the sixth edition of the Liberty Seguros race. I took part in the first edition back in 2008 and even back then I didn't do too bad a time (39:01), especially considering that the course is anything but flat and that I had only been running for 6 months. Then, of course, Madrid was presenting its candidature for the 2016 Olympic Games; now it is aiming for 2020.

To give you some idea, if the San Silvestre Vallecana course has an elevation gain of around 60m, the Liberty course has an elevation gain of 90m. Add to this the fact that the San Silvestre race finishes some 40m lower than it starts and you can expect to lose perhaps as much as a minute over the 10K distance. On the other hand, the temperature was very favourable considering we are almost in June and perhaps this was what helped Chema Martínez break the 30 minute barrier for the first time in the history of the race.

I think that Madrid must be fairly unique amongst cities of its size, to hold so many races a year that end up cutting the traffic to its major roads. I find it surprising as the rest of the time it is a city which is relatively hostile to runners and cyclists. It is helped, to some extent, by the fact that the "new centre" of Madrid with its wide roads is mainly occupied by businesses which are still asleep early on a Sunday morning; the old part of Madrid is where msot of the action is at the weekend. It is a luxury to be able to run on roads without having to worry about cars, traffic lights or texting teenagers so I consider it almost my duty to take advantage of those few times that the city is given over to runners.

I found a small Parking near the start but crucially outside the course, so that I wouldn't have to wait for the race to finish before going home. Considering I had to drive a total of 40 kilometers there and back, I was amazingly efficient: I got up at 7am to have breakfast and I was back home by 10:30 - my wife was still asleep and the kids were sleeping over at a friend's house, so minimum disruption to the family.

I managed to get a spot quite near the front of the crowd of 6,500 - in fact, you can easily spot me (in an orange vest) in the TV coverage that was actually broadcast live. There's not much to say about the race itself except that my heart rate didn't go anywhere as near as high as it would usually (average 170, maximum 175 compared to 175 and 179 for the 2012 San Silvestre). Maybe my "limiters" right now are my legs and not my lungs and heart (note to self: maybe it's time to get back to some weight training and plyometrics). One thing I did notice was that the standard of the female runners was much higher than last year, when the overall winner took just over 38 minutes. It could either be that the relatively slow times attracted faster women to the event or perhaps the higher temperatures last year were a contributing factor (Chema Martínez ran it two minutes slower). Either way, I was surprised to be running alongside a woman for the last few kilometers and, in fact, the overall female winner managed a sub 35 minute time.

My objective for the race was to try to beat my best time of 36:44 but with the ups and downs it was difficult to know whether I was on track or not until I was close to the end of the race and, even then, you never know how many extra meters you'll have to cover (compared to your GPS device with its inevitable error). The intermediate kilometer markers were a bit erractically placed (especially the first one, which I passed in 3:15) so I couldn't really trust them either. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I crossed the line in a time of 36:35 so I beat my best time while leaving myself some margin to be able to beat it again...

I made it onto the first page of results!

What was more pleasing, however, was that for the first time ever I was in the top 1% (55 / 6,484)!! So, my best times in Half Marathon, 10K and 5K are currently 1:19:03, 36:35 and 18:05. Its clear that my objectives should now be 1:18:XX in Half Marathon, 35:YY in 10K and 17:ZZ in 5K. I don't really care what XX, YY and ZZ are, it's always very satisfying to feel that you have lowered your time by a minute, even if it has only been by a few seconds in reality...

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Where is the limit?

I first came across Josef Ajram in the same moment that I first learned of the Ironman, in a free video that came with my Power Breathe device. I've always had a small amount of curiosity to see what the latest "locura" he has come up with is - be it completing five Ironmans in 5 Hawaiian islands over 5 consecutive days (the Epic 5) or an Ultraman - but my own resistance to falling into that trap of having your goals determine you rather than the other way round made me hesitate to buy his book. The shop assistant in the tiny airport in Asturias told me that "it was very popular" and that was enough to tip the scales in favour of it being my inflight reading material for the flight back to Madrid.

The philosophy behind Josef's brand "Where's the limit?" is very simple. As he has tattooed around his neck: "I don't know where the limit is but I know where it is not". Contrary to what I imagined, neither he nor his book is all about going further, longer or harder than before but rather a way of life which I found I could relate to. In fact his book is quite unlike similar "adventure" books in the sense that it actually recounts what some people would call a failure, but which Josef absolutely refuses to label in such a defeatist way. As he puts it, to call something a failure is to stop there, wallowing in self-pity, to limit yourself. Instead it is an opportunity to learn - like my much less glamorous experience in the Lisbon Half Ironman recently - and, in this way, he shows that you can always redefine the scope so that the limits are never reached. Just because he had to pull out of his third consecutive Ironman in his bid to complete 7 in a row, it doesn't mean that he has found his limit because he can (and I'm sure will) always try again. By this token, the only real limit is our own mortality. Perhaps in Josef's case, the only limit is the space he has left on his body to tattoo his achievements.

