Sunday, May 27, 2018

Pre-Transatlantic Way - The woes, the wobbles (litterally) and the Way.

In 10 days we embark on the Transatlanticway – a 1400 (ish) mile race over ¾ of the way around the Irish Coastline.  It’s known to be a bit of a gueller. 
  1. a)      It’s a long way.
  2. b)      It’s into the prevailing wind for a large proportion of its distance
  3. c)       It pisses it down a lot on the west coast of Ireland
  4. d)      It’s still a long way

People have asked the Adventure Syndicate (a group of female adventurers who spend their lives adventurising and through doing so aim to encourage people – mainly women and girls – to take on new adventures… or as we called it in the 80’s – turn off your TV set and go and do something more interesting)… anyway, people have asked them, “are there any normal people out there, doing this stuff, y’know, people with jobs and normal lives?”

I give you, me.  And, to be fair, plenty of others – teachers, nurses and yes, engineers, IT professionals, scientists, accountants, researchers, authors – who ride by morning and evening and spend 8 hours or more 5 days or more a week at someone else’s disposal before hurtling around like lunatics the rest of the time, trying to squeeze into some kind of major event or another every so often along with all of the training required to even get you onto the start line, never mind over it and around to the finish.  Our only major contribution to the encouragement of others to take on adventurising?  We turn up and watch the events, the presentations, the videos, buy into the rhetoric then purchase all our own kit (or eachothers' off-casts) to keep the industry that supports the real winners afloat.

In the meantime we try our best to perpetuate the myth in our personal theatres, offices, factory floors and board rooms but inevitably at the end of the day, still manage to come across as some kind of unearthly super-human to your average desk touting, machine operating, scalpel weilding, hospital gown folding, board-rubber hurling podgy average human being (there are intentionally lots of averages in there).

The inevitable response to “I’m just an average human being” is to gaffaw in wonder.  Occasionally we draw one in and they go on to complete multiple ironmans – but its rare.

I have done precisely 41% of the volume of training I wanted to do for this race.  Trust me, I have a spreadsheet that shows it because if there's one thing engineering professionals can do well, it's write spreadsheets. 

Almost as soon as I’d finished my last long ride (during which I entered this one) I drew up a plan to get me from the measly volume of riding I had been doing to where I wanted to be (right now, as I sit here typing this). 

The plan involved multiple long rides during the week combined with long efforts at the weekend, responsibly interspersed with rest days in between.  The gains in distance across time were unfathomable so I did a stupid thing and took out some of the rest days to smooth the leaps.  In retrospect it was always set to fail but also, as happens with every day Joes (and Janes) the job took over. 

I’m a senior engineer for a gases company but I have no control over anything.  Senior managers retain all that –and I’m talking really senior.  So getting a project and delivering it are two very different things.  I won’t labour the point in my blog but my beloved career (and I do love it) has taken over this year as I try to do the career of two people.  If I was a real engineer, this wouldn’t be a problem.  I’d spend my weekends working or building trains for fun and my week days and nights working for the love of it but fortunately I’m also afflicted with the joy of cycling.  I could have improved my fitness through strength training exercises but fortunately, I enjoy riding my bike so much more than lifting weights or squatting on a mat so I tend to ride my bike instead of hitting the gym.  Such is life.

So here I am – a REAL person – trying to do something unreal - Race a bicycle around Ireland in 7-15 days (accepting that I’m going to be slow here) clocking up 100 miles a day and surviving on a minimal amount of sleep where it can be grasped – B&Bs, campsites, hotels, hostels, benches, beaches or bus stops.

I made one more mistake – which I’m prone to do with these things, but that’s the fun part of it – the learning.  Instead of just sticking to my training plan and doing what I’d told myself, I decided to resume Audax UK riding.  

Audaxes are long distance rides (usually over 200km – though shorter ones exist) which are published routes undertaken solo or as part of a group ride on a given date.  The organisers publish the route file, feed you at the start, monitor your progress as you collect receipts or stamps from establishments along the route to prove your passage.  You then get a pass or fail mark for completing within a set time frame which is based on a 15 to 30km/hr speed (so quite generous really for the average cyclist). 

