Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Nationalities Participating
France, Belgium, Scotland, England, Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Slovenia, Denmark, Spain, Italy, Poland, New Zealand, Sweden, Singapore, Luxembourg, Uganda, Australia, Japan.

"Vaujany" is definitely one of the most spectacular cyclosportives and perhaps one of the toughest. 173km and around 4000m climbing in a stunning environment with a veritable wall to scale at the end. Not that you get much time to look at any of this when you are focussed on either racing or surviving.

Allemont municipal camping site below the dam would be home for the night. Good choice! It would mean an early start and several kilometres riding to warm up, including climbing the dam, to get to the race departure at 7:15 in the morning at a small hamlet called Le Verney. The camp site was quiet and cost only 7 euros for the night. After registering there and putting up the tent in the allocated space it was around 6pm and that left plenty of time to drive up to Vaujany to collect the electronic timing chip for the race. Driving up there the unrelenting steepness was impressive - the whole way. This would be the final climb of the race and could present a serious problem.

Allemont is a small but attractive village on flat ground which is part of the plains of the Bourg d'Oissans valley. There was one small pub restaurant open in town and they had a sign up saying "Spaghetti Bolognaise 8.50 Euros. All hours! This is my sort of town! Sitting down to order I made acquaintance with another lone rider from Chamonix and then soon after was joined by my young neighbour from the campsite. Everyone was heading for a pre-race pasta feed - but to be honest there were not a lot of other cyclists to be seen. There were in total 664 participants but not many were eating out in Allemont. The company however made for a pleasant and interesting evening meal. On returning to the tent I cooked breakfast, cleaned up and brewed coffee to fill a thermos flask so that nothing would have to be done in the morning. Even the water bottles were filled and isotonic/protein mix added - the cool of the night preventing any risk of bacteria doing too much damage.

Earlier this week I'd noticed that having completely stuffed myself the night before a major workout I was able to get through the actual workout on a minimum of sugar and isotonic drinks. With this in mind I continued feeding myself until going to bed. Once again this strategy seemed to pay off perfectly the next day.


The campsite was wonderfully quiet but the sleeping bag was way too warm. The night passed restlessly feeling soaked inside the bag - even with it half open. This was also a concern regarding potential hydration issues during the race - especially as no thought was given to it first thing in the morning and the only drink consumed was coffee. The smartphone alarm was set for 5:30am but sweat did the job long before that. Pre-race nerves or adrenaline had already started to play their part the day before and sleeping is never as deep as usual in those situations. Eating the cold porridge/banana mix in the morning was hard work - but the coffee went down very nicely in comparison. The campsite facilities were close by. Such facilities make camping more attractive (in good weather) than spending the night in a van. Getting shaved, washed without difficulty and having clean toilets makes life easy. One great advantage of doing all the serious eating the night before is that there is no stomach discomfort through the start of the race. I'd mixed up some pre-race carbo loading chocolate breakfast but decided not to eat it. In the event this turned out for the best because the young neighbour had nothing to eat and so I offered it to him instead. I couldn't let him go to the race hungry knowing that I had all that uneaten food lying around.

Air temperature was quite low in the morning due to the clear sky at night causing heavy heat loss through radiation. Leaving at 6:30am in a tee shirt to ride to the start required a measure of self confidence to say the least, but there were many others doing the same: either a confirmation of sanity - or perhaps the opposite, I'm not sure which. Arriving at the start there was an official who directed me to another entry gate about several hundred metres away. On the way there others were coming back the other way - there were people going in all directions. Eventually, after arriving at the other entrance and attempting to enter there was another official who barred the way and told me to go back to the first entrance as it was for the long course. This explained why people were all over the place. Arriving back at the original entrance the first official tried the same routine again but this time I just ignored him and barged on through because there were only minutes left before the start - real chaos! This untimely distraction didn't leave a comfortable margin of time to get the gear properly sorted out. The Garmin Forerunner 305 had an extended battery pack mounted beneath it on the handlebars so that it would hopefully last the distance. The idea was to switch the pack on at some point to charge the Garmin for about an hour. Eventually this charging was started 3 hours into the race and it worked perfectly keeping the Garmin going strong to the end. The smartphone was also logging everything with the GPS and 3G running sending all the data direct to internet in real time. This was partly a test to see if it would last the race on its own battery. (It did last a full 8 hours! Then died completely when I tried to make a call.) First attempt to get the Endomondo app running saw it fail to log heart data, but on re-starting the heart data was there. Unfortunately it went unnoticed that it immediately stuck at 95bpm for the entire rest of the workout! Had there not been such a disorganisation by the officials causing time to run out this would definitely have been spotted and the functioning properly verified. The idea is eventually that the app and smartphone take over from the Garmin  - but for the time being it's still best to have both.  The real time internet data will allow progress on future events - such as the Marmotte and Etapes to be followed by friends and for them to send audio feedback - hopefully in the form of encouragement. Regardless of this glitch Endomondo did give audio split times every kilometre for the entire race - which is very useful - especially when you feel that you are really struggling and then you hear a reasonably good time for the last kilometre. Sometimes your own perception is not accurate so it's like having a personal coach. Only one earbud was used so there was no isolation from other cyclists. It was tempting to put music on to ease the pain and discomfort of climbing or to drown out the internal negative dialogue - but somehow that just didn't seem right. One guy did overtake me however on the final climb with his own personal disco booming out of his pocket!

Final Climb to Vaugany

The Race
Early in the evening before the race I’d driven around the departure area to become familiar with it, eventually locating the local parking area which would obviously be jam packed the following morning. For the moment it only had one occupant – a small car with a bike in it. Saying hello to the occupant it was clear that he was glad to find someone to talk to for a moment and he proceeded to explain to me the entire course route with its difficulties, dangers and the mistakes to avoid. The start was a 20km descent followed by a 15km steep climb up to the station of Alpe du Grand Serre. Basically the start would be really dangerous and there would be crashes to avoid and then it was important to avoid going too hard on the first climb – though practically everyone would! His advice was accurate – along with a stack of detail that he provided regarding dangerous corners on the descents. He was planning to set up a tent there overnight and to stash it away in the morning - camping wild being illegal in France. His logic was good because he would be on location for the start – but I preferred the comfort and security of the campsite and village.

Starting off in the race I remember saying to myself to take it easy because it was going to be a really hard day. Next thing my heart rate was almost maxing out in the battle to stay with the peloton. So much for good intentions. Everything said the evening before fell into place and every avoidable error was made almost joyfully.  After a while I found myself in a group dropped by the main leading peloton which disappeared  ahead with the security vehicles. The pace in this group was still good, but eventually the group fractured and we were forced to fight to re-form. It was a real battle to avoid getting dumped even more. People were jockeying for position left, right and centre and surprisingly we caught up with the front peloton again 15km later after averaging 60kph over a few kilometres. The sight of being in the main peloton again with the security escort 20km after the start was impressive and beautiful. While remarking on this and enjoying the view as well as taking a well-earned breather being sucked along in the peloton there was a cry of alarm ahead and the bikes separated like a wave exposing a victim still rolling on the ground and another bike at the side of the road with the bushes shaking where the rider had vanished into them. I’d anticipated this because the peloton had suddenly narrowed slightly to accommodate oncoming traffic on the wide main road – but it was a big peloton with too many people crossing over onto the oncoming traffic lane. Trouble and falls were inevitable.

My main concerns however were more personal - namely, that my legs might not have recovered from the major 230km workout and subsequent 5 days recovery prior to this race. Energy levels had been seriously low only a few days earlier. Plan B was to bail out after the first loop (there were two sections) and complete only the short course if there was a problem. Straight away I knew there was no problem – the legs were 100% and only fitness would limit performance. This was a serious result already!