"The limit is definitively your next challenge, be it sporting, professional or personal... Having a goal is what makes you enjoy it. If it weren't for this, time would just pass with no particular purpose. Will I manage to find my limit? I am sure that I will NOT. Finding it would mean having no objectives and having to live an existence based on inertia."

This really resonated with me. I believe that, in order to be "happy", we have to have a purpose (or several purposes) and to use every minute of our time to try to move forward in accordance with that, even if that means lying on the sofa watching a film as a rest from training or learning something new. I've not read any of the books on the subject but I suppose this is the concept behind "Mindfulness". By contrast, I sometimes think of a case study written by the neurologist, Dr Oliver Sachs, in which a man reached such a level of "enlightenment" that he would inspire people just with the inner peace that he transmitted via his beautific smile. He even started to look like Buddha: his hair fell out and he became so large that he couldn't get out of his chair without help. It turned out that he had an enormous brain tumour, the size of a golf ball, pressing on his frontal lobes. He had effectively been lobotomised. If happiness is related to the successful pursuit of goals, the answer is not to circumvent frustration and disappointment by making those goals easier to achieve. If that were the case we would end up like Dr Sach's "Buddha".

At first sight, Josef seems like an anomaly, with tattoos that would look more at home on a DJ than a broker and an equal passion for competing in ultra distance events as for playing the stock market. I actually don't find it that much of a surprising mix, only that you have to be very authentic and self assured to get away with it. The stock market and the stopwatch are both completely objective masters which you either beat or get beaten by; there is no room for interpretation or excuses and, what is most important, it is just down to you and no-one else. All my life I have also been attracted to goals that are indisputable and, for example, much preferred Maths at school to English as I knew how good (or bad) I was and didn't depend on someone else to tell me. Goals like running a Marathon are a good metaphor for real life objectives and I have no doubt that many of the values carry over. But in real life, things are much more complicated and depend on lots of people, responsibilities are diluted or confused and not everyone agrees on what the objectives are or even whether they have been met. There is a temptation to either invest only in those indisputable objectives or to try to convert fuzzy objectives into indisputable ones. This second option is clearly the best alternative but, taken to extremes, can sometimes pervert the objective too far from its original cause. I don't think Josef can be criticised for hiding from the real world because he has managed to make a very successful brand out of his way of life as well as earning a living from it. As far as I am concerned, that is what I consider his most impressive achievement.

Josef is understandably a bit prickly when it comes to people who don't know him criticising him and by effectively making a brand out of himself, he is a very easy target. He is the first to admit that he is not the best in any one thing he does but that is exactly what makes his book interesting reading. How much can we learn by reading the autobiography of some outlier: an athlete, entreprenuer or artist who has been blessed with qualities in the tails of the distribution for which we might make up the mean? Josef seems much more approachable, more human because of the mistakes which he openly admits to, his outbursts of frustration and because he chooses not to hide behind a celebrity smoke screen. But make no mistake, this is exactly what makes him an outlier in what he does in fact do best: being Josef Ajram.

Its worth looking beyond the tattoos, beyond what seems like a selfish and perhaps pointless pursuit and beyond the images of someone who makes a living from "day trading" and giving this little book a chance.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Back to life, back to reality

Like a newly released prisoner who prefers not to venture outside his house, as a "free man" I sometimes end up training harder than when I am following a specific training plan. Monday was no exception as I decided to "commute" to work running, only the day after my 5K race. My legs felt pretty good all things considering but the 26 kilometers there and back definitely took their toll. On the way back home I conspired to pass by the Decathlon store to pick up race numbers for all the family a bike "race" that will take place in Pozuelo on the 26th of May. When I came out of the shop, a man asked me for money and then, to my surprise, he asked me where I got my Vibram Five Fingers from. As it happened, the shop was within pointing distance of where we were standing. When he asked me how much they cost though, he was a bit disappointed as he had expected them to be around the 15 euro mark.

The 5K race on Sunday reminded me how much I enjoy taking part in shorter races, for which you don't have to (necessarily) spend months preparing for, so I signed up for a couple more races. One is a 10K race through the centre of Madrid this coming Sunday, in which at least 7,000 participate. I ran in the first two editions and it is always a pleassure to be able to run on wide roads that are closed to traffic, something that happens in Madrid with surprising frequency compared to other major capital cities (even the London Marathon avoids the most emblematic parts). The other race I entered is the Santander Carrera Solidaria which, this year, is held in Madrid, Seville and (of course) Santander in parallel. Last year, I actually made it on to the podium, not for being third in my age group but for being the fastest employee of Banco Santander. In case any fellow work colleagues are reading this and take this as the gauntlet being thrown, I will not reveal which distance or indeed in which city I will be defending "my title"...

