Monday, August 29, 2011

La Vercors - Drôme 2011

Perhaps the best organised event of the season – intelligently planned and seamlessly executed despite the large field of contestants. Our team of four was comprised of Ian (Me), Chris, Rob and Justin.

Team Management
Our own team management was not up to the level of the event organisation – for a start we got the date completely wrong thinking it was on Sunday when it was on Saturday. Fortunately Justin’s skills as a lawyer enabled him to spot this minor detail hidden in the small print before it was too late.  Unfortunately, that was not enough to spare Justin from becoming the first victim of the event. If someone does not finish a race they are categorised as DNF – did not finish – but Justin ended up in the classic DNR (HPH) category – Did Not Register.  There are many obstacles to overcome even getting to the start of a race – but that is part of the skill of being a racer. Pro racers get paid just for getting there. The sad demise of Justin was on the cards already two days earlier during our final training session.

DNR sub categories include (in order of seriousness):
  1. HPH - Hen Pecked Husband
  2. SB - Stolen Bike
  3. CUD - Cocked Up Date
  4. TB - Transportation Breakdown
  5. BO - Bottled Out (usually weather related)
  6. SAD - Sick as a Dog (often self inflicted)
  7. NVMC - Non Valid Medical Certificate
  8. GS - General Stupidity
Final Training Preparation
Thursday morning the telephone went – it was Chris: “We’ll be at Aime in 5 minutes get your bike out.” Thanks for the warning! I believe that people got longer warnings to prepare for air raids in the last war. Perhaps I was only included in this session as a last minute decision by the nebulous team management – but I was independently planning on a workout anyway and so quickly put everything together to get out the door in time. We headed off round my usual circuit of Montgirod, Hautecoeur, Moutiers, Notre Dame du Pré – about 1500m climbing and 52km – but in the opposite direction, which I’ve only ever done once before. Justin could only do the first climb because he had to get back home (HPH?). I pushed quite hard on the climb because Chris confessed that they had all been on a drinking session the night before and it was a good opportunity to make them hurt a bit. Rob immediately went into reverse climbing gear and disappeared behind but Justin hung in there to Longefoy. At Longefoy, still several kilometres from the top, we decided to stop to wait for Rob. Justin was sweating profusely and admitted that he couldn’t have kept that pace up much longer dragging his belly (it had grown noticeably since La Marmotte) up the hill. We couldn’t figure out whether his distress, both physical and emotional was due to the pressure on him to return home or due to the climbing pace, or a combination, but regardless he left us and headed back down on his own never to be seen again. DNR (HPH) – perhaps this will one day be the epitaph on his tombstone! One of the best races of the year was about to take place in a few days and Justin was already out. The rest of the training session went well. Chris and I attacked all the way up to Notre Dame du Pré using the large front chainwheels to keep up a high speed. The descent from Notre Dame du Pré to the valley below is very gnarly being narrow, twisting and steep, so it's a great opportunity to practice cornering skills in the dry. This is where we discovered to our distress that Rob is just as slow descending as he is climbing. He lost at least 5 minutes on that descent alone then missed us waiting at the turn-off at the bottom and I had to go chasing him to bring him back. In all fairness descending is a skill that you have to learn and practice but many people have a great deal of trouble with it. You need to have a very aggressive and attacking attitude but also know how to pick an effective line on the corners and how to manage the braking effectively to maximise traction. A lot also depends on how you move your centre of mass. If there is any doubt about traction then you move your body (Centre of Mass) before leaning the bike. Those tyres don’t tolerate lateral drifting. You need to enter the turn wide and cut in close to the apex then exit wide. If there is clearly no oncoming traffic then you use the entire width of the road for this otherwise you use only your own lane. Most of the braking must be done before the turn starts - heavy on the front brake and back brake leaving it as late as possible if the road is in a good state - then completely off the front and just very lightly feathering the back brake but not enough to cause the rear wheel to slide out catastrophically - which is easily done. If the road is in a good state you can lean over quite hard and keep a lot of speed - but it takes a lot of nerve. Those tyres are designed to grip but conditions must be right or you don't risk it.

On the long climb up to Hautecoeur we believe that Rob stopped off somewhere for a siesta, but we had a good view from the top over the “Three Valleys” ski domain while we waited. He had another siesta somewhere on the descent back to Aime. When he said that he was "kaput" we concluded that was because of having too many siestas.

Rob arriving above Hautecoeur after a siesta.

We had all pushed very hard in training and this was with two complete days of rest and recovery period in mind before the race. Had we managed to get the date right that would have been perfect but with the race being one day sooner than expected this meant that we would not be properly recovered for the race and I for one could really feel it. Justin had in fact done exactly the right amount of training but that would become pretty irrelevant due to his imminent DNR (HPH) status.