The first climb of the day up the Alpe du Grand Serre was fast and after 10 km of climbing the average speed so far was an amazing 31kph (Endomondo audio feedback!) – which considering the severity of this climb was a crazy figure despite the gradual descent at the start of the race. Warnings had been given about not doing this, but they were not heeded by many. Part of the fun of racing is racing! If you get dumped at the start you can’t really race at all because you are on your own plodding the whole way. I’d decided to race through the first 110km loop and then kick back a bit on the additional loop which was added for the long course. I wanted to get my heart rate up and battle hard through the main section to get the maximum training effect from it. The climb was made noticeably easier because of losing 5kg in weight over the past few months. One of this day’s objectives was to lose another kilo. (It worked - weighed in at 69.0kg this morning) To be a properly good climber I’d need to lose another 9kg but this would also create a really “haggard” look so it might not be a great idea. The young neighbour in the campsite weighed only 60kg and was very good in comparison. He finished in 6:30hrs but this was slow for him because his legs were already very tired from having climbed a couple of big cols the day before the race. He was still about 90 minutes ahead of me!

The high valleys and pastures around the mountain range we were now circumnavigating after the Alpe du Grand Serre were varied and constantly interesting. I was in a continually breaking and re-forming fast peloton the whole way until the final steep section of climbing before the big descent down to Bourg d’Oissans. At the 82km mark on this climb my legs started to hurt and the only option was to back off with the effort, depressingly, letting the others go for the first time today. I frequently appear have leg trouble between 80 to 90km, though oddly, it usually passes after that, perhaps because of being forced to slow down a bit and recover. The descent towards Bourg d'Oissans was steep and dangerous with vertical cliff faces dropping thousands of feet over the edge. One rider overtook me and then on a tight bend misjudged it and lost grip with his back wheel. Fortunately the tyre caught itself and gripped just in time to stop him going down. He was shaken for a few minutes but then regained confidence. Eventually we formed a group of five good descenders and stayed together to the bottom to then form a bigger and faster peloton to traverse the long straight plateau against the wind at around 40 kph. Organisation of our group along this straight was impressive – one long line with the front guy peeling off to the outside each few minutes and slipping back to the end. Perhaps 10 people working in unison and turning a long hard slog into a very fast and efficient passage. Not a word was spoken by anyone – everyone knew what to do despite the completely international nature of the group.

Click to expand.... (altitude profile, heart rate and speed against time)

Arriving back at Allemont at the end of this first loop the bifurcation between short and long course came up to greet us. The little voice inside the head was saying “Take the short one – your legs are already cooked completely”, but some higher conscience (or stupidity – take your pick) insisted on continuing on the long course – starting with a formidable climb directly to Alpe d’Huez ski station. Much of the time up until now my heart rate as indicated on the Garmin had been well in the red – so there was no way that this sort of effort level could be sustained and there was no mistaking the discomfort, leg and body pains that goes along with this. It was time to lift the foot off the gas pedal and find a sustainable rhythm that might let the pain in the legs recover a bit. Pain isn’t the most worrying thing. The real worry is that perhaps you will run out of strength completely or that the legs might cramp up and stop working involuntarily. The long back-road climb up to Alpe d’Huez was a continual slog but during this period it became clear that the legs could cope. I’d been focussing on using core muscles actively the whole day – but found that this was hard to do – indicating that overall energy levels were perhaps not at their very best. Each time the gradient seemed to be too steep I could either get up off the saddle to stretch the legs or stay seated but dig deep into the core muscles – both work. Temperatures were now climbing faster than we were but one advantage of approaching Alpe d’Huez was that the air was getting cooler at altitude. The Macot-La Plagne shirt I was wearing has a full length zip and that was excellent because it opened all the way down and having the shirt fully open makes a really big difference to cooling. I'd only buy a shirt now with a full length zip.

Climbing from Alpe d’Huez to the Col de Sarenne at 2000m altitude was rough. The road was terrible – a real mess and dangerous. The final stretch up to the col was steep and straight and this is where people started to openly crack for the first time today. While I was slowly recovering from earlier exertions through keeping a moderate pace others were now cracking completely and stopping. Nobody was actually walking yet though. Descending from this col was a real nightmare. Not only were there deep trenches crossing the road for water run off but there was fresh gravel everywhere. This was a road made for mountain bikes not road bikes with skinny tyres at 120psi. You could tell if riders knew what they were doing because if they did then they didn’t slow down for the obstacles but kept speed to ensure getting through. Momentum really helps – despite being scary. Arriving eventually at properly smooth tarmac it was a great relief to very tired arms, neck, upper back and blistered hands, but it was still very steep with sharp hairpin bends so there was hard breaking all the way down to the dam, eventually rejoining the main road there. A couple of guys passed me but I let them go to permit more recovery from the last climb and the legs didn’t want to cooperate too much anyway. After a lot of descending we returned to the valley floor and once again ended up on the amazingly long straights directly into the wind. The guys who passed during the descent – or rather during small climbs between parts of the descent – were now specks in the distance so it was now just me against the wind and the prospect of a long hard and tiring slog – but then someone appeared at my side. Slipstreaming for a while brought great relief and gave the legs and body some time to adapt to working again at a faster pace. When my human wind-shield pulled out to let me take over I was both physically and mentally recovered and ready for it. Perhaps I’d pulled in front for about 5 minutes when we reached a major roundabout with several exits but no signs for the race. I continued around but the guy in my slipstream went straight on – and while I was faffing around trying to figure things out the next guy appeared and also went straight on. Breaking all the rules of the highway code I then rode around the roundabout the wrong way up against oncoming traffic to get back on track – already 500m behind the other two who had joined up together. This was a critical moment because there was still a long way to go against the wind so I dug deep with the core muscles and went after them - aided by a shallow incline slowing them down a bit. Heart rate was quickly back up to 167bpm and within a couple of minutes they were caught so I could rest behind them for a while and recover. Energy spent catching them would easily be compensated for on the long flats ahead. We averaged around 35kph along the flats this time – a bit slower than the previous time through this section (shared by the two different loops) but not bad because the wind was higher and we were much more tired and less numerous. Along the way a few other riders were collected, arriving at Allemont again in a small peloton ready to attack the final climb together. It was a bit like playing cat and mouse with people for most of the second stage of the course. Everyone by this stage of the game finds themselves close to other people of a very similar performance level – so you keep on passing and then being passed by the same people. I was well organised with drinking and eating, only having to fill one bottle at each second drinks station and drop a couple of isotonic tablets into the water, taking seconds altogether at each stop (The isotonic "Isostar" tablets were wrapped in tin foil in my pocket - to protect them from sweat but to make access very quick). Some people would pass me climbing and grind on ahead then seem to stop for ages at the refreshments so I’d pass them again – and this would happen over and over. The guy who dumped me at the roundabout earlier was a clear case of this. When we got to the final climb up to Vaugany he just left me behind – but later on he stopped for drinks and this time when I passed him he never caught me again because I was able to dig in and accelerate a bit towards the end – plus there was enough water in my bottle to see me through the final kilometre. I'd consumed small gels from tubes during the race and put the empty tubes in the pocket holding a spare air tube and high pressure CO2 kit. The tubes had continued to leak with sugary gel and everything was glued together by the end of the race - but at least I hadn't littered the road with rubbish!