On Tuesday I decided to give myself a little treat. At lunchtime I went on my Mountain Bike cross country to Villaviciosa de Odón, a small but picturesque village near my work. One of the best things about Villa is that, thanks to the local university (Universad Europea de Madrid) - where, in fact, I used to train - it benefits from a disproportionately large number of bars and restaurants, even for Spain. I had a lovely lunch of goat's cheese salad and "chopitos" (baby squid) before heading back to work.

El Castillo de Villaviciosa de Odón
That evening I went for a run with the dog. We've been going for a 15-20 minute run every other day but Emma (a boxer) still has trouble pacing herself and before long switches from bounding ahead to shuffling with her tongue hanging out. I suspect that as it gets hotter I will have to find some way to give her something to drink. After a bit of investigation on the internet turned up that there is quite an active circuit of dog-human running races that go by the collective name of cani-cross. Unfortunately, the end of cani-cross season coincides with the end of my season for much the same reason: the heat.

They say a good workman never blames his tools but it is also true that a good workman never has bad tools. It seemed a bit ridiculous to be working on a fantastic carbon fibre triathlon bike with a fancy torque wrench and a set of allen keys from an everything for 1 euro shop. The only thing worse than your allen keys rounding off is having them round of your bolts. I decided to invest in some serious allen keys. These babies are made of nylon(?) and are hard as nails. They also have a round end which is incredibly useful if you are not able to get directly at the bolt, which is the case of those pesky little bolts inside the nose cone of my tri bike. They arrived just in perfect time for the Bank Holiday on Wednesday - being San Isidro, the patron Saint of Madrid, it meant I got the day of work but that the shops in my village on the outskirts were still open. Which was just as well, as you'll see in a moment.

You call that an allen key? This is an allen key!
What better way to start of the Bank Holiday than to do a bit of DIY? I had been waiting for this moment to put my tri bike back together after its journey to Lisbon a couple of weeks ago. What a delight it was to use my new tools! I almost wanted to take it to bits again just to be able to put it back together again! And how much more confident I feel now about those bolts in the nose cone and, in particular, those holding the seat post which worked loose during my triathlon. I was just admiring my work when I noticed that one of the bar end shifters had worked itself slightly loose. Not to worry, another chance to use my allen keys! To get at the tightening bolt, you have to disassemble the whole mechanism and then turn the bolt counter-clockwise. The only bolt on the whole bike (other than the one fixing the seat to the seat post) that is not an allen bolt is the one holding the shifter together: it requires a flat headed screwdriver (or a small coin, I suppose). Somehow I managed to cross thread the bloody little shit and, as a result, could no longer get it to tighten sufficiently to hold the shifter together. I kept relatively calm. I took the other shifter to pieces to see whether it was a problem with the bolt or the nut or both and then had trouble putting that one back together. It was remeniscent of some kind of fiendish puzzle like the Lament Configuration from Hellraiser: lots of tiny pieces that could only be put together in exactly one way.

Only the Japanese could invent something like this. Still, I was grateful at least that there was only one way to put it back together, which with patience I finally managed. I was left then, with the screwed screw so I took it down to my local bike shop, Mr Schmid, where I was met with not with ridicule but the sympathy that only fellow cyclists can offer and they promised to do everything in their power to convince Shimano to provide me with a replacement. In the worse case I may have to buy a whole new set. This is where triathlon helps you see the positive side of things: something breaking is always a good excuse to upgrade... Just as well this didn't happen when I put the bike together in Lisbon.

To blow off a bit of steam after hours of wrestling with a small piece of highly custom metal, I jumped on the treadmill to do 8 series of 4 minutes at 3:40 pace (16.5 kph). By now this feels quite easy but it was enough to make me feel like I "deserved" the massive meat feast that a friend prepared for us at lunchtime.

Today I did a "spinning class" and for once I actually did as the depilated instructor bade me do, which meant spending most of the time standing up out of the seat. I've never been much of a fan of Bonnie Tyler (in fact I am shocked that I even knew that "I need a hero" was sung by her) but I really wanted that awful turbo charged version of the song to end as soon as possible. The only small mercy was that the instructor refrained from singing along, something which he is prone to do. The rest of the week I will take relativley easy so that I can run on fresh legs in my 10K race on Sunday.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

1ª Carrera Popular Ciudad de Pozuelo - 5K

After 6 months of preparing Marathons and Half Ironmans, I decided to go to the opposite extreme of running a 5K race with no specific preparation whatsoever. I couldn't really resist taking part in a race that was taking place barely a kilometre (and a down hill one at that) from my house. The fact it started at a reasonable time (10:25) made it that much easier to squeeze into my weekend although, by this time, the sun was starting to assert itself.

