Float like a cannonball

There used to be a time when I was intimately aware of the feedback from my body. I used to be able to ride up a climb able to gauge EXACTLY how much I had left in the tank, how many efforts I could afford to make before I would blow up, when I could go all out to reach the summit without cracking before the crest. Even now, despite not really doing enough to re-establish that connection, I’m still fairly well attuned to how much effort I’m putting out, how quickly I’m covering ground.

But there has NEVER been a time when this has applied to my running. It’s always been a painful endeavour, always feeling slow, perpetually a struggle. I’ve never been able to relax into my pace and think about going quicker, or slower, it has almost always been a case of running hard as I could – for as long as I could – and letting the actual speed take care of itself…

So, as I milled about waiting for the start of the Penistone 10k, I really wasn’t sure what was about to happen. I’d been training steadily, repeatedly shuffling up and down the longest hill in the village, but the inclines of Yorkshire are a bit different to the lumps and bumps of Essex. I had a secret weapon, my Garmin GPS, but my understanding of my lactate threshold is currently based on observations from 2011 and I’ve still not really got a proper understanding of how min/km pacing really feels…

On the basis that I wasn’t going to be troubling the podium, I didn’t push to the front of the start pen – rather loitered at the back hoping that I might get to pass a few people at the run unfolded. Across a sportsfield, then few a couple of short urban streets, then we set off for the quiet country lanes that made for the majority of the route.

Hilly is probably a bit of an understatement, the route was positively steep in some places, although mountainous is probably something of a stretch. So, after the initial exuberance that saw me cover the first couple of kilometres inside 10 minutes, I started to think about the section i’d already identified as key – the sharp (but relatively short) climb up to the high point of the course. With the summit neatly positioned at just over 5k in it was the perfect turning point – the course literally downhill from there – with just a couple of hundred metres of slight uphill at the end.

Running at a pace that felt doable – but uncomfortable – meant that I held onto the coattails of a group of runners ahead until the bottom of the climb. Then, as we headed skywards, there was the inevitable fracturing of the group – a few gazelle like individuals floated upwards – a couple of leaden legged individuals slowed to a walk – and, puffing and panting like an adenoidal steam engine, I steadily, but slowly, winched my way to the top.

Having focussed heavily on the challenge of the climb, it was a small shock to the system that I then had over 4k left to run. Clearly I had tipped slightly more effort into the climb than perhaps would have been wise. Thankfully I was able to relax my legs and allow gravity to give a hand – especially on the short section of 1 in 3 descent which must have contributed significantly to the fact that the 7th kilometre, with it’s 48m altitude loss, was the quickest of the race.

K’s 7-9 were along the Trans Pennine Trail and encompassed the pleasant surprise of a rubbery, faux tarmac, surface underfoot. I’m not sure whether the softness absorbed my effort, or added a spring to my step, but either way it was something of a relief from crashing downhill, heavy footed, on solid asphalt. By this point I was maintaining that semi-familiar feel that harked back to the few longer time-trials I have done on the bike: hurting, but clinging on.

Weaving back through a couple of turns on the roads back to the start/finish I finally overhauled a 60+ runner who was ahead of me. “I’m glad you overtook that old man at the end” said my mother afterwards…

Initially I’d hoped to have run under 55 minutes, although given the parcours I had decided I would be happy with anything within the 1 hour mark. So, as I entered the final couple of kilometres and began to calculate my likely finishing time, I was somewhat surprised to see I might crack 54 minutes. My heart rate race, steadily creeping upwards in the final kilometre, demonstrates the effort I put in. The official results show a finishing time of 53:49, although thanks to the unfortunately failure of the chip timing system, only me and Strava can verify my ‘start line to finish line’ time of 53:33.