The final climb was fearsome – averaging 10% over 5km and as hot as a furnace. People were dropping like flies on this climb. The further up the mountain you got the more people there were walking or just hanging over stationary bike frames at the side of the road. I’d been worried earlier on that this might be my fate too but on the contrary there was plenty in reserve and once again I could dig deep into the core muscles or get up off the saddle to stretch and breathe. There was never any danger of stopping. Right at the bottom of the climb an older rider (at least mid 60s) came along side and talked out loud about how tough this was going to be. He had a pot belly and was small, thickset and with a little moustache. Not only was it surprising to see him at all, but then he just cheerfully said "bon courage" and vanished up the hill in front of me! Disturbing! I can understand a slender 30 year old doing that but this was a real surprise. I later heard that Jenny Longo at age 52 came second in the French national road championship again - she will be in the Olympics again for sure. Cycling turns the rules upside down. Towards the top I started reeling in some of the guys who had passed me earlier on so that was a good sign. On the other hand there were some guys really flying up the hill. Where they came from I’ve no idea but they must have been saving their energy for the end. I was happy to have raced properly hard early on and then stretch myself beyond perceived limits regardless of getting a less than optimum result as a consequence. It was certainly better overall training this way. Getting off the bike at the end didn’t feel as horrible as it used to even on the short races - the legs were fine and there was no breathlessness. There were perhaps about 20 minutes of feeling generally hammered but nothing specific. I used this time to get food and sit down on a bench to eat it. The food was inedible rubbish and the bench had no back to it so it was unpleasant. In compensation though everyone at the table was very friendly and communicative and it was only then that the real international level of participation came clear. Sitting opposite was a New Zealander, next to me were Germans and then English and French.

 The utterly CRAP "sportcommunication.com" after-race food! (I didn't eat it)

Overall placing 223 out of 405 finishers
Age category placing 35 out of 80
Time 07:55:53 (first place 05:35:51, last place 10:54:24)
Overall speed at end of the first loop was 27.3kph and for whole event 21.81kph

After Race
With fantastic summer weather and the friendly family atmosphere of the event I managed to hang around the finish area and meal tables just relaxing and recovering for a couple of hours. Cycling back down from Vaujany to the campsite at Allemont I didn't anticipate the sight of so many people who still hadn't finished - walking, struggling on the bike, standing still or sitting on embankments to try to get some energy back for the ferocious climb. The heat was probably even worse by now so they were seriously suffering. I find it hard to comprehend the winner arriving 02:20 hours in front of me - but somehow have no trouble identifying with those trailing 2 to 3 hours behind me! 

In Allemont my neighbour in the campsite was dozing on the grass and despite his 06:30 approx time he said that he didn't enjoy the race because of being too tired. He had a bit of a headache now. I always get a headache after this sort of level of exertion so it was encouraging to hear that others do to - even fitter people than me.

The Day After
To my great surprise the morning after the race I felt great - no fatigue and no headache. Even the legs felt great if just a little bit tired. Later on I verified this by going out for a trail run on the usual circuit (6km with 900ft climb) and knocked over 4 minutes off my best time running "barefoot" style - down to 32 minutes now. The run felt great! During the fast descent I could feel the hamstrings a bit which is unusual for me but probably ties into this way of running. It's the first time that I've really felt like I was properly running since changing technique completely. Coordination is now getting good enough to be able to look for a little speed. The feeling is great - just running on thin Vibram Five Finger Bikila's - even off-road. I discovered that you really can't "pump" with your arms when coordinating this because your body goes into total confusion if you do. The impulse has to come from the core muscles and the intention to pull the leg through from behind. This 32 minute run did more to tire my legs out though (due to going faster than usual and forcing muscle adaptation) than the marathon bike race! Running is such an enjoyable way to "recover" from cycling - but only when using the calves to absorb the landing and running with "barefoot" mechanics.

A really great day and excellent event - much better than the Marmotte (which is next week!). It is amazing to find that despite long training sessions and races that recovery is actually dramatically improving instead of leading to over-training.

Things I'd forgotten
Pillows. Head torch. To apply bum protection cream before the race!
The bum surprisingly survived despite the heat, sweat and distance. The torch was solved by downloading an app on the smartphone enabling its LED camera flash light to be used as a full continual torch beam - it was excellent and I read for a while with it too. The phone was on charge all the time from a back up USB battery pack so it would still be at 100% for using GPS in the race.

Duncan Gross the New Zealander I met at the end or the race will be posting headcam video footage of the race on his blog - switchbackpublications.blogspot .com

Friday, June 24, 2011

Chi (cken) Run

Doberman Damage
Scar where the hole has healed and big lump to the left where the stupid animal didn't manage to cut me. Glad I'm not in America because I'd have a gun and use it.

Chi (cken) Run
Tuesday - the day after the Chicken Run was predictably anything but normal. Getting out of bed at 3:55am meant even regardless of physical fatigue the day was unlikely to be very productive or energetic.

Wednesday - the body was ready to go for a run in the evening. Running seems to use different muscles so it's still possible to work out correctly whereas a bike ride would definitely not have achieved very much.  This is the main reason why people like to "cross train" because the cardiovascular system itself is not tired.

Setting out on the usual 6km mountain trail it started to rain slightly, but the water was welcome - it can be refreshing when running as opposed to nearly always being a problem on a road bike. I've always enjoyed running in the rain and even mountain biking is fun because you can wear a reasonable amount of protective clothing. In fact one of the joys of both running and mountianbiking is getting thoroughly drenched and covered in mud. The run started with the focus mainly on maintaining a high cadence of over 180 strides/min and going though a check list for what all the body parts were doing - either individually or in relation to each other. Tiredness made it a little difficult to maintain good form to begin with, but this new way of running is amazing in that it actually energises you. Soon the tiredness had vanished and I was amazed to find myself ahead of the previous best time - getting audio feedback from the Endomondo app each kilometre split. 

About half way up the climb suddenly another piece of the jigsaw puzzle fell into place. The arm swing started to make sense in that the elbow is forced backwards instead of the hands forwards. This backwards push of the arm links to the psoas pulling the leg forwards from behind the body (on the same side) - acting as a counter force through the midsection. Once again everything is coordinated through the core muscles. I'd never felt this before yet it is a very clear feeling. It only happens because the leg is behind and the arm ahead - which is probably why if you run with your legs going out in front of the body you don't make this connection. Occasionally the coordination became completely muddled and the outcome was quite funny - a spontaneous shuffle more like an uncontrolled spasm. The shuffle was so unexpected that it had me giggling to myself - especially at the absurdity of being unable to even coordinate basic bipedal locomotion. For the rest of the climb and all of the descent it was possible to focus on this connection though the core muscles and specifically the abdomen. Once focus was clearly on the abdomen it was then possible to release the relax the hips - exactly as described in the "ChiRunning" book. The feeling, probably enhanced by gravity on the descents, of increasing speed though greater relaxation instead of effort, couldn't be clearer.

Personally I don't like the "Chi" concept because it is constantly described in terms of "energy" which is patently false. The concept of energy only came into current Western language from ancient Greek during the Industrial Revolution, being necessary to give a name to things that could be quantified and measured. There is no such thing by definition as an "energy" that can't be measured so there is no mysterious energy that is only perceived by the wise and informed. If we transport ourselves back several thousand years though and think about this - then "Chi" is only a word that encompasses the basic chemical, electrical and mechanical phenomena that we can explain now - but with an emphasis on the mystery of how to channel this most efficiently and counter-intuitively through the body. If understood in this manner then the word "Chi" is vastly superior and more enlightening than our mechanistic terms which were designed for steam engines and factories. We basically have very poor perception of our bodies and only a small percentage of people even begin to explore beyond those limitations - so "Chi" would be a nice way to open up this process if it hadn't inherited an enormous baggage of irrelevant superstition and religious belief along with it. If all of this is kept in mind then I highly recommend "ChiRunning" as an extremely insightful and useful book. The only caveat that I have is that the author's emphasis on "midfoot" landing is probably only due to the fact that he wears wedged running shoes - and if he was on flat shoes his forefoot would hit the ground first. Gordon Pirie describes the forefoot landing perfectly and I've linked to him in an earlier posting (use the search tool on the top right of the page).

In the event, regardless of tiredness my time over the 6km was improved by 3 minutes. This also confirms that it isn't a question of strength but of relaxation - because my legs were worn out as would be demonstrated the following day.