I rolled down to the start line on my bike hardly having to pedal and found that there was already a hive of activity with some kind of open air aerobics class, a live band and about 1,500 runners warming up for the first edition of the Ciudad de Pozuelo 10K / 5K race. I saw a number of familiar faces from my work as well as spotting David López, one of the guys who went on the training camp in Morocco with me a year and a half ago, as he toed the start line of the 10K race (he went on to finish second). I had decided to take part in the 5K race.

The course is a loop along main roads that were closed to traffic but consisted of a steady climb with a couple of steeper sections that served to spread us out a bit. Of course, what goes up must come down, so the way back was gravity assisted but, as usual, never enough to compensate for the price paid going up. I managed to work out that I should just be able to beat my best time in 5K and, if I was really lucky, I might even be able to get a podium spot in the Veteran category... It's always hard to tell other runner's ages, especially when you are running with your tongue hanging out.

Just as I was in the final straight, literally counting down the seconds from 100 until the pain was over, someone decided to pick exactly that moment to cross the road. To be fair, I think their idea was to walk right up to me, wait for me to pass, and then cross immediately behind me - but when you are in the final throes of a competition, the last thing you want is someone to distract you and make you have to watch out for them. I mean, for f´s sake, could she not have crossed in the 21 second gap in front of me or the 8 second gap behind me or - better still - just not crossed the wrong side of the finish line at all? I shouted "get out of the way" in Spanish in such a way that she looked a little startled. The problem with local races is that she could turn out to be the parent of one of my son's friends, a colleague at work, etc... Sorry for shouting but I can't always control my actions at the end of a race.

As I crossed the line in 18:05 - a Personal Best time by 7 seconds! -  I heard the announcer say that they were waiting for the second Veteran to be confirmed so I thought I was in for a chance. In the end, I finished in 14th position overall and 4th in my category, so I got that bitter-sweet reward of being just shy of getting a trophy to take home and impress my kids with.

People always say "a 5K race? That must be easy for you, an Ironman, etc" to which I explain that the shorter the race, the faster you run it and the more agonic it is. My lungs feel as though I've swallowed a blow-torch. Still, it's nice to be able to pull a best time out of the bag in a week when I have hardly been able to walk for most of it. The recovery after my odyssey in Lisbon last week has been the slowest and most painful that I can remember (not counting problems with raw skin that can usually be prevented). It's always the way, the worse the race goes, the tougher it is to finish and the longer the recovery.

I sat getting my breath back talking to a fellow runner about the merits of running in Vibram Five Fingers (he did ask me...) as a friend, José Miguel, crossed the line of his first ever running race (and one that I had encouraged him to take part in). Hopefully it will be the first of many.

This week has been a bit of a difficult week mentally as well as physically. It is all very well to cheerfully say that I am going to cut myself some slack but it is another to refocus my goals so that I don't suffer from that gnawing guilt with every gramme that I put on or every minute less of training. The goals now are longer term (don't worry - I'm talking about after summer, not about "retiring"!) and the immediate ones are of a different nature - no less important but certainly less measurable: enjoy sports and the family and recharge my batteries. A few low key races like today will definitely help the ego fend off the guilt trips and they come at a fairly cheap price in terms of training time (not to mention entry fees and travel expenses). The only problem is that, as it gets hotter I have to accept that my performance will most likely drop as it usually does. Having such great weather in Spain has its down sides...

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

And now for something completely different...

Just as last year I think my formula of 6 months "on" (specific preparation for competitions) and 6 months "off" (training to keep fit and for enjoyment) worked pretty well, I am going to take a break from structured training until after the summer. This way I give myself a bit of a respite from the pressure of "having" to do such and such workout on a particular day as well as a break to my family who have to put up with my (ever more) occasional bad moods or listlessness.

I would have liked to have finished on a more positive note than a "Personal Worst" time in the Lisbon Half Ironman but actually there is a lot to be positive about. A few years ago I synthesized the phases I had gone through as an athlete in a post as follows:

1. Anger
2. Competition
3. Boom-bust
4. Age denial
5. Long term goal
6. Running for running's sake

Although, at the time, I thought that I had "reached the final stop of my journey", I would add a few more now to that list:

7. De-obsession. How can you de-obsess without obsessing about it? I realized that behind the obsession was a underlying fear that my drive for doing sport would evaporate as suddenly as it appeared and that I would go from Ironman to sofa-man. Once I had recognized this fear I could begin to see how irrational it was. I stopped counting calories and taking supplements and I neither got fat nor slow, if not quite the opposite. Instead, I started to trust myself.