It sounds like an excellent way to start getting more miles into the legs no?  It is and I got hooked in a way.  I decided I wanted to get my first RRtY badge.  Audax isn’t competitive (pass/fail result) and so to replace this, cloth badges are given in exchange for targets.  I have several 200 badges but felt the need to extend my collection to a ride-round-the-year badge – at least one 200km ride every month for 12 months.  I added a few 300km rides to the suite to buck the distances.

The traditional way to do this is to start in the winter months to get the worst over with and thereby increase your chances of completions as time goes by and you get more tired – but the rides get easier.  I started training in October and was blessed with weather then did my first ride in December, January, February – all in excellent conditions for the season.  Then I upped my game to a 300, nearly died of snow, timed out and so set off on a campaign of 2 weekly-audaxes to make sure I hit my RRtY target.  

Within 10 weeeks I’d done a out-of-time 300, a 200 to replace it, another 300 to nail the distance before shit got real with Ireland and then my scheduled 200 in May.  That was two weeks ago.  This has all led to a lurcher effect, lurching from one ride and recovery to the next without actually managing to squeeze in any real training rides or weightlifting.

It all sounds productive “riding your bike” training but audaxes – though completed on more comfy bikes than an average road race - are generally much lighter than long distance independent race machines – particularly how I prefer to travel.  I’ve done a lot of long rides which have been towards that 15 kph scale and not particularly heavily laden (although I did take a 1kg lock on a few for good measure).  Unfortunately I haven’t done many 50 – 90 mile rides carrying the full weight of my race rig.

The valid fact is, without the audaxes to keep me going, there's a very significant chance I wouldn't have riden nearly as far as I have this year.  Without the set dates to aim for, the work excuses come into the fray.  The days off to prepare for a ride don't get booked and a late night Friday and an early start Monday all begin to eat into riding time.  In balance, I feel it's been the best training I could have done, even if not the most relevant.

Yesterday we went for our first weighted ride since January AND IT WAS TOUGH.  What was it about this one that made it tougher than January of all times?  Well, straight forwards: In January, we travelled together as a pair – we shared a tent, a stove, a fuel bottle, a lighter.  In January, it was only for 1 night – we didn’t pack any spare clothing on the basis that the next day would see us warm, dry and moderately clean again. In January, we did all of our packing the day before, drove down to a hotel and started fresh in the morning.

Yesterday, for the authentic experience and to minimise the amount of time we spent on the bike eating into our precious recovery… yesterday, we got up at 6am, spent a sizeable portion of the morning doing pre-race planning like plotting an audax route to be integral to the race, ordering club kit before we go, planning some overnight stops (ha! Planning).  We then went for lunch before spending a sizeable portion of the afternoon and early evening digging out all of our kit and loading it on the bikes.  This time, a tent each, stove each (because reasons*), cups, “cutlery”, pegs, food supplies & coffee – race quantities (at least day 1) measured out into containers and packed.  We then ate our dinner and finally set out for a ride at about 8:30pm.

As a baptism of fire (and to stay in the evening sun) we rode up the hill, not down.  As music blared from neighbours' houses and passing cars we realised it was an exceptional evening to leave the city.
The Sunset over Stanage Edge was impossible to capture fully on a phone
but I did have to try.
We rode a familiar route - down Frogatt (much scarier with a suddenly laden bike and brakes that you're putting off servicing until the last minute), across Calver crossroads and joined the Monsal Trail at Hassop station.  

We dipped in and out of tunnels with chilly subterranean air and pottered about looking for somewhere to bivi for the night.  In our search we found glow worms and then a perfect pitch.  Tents were up in no time.  I was too cold not to get in my sleeping bag and feeling a bit exposed - in more ways than one.  a) we'd only ridden 20 miles and I was knackered b) I pitched my tent straight into the wind and a chilly breeze was blowing straight over me.  

I admit, I didn't clean my teeth and fell almost straight to sleep.  It didn't last long though and I woke shivering in the breeze with a tail off my tent guys tapping the canvas right above my head.  My ear plugs were still in a bag on my bike.

There was no point waiting it out - I got up, undid all the guys, span the tent 180 degrees, span my sleep mat back 180 degrees and got my ear plugs out of the bag.  I got in the tent and it was baggy and on the piss so I had to get out and fix it all up again. It was approximately 1:30am. It all worked and I got back in and slept straight through to the alarm at 5am.  It's all about the practice right?