Although my bike racing ‘career’ probably covers somewhere between 60-70 races over the years, I can count the number of running races I’ve entered on the fingers of two hands. So the Penistone 10k represents the 6th time I’ve officially ‘run a race’, and the first time I’ve raced over 10k. It was a pleasing result, on an enjoyable course, with good marshalling and organisation. Encouragingly, I can take confidence that perhaps I have reached a level of fitness where I can manage my running efforts, rather than suffer them. But best of all, I got a free T-shirt. I’m tempted to do more of this…

But for now the focus of my effort needs to shift. I’ve paid my entry fee for the Ronde Picarde – so I had better get pedalling…

In solitary…

I’ve had some time to ponder in recent weeks an issue that has been nagging at my mind for a while now. Glancing over the entry fee for the upcoming running race i’m aiming for was a gentle reminder: “Entry fee for UKA Member £12 and non-UKA members £14″…

A reminder that, in spite of the singular nature of running races (and – let’s be honest about the level I am likely to compete at – cycle races too), a strong tradition of club organisations exist around the sports I pursue.

In fact, a quick scan of the UK Athletics website gives no indication that it is possible to become a UKA member without joining an athletics club. Cycle time-trialling is equally prescriptive – I wouldn’t be able to race on The Mountain with being a member of a Cycling Time Trials club… For the Penistone 10K this distinction does not pose any problems – running appeals to the masses sufficiently to have arrangements fort the casual runner. But a comeback to cycle racing will require me to join a tribe…

At the peak of my fitness I had a certain perspective on the club setup – especially the weekly ‘club run’ that is the staple of every cycling club. As my fitness waned I unfortunately found that things weren’t always quite so supportive and collegiate as I had hoped and I became disillusioned with the club run. At the time I put it down to a frustration with the attitude of some of the people I found myself riding with – and with the local riding scene fairly small – I entered into self imposed ‘solitary’…

At the time I recalled a discussion I had had a few years earlier with a (particularly friendly and supportive) local rider:

Me: “I haven’t seen you at the Wobbly Wheelers 10’s recently?”

Him: “No. I’m boycotting them – I’ve only been riding them for about ten years, a few weeks ago I was a few minutes late for signing in – they just turned me away and acted like they didn’t even know me…”

Me: “Oh, that’s a shame.”

Him: “I’m not sure they’ve even noticed really. But I’m not going back any time soon!”

And it is in largely this position that I have found myself, after the galling experience of being unceremoniously dropped on a few club runs, sometimes by riders who in the past I’ve made a conscious effort to look out for…

As I’ve relocated gradually across the country I have been a member of a few different clubs and have a collection of gaudy lycra to prove it… From Alfreton CTC, via the Beacon RCC (unfortunately before the days of their uber-cool, commissaire troubling, ‘black’ kit), Stowmarket DCC, Colchester Rovers and VC Revolution, I am beginning to resemble a cycling Nicolas Anelka: much travelled, never settled – without even mentioning the year I was a member of Colchester Harriers

The reality of course is different, much less the petulant, highly skilled athlete, rather someone shifted arbitrarily around the UK by work, abiding by the unwritten rule that if you ride (or run) with a club you probably should join…

But the routine I have begun to adopt, in trying to squeeze training into daily life, is not drawing me naturally back towards any of my old associations. Group rides are largely off the table for me – at the moment I won’t benefit from spending 2 hours following wheels – i’m better off going it alone and doing some hard work. Even if I do reclaim some level of fitness I’m most likely to be targetting time trials before road races in the coming months – so group rides will be low down the ‘to-do’ list. And running enmasse has never really appealed to me either – not least because of my relative lack of ability – but also because it rather limits the ability to walk out of my back door and launch straight into a run…

So, sooner or later, I’ll need to make a choice. But for now I’m staying in solitary…

Back to my roots…

Well aware that I have not blogged any signs of activity since my last post a few months ago – I thought it was time to share the beginnings of my plans. This time it has been discussed in advance with my directeur sportif so will not provoke the sort of reaction that my recent “i’m going back to bike racing” revelation did….

Somewhere in a distant corner of my memory I have some brief flashes of my earliest involvement in a ‘proper’ sporting event. Not the brief glory of playing a 5-aside game on the hallowed Oakwell turf during the half-time break during a Football League match (although that is probably the closest I’ve ever been to sporting professionalism) but, aged 3, sitting in the back seat of my dads rally car, alongside a real ‘DS’*, leading out the field in a 10K running race.