8. Self sufficiency. When I first contacted Jonathan, my (ex-)coach, my main reason was that I needed someone to moderate me, an independent advisor who would reign me back in if I tried to push myself too far too soon. I came to depend on the structure that his training plans provided me like a drug - I'd get very nervous as I was coming to the end of one and would hound him incessantly for the next one - and, in some way, I suppose I used this to externalize the inconvenience my training caused to my family. When Jonathan went to Mexico, I ended up inventing my own training plan for the NYC Marathon that never was and went on to get PB times in 10K, Half Marathon and Marathon as a self-trained athlete. It's not to say that I have nothing left to learn from Jonathan or anyone else for that matter, but I have found it tremendously satisfying to take full responsibility for all aspects of my training. It also helps me be more flexible and to be able to adapt my training to my specific needs in the moment.

9. Holistic approach. I got back into running when I was going through a bad patch, a kind of "mid-life crisis", and it became an extra source of self-esteem and one over which I felt I had more control (for the most part) than with other aspects of my life. That's the beauty of a sporting challenge: it depends almost entirely on you and no-one can question the validity of the result. In real life, of course, things are never quite so cut and dried. Sporting achievements definitely carry over into other arenas but - unless you happen to be a professional athlete - it is probably not a good idea for everything else to revolve around them. How can you dedicate the necessary time and energy to training without it being a number one priority that everything else has to fit around? As long as there is a reasonable upper limit to the time and energy required, in practice it doesn't come into conflict with anything else and there will always be an opportunity to fit it in even if you allow it to be pushed around by other priorities. The implication is that you have to limit your ambition accordingly. In my case, this means NO Ironman (at least until the kids have left home...) and I might even have to accept not being able to compete at my full potential in Half Ironmans but at least I have found a way to fit competitive Marathon training in with the rest of my life. By the same token, I also seem to have found a way to not allow the disappointments bleed into my family or my work life but rather to see them as an opportunity from which to learn.

Having just said that I am taking a break from competition, I have in fact got a 5K race this Sunday where I live (assuming I can actually walk by then). Taking part in a local race is very different from spending months specifically preparing for it.

I've also bought a "doggie jogger" leash for the dog so that we can go running together. Hopefully it will help her to be calmer in the house and - who knows - we might even end up establishing some kind of canine-human bond, it has been known to happen. I also want to take advantage of the temporary relaxation of my regime to go on cycle rides with my neighbour, to run alongside the kids on their bikes, to play "padel" (a kind of cross between real tennis and squash), to go on rambling runs with colleagues at lunchtime, to go hiking, to commute to work, etc.

This seems like a good moment to make a "cut" and, as I have done with two previous volumes of this blog, make myself a book using Blog2Print. Here's to volume 4...

Monday, May 6, 2013

Lisbon Half Ironman 2013 Race Report

The short version

Disappointing physically but proud of myself mentally.

The medium version

I did a time of 5:19, 35 minutes slower than last time. I did a best HIM swim time of 36:11 and a best HIM bike leg of 2:29:34 but I got cramps as soon as I started the run and did my slowest ever Half Marathon of 2:07:38.

The long version

It was very hard to leave the family behind in Asturias, even though the weather was a bit grim. I’d enjoyed my 3 days of “carbo loading” – eating what I felt like, when I felt like with a leaning towards pasta, rice and chocolate – but I could even see the impact of all that associated water retention (1 gram of water per calorie of stored glycogen) and so could my bathroom scales (87kg). By now I am used to the guilt trip as a result of going from being very conscientious about what I eat and how much I exercise to suddenly seeming to “let myself go” in both regards.

The day before the race I did my customary 20 minute run (watching “Osombie” which I can recommend as being one of the worst films of the last few years, in which Osama bin Laden comes back as a Zombie) and drove to the airport. As soon as I was on the motorway, I realized that I had forgotten to fill up the car with petrol. I thought of the months of preparation, not to mention the cost of the hotel, the race inscription, all that would go to waste if my car broke down now. Still, I kept my calm and told myself that there was no point worrying about it until it happened and, in any case, I made it to the petrol station in the airport and wisely decided to fill up in case I forgot to do so on the way back.