Bike workout!
Thursday - 30 seconds into this workout and it was clear that the legs were still completely hollow. I felt great but there was no strength at all. The Endomondo coach feedback was giving me a kilometre by kilometre report of how far behind the scheduled time I was dropping - eventually finishing in 1:48hr a full 19:34mins slower than usual. The interesting thing was that focussing on core muscles and movements meant that it all felt pleasant and there was no demoralising struggle - just the impossibility of accelerating.

Friday - only today the DOMS from the fast run on Wednesday are starting to come through. That's a good thing but also explains part of the general tiredness experienced yesterday. The DOMS are mild and will recover before the big race on Sunday - but whether my overall energy levels recover or not remain to be seen. Today and Saturday will be complete physical rest with a focus on eating. Weighed only 69kg after the bike ride yesterday (despite hydrating correctly) so need to to get some carbs back in the muscles now for Sunday - 173km and 4000m climbing - with 30+°C forecast!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Chicken Run - Solo

Bad weather predicted, feeling tired and ill on Saturday - decided to cancel racing at Morzine on Sunday. Mistake! Woke up to sunshine and feeling good! Rats! 

Barefoot Running Improvement.
Decided to take advantage of the situation to go for another "barefoot" style run. The last one on Monday had given me 5 days of DOMS due to accelerating a bit but that had now recovered. The relative rest during the week due to bad weather must have been doing me good because without trying I slipped into nasal breathing straight away and maintained it throughout the run. Working on avoiding lifting the knees up in front and only lifting the feet up behind the body I found that for the first time ever it was possible to sustain a cadence of over 180 strides per minute. Basically the required low stance with flexed knees only happens naturally if you avoid lifting the knees up in front of the body - then this feels correct - without even feeling low. It's just really avoiding stretching the leg out in front of the body. In the event it felt like running slower - or pedalling a bike in a lower gear - but amazingly the overall time was over a minute faster than last Monday when I had actually tried to speed up! Despite going faster this time there were no pains and no DOMS. That sounds like progress. This time I'd run in the lighter Vibram Five Fingers and appreciated the greater sensitivity than the Merrells - which helps feel better how the feet are landing on the ground - the feedback is clearer.

Chicken Run
Savoie is shaped by its great valleys into the shape of a chicken. The toughest route around this chicken is to cut its head of by cutting over the Col de la Madeline. Despite running I was still feeling frustrated at developments during the previous week so decided to motivate myself to do this monster solo workout over 230km (148miles) and at least 4,000m climbing. Good weather presented a good opportunity.

Glaciated wilderness at 9,000ft on the Col de l'Isèran

Off The Scale
I'd meant to get up early and set off giving plenty of time to complete the route - but didn't drag myself out of bed until 8:30am! Everything had been prepared so it was only a question of eating breakfast and getting out the door - but for such a big day it was a late start and not ideal. Such a monster workout is a bit daunting - especially setting out on your own with no support or backup - let alone setting out late. The two mountain passes (Cols) I'd be going over are rated "Hors Categorie" in racing - meaning "off the scale".

Clothing and Gear
Basically you want to get out the door with everything you need in your pockets and nothing else. Air temperature would be low in the shade so I had an extra T-shirt, arm covers, wind/rain layer and that's it. In my pocket was the Android phone running Endomondo and the Garmin unit was mounted on the bike. There was also a small extra USB battery in a pocket for charging both of them on the go. I set up the phone to have the right volume for MP3 playing and audio feedback of the split times from Endomondo. Other than credit card, some cash and CO2/tube kit, the pockets were filled with sports food supplements to eat along the way - and a couple of Carbo/protein powders to add to water refills. Everything was correct for the day and while it was boiling hot in the valleys it was freezing at high altitude - but never unbearable.

Col de la Madeleine PB
Setting off I spotted another cyclist dressed in Bourg St Maurice colours about half a kilometre ahead. 20 kilometres or so later he was still the same distance ahead but then disappeared from view. The Col de la Madeleine is a 26km climb and very tough. At 7km from the top, on rounding a bend, there was the cyclist from Bourg - struggling. His legs had gone! That particular kilometre is steep and there is another killer at 4km from the summit. The poor guy was reduced to a crawl and by the time I was close to the summit he was about 3km behind. My goal was just to work on form - keeping focussed on using the core muscles to avoid lactic acid build up in the legs. I noticed when passing the other cyclist that his core was being held rock steady and he was looking for power from his legs only - power that wasn't there and probably never will be. Despite pacing myself for the long haul and keeping my heart rate max to around 155bpm I ended up with a personal best time for this climb and went under 2 hours for the first time. 

Technology Limits
Stopping at the top of the Col to put on layers for the descent I must have done something to the telephone because although the sports tracking stuff and music continued (later also photos) the communications died completely without my knowing. There had been several attempts to contact me during the day but I was oblivious to this. This is where this amazing technology hits its current limits!

Maurienne Valley
At the bottom of the descent I stopped to refill a water bottle at the fountain right at the junction with the main road up and down the valley. From this point it is basically an amazing 100km climb right to the top of the 9000ft Col de l'Isèran - with a few additional bumps in between. The valley floor from Saint Jean de Maurienne to Saint Michele de Maurienne is one extended "faux plat" climbing all the way and having experienced this before I was wise to it! The temptation is to attack and accelerate along this stretch, but when another cyclist overtook me I just let him go. The "Marmotte" race uses this section of road too and last year I made the mistake of pushing hard along this section - to then find myself completely wasted at the bottom of the Cols de Telegraph and Galibier! It's not that you go mad here it's just that you don't realise that it's climbing and it catches you out by draining you. It's very illusive. 

The scenery along the sides of this valley is simply stunning - really wild and dramatic with shear and spectacular, impossible looking rock faces . I would have loved to spend time taking photographs but knew there was no time available for that. A car trip will have to be taken just for the camera. 

All the water was gone on reaching Modane which was now in Haute Maurienne territory and looking incredibly similar to Haut Savoie territory which lies on the other side of the Col de l'Isèran. No public watering spots seemed to be available so I was forced to stop and ask a bar to fill the bottles - and of course buy a Coke to keep them (and me) happy. I sat down for 5 minutes to drink the coke and was amazed at how much this allowed my legs to recover. For some weird reason I find that my legs go though a period of pain around the 90km mark and this disappears later on. The short break more or less got rid of the pain that had been with me for several kilometres now. The pain is mainly in the quads and this isn't a problem when the legs are loaded when climbing - it's more when there is less load that there is an issue. Working the core muscles I was able to overcome the problem and not let it slow me down.

The Col de l'Isèran
1700m altitude and approaching the long straights leading into Bonneval at the the foot of the steep 13km climb up to the Col, this was the moment I was waiting for. Rats again! There was suddenly a powerful headwind belting straight down the valley turning the beautiful long flats into a hard slog where careful focus on core muscle use was once again required. Well on my way to drinking a record 7 bottles of liquid in a day I was forced to buy an expensive coffee in Bonneval to have the water bottles refilled. Again, no time was wasted and the sweetened coffee was probably not a bad move for what lay in store. All the way since the first Col I'd been eating isotonic jelly "drops" to top up my blood sugar levels and still had a few left for the climb. This was still only one small packet for the whole day - so not a lot altogether. I'd mostly relied on the original powder in the drinks bottles and then two additional sachets that I'd added to refills. There is no doubt that this was correct feeding because at no point did my energy dip and there was actually a progressive increase in heart rate over the 8.5 hours of climbing. If you get it wrong and start to bonk then the first sign is that your heart rate dives and won't come back up again.