The biggest challenge of racing is just getting to that start line.  A million things will conspire to stop you. Number one on that list is the HPH syndrome. On the other hand the reason you see so many of the same faces at those races is because it is probably a bit of an HPH survivor’s club. We would have to escape and get to Romans-Sur-Isère the evening before the race, Friday, and find a camp site somewhere close by. Obviously it's best to car pool on such a long trip - about 2hrs 30min on clear roads - so Chris would be driving his Supercharged Taliban Combat Vehicle - a bit like a Toyota pickup on steroids, EPO and crack simultaneously. Chris is number one on my list as "Most Likely Roadkill" in the near future. I'd estimate that at least 50% of the time he is potentially (how would I know?) not on the correct side of some law or another (or the road) and the other 50% of the time is spent looking for ways to stay there. It's all part of the CI syndrome (Chris Impatience - with everything.) I kind of wonder if he learned to drive like that on a "suicide driver's course" in an Afghanistan training camp. He's definitely safer on a bike. I've only seen him almost run over by cars twice - both times at roundabouts when he forgot he wasn't in the Taliban Combat Vehicle and didn't quite have the same commanding presence on the road. Actually, a beat up old van works better for that because just one look at it and the game of "chicken" is won. It really doesn't work on a bike.

August had been a stiflingly hot month after a very poor and cold early summer so we were looking forward to camping with separate tents for everyone. Friday afternoon was anticipated as a day of storms passing through but we had no idea that it would bring a major climatic shift. The storms were violent with powerful winds and constant torrential rain with the snow level dropping down to 2300m. There were crowds of drivers heading south for the holidays and the weekend and Grenoble traffic was blocked but the general scene was of lashing rain and tree branches scattered all over the place. I set my GPS for "Le Replat" camp site – being the closest to Romans at 12km from the town. The camp site area was in the middle of nowhere and at first we ended up at a scary looking farm – a bit like one of those B film scenarios where people are lured in, chopped up then fed to the pigs – or a genuine Deliverance "Squeal like a pig" moment. You could picture the “duelling banjos” scene there easily. Reversing out of danger the camp site was close by. Predictably the site was empty and the owners took pity on us and offered a “bungalow” for the same price as our tent emplacements. Even they couldn’t envision us putting up tents in this storm. We had already decided to remove most of our clothes to put the tents up so that the clothes would be kept dry – but now that wasn’t necessary. The bungalow had probably had a few snuff movies filmed in it – it was dire – but it was dry. The forecast was for the storms to pass during the night and for the morning to be clear – so our hopes were up. We drove into Romans and found a restaurant with pasta and generally good food where Rob eventually joined us. Rob travelled on his own because his escape was dependent on leaving later – but the important thing was that he made it. The race is secondary. After the meal Rob followed us back to the camp site but we noticed that when not on the motorway he also drives impressively slowly. Inevitably he took the wrong turning behind us and was lured directly into the scary farm. Panicking, he called us on his phone and we directed him out of the place - though we momentarily contemplated the alternatives.

Unfortunately Rob snores like an out of control pneumatic drill. We knew this in advance so put him in the double bed partitioned off on his own. There is a real art to snoring and despite this building being soundproof to the rain and storm outside and made out of concrete, Rob was able to make it vibrate and shake. It would be easy to think that Rob was using a massive amount of energy to do this but it’s actually about “resonant frequency”. Some expert snorers seem to tune into the resonant frequency of a building and can almost bring it down around them. It’s just through accurately timed feedback the whole system resonates and amplifies – a natural phenomenon. It’s similar to how in mechanics you can use a very small force to lift something heavy if you have a long lever – or for that matter, using the gears on your bike for climbing. By around 3am Rob was in full swing and it’s possible that the seismic registering equipment in Grenoble might have detected it as some form of geological disturbance. It crossed my mind that if you could tap into this and use it for climbing hills on the bike you could win a race easily. I could see Rob snoring his way up the hill and leading the race by miles. Perhaps this is the motivation behind his tendency towards frequent siestas. I also thought that you could put motion sensors in the room at night and tap into the energy to recharge a mobile phone – then you could market this as a renewable energy source. The greatest scientist of modern times - the man who invented "modern times" - was Nicola Tesla. Tesla used "resonance" to harness the power of electricity and transport it over great distance in his "Alternating Current". Tesla claimed that by tuning his large Tesla coils to the resonant frequency of the Earth he was capable of splitting the planet in two. Fortunately Tesla never met Rob and had the opportunity to tune him to the resonant frequency of the Earth.