The Penistone 10k road race was an annual event, coinciding with the annual Penistone Show – with the runners entering the show ground to cross the finish line. At the time my sporting interests were more along the lines of Kwik Cricket so I didn’t exactly follow the finer details of the event and life has subsequently taken me far away from the foothills of the Peak District. However, now that i’ve come to embrace the solitude of the endurance sports, it seemed only logical to tick my ‘home’ running race off the to-do list and, of course, take the opportunity to take my young family along to their first proper ‘agricultural show‘…

A quick bit of research led to the disappointing finding that the link between show and run has now broken, the 10k taking place at the end of June for the last few years. My young son will not get to see shaggy haired cows or the cut and thrust of a rural town homemade-jam-showdown. Nevertheless, I need something to aim at. So, with slightly less preparation than I had anticipated, I have resolved to get myself into decent running shape. A steady schedule of gradually increasing mileage has, just a couple of days ago, topped out at a fairly comfortable and reasonably paced 9.2k, albeit on a parcours so flat that the Romans chose it for a chariot race track a couple of thousand years ago…

So it’s definitely on. I’ll be competing again, for the first time in over a year. And once again, i’ll be racing against my own limitations, rather than anything else. And of course – against the arbitary target of ‘sub-1 hour’ which i’ve always attached to the 10k distance…

Perhaps I will try and get a snap with my boy standing next to the lead car – as I once did. More likely i’ll be distracted by the impending challenge that www.raceroutes.co.uk calls ‘undulating’ but I will of course reserve the right to describe as ‘mountainous’

Here’s hoping the next 5 weeks of training bring a bit more spring to my step – allow a few more pounds to drop off – and make the whole experience a bit more enjoyable. But in any event, it’s good to be back into the routine of training with a goal in mind

In the intervening 30 years i've come to look more like the man with the tie, and I now have my own little blonde chap to accompany me...

In the intervening 30 years I’ve come to look more like the man with the tie, and I now have my own little blonde chap to accompany me…

* After chatting to my dad it transpired that the chap I thought was a ‘DS’ was actually a member of the Penistone Footpath Runners who was operating the big clock that sat on top of the lead car. But he was bellowing encouragement at whoever was leading the race. So close enough I guess!

If you aim for the stars…

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt like writing on here. Life has changed immeasurably in the last two years, the once ubiquitous activity of bike riding has shuffled into the margins of my life, unceremoniously displaced by a new son, a new job and a new home. And irregular bursts of sports car construction

It was the task of packing the majority of my belongings for storage whilst moving into temporary accommodation (see ‘new home’ above) that really dragged at old memories. I’d forgotten how many jerseys, gloves, caps, shorts and base layers I owned. How many tubs of electrolyte powder were cluttering the top shelf in the pantry. How many hours I used to spend cycling…

But the thing that really reawakened old emotions was the complete lack of reading material in my new abode. I ended up reading the memoirs of the distasteful Tyler Hamilton and then, thanks to a local clubman advertising a clearout of his own collection of cycling literature, a couple of books on, the now even more distasteful, Lance Armstrong. My interest in professional cycling really grew through the early/mid-2000’s so I remembered watching some of the pivotal moments cited in The Secret Race and Seven Deadly Sins. Never mind that I was reading about them through the lens of doping exposure, in spite of it all it was still the romance of the phenomenal climbing exploits of the Grand Tour riders that struck the strongest chords…

And so it was with a heavy nod towards the drug-addled athletic efforts of some of the riders I *ahem* ‘admire’ the most that I decided it was time to set a few targets. Although life has definitely been getting in the way of my cycling the real crux of the matter has been the lack of something to aim for (to paraphrase another drug-cheat/cycling hero…). Of course this has largely been of my own making, although at the time I didn’t realise that my decision to quit racing would, by default, turn into a decision to (almost) quit riding altogether… And there was me thinking that I wasn’t a particularly competitive person…