Climbing the Col the wind grew in force and this made the final 7km very hard work. I passed one Italian guy climbing with his bike laden with luggage and he didn't respond at all to my "boujour", probably not out of rudeness but due to being focussed as if his life depended on it. The final 2km has a few short stretches where the gradient hits 12% but this felt more like 24% with the powerful headwind. It's the closest I've come yet to having to dismount and walk. Frantically, on each blast of freezing air, I'd look to see if by some miracle another gear had materialised for me to drop down into. Ultimately there was no solution other than to slog it out and focus on good form. At the summit I quickly sought shelter from the freezing blast of air forcing it's way over the Col and took the photo of the bike with the glacier right behind the Savoie flag (red and white). There was no hanging around here due to the cold so clothing layers were put on quickly and the descent started. This part of the Col - descending to the Signal cable car is always terrible - summer or winter. I liken it to a localised "Bermuda Triangle" where all your equipment goes crazy and the micro climate has a life of it's own. On reaching Val d'Isère (1800m) my feet were like blocks ice and it took more than an hour until they thawed out properly in the valley below. The cold and tiredness from climbing combined at this point to make it the most uncomfortable period of the day.

Leaving the chain of tunnels linking Val to Tignes I had just about recovered from the low spell of cold and exhaustion. The rest of the trip home was more of a blur than anything else and I was surprised to find it relatively easy maintaining good form and use of the core muscles. 

Arriving home it was still possible to smile but it felt better on the bike that off it! 20 minutes of lying down sorted this out. Stomach complaints had started towards the end and water had seemed to worsen them - but a few bites to eat seemed to calm this down. I'd risked using new NorthWave cycling shorts and they had felt incredibly comfortable with no bottom pain the whole 10:15hrs on the bike. The only physical problem encountered all day was a cramp - of the jaw! The jaw had apparently been clenched during a climb and must have been overdoing it. Later on in the evening sleep came easy but didn't last long. There was a weird recurring dream that I was software programmed to turn onto different parts of my body and that certain things would happen if I didn't. Eventually at 3:55am I gave up that lark and got out of bed, head remaining fuzzy until about midday - the same as the day after a big race. I'd like to know what causes the headache - probably a lactic acid issue - but extra sugar during the effort seemed to clear it up during the workout. 

I used the extra battery to keep the phone running but at Modane it was still at 63% and may have lasted the whole way. In the event the Gramin died at the top of the Col de l'Isèran - very annoyingly. Endomondo however was impressive. The only snag with it was when exporting the ".tcx" file to bring into SportTracks analysis software. When stationary for any reason during the workout the data recording had been paused and this is accounted for in the Endomondo software - but it fails to export the pauses in the ".tcx" files. Other than that Endomondo was great for motivation through clear and accurate audio feedback the whole way.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Pelvic Tilt on the bike!

Could not get my heart rate up on the bike today - not a good sign. Hope I'm not coming down with something. Had a day off yesterday too so it can't be due to tiredness.

Tried out a new app "SportyPal" that works with my Sony Xperia Arc and it was reliable on the first outing - but obviously has a long way to be developed yet. It seems a bit more professional than Endomondo but the caloric count was totally wrong.

Click on the white band on the right hand side and statistics slide out...

The only information going some way to describing the use of the core muscles that I have found is copied here from John Howard who won the 1981 Ironman, 14 USA national cycling championships and was a three-time Olympian...  
Quote: "When the brake hoods are too low, one has to reach with the forearms in a straightened position, thus lifting the head, tilting the pelvic girdle back and locking up the core muscles. If the hoods are too high, the body is pushed too upright. When we achieve good hand and back positioning, the elbows flatten out naturally, and the head drops a couple of inches. With the proper angle of bent elbows we start to get good spinal lordotic and kyphotic curves. The pelvic girdle then tilts forward instead of back. This pelvic tilt is critical. When the butt is up, the back flattens. This allows us to access the all-important core group.

The core muscles are the forgotten movers in cycling. Most racers basically train only the gluteals, hamstrings and quadriceps. By isolating and strengthening the abdominals, obliques, erector spinae and quadratus lumborum muscles, cyclists can gain more power along with the ability to sustain it for a much longer period of time. (See Low Back, pt. 3, in the March, 2002 UltraCycling. Ordering back issues ) In climbing, we teach our athletes to keep their elbows bent, to flatten the back, and to slide back in the saddle. This produces a stronger, more efficient pedalling stroke. By strengthening the ancillary core muscles, cyclists delay the onset of lactic acid buildup in the primary muscles. This functional position starts a whole new series of events, including more efficient breathing and the consequent activation of the parasympathetic nervous system

Basically this describes the same process that I found allows me to access my core muscles. The bottom slides back on the saddle - flattening the back and allowing the pelvis to tilt down at the front - rocking forward on the seat bones perched on the back of the saddle. This aligns the lower back (more horizontal) so that it can rotate internally and the core muscles can be used dynamically. If the pelvis is tilted backwards and the lower back somewhat vertical then you can't get this rotation of the spine because the legs are going up and down not back and forwards. The only way you could get the lower back to rotate slightly when held vertical is if you were on a recumbent bicycle with the pedals ahead of you. 

Normally the core muscles are considered to only be used statically - that is - everything remains rock solid stationary and blocking as the legs use this block of concrete to work against. I think that this is a mistake.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Core Power or "Absorbed by Fat - the Elusive Properties of Training"

The Elusive Properties of Training
Over the past few months of working on fitness I can't say that there have been many moments where it has felt good. Most of the time it has been painful and difficult. Sometimes you have to ask yourself why you are doing this.

Occasionally there are some brief, very good sensations - glimpses at what just might be to come. Whether it is this small window towards the future, driving motivation - or whether it is just some form of blind faith - I don't really know. No doubt whatever it is, it is underpinned by hormones. Perhaps because I got fat over winter it has robbed me of much positive feedback from all the hard work. All the effort has been absorbed by the fat. Only now are there some slightly longer, stronger, more frequent positive physical feelings starting to appear. Feelings of power, speed , energy and being alive - instead of half dead.

What's great is that those feelings are not the exclusive property of youth, they are the elusive properties of training. 

Building on Experience
Saddle Height
Yesterday, building on Sunday's experience from the tough Mégève race I went for a shorter training ride to see if the same feeling of smooth power could be reproduced. Recognising that last year the real performance improvements had taken place when the saddle was raised higher and the pull-up on the pedal increased, I took the risk and raised the saddle 5mm. Riding with the saddle high last year had hurt my back - causing significant pain for a few months and a worrying start to the ski season - so any decision to raise the saddle has to be considered very carefully.

Dense Lactic Acid Brain Fog 
The saddle issue was only a side show to the body mechanics I'd be working on. Completing last week's race in a dense lactic acid brain fog, I wasn't able to fully analyse what was happening physically - but I was able to capture the physical feeling and be sure to remember how to reproduce it. It had occurred to me that just a slight raising of the saddle would help - but that I probably wouldn't return to wrenching my back again as the movement was different from that "yanking" up on the pedal that did the damage previously. Immediately on the bike I could feel the extra 5mm as the pedals seemed strangely far away - but that's just because the body is comfortable with an established set up. This is also why I think that any changes must be kept small and progressive to avoid injuries - perhaps not being progressive enough last year is what really injured me.

Core Power
It has finally dawned on me that the key issue in cycling is Core Power. This is what I unintentionally stumbled upon at Mégève. Last year I'd realised that the psoas muscle (which is a core muscle) could be used to yank up the pedal and compliment the other pedal being pushed down. This was crude however and led to injury. Lowering the saddle also lowered the potential to yank the pedal up with the more stretched out leg. I'd also played with rocking my hips on the saddle to try to get a bigger range of motion and this worked also - but it was all like one of those stereogram images that just wouldn't form in my brain - you know there is a proper message there but you just can't quite get it. I've now got it. It's all about Core Power.

Shift to the core instead of shifting gears
In this training ride I was able to use higher gears at every step of the way over 90 minutes - reducing my climb time by over 1 minute from the best this year so far - despite still being somewhat tired and having a strong headwind. This just doesn't happen by chance - something significant is working. The immediate feeling is one of power and strength. The large core muscles are being employed instead of (or in conjunction with) the smaller leg muscles. They just don't get tired so easily. Your focus shifts to the centre of your body - literally. Perhaps we are scared to do this because the centre of the body is such a sensitive area with our digestive system there and we are used to being very tender and cautious with that. It really feels like riding from the gut.