The Ritual
Morning was a formality because Chris and I were WIDE awake (no surprise) and up before daylight. Breakfast was horrible and swift and soon we were on our way to Romans to get the race numbers and ready for the start. Chris and I had both used the loo because we know that after morning coffee you try to lose weight. Rob’s snoring had apparently done that for him because he didn’t have a dump at all before the race. After our second coffees in a café Chris and I repeated the loo ritual and Rob disturbingly refused to entertain any sort of bowl movement. 

Final Details
Despite the temperature having dropped the skies were clearing and so we chose not to take extra clothing. I put on a base layer but took nothing extra with me. This was a bit of a mistake. I’d registered in advance over the internet but Chris and Rob hadn’t. Very annoyingly and perversely (as only French organisers can be) they were offered low numbers and a priority start – which they duly accepted. My Android smartphone GPS had taken us perfectly to the Registration building and we left the car parked there for the day, with the race start only a few hundred metres away. I now set up the phone as a heart rate monitor and sports tracking device for the race – to supplement the Garmin on the bike. Rob had bought a device for his bike but didn’t have time to install it due to our race day being brought forward. We all had tired legs but were looking forward to the event.

Officially the distance was 142km and my Garmin measured 143km. The GPSies mapping program puts the climbing at 3027m

Race Start (it gets serious now)
Chris and Rob got through the priority start gate and I was turned away as I tried to bluff my way through. There were something like 1000 racers so a good start would make a difference regardless of the timing chips on the ankles. With my cr*p start this meant that a gut busting effort would be required just to get into the race. At the start of the race there are always people charging up the field so it’s just a case of picking someone powering ahead at a sustainable elevated pace and attaching yourself to his rear wheel. I found a couple of guys of a similar age from a cycling club (dressed in red and yellow) and they made a perfect train pulling me though the field with my heart rate high (165) but not completely exploding. Eventually I left them and found another tow slightly faster bridging the gaps between pelotons. 28 minutes into the race we were brought to a halt where pelotons had compressed together to form a massive road block due to gravel and stones that had covered a section of road due to the flooding overnight. Riding over the gravel I passed Rob who was at a standstill and waved to him as I recognised him (quite difficult in a massive throng of people dodging all over the place on bikes). 40 minutes into the race and I found myself working alone with one other rider trying to bridge the gap to a massive peloton up ahead. The massive peloton seemed to be travelling slowly but despite us giving maximum output we couldn’t quickly close the gap. This is always very frustrating because you know that you are burning the candle too brightly but if you make it then you gain the shelter and speed of the big peloton. 45 minutes into the race and the peloton dramatically decelerated as it hit the first climb into the Vercors – and so we went straight into the back of it and started working our way quickly up through the field. 

Performance Collapse
My legs had not felt good during the early charge but that is often due to not being warmed up – in this case though there was no improvement. Very clearly the missing recovery day was having a predictable effect. Despite this I was able to work well and keep a very good pace – it seemed that the only penalty to pay was a general feeling of discomfort in the legs. The gradient wasn’t too steep so a pace of 16kph was sustainable and I overtook a lot of riders just like at the start and this continued for the next 80 minutes. Unfortunately all of this climbing was in the trees and on West facing slopes, which meant that we had no sun to warm us and couldn’t see anything. The scenery is this region is stunning so that was a real shame. Reaching higher altitude it became uncomfortably cold. My base layer was wet through and instead of keeping me warm it was chilling me. Rather suddenly and surprisingly my performance just collapsed. I felt cold, miserable, all strength vanished and my heart rate plummeted. I know that this was not a “lactic acid” issue because I’m currently able to sustain a higher heart rate and power output for longer than this with no issues. Instinctively I linked it to the bad feelings I’d had from the start – of not being fully recovered. I worked at damage control now – doing everything possible to keep up a speed that wouldn’t lose too many of the gains already achieved. That wasn’t too bad because I never averaged below 10 kph even at the lowest point. This was only the 50km mark in a 142km race and the prospect of feeling so bad for the rest of the race was very discouraging. Lots of the jerseys that I’d confidently passed earlier on now began to fly past me – not crawl past but FLY past. The only other Macot-La Plagne jersey that I saw in the race went past patting me on the back and asking how I was doing – to which the answer was rather obvious. The La Plagne jersey was pulling a small peloton behind him and they were quickly past me and completely disappearing into the distance. My upper heart rate was steadily dropping and I was feeling colder – until I couldn’t get above 140bpm. Having slowed down I took the time to eat a gel, some solids and wash it down with sports drink. I’d only consumed half a bottle so far because of the cold. I’d been sparring with number 408 for a while but there was no cooperation because he would either speed up or slow down unpredictably. Eventually he had left me behind too. Arriving at some flatter but gently undulating terrain a couple of guys overtook me but this time, with a great mental effort, I was able to hook on to them – now at 73km into the race. The worst possible thing is being isolated because you just slow right down. The flats allowed me to stay with this new pair and to hang on the back getting protection from the headwind and returning to a healthy pace. For the next 7km it was a fight to hang on and we had a bit of a chat – the leader, a younger guy wearing white told me that he thought I was doing not too badly and was very encouraging. He used a very high cadence that I would have found impossible, but I envied him this ability because my legs were very painful by now. I worked on using the core muscles to take the strain off the thighs but I’ve often found that around 75km in a race this sort of thing happens then eventually the pain goes away - quite strangely. We were joined at this stage by one of the “red and yellow” guys who had pulled me ahead at the start. His colleague was a bit stronger and had overhauled me a while back when I was really floundering. Red Yellow now stepped the pace up a bit, relaying with White and so I had to work harder again but managed to hold on and my heart rate picked up to around 154 bpm. At long last we reached the first major descent of the day. We had been up to 1340m altitude and here at the 80km point we would descend from 1141m to 256m at St Jean-en Royans. Even during the descent the air started warming us up and for the first time this day I could feel my body relaxing as the warm air and sun’s rays worked their soothing effect.