And, on the basis that I need to have a goal in mind in order to bring purpose to my riding, I have decided it is time to take on a ride that has been looming in the background for too long. Although it seems hard to remember the time, when I first began to imbue the ethos of cycling, the most successful British cyclist wasn’t a track-rider turned (possible) Classics contender, or The Fastest Man on Earth (TM), but a brutally hard Nottinghamshire lad, who paid the ultimate price for his want to win. From the first time I read of the famous ‘lunar landscape’ of Mont Ventoux it seemed to be a place that embodied the most phemonenal physical performances, inspite of the tragedy ingrained in the place. Subsequently I came to understand the importance of Ventoux to le Tour which only served to underline the esteem in which I held the Giant of Provence.

Hence I have resolved to make an attempt on Mont Ventoux. Not necessarily in 2015, as I will try to incorporate the trip into a family holiday to the South of France, which may be better done when the aforementioned new son is a little older. But preparation will be in order if I am to make the most of riding a Tour climb, and as a result there will be purpose to each session on the bike.

There are also a few other goals which I’ve also decided to take on. Enough time has elapsed that the memory of the things I disliked about competing has faded and I am inspired once again to take on some local races. So in no particular order I will also work towards laying some ghosts to rest in the following: criteriums, time-trials, distance runs, some muddy stuff and, it goes without saying, the Mountain… Not necessarily all in 2015 but all of these will have specific targets attached to them. Of course I don’t have much hope of emulating the pro’s, but as they say: If you aim for the stars, you might just end up on the moon…

Ego and Insecurity

…Another post that has been sitting in the ‘draft’ folder for a LONG time – almost a year in fact…

An attempt at dissection of the psyche of a cyclist. The title alone suggests this might get a bit messy and, of course, like all attempts at psycho-analysis, it is highly possible that the words that follow will explain more about me, than anyone else… Gulp…

Where to start?

Cycling is a highly independent activity. Notwithstanding the fact that ‘bunch racing’ is the most commonly known kind of cycle racing, and that ‘club rides’ are the mainstay of the social side of cycling, it is almost inevitable that the majority of riding for most cyclists will be alone. A by-product of having a mode of transport as a sporting tool (even a group ride will be book ended by a few miles alone), a consequence of modern life (fit your riding in when you need to, not when others are available) or a necessity of training (you need to train in the best way for you, not the best way for someone else)…

As a result the average cyclist is free, independent and self sufficient. The behaviour that then ensues is liberating and empowering. Do I ride faster today? Yes – if I want to. Do I stop and go home earlier today? Yes – if I want to. Do I add on a few miles today, because i’m feeling epic? Yes – if I want to. Independence is a wonderful thing and nothing is better for escaping the trials and tribulations of everyday life than a few miles riding in the countryside – distracted by the rural surroundings, or in an urban environment – frantically trying to avoid death at the hands of homicidal motorists….

And, because this blog is all about racing – in case you were beginning to loose focus, in the competitive setting of a bicycle race independence and self sufficiency is required in spades. There are no prizes for waiting for ailing competitors and, certainly at the low level of amateur racing I occasionally dip a toe into, there is precious little benefit in even waiting for a club mate, despite the solidarity that the matching kit infers. So it is of no great surprise that a somewhat selfish mode of thought can be found in many competitive riders once they hit the start-line.

I will always remember the first race meeting I attended, Victoria Park in Leamington Spa. I had been assured that it would be a venerable crash-fest for 4th cat riders and, true to form, 15 minutes into my competitive debut I heard the scrape and thud of riders behind me colliding. Instinctively I twisted to see over my shoulder only to be instantly rebuked “DON’T TURN ROUND WHEN THERE’S A CRASH – YOU’LL HAVE US ALL OFF YOU STUPID T*&£$%£”…

Never mind my instinctive thought that the poor riders behind me could be lying bleeding on the tarmac, with bicycle components impaled in their chests: “what about me” was all the chap next to me could think…. Of course, he probably had a point and an attitude which would get him a long way in a race – the last thing a twitchy group of riders needs is someone not looking where they are going. But it just didn’t seem right to me somehow, and perhaps that’s been one of the problems i’ve had through out my (grandiosely termed) bunch-racing ‘career’… I’ve never been a cut-and-thrust kind of guy. Never been one to shut someone out of the line of riders when they are desperate to get some shelter. Never been one to lean on someone else to push them out of the space that I want to be in. Never been one to keep the speed high and thin out the bunch when other’s are suffering….