We were fed and caffeinated by 7 but then delayed our departure because unexplained reasons.  It was 8:30 when we arrived back at Calver to treat ourselves to more coffee and teacakes at the caf.  I checked and was impressed by my friend's Ironman time - another great normal person with a normal life doing brilliant stuff.  More and better.

We resumed our ride, back over Froggatt.  The climb was long but I still had a gear left and crested the hill without any bother.  We descended to town and to be honest, the urge to keep going on somewhere else was overwhelming but I stayed en route to home, promising myself that when I got in I'd sort some stuff out.  I don't need to over-do it now.

I worked through into the mid day sun, working on TSK's bike a little then eating in the garden.  Eventually I wilted indoors before flopping into bed and sleeping solidly for 2 hours.

When the alarm went off at 3pm to make sure I can sleep tonight, I felt like hell.  I snoozed for a bit longer, convinced that by the time I woke up it would be 6pm and TSK would be coming home.  It was, thankfully, only 3:30 and I at least felt like writing and eating toast - yes toast, I was SO hungry.  

How am I going to ride 1400 miles? I am wondering.  I can't even manage 40 without collapsing into bed!  So I've come to my blog to find answers.  Stories of all the times I've tried to do too much up to two weeks after an audax.  Stories of how I feel amazing just 3 weeks after an audax.  Of how that's the perfect time to recover.  To remind myself of the progression: In February - no rides after an audax, March - 40 miles after an audax, April - 60 miles + 2 x 25s + 2 audaxes, May - a 60 mile + 2 x 40 miles with all the extra gear on board, not to mention 2 x 60 mile Norton rides.  Yeah, I think I did OK.  Yeah, I think that finally, my recovery is justified.

Today's ride (and yesterday's) unnerved me a bit.  I wish I'd done more on a loaded bike but weather, commitments, audaxing, life aside, could I have done it?  Yeah - if I'd wanted to.  If I'd put audaxing to one side.  Would I have done it?  Probably not.

The heat probably also contributed to how I felt today.  I didn't really notice it riding but I was clearly dehydrated and cooked myself in the garden a bit when I got home.  Reasons to be relieved if it rains in Ireland.  Reasons to stare the wind in the face and say, "So?".

The fact is, I'm now here, 10 days from the start.  I have 10 days to get used to riding with weights or 10 days to recover my muscles.  It will likely be a combination of both so I've left the bike packed as there's every chance he's going to come to work with me for a few days so I can adjust fully, get the hips in check and take a few steps closer to getting the brain in check.

For on the 7th, we ride!

*If you can't believe I'm carrying a stove, reasons is this: I like to be self-sufficient and I also like to eat.  Running my body on empty is not really an option.  Yeah yeah, we can all do it - for a limited period only - but I am female, 5'11'' and skinny as fuck (well, 65kg so not completely skinny).  Yes, I have some body fat but I like it and it's normal.  My normal weight without effort is not very fat though.  So if I get into a hole I will suffer for days.  My brain goes to goo and I can't achieve anything.  I'd rather carry a bag of desiccated food and finish a day in good shape with a meal than face a sleepless rest feeling hungry and miserable.  It also means I can make myself a coffee when I'm feeling washed out which will be the difference between making it to a cafe in an hour rather than 2 hours if I'm falling asleep on my feet - which has been know to happen - literally.  Besides this, for me, independent racing is as much about the camping as it is about the cycling.  If I had the fitness to win this thing then yes, I might only take 7 days off work and ride through and eat shit in petrol stations but as it is, despite it being a race, I am in it to enjoy my holidays and, quite frankly, the number of times I have mulled over leaving behind my trusty stove behind has been far outweighed by the number of times its presence has both brought me joy and saved my bacon.  It is the freedom to eat where I choose and experience some amazing sunsets as a result.   I have a lightweight titanium stove and meths stash which I anticipate will last me at least half of the race.

(final) lessons learned - regular matches and a stove cap are required.  My tent can not be pitched with the door into a cool breeze! My synthetic jacket is the best hat I have. My eye mask and ear plugs need to live in the sleeping bag.