The Key
So what is the real key to all of this - what lets it happen? The key is the motion of the spine and pelvis. If you block this then you kill it all. All my life in skiing I've heard coaches say that the upper-body must be held still and all the work done by the legs - but this is completely wrong - an illusion and a fault. The upper-body plays an extremely active part (it's just hidden due to relative motion and actions being internal) - as it does also in running (look at a sprinter's body). The same mistake is repeated in cycling where any visible motion of the upper-body is considered an error - and so everybody tries to block any movement instead of experimenting with it naturally. What happened to me at Mégève was that I suddenly unblocked my upper-body - there was nothing left to lose I was so tired. In skiing also many breakthroughs are made in race training at the end of the session when the legs are exhausted - for the same reason. The freeing of the upper-body allows a range of motion that employs the core muscles - including the psoas and glutes - and alters the timing so that there is almost continual pressure on the pedals - a smooth power output. The feeling is great. You don't need the saddle high to feel this - you only need to free the motion of the upper- body and allow it to rock a little - just like the pelvis moves backwards and the spine twists slightly with the running stride as the foot goes behind the body. It's exactly the same motion as in running only the upper-body is tilted over forwards, which is probably why we miss it. That same motion in skiing is called upper/lower body separation - but it is not recognised for what it fundamentally represents. The appropriate degree of motion in the pelvis and spine seems to be about the same in all cases.

The workout was astonishing - power, power, power! The slight raise in the saddle did help to integrate the movement better and no back issues were felt. Now that the feeling is clearer it should be possible to fine tune the saddle height to that instead of some arbitrary nonsense referring to inside leg length etc. etc. (that works for nobody!)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Hike - Mindful Mechanics.

Went for a hike today with the Nordic walking poles, but the entire focus was on applying the correct mechanics to walking - exactly as in running.

Keeping a very relaxed ankle the aim was to completely eliminate the "push off" with the toes - even in climbing. The foot is simply lifted up at the end of the stride. This does give a remarkable feeling of lightness and feels incredibly efficient as the work is now being done by core muscles instead of lower leg muscles - but it is so counter-intuitive that it takes a lot of focus and mindfulness. The Vibram Five Fingers were my choice of shoe and so it was interesting to walk on rocks and to feel everything beneath the feet - so much more stable and secure than on cushioned soles. Descending was interesting - trying to use the calves as shock absorbers - it seems to work well even in walking. 

Below are some photos taken today on the mountain...

The Orange Lily or Fire Lily is a lily species native to Europe. It is also called Tiger Lily.
The Orange Lily has long been recognised as a symbol of the Orange Order in Northern Ireland.
In Hanakotoba (花言葉, flower-language), the Japanese language of flowers, the orange lily symbolizes hatred or revenge when given as a gift. (Excerpts from Wikipedia)

Monday, June 13, 2011

Recovery Run - EIJ (Educated Idiot Jargon)

Cycling was off the menu today but that didn't rule out running. Last week I didn't run much due to needing to spare the legs for the bike race, but today was a perfect opportunity to get out and use a different set of muscles. There were a few photographic opportunities too (with the mobile phone) - after the workout...

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The main focus of today's run was to work on the forefoot strike, particularly through relaxing the ankle. I wanted to ensure that there was a proper forefoot landing and not a vague midfoot landing. It's become clear the the real shock absorber on landing is the calf muscle. The calf muscle lengthens as the foot first lands on the front and flattens down until the heel touches. While the calf lengthens this muscle is firing - thus putting a great load on it. In medical terms (Educated Idiot Jargon) they call it an "eccentric contraction" of the muscle. We are stuck normally with shoe design invented by Nike - with large soft heels - so we don't develop the calf muscle to cope with acting as a shock absorber. This it makes it very hard to adapt to using the calf muscles correctly - hence all the DOMS and long recovery periods I've been going through. Improved technique can however help with this process of adaptation. The videos I linked to a couple of days ago show the ankle extending as the foot leaves the ground behind the runner and remaining extended and relaxed until the toes come back to the ground. The EIJ (Educated Idiot Jargon) for this is "dorsiflexion". It appeared to me that a very loose ankle - almost flicking back as the foot leaves the ground would be easy to maintain as the foot is pulled forwards and then dropped to the ground - and it is. 

One thing that really seemed to help to keep the ankle loose was placing the foot on landing closer to the centre line of the body. This allows the foot to land more on its outside edge and seems to make it easier to sense the appropriate forefoot contact. Working on this made me feel how an active use of the arm action complimented - through the twisting of the core of the body - the motion of the feet inwards slightly across the body. The next thing to strike me was that this core body action required quite a lot of internal activity and it felt incredibly similar to the action I felt on the bike yesterday when the use of core power suddenly stepped up the pace for the last 40km. Very interesting sensations. Another thing I noticed was the extended ankle action felt very similar to how the ankle has to be extended in swimming the crawl. Perhaps the classic "runner's kick" that plagues swimmers is directly caused by heel striking and never extending the ankle naturally though it's range when running. 

It felt absolutely great running uphill. There was no feeling of tiredness regardless of yesterday's almost 6hr race. Running downhill I was able to work on serious forefoot landing and avoiding reaching ahead too much for safety - it was a very interesting exercise and as it felt more coordinated and secure I allowed the speed to increase up to 16kph - covering the last kilometre in about 4m 30s. This is the first time I've allowed any speed when running "barefoot" and it felt great and effortless - even when the gradient switched back uphill. It felt at it's very best when the cadence went over 90 (180 paces per minute) which is when it is supposed to be most efficient. I was fully aware that such a reckless increase of pace would definitely mean DOMS and three days minimum recovery from the pain - but I couldn't resist it. The Merrell shoes were great too. They are the best shoes I've ever owned both barefoot or with socks if it's cold.

Time Mégève 2011

It's the day after the race and approaching midday my head is at last starting to clear from the lactic acid fuzz and my legs are starting to work properly again. 

Both Chris and I knew that the Time Mégève race was going to be very, very tough - basically climbing or descending nearly all the way and we both had awoken in the morning with no desire to do this. Perhaps the only real motivating factor was to gain the long term training effect. Getting up at 5am is never very motivating anyway. 

Waiting for Chris with the gear ready to load

The drive to Mégève is just over an hour from my place and we aimed to be there by just after 7am to get our start numbers etc. The race would finish in Mégève but the actual start was at 08:30 in Sallanches, 12km below in the valley. Most people seemed to be parking in Mégève and cycling down to the start but we decided that it was too chilly for that and it wouldn't do us any good so we drove down and parked in the town centre of Sallanches without any trouble. Our next bold and brilliant move was to find a cafe and sit down with coffees. The normal pattern is Coffee (stimulant and laxative), dump, fix numbers to bike and shirt, get bikes ready, pee against a tree, turn up as late as possible for the start with no warm up. Everything went like clockwork. Chris's gears were badly adjusted and my new chain was jumping - which probably means that I need to replace the cassette also because I spent ages adjusting the gears the night before. I have a gear adjuster mechanism on the downtube so I could fiddle with it during the race, but Chris's expensive Cannondale doesn't so he was stuffed and had to put up with it. 