I’d packed everything so ingeniously so that, other than the bike box which I had already sent through oversized luggage (for an extra €35), I only had a small backpack to carry. The bike pump caught the attention of the security guard as my bag passed through the scanner so I had to unpack everything, perhaps not so ingeniously after all. But the pump which was essentially a two foot long bar of metal with a sharp metal stand that would have made an excellent weapon was not the object of concern, rather my torque wrench. Again, I kept my calm and asked ingenuously whether it was considered dangerous but of course the real worry was that I might start to disassemble parts of the plane and use them to make some kind of makeshift weapon in the style of The A Team. I don’t want to seem facetious, in the end it is a perfectly reasonable rule that I should have been aware of - that you are not allowed to take any kind of tools on a plane in hand luggage - but thankfully I was allowed to take it on board.

Once in Lisbon I made my way to the humble expo (by this I am referring to the few stands that were set up for the triathlon and not the Paque das Naçöes Expo itself) and bought a CO2 canister in case of a flat tyre (as I couldn't take compressed gas on the plane) as well as some cereal bars for the bike leg. Then it was back to the hotel to put the bike back together again. It had faired pretty well but there was a small chip in the carbon from I don’t know what. It was much harder to put together than it was to take to pieces (isn't it always the way?) and I wasn't too confident about the bolts holding the nose cone and the seat post in place. The nose cone bolts can only be accessed with a long Allen key (no fancy torque wrench here) and I was worried about the Allen key rounding off leaving me with a problem to undo it for the trip back home. I realized that the guys in the bike shop had put some kind of substance to lock the bolts in place which made them much harder to turn. The bolts on the seat post are the teeniest tiniest bolts in the world and are much more prone to rounding off so I didn't manage to tighten them to even close to the very low 2 Nm maximum recommended torque.

Looking sultry
Considering this was to be my third participation in the Lisbon Half Ironman, I very nearly skipped the briefing – after all, I had never been to one before. I was impressed by the level of detail in which we were explained everything but soon realized that, unless I somehow found myself in pole position, I wouldn't need to remember any of it on the day. Compared to previous years there appeared to be an extra twiddle on the end of the bike course to make the distance up to 90 km, perhaps due to the transition area having moved. There were a lot of extremely detailed questions, mainly from the German contingent, and I couldn't help thinking that there wouldn't be quite so many in the Spanish / Portuguese briefings.

Everything organized by transition
On the day of the race itself, I got up at 5 am and had breakfast with Dani. His understandable nervousness before undertaking his very first Half Ironman served somehow to make me feel more relaxed and, hopefully, some of that rubbed back off on him. I’d already put Body Glide in all the places that I know from experience get rubbed raw as well as a special paste (that smells rather like fish paste) on my neck which my friend Carlos managed to procure me from Brazil where it protected me from the uncompromising friction of my wetsuit in the full Ironman I did there.

Fish paste
We went down to do the bike check in and leave all the stuff ready for the transitions. The transition area was much better and more impressive than in previous years. I had enough time to go back to the hotel for a bit of quiet contemplation, all the while with that nagging sensation that I had forgotten something…

The transition area
Back at the course, the gun went off for the “Battle of the sexes” which was a slightly longer than Olympic distance Triathlon (strictly speaking a quarter Ironman) in which the women were given a head start of 12 minutes. This turned out to be exactly long enough for the first woman to be exiting the water just as the gun went off for the men; I expect the men caught her up on the bike and the run. At 8:20 it was the turn of those of us doing the Half Ironman distance and we had just a few minutes to get used to the (cold) temperature of the water. I never warm up or even practise swimming the day before because, rather irresponsibly, I’d rather just do as little swimming as possible, although I'm sure it would probably have helped. The start was very hectic in spite of there only being 500 of us (compared to the 1,800 last time I competed). Someone swam right on top of me and used me to propel himself forwards. This pissed me off because I figured that, if he was so fast and competitive, why hadn't he started much further forward? So I grabbed his ankle and gave a little tug to say “fuck you too”. I don’t know whether it was the same guy or someone else but, just at this moment, someone very intentionally put their hand on my swim cap and dunked my head under water. If it was the same person, he would have had to stop and double back – a case of “swim rage” if ever I saw one – and if it was someone else altogether then they fully deserved the “c” word that I shouted at them. In the water – just as behind the wheel or behind a computer screen – you are anonymous and people behave much more primitively when they know there can be no comeback.

Only minutes into the race I was panicking and hyperventilating, breathing to both sides with my neck out of the water like a kid doing doggy paddle. I was so close to packing the whole thing in that I thought of calling out to a boat to get me the hell out of there. But the thought of the embarrassment I would suffer having to explain to Dani, to my kids, my work colleagues – and you, dear reader – was even stronger than the overwhelming urge to stop (interestingly, I don’t feel the same pressure from my wife or my parents). So I waited for the flock of flapping arms to subside and started off on the 1,900m slog. I decided not to overexert myself – after all, I was unlikely now to get a good time (although one always overestimates the time lost in the moment) – but at least I would take a good line to each buoy. Eventually I found my rhythm and started to overtake people and, bit by bit, I started to feel better about the whole thing. By the time I got to my beloved bike, I was tired from the swim but I think that I had expended less energy than in previous years.