….on the club run……

….And there it is. The real point of this post. It’s about those times when the attributes that help you in the competitive environment come into play when they are least needed – the social, jolly, chummy, all-in-it-together, aren’t we a great bunch of chaps, setting: the club run… And why a rider would feel the need to turn something sociable into something competitive…

The lexicon of cycling is varied and mixed. Continental influences to the language abound: peloton, derailleur, souplesse. Some of the colloquialisms prompt muffled giggles: bonk, some are seemingly innocuous but describe despicable behaviour: flick, switch. And the dictionary of cycling does not leave us wanting when we look for a way to describe misplaced competitiveness, and it doesn’t even need dressing up in a foreign language:

“half-wheel or half-wheeler:

A rider that rides half a wheel in front of another on training rides and group rides. No matter how much the pursuer speeds up to keep up with him/her, s/he stays that distance ahead. Usually these people are frowned upon and less desirable to ride with.”

In events which I still cannot believe truly happened, not long after I started riding with my first club, I actually witnessed two grown men, probably in their 40’s if not their 50’s, almost come to blows about ‘half-wheeling’ during a club run. And they weren’t even doing it – one was just claiming that they’d have the ability to do it to the other if they were moving…

But why on earth would someone feel the need, during the relaxed sociable setting of a weekend club-run, to demonstrate their strength and ability in such an arrogant manner? Especially when the outcome is plain to see: one rider smug and gloating, one rider inevitably left behind when the pace rises too high…

An oft used reposte, often fired off at a lively legged companion showing exuberance during a group ride, gives us the context: “Feeling good are we? Why don’t you stick a number on your back then?“. It’s straightforward really – if you feel strong enough to hand out some pain to your companions – go and do it on race-day, when you are surrounded by people who’ve signed up for that experience. Of course, reticence often ensues, mumbled excuses are offered as to why putting pedals where mouth is not an option.

And, to give credit where credit is due, the in-form racing cyclists in any given club aren’t usually the worst offenders. For them the 40 odd miles of a club run is of no consequence and putting a bunch of MAMILs to the sword is not much of an achievement – they have bigger fish to fry come race-day. Sure, they might tear it up briefly on a climb, flex their muscles in a pre-determined sprint, or even give the group a hearty head start. But on the whole the fittest riders, who are well within their abilities,don’t tend to flaunt their strength – preferring to let their race results speak for themselves. It’s these guys that I respect the most.

So – why do some people feel the need to half-wheel? The title at the top of the page gives an indication as to where I fall on this one. It’s showing off. It’s arrogance. It’s a desperate need to prove your own worth, to show off, to be a ‘big man’. In fact it’s probably rooted in some fundamental self-perceived inadequacy….

It’s ego and insecurity.

I remember this…

Written back in December, before it all changed (but more on that when I can find the time)….

The night creeps in stealthily, before 3pm the skies begin to darken and the garden begins to drift into a dreary monochrome. Still air begins to chill, suddenly, and as I stand on the patio the tendrils of cold reach across the ground and up into my body. It’s Sunday evening – in the morning i’ll be back at my desk, too busy for cycling – so it’s not a hard decision to make – “I think i’ll pop out on my bike for a little while this evening darling, that OK?”….

With fatherly duties half discharged it’s 5pm before I retrieve my bike from the garage. Night has fallen now, and outside the road is a dusty grey, with an orange aura from the street lights highlighting the imperfections in the tarmac.