Today we had both dumped our useless mini-pumps and had CO2 cannisters with tiny Zefal screw-on regulators in our pockets. I weghed this in at 79g total - and since I'd lost a total of 70g with better shoes and 50g losing the pump and holders the overall setup was actually lighter and much more efficient. Chris pointed out that most of the punctures you see are in the first several kilometres and are due to people having changed their tyres before the race and pinching the inner tube. This is probably true because my only puncture has been because of that - so for this reason I changed tyres the night before to be able to verify that all was okay in the morning. There is also a good procedure for ensuring that you don't pinch the inner tube when mounting the tyre - blow up the tube initially with your mouth when you replace it on the wheel, then before you get the last bit of the tyre on you let this air out to create more room. Next you peel off the tyre again a little while pulling it on the section where it wasn't before. This ensures that when you finally force the last bit on it's over a section where the tube was already correctly bedded when under some pressure. With no air in the tyre you can normally get it on fully without tyre levers. I did notice however today that people were repairing punctures at all stages of the race - but this could still be slow punctures from initial tyre fitting.

In Sallanches the morning sun was coming out and this cheered us up quite a lot. The previous two weeks have been pretty awful weather so this was real good luck and raised our spirits a little. We both agreed that no extra clothing would be needed. There would be a lot of climbing but the actual altitudes were not extreme so it was unlikely to be cold later on and the weather forecast was good for the day. 

There were at least 1650 bikes in the streets of Sallanche so the start was always going to be a squeeze as everyone filtered through a narrow passage with overhead wires for the electronic timer. 300 people were in one street specifically for a priority start. The useful thing about that is that if you later see any numbers below 300 then you know you have caught up with some of the first ones out the gate. The rest of us piled into the other streets ready for the start.

We were about half way up this crowd.
The start was around the white building to the left of centre and about 100m further along the road.
There was another feed from a street on the right.

I had start number 1624 and had managed to register online only five minutes before the closing of online registration - purely though luck. Our race really started from this spot because we used ski lift queuing techniques by staying at the edges and smoothly slipping by hundreds of others.

The couple of photos here were taken on the Sony Xperia Arc mobile phone which, despite the importance of weight today I'd decided to take with me to test out properly. It was a last minute decision so it was not perfectly set up and exploited to it's maximum but the idea was to find out the real potential. The battery was fully charged as was my Garmin Forerunner 305 on the handlebars. The only sensor other than GPS was my heart rate chest strap. I put earphones in prior to fastening the helmet straps - which then allows the earbuds to be removed and to hang off the helmet straps for easy access. The phone was set to use 3G for internet data transfer (and map info reception) and the GPS was activated. I used hands-free control from the mic button just below the chin and started the timer for a couple of seconds to then pause it with the hands-free. The idea was to use this button to get the clock going again at the start line without removing the phone from the pocket. I'd ride with one earbud in place to get the kilometer splits as audio feedback. Going over the start line I'd also have to remember to start the Garmin timer. All of this went perfectly to plan. I hadn't set the volume high enough though so sometimes feedback was a little hard to hear. I'd actually planned to put music on if I felt like I was dying on the climbs later on. 

Once through the start gate the way ahead was relatively clear with at least a thousand cyclists stretched out before us on the long, straight, gently descending, wide roads. Anyone studying chaos theory would have a field day here. Groups were already clearly forming and clumping together with big gaps between them and the odd stragglers in between or those dashing ahead to gain ground. There was a bit of a headwind and Chris set off at a good pace against it trying to gain some ground on the others. I did one spell in front but quickly realised that this was not a great idea because we were in danger of using up valuable resources that would definitely be needed for the climbing ahead. Just then some guy came tearing past us at high velocity and so we both accelerated and got in behind him. He was definitely on a mission to get ahead and not concerned about conserving energy. Chris did one short spell in front but the guy was too impatient and seconds late he was back in front (Chris admitted later that he had deliberately slowed because he didn't want to work too hard so early). We ended up being towed all the way for 20km to the foot of the Col de la Columbière climb (of 1115m) at Cluses and overtook at least a few hundred cyclists in the process. Timing is electronic and individual so it shouldn't really matter where you are in the crowd but it gives a good morale boost to get ahead like that.

Arriving at the climb we both settled into our own rhythms - with Chris going ahead. My legs were still not really warmed up for climbing so it took a while to settle into it. Surprisingly though the climb was enjoyable and it's the first time ever that I've ever raced up a 3560ft climb without difficulty, accelerating towards the summit. The long descent to Thônes was a bit chilly and I regretted not having a wind breaker but as the altitude reduced then so did the problem.  As usual there were a lot of very slow descenders and only a few good ones. I ended up collecting a couple of good descenders who then really powered their way up the next long "faux plat" and really helped recover a bit of time. Shortly before the start of the climb up to the Col de la Criox Fry we passed a group of about twenty. I do struggle with transitions from flat to steep so it wasn't long on the climb before that group was slowly reeling me back in. The Col de la Croix Fry almost joins up with the Col des Aravis with only a short descent in between - meaning a long haul of almost 30km of climbing. The joy of ripping over the the Col de la Columbiére soon wore off. The only enjoyable part of the Croix Fry was arriving at the top. On the Avaris I started to feel cramps but they didn't last long. Deep leg pains were now coming and going. Climbing was fine but as soon as the pressure came off the legs the pain would start seeping though them making descents unpleasant. Focussing on overtaking and keeping up a good speed helps to take your mind off any pain. This is the point where the mind starts to play games. Is it wise to do the long course with another major climb involved or should I bail out now and complete the medium course to ensure a reasonable result? Surely if there is so much pain already another serious climb is not feasible and I'll be forced to an embarrassing crawl. The main goal of the race though was for endurance training - so there was no question of bailing out. The only concern was arriving at the course bifurcation before the cut-off time. After 1:30pm nobody would be allowed on the long course. That however was not an issue as I'd be at least an hour ahead of that. By the time the descent to Flumet was over and the bifurcation reached the leg pains were gone again. My split time at the top of the Aravis had been only 11 minutes behind Chris so despite not feeling too good it wasn't as bad as I thought.

On the climb up the Aravis I had spoken to a rider on another Canyon bike. His bike was the bottom of the range aluminium model but it looked really good. He was glad to have it because the previous night in Mégève it had been stored in a garage and during the night 10 bikes had been stolen from the garage. They only took carbon bikes and left his behind! Welcome to France! Why work when you can steal?

The final climb up to Les Saisies ski station was probably not anticipated enthusiastically by many people. Audio feedback from the Endomondo software on the Xperia phone had been excellent for motivation on the climbs. Thanks to the feedback I'd managed to never let any kilometre slip over 6 minutes but the start of this climb was steep and I was horrified to be informed that the previous kilometre was over 7 minutes. That did not bode well for this climb. Rapidly the situation was brought back under control and the following kilometre was under 5 minutes. Ever since the Aravis there had been a steady trickle of people cracking and slowing right down or stopping for breaks. Predictably this was happening more and more regularly by now. Regardless of this there was a steady procession of people slowly passing me. I'd noticed however that even those who dropped me right at the bottom of the long Croix Fry were only 100m ahead at the very top. About 10km from the top of Les Saisies it became steep again and was now becoming a bit daunting. This is the point where I would have expected to experience problems - but something odd happened instead. I found that by moving my whole midsection with the pedal stroke that I could connect with a stronger pull up on the pedal - compensating to some extent for the power I'd lost though lowering the saddle to protect my back. The strange thing was though that this gave the unusual sensation that it kept power on the pedals constantly instead of my usual on/off feeling though each stroke. Amazingly I was able to maintain this and started to accelerate and quite rapidly overtake everyone in sight. My heart rate went back up to 160+ even though this was now over the 4hr 30min mark and there was already a lactic acid headache setting in. The next 10km right to the top was just a steady process of catching one person after another. I kept telling myself that this can't be kept up and I'd end up looking pretty stupid when I explode soon - but that never happened - it was surprise after surprise.