For some reason I registered my country as Spain
Once I was out on the highway I really started to fly on the bike. My heart rate was still on the high side from the swim and took some time to settle down to the 153 bpm average I was aiming for. Unfortunately I had set things up in such a way that I couldn't easily read my watch from the aero position, which was tucked behind my water bottle along with a couple of moral boosting messages from my kids. Nevertheless, the pace felt like the right balance between tolerable and challenging and I was able to maintain it fairly constantly throughout (hills notwithstanding).

They say you should never try something new in a race. I had come up with the idea of taping a couple of packets of High5 Energy Source 4:1 powder to my bottle, that I could mix on the go with the water handed out by the organization. In practice I thought I would lose too much time trying to get the stuff to dissolve in the tiny chamber afforded by my refillable front mounted bottle and, at one point the packets came unstuck and started flapping about, so I yanked them off and threw them to the side of the road. Unfortunately, I also yanked the bottle out of its mount in the process and it also went flying. I did a quick calculation of minutes lost in going back for it versus cost of the bottle (it’s a “special one” with a straw) and decided to stop. Luckily, this happened where there were some spectators and someone kindly went back for it. In between them having to wait for a break in the oncoming cyclists to safely cross the road and jogging back to me, I suppose I must have lost about a minute. In an Ironman™ event, this would have led to my disqualification as outside intervention is prohibited, but not so in Lisbon. I soon caught up with those who zoomed past me including an Irish guy on an Isaac bike who I had been “playing tag” with for the past half an hour or so. I notice that I rode with a much higher cadence than most people around me and while “Isaac” would overtake me going uphill I would take him back going downhill and on the flats. I felt a couple of twinges of cramp but I remembered that I had felt this last time and, as long as I backed off slightly, they would go away.

The bike course is relatively fast but it has to be said that between the annoying hill at one end, the number of tight turns (that I had to take very wide as the turning circle on my bike is very wide) and the patches with cobble stones, it all adds up to having to go that much faster on the straight, flat and smooth stretches. The only good thing about the cobble stones was that I would have less bolts to undo when it came to packing up my bike. I started to hear an ominous clanking sound coming from the depths of my bike and wondered if we would make the 90 kms in one piece. Just as well that I had had to cut my seat post to length because otherwise my seat would have slipped down. In fact, the bolts now not holding the seat post in place were only really useful for one thing and that was for hanging the bike up my its bike seat, as you are required to do when you finish the bike leg of a triathlon. Again, the rules were interpreted in spirit and not to the letter and, after consulting a referee, I hung the bike up by its brake levers and put on my visor, Fuel Belt and running shoes and set off for the run. On the bike I had managed to eat two Powergel Endurance cereal bars and drink 750 cl of High5 Energy Source 4:1 as well as 9 High5 Isogels and, in the end, had thrown away the only water that I took from the refreshment station. In the Fuel Belt I was carrying a further 4 High5 Isogels.

I was glad to be able to stand up after two and a half hours almost entirely in the aero position. Now for the run – my strongest discipline! After only a few steps my legs suddenly seized up completely. I was frozen with my quadriceps contracting as if someone else was activating them with a remote control. The image of Mark Allen, standing stark upright in the Ironman as his eternal rival Dave Scott sailed past, came to me. I squatted down as best as I could and stayed there until the contractions abated. I couldn't believe it – cramps in kilometre 0!! I had 21 kilometres to go, this was going to be long and painful. This is where I can say that I am proud of myself because I didn't get angry or upset, I just took it (literally) in my stride. I felt a bit hard done by as I didn't think I “deserved” to be hobbled after all the training I had done. Perhaps it was just an extreme version of the famous “jelly legs” you get after transitioning from cycling to running. I took a couple of salt tablets in the hope that they would at least work as a placebo. Yes, I felt I could start to run now – even though the pace felt very slow, my watch was telling me that I was turning out kilometres in 4:20 which, while it wouldn't lead to a Personal Best there was every chance I would get faster as the race wore on.