The rest will soon be history.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Position, Plain Peaks and Troughs 200km Audax

On 8th April I wrote this.

For some reason I didn't post it.  It was just before Skeggy which was way more interesting.  In retrospect, this post is more interesting to me than the Skegness ride so I have now published it.

On 30th April my faith was wavering.  The more I have ridden recently, the worse I have felt.  My bike position never feels good.  I haven't left the saddle alone - forward, back, tilted, up, down.  My left heel wants to turn in.  My right heel wants to turn out.  I slide my cleats forward and back, in and out.  What feels great one ride, feels horrific the next day.  On top of that, my shoulder pain (like none I've ever had on a bike) has persisted for months with only occasional ease coming from Marcus massaging the living daylights out of my Psoas on a monthly basis.

Someone suggested I get a bike fit but I wasn't paying £100 for someone to do what I've been doing myself for 30 years, only to find that a day later it all feels wrong.

For a day, I changed my saddle back to the ones I ride on all my other bikes.  It put me in completely the wrong place so I put the ISM one back again and rode to Skegness on it and everything was fine.  Then the day after Skegness I felt awful, my bike felt awful.

I hoped that the move from my winter boots to summer shoes would ease things - better cleat position.  Sadly, the fidgety feet still happened, my left foot feeling like it is hunting for something.  Not wanting to be straight, not wanting to be crooked, wobbling around with every pedal stroke.

Whilst all this was happening, my faith in my training was wavering.  I did so many great events and whilst I am able to ride 300km or 200 hilly ones, I seem to be doing it more and more slowly.  I recover better, I feel better after one, I am back on the bike but still I feel wrong.  My resting heart rate (if my watch is to be believed) is hovering around 55 - 60 with occasional peaks up to 70.  How can I sleep all night with a resting heart rate of 70??  Back in March when training was just getting going, my hear rate hit 42!  I am, on paper, getting less fit.

Finally, on my way home from work on 30th April, I admitted that the problem might still be the ISM saddle.  Hip issues are caused by a saddle that's too narrow and whilst this one is only slightly narrower than my normal saddle, I guessed that might be the problem. 

This time I was careful to measure its position and, last Thursday, I put it in exactly the same place as the ISM saddle sits.

As soon as I rode it to work the next day it felt perfect.

I did a few miles on it during the week and then, sensibly (my god!) decided not to ride it down to Shropshire for May bank holiday weekend but instead take the bike down in the van and enjoy a more comfortable easing in of the "new" old saddle over 2 x 60 mile days with my club mates.  I wasn't too worried about the suitability of the saddle (I've been riding them for years including the 500 Canadian miles this summer) but didn't particularly want to cause myself too much chaffing, having been riding a saddle with no nose for 6 months now. 

The saddle performed. From the moment I set out from the bunk house with my mates, I felt comfortable.  We rode up hill and down dale for hours and I felt like I was on my cyclo-cross bike - but comfier.  The shoes still felt a little odd but I knew that I'd left the right foot in a traditional position with the left foot slightly wide because that knee tends to figure-of-eight around if the foot is not planted  just right - leading to chronic wear on my knee.  The only other thing that was wrong was my gears.  After weeks of diminished riding due to pain / fatigue / lack of faith / flat 300s I was feeling it a lot on the hills.  Of course it didn't help that I was out with Norton Wheelers who regularly ride the Peaks and the Alps and are used to shorter, yet more violently climby rides.  I struggled at the back unless I got a good run out front on a descent to whoosh me up the other side.

 The chaffing was not too bad - though did happen - unlike the ISM saddle which, despite its narrow, has always been chaffe-free.  It was looking like the problem was solved.  There remained one last test - 200kms... but before that, a lovely parcel arrived from Sigma Sport, including a 34 tooth block for the back end.

With a light-as-you dare bag packed, including an omitted lock, we set out yesterday on the Dore-based Plains, Peaks and Troughs Audax.

A lovely morning for a ride to the start
I've rarely done such a local Audax so it was a novelty to ride to the start and I only had to be up at 6am to do so.

We had more toast and crammed down some coffee before heading off with 20 or so others into the hills.  The front group quickly dispatched with me, one woman on the road ahead.  I retained my second place until the bottom of Sheldon hill climb at which point I was passed by number 2. 