Through a lack of repetition the ritual of preparing for a ride is gradually deserting me, I sometimes find myself heading out  for a  ride without inner tubes, or water bottle, and on this occasion it is my eyewear that I have forgotten. It’s a strange feeling to have the air against my eye – having spent the last 25 years wearing glasses for everyday use and always teaming contact lenses with clear lens glasses – it’s like riding without a helmet, or without clipless pedals. Strangely I feel closer to my surroundings – more in contact with the elements…

As I head into the country lanes I fire up my bike light. Not the flimsy, pathetic glow, of the bike lights of my childhood, but a blazing modern LED lamp. The beam bounces from road signs two or three hundred yards up the road and illuminates my path perfectly. Unnervingly the beam is so intense it casts a heavy shadow in my peripheral vision, giving the constant impression of a gloomy figure pacing me throughout the ride…

As I toil up the first incline the beam sways and weaves across the road in front of me. My gaze focuses close to my front wheel – watching out for potholes or debris. As the road levels out I lift my head and begin to scan my surroundings. Riding near the coast limits the view in certain directions, but the strange paradox of night is that distant flickering lights belie the existence of hitherto unknown settlements. Across the estuary, hours away by bike, they seem so close I could almost reach out and touch them…

Steadily I  grind onwards, occasionally crossing busier routes where the steady stream of cars provides a pool of light,  but largely riding through silent,  darkened country lanes…

It’s incredible how awkward the body feels when doing something unfamiliar. And shocking how that can apply to something previously so intuitive. Previously I would throw the bike into a bend – a supreme confidence in my ability to navigate the turn – but now the subtle feedback from the changing road surface makes me nervous and cautious. Contact points with the bike become sore and ache far more quickly than they used to – the soreness of leg muscles progresses in tandem with aching neck and forearms.

In spite of this I have incredibly lucid moments of connection with a time that seems long ago. A clarity of recognition as I recall winter rides from previous years. The smell of the cold – the sting of cool drizzle on my face – the eerie quiet of a rural lane. Most satisfyingly – the biting chill of cold air into the lungs every time I make an effort up a climb. There’s nothing more satisfying than making an investment in training. For all that cycling can be a thankless master – never allowing you to be as quick as you’d like – it is fair in the rewards it provides: put in an effort this time, you’ll go a little quicker next time…

Call it sentimentality, call it nostalgia: being out ‘training’ feels good. It’s not enough to take me back to racing – or even to club rides (which is a whole other story) – but i’m certainly becoming more inspired to ride.

…Hang on a minute…

“No,  it’s not a race as such, I mean,  yes you are in a race,  but it’s not against the people around you,  that’s the beauty of it,  you’re only really racing  against yourself you see, trying to improve against your own standard…”

Well hang on a minute.  We’ve been here before. More than once.  And it always seems to play out the same way: what starts off as ‘just trying it out’, ‘ a bit of fun’, ‘ nothing serious’, gives way to a creeping investment in the toys and gadgets, a ‘ training schedule’  to back up grandiose plans  for a ‘season’  of competition and overblown hyperbole about the relative station of my achievements in the broader sporting pantheon

In fact, we may already be on that path already. The arrival of an excessively high-tech answer to the question: “How unfit am I?” arrived a few weeks ago – a spur of the moment purchase that i’ve only been considering for the last five years is a fair indicator…

But anyway, wherever this might end up doesn’t matter at this stage, providing some detail of the (re)start is the purpose of this post.

The record will show: Colchester Castle Park run – 16/11/13 – 5km – 25:21. Not too shabby by my own reckoning, considering that three months ago I was having to combine bursts of ‘running’ (heavy on the inverted commas – trudging may be more accurate a word) with regular periods of walking simply to cover the same distance…. 62nd of over 120 starters shows the result could not be more squarely positioned as ‘middle of the pack’, but at least it sets a standard to work from.

And the plan is to revisit the Parkrun every few weeks, not least because it is the most remarkable concept: free to enter, just log your details a few days before on the interweb and print a barcode, no need to sign in – or wear a race number, results emailled direct to you within a couple of days, event photos on the relevant Facebook page within a few hours, and endless encouragement from the kindly volunteers who direct you round the course. I still can’t get my head round it, but I am certainly not going to question it!