I used the new motion to great effect on the 30km return to Mégève from Les Saisies. At one point during the descent I wanted to catch a group ahead on a slight uphill incline against the wind. Putting on the power I closed the 100m gap in seconds despite the fact that they were motoring themselves. When you know how to take a racing line in a corner then fast descending is fun - so the descent back down towards Flumet was enjoyable and once again several people lost a lot of ground though slow descending. I'd also dropped a few people at the refreshment stands because I only needed one bottle refill stop - consuming only 1.5 litres in almost 6hrs of effort - but never enduring unnecessary thirst. From the bottom of the descent it was a 10km hike back to Mégève with most of it being moderate climbs where you could still hold a good speed. The wind seemed to be behind so it wasn't necessary to find anyone to work with and I continued to power onwards. In the last kilometre I realised that nobody had overtaken me at all in the last 40km and was feeling pretty good about that, when 3 guys flew past me. One of them broke off on his own and I was able to maintain a constant gap with the others. Arriving at the town and having to deal with cars the others were obviously going to hesitate so I turned up the aggression and tore past one of them and negotiated an advantageous position on the inside of a car on the final roundabout then sprinted past the other for the finish line. Only one had escaped in the end. The final time was 5hrs 48mins. I'd been powering as hard as possible over the last 10km to ensure breaking the 6hr barrier and was finally well inside it. Chris had done really well and finished in 5hrs 24mins.

Last year I'd been extremely apprehensive over doing the middle distance course and took 5hrs 28mins on that - so this is a massive improvement (though the courses were not the same). My apprehension for the long course this year was unfounded. The more I do these events the clearer it becomes that other than by working on training, technique and nutrition - you can't predict what is going to happen, especially when you stretch yourself into new territory. I need to lose weight to climb faster - that's clear. Bradley Wiggins just won the Criterium de Dauphiné because he lost 7kg bringing him down to 70kg - so with a height of 190cm (20 more than me) he weighs less than I do! I really don't understand the technical adaptation that I stumbled upon when I was tired during this race and I'd like to video it to see what it looks like. It feels weird but most things do when you change them. Barefoot running style feels weird but looks absolutely great and natural. The one thing I know for sure is that if it makes you faster then it can't be far wrong.

The Endomondo app appeared to work perfectly throughout but let me down at the final hurdle in that it somehow managed to fail to record any heart rate data. Other than that it seemed to do an excellent job. The phone had only used half its battery power by the end and the Garmin in contrast was already running out of power. The Endomondo app needs to improve a bit before it can replace a dedicated unit - but that shouldn't be far away. All the data had been relayed automatically to the internet. If I'd checked with the hands-free (short button push) I may have found out there was a problem with the heart rate data - but I couldn't do anything once the race was started and it had been displaying heart rate at the beginning. Ironically the phone GPS is the one that agrees with the course distance of 133km very accurately and the Garmin gives 128km. There are various estimates of altitude climbed from 2700 to 3968m. The organisers themselves vacillate between 3500m and 3900m. GPSies calculates 3968. Endomondo gave the ridiculously low 2700m and the Garmin is near the higher end of the spectrum.

The race was won overall in 4hrs 2mins and the front runners were mostly professionals from the AG2R and and FDJ pro teams that you see in the Tour de France. I placed 283rd out of 476 and 50th out of 104 in age category. Although Chris was only 24 minutes ahead at the end this put him at 170th overall and 21st in age group which was an excellent result.

After the race I sat down to eat the post race meal in the vast Palais du Sport in Mégève. The organisation was excellent because there was no queuing despite there being at least 1000 people in the hall. The food was reasonable too with chicken and wholemeal pasta - but it was difficult to eat while recovering from the exercise. It's important to eat as soon as possible after finishing exercise to replenish the glycogen in the the muscles - but it's not easy to make yourself eat under those circumstances. Chris had gone immediately down to Sallanches after the race to recover his car, though I didn't know that. I was too tired to look for him in the hall anyway and just slowly picked my way through the food. Chris probably felt the same in that he preferred to have a break and recovery before eating. Eventually Chris turned up beside me being easily able to spot the highly visible Macot/La Plagne jersey amongst a thousand others - which is a good reason for wearing that jersey! My bike was parked up in a guarded park which used the race numbers to identify the bikes - again very well organised. After recovering it we returned to the car and drove out of Mégève towards the Val d'Arly where there is a cafe in the middle of nowhere where we could get coffees and relax a bit. More important than the coffee was the fact that the Criterium Dauphiné was finishing with Bradley Wiggins leading and we didn't want to miss him defending the yellow jersey. The proprietor was very obliging and put the TV on and we were able to watch the final 13km of the final climb of the race - excellent timing and a great way to round off an excellent day out.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Foot Strike

Here is a link and a couple of videos relating to the link where excellent examples of foot striking are shown.

Harvard University

It seems that the foot best hits the ground almost horizontally so that there is not a big build up of load on the calves. Perhaps it's best to use midfoot striking as a transition towards forefoot striking. The other day I criticised Christiane for extending her ankle and pointing her toes down prior to landing on them - because I read somewhere (forgotten where) that this is wrong. It seems however if you read the entire scientific article referred to by the above link that this is actually correct. If I allow my ankle to be extended slightly then that should also ensure a forefoot strike - so I'll try that later today.

Yesterday made myself go out for a cold weather ride on the bike - just so that I'd be able to rest on the two days leading up to Sunday's big race in Haute Savoie. Despite an intense indoors workout the evening before I was surprised to find myself very strong over distance and reducing Tuesday's time by over 7 minutes over a 1hr 32minute circuit. It seems that the long workouts during the past few months have improved stamina but those short intense sessions are needed to build speed. It also seems that by going out every day there is a better accumulative effect than by having recovery days. Saying that, I'm sure that really fresh and rested legs on Sunday will pay off.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Indoor cycling workout and run technique outdoors

Weather is totally bad at the moment so it was necessary to do a workout on the indoor trainer instead of cycling in the rain and cold. I'd forgotten how difficult it is to race against yourself on the computer controlled "Google Earth" course. Despite being very unmotivated I still managed to get to within a couple of minutes of my best time - but it was a real battle all the way with bucket loads of sweat on the floor by the end.

Working on running technique again and made a better video (though Christiane is still not used to using the camera!) The aim here is to be able to see the stride and all of it's components, posture, lower back, shoulder relaxation, inclination, foot strike, placement of the foot (not far ahead) outside edge of forefoot, pronating inwards and then onto the heel, the reach backwards - pelvis included, the lift of the foot (no push off), the pull forwards with the psoas and the posing of the foot below, the placement of the feet one in front of the other, the active use of the arms to counter the legs - and back to counter the forward body lean, hands held strongly - thumb against forefinger. Used the Bikila Five Fingers today because we were on a smooth surface not a trail or gravel. In this clip I'm not getting enough on the forefoot - especially the right foot is landing more mid-foot instead. The left foot is mostly landing on the forefoot but the heel doesn't always come right down. This is why you have to video things. I'm relatively happy with the rest of it. In reality my technique is a pretty accurate representation of ChiRunning because it is based on midfoot striking. I'm personally more convinced that forefoot striking is better - it just makes more sense. I'm also not totally convinced about the requirement of a forward lean - but I seem to do that naturally just now.

It was extremely interesting working on Christiane's running again. With the technical information we now have at our disposal it's now possible to have an intelligent approach to analysing the activity. I could see that Christiane was tilted too forward at the hips and we then realised that she needed to pull up her pelvis at the front to stabilise the spine. At first she locked the hip joints when trying to do this but was soon able to separate out the various joints involved. She also believed that she had a problem with loose muscles failing to support the sacrum but we were able to identify that it is the same postural problem. Correcting this immediately made her back feel better and allowed the body to function as one unit when running instead of something "broken" in the middle. Working on all of the components was perhaps a bit much to think about but good progress was made. It's amazing the contrast between this intelligent and more importantly "mindful" approach to running compared to the normal relatively thoughtless approach where only goals such as speed and distance are considered. She did have sore calf muscles by the end of a brief workout - so I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who is taking time to adapt to changes.