But it wasn't to be. The cramps came back and this time they weren't going away. A pattern soon emerged in which I would run some 500 metres, my legs would tighten up dangerously and I would stop, walk and then run again. I seemed to end up stopping in exactly the same places on each of the four laps. One of the things that is motivating when running a fixed distance is that the faster you run, the less time you have to suffer – often the most persuasive reason I have to push myself is just to make this suffering end sooner. This works in the opposite direction when you are slowing down. You tell yourself that you just have to put up with the pain and discomfort for one more hour but after half an hour, you now have 45 minutes. It seems like it will never end and time dilates like the bastard it is.

Unlike under the cloak of anonymity of the swim, other runners gave encouragement and advice – one even slapped me on the bum to get me going again (a male athlete in case my wife is reading this). With just 3 kilometres (but 20 minutes!) to go, I saw Dani for the first time and he caught me on one of my standing breaks. “No te pares tío!” (Don’t stop mate!) he shouted, to which I replied “Ya he parrido 50 veces” – I was so tired I couldn't even conjugate my verbs properly any more but, somehow, what I said was more appropriate: instead of saying that I had stopped 50 times already, I said that I had given birth 50 times. At least Dani looked like he was going well, especially for being his first.

Just as I had played tag with “Isaac” on the bike, when I stopped I was overtaken by a man who was, to say the least, top heavy. I would pass him only to be forced to stop again by the time he shuffled past. I thought, that guy has a massive disadvantage (excuse the pun) – for him to finish this it is going to require an even bigger effort than for me: if he can do it, then I can. I realized something very important in that moment. There is a word in Spanish which neatly sums up the act of bettering oneself: superación. I had taken that to literally mean improving my times - maybe not in every race - but to be generally getting faster. In doing so I was snobbishly putting myself above those who “just finish”. What I hadn't realized was that this was, in itself, a get-out clause: if things didn't go to plan I could just throw the whole race and put it down to bad luck, a bad day. I realized that superación means improving yourself and not just your times. Finishing this race was vitally important for me to be able to learn from it and improve as a consequence. Not only that, but by not beating myself up about it, I was also improving myself in other ways, ways that would not only help me towards faster times in the future but also in other aspects of my life. It’s not as though I was slacking and that I deserved a good bit of auto-flagellation. I also realized something else: getting angry with myself was itself a way of avoiding facing up to the reasons why this might have happened and doing something about fixing it.

So what did go wrong? I believe that exercise induced cramps are due to one of two things: under-preparation or overcooked pace. Looking back at my last training log, I rather optimistically put a “tick” by the training objective of converting myself from a Marathoner into a Triathloner in the space of 9 weeks in spite of having no evidence to this effect. When I signed up for the race, I had intended to spend several more months preparing for it – after all, two years had gone by since my last triathlon – but then the temptation to squeeze in another Marathon was too much to resist (nor do I regret it now). Just because I was in very good shape, it doesn't mean I was in very good shape for a Half Ironman. Specifically, I think that I skimped on two types of workout: one, the long bike ride which I substituted with a long run or tempo run and, two, the weights session.

It’s also possible that the heat was a big factor: last time round, when I did a time of 4:44, it was much cooler and even rained a bit. I'm not sure how much I believe in the theory that cramps are due to electrolyte imbalance from heavy sweating (although I do sometimes take salt tablets, just in case) but I do think that hotter conditions mean you expend more energy cooling yourself down, especially if you are a large person like myself, and it is therefore much easier to overcook the pace. Lastly, I might have benefited from wearing thigh compression, as I did last time. In case Emilio – to whom I had lent my thigh compression for his Marathon des Sables and who returned them to me this morning – is reading this, I take full responsibility as I had already decided that I wouldn't run with them.

Now back in the hotel, I treated myself to a nice lunch, had a wonderful siesta and finally got around to packing up the bike before going for a celebratory meal with Dani and his wife in a surprisingly cheap and good all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant. My flight was leaving at 9am the following day and the queues in the airport were impressive, especially as I had to queue up first for my boarding pass, then to pay the €35 for the bike and, finally, to deposit the bike in the oversize luggage chute. This time security said nothing about my pump (the torque wrench was safely wrapped up inside my wet suit, in the bike box) but they made a fuss about my liquids and creams which I had wrapped in one of my mum’s plastic hair nets for want of a sealable bag. The sealable plastic bag dispenser required a €1 coin and I had given all my spare change as tip the night before, so I had to decide which one item I was going to keep. As the special fish paste from Brazil had done nothing this time to prevent a sore on my neck I opted to keep the Body Glide and said goodbye to the rest.

Another reason for finishing was to be able to teach my children the lesson that I had learned. They had already progressed from asking after every race I entered if I had won and losing interest when I told them in which place I had finished, to saying that they hoped I would get my best time, as they knew that that was my objective. When I explained to them that it was really important to finish, especially when things were going badly, Luca said to me “You’ll always be my champion daddy”.