Whatever it was I don’t know – the warmth, the food/drink, the relative rest during the descent, but I started to feel better. At this point we were faced with our next big challenge of the day – another major climb back up to almost 1100m. Our fast section as a group at altitude and then strong descent had allowed us to catch up a bit with some groups and individuals. We could now see them in the distance with the more open and exposed landscape. White was now back in charge and he seemed to know the terrain and told me that it was a long “faux plat” but in reality it was a proper climb that allowed a good speed –around 6% gradient according to Chris. Quite soon we came across my old sparring partner number 408 who had stopped for a pee and left him behind. In the distance we could now see the La Plagne jersey still pulling his peloton along and in it was the other Red Yellow. That encouraged our Red Yellow to pull us for a bit. Our small group remained intact as we chased them down and not long into the climb we caught up with them. This time I patted the other La Plagne on the back and told him that I’d found my legs again. A few minutes later it was my La Plagne jersey pulling the peloton up the hill and I was back to full force and speed as I had been on the first climb of the day. For about 10km I set the pace uninterrupted pulling the combined pelotons up the hill - heart rate back up to 165bpm and speed back up to 16kph. The pain had gone from the legs.  White then came back to the front to take the relay. One young guy dressed in blue came to the front when we were close to the top of the main climb and he increased the pace. White stayed with him and so did I and a few others but eventually White let Blue go and returned to a more reasonable pace allowing our peloton to reform. During this climb both the Red Yellows and the other La Plagne jersey were all dropped not to be seen again. At kilometre 109 there was a “ravitaillement” – a refreshment stand. Unfortunately White had to stop there so we lost him. I had brought only two 500ml bottles with me but there was probably still enough water left to get to the end despite having been riding for 4hrs 25mins already and with still almost an hour to go (I did cut it close and finished a bit thirsty). The problem for White was that immediately after the ravitaillement there was a real “faux plat” of 3.5km and our peloton attacked it at between 30 to 40 kph! This attack was followed by a relatively steep series of climbs with another faux plat in between but with a strong headwind – here the peloton started to split up into bits and pieces but remarkably we were all back together again at the start of the main descent, having scooped up several additional struggling individuals near the very end of the climb and revived them back to life.  

Remember my "Endurance Scale" from (La Bourgui)?
The Endurance Scale is based upon each 1000m of climbing. 
Currently on the 1st 1000m I'm "Very Good", 2nd 1000m "Good", 3rd 1000m "Not Good", 4th 1000m "Bad", 5th 1000m "F****d"! Untrained riders would hit the "F" category on the first 1000m and the best would stay at "VG" the whole way. 
Today there was 3000m of climbing. I was VG on the first 1000m, straight to "F" on the second 1000m and back to "VG" on the third 1000m. This was definitely not very normal.

The Finish
At the start of the descent I almost got caught napping and was momentarily left behind by the acceleration. Three people I’d recently caught on the climb went flying past me and my legs wouldn’t let me accelerate. Fortunately the road became a little twistier and my cornering skills allowed me to close the gap again and give my body time to recover. Completing the main descent from 1100m to 400m there was a 5km section of undulating terrain with some short steep climbs and more significantly it was into a relatively strong headwind. Having made such an effort on the climb I felt no shame now in just hanging onto the back of the peloton and getting the most shelter possible from the wind. Our pace was high now and it was tough even just hanging on. Blue had been caught on this plateau because he had become isolated so he was now part of our peloton again. We were powering along passing people who looked like they were standing still by comparison - including the stragglers from the shorter 90km course.  The final 10km was on a variable downhill gradient dropping 225m to a final altitude of 173m. This dynamic group