At the top though, they were waiting for another girl and I stayed ahead until we arrived in Longnor, being swept up at the top of the climb but then sitting on the front down the descent.

It was too early for a stop for me so I packaged cake into my frame bag and set off, snapping a pic of the majority of other female riders as they came in and went out.
Longnor Control
From Longnor it was a long haul over the Roaches to Congleton.  I'm disappointed that I didn't stop to take a photo here.  Descending past Hen Cloud was amazing.  So many little roads away from the major ones that I didn't know existed.  I knew the climbs into Congleton would come as I've fell raced on Congleton Cloud.  I didn't remember how steep they were. 

As soon as I dropped out into Cheshire, I was passed by a ferrari, a porsche and a Range Rover, like a border patrol. 

There were a number of info controls sto get me over to The Spinney Caravan shop Cafe.  The staff were grumpy, the hob stopped working and my mushrooms on toast (although cheap) were both insubstantial and time-consuming.  Still, at least I had caught up TSK who rode with me through Cheshire to a mixture of Crewe-based motorist insults, singing and turns on the front into the headwind until we circuited Cheshire's second city and set off back East with our tail wind in tow

By 5pm we were in Leek.  We collected an info control then headed into Costa for an un-scheduled stop.  TSK was in need of a sit down and I was in need of more sustenance than mushrooms fried on to white Mothers' Pride bread.

He ordered me a bucket of coffee so I added tiffin to the bean wrap I had scoffed and then we hit the hills again. 

The man was suffering but still surged ahead.  I climbed more steadily on my new gear, zigzagging on the steep climbs but still smiling my way up.  We re-grouped at the top to put on jackets and then descended back onto our side of the Peak.  TSK pulled ahead on the hill climb again and I continued to breeze up, enjoying riding in short sleeve jersey and snacking my way through large quantities of food.  As I pulled into Youlegreave, TSK was just finishing the pint he'd been promising himself all day.

I ordered a baked potato and wolfed it down, greeting the next person in as I vacated the table.  "foof", he said, "This is hard!".  I knew it was hard but really wasn't feeling so bad.  I kept my mouth shut.

I put on my windproof to cope with the setting sun and headed for Bakewell and Baslow.  Rain started to fall properly as I began the climb to Owler Bar.  The sleeves of my windproof started to wet-out as it got heavier but I was also pumping out a fair heat and un-zipped everything, only taking the rain on my back.  What a wonderfully warm evening.  Only a moderate niggle from my right calf gave some hint that it is milimetres away from being aligned with my left and that I need to stop twisting it about.

Thankfully I did have my waterproof jacket and rain legs with me and stopped at the top of the Bar to get comfortable for the ride in to Control.  A few minor navigational issues in the late evening and parts of town I do not know but I was soon back, arriving just as the other girls were heading home and eating yet more food. 

We waited for the last finisher to come in - just because I knew he wasn't far behind me.  We welcomed him in then headed home. 

What I had been dreading - the long climb up the hill to home.  From Eccleshall Road to Broomhill.  We then dropped down to the Uni, through past the Octagon, under the underpass, dodging the drunken students and then up through Walkley.  I hit the lights at a roll and sprinted up the hill to our junction.  Satisfying.  I had some left.

Taking stock today and according to data, this was one of the climbiest rides I have done.  It turns out that data is not always what it's cracked up to be when it comes to the logging system I have been using for the past 10 years but hey, I need my confidence bolstering.  The organiser bills it as a 3100m day and that is what I got on my results on the Garmin.  Adding in the 135 m and 166 m of sheffield riding and it's quite an impressive number.  The likes of which have only been repeated in TNR. 

As I listened to Lee Craigie on Thursday advise that it's the day in / day out base that's most important with long distance riding, I hope that I've done enough base, even if it hasn't particularly been of the day in / day out nature.

I had every intention of going for a ride today but things got the better of me and in the end, it pays to be in control of fatigue going into the working week.  Maybe not totally in control but vaguely on top of it.

Elevation aside, I am mostly happy that I am now moderately comfortable on the bike as this will be key to all - feet, backside and cadence sorted.  I've tweaked cleats to get them to match and hope, that this week, I can finally - once and for all - put my demons and insecurities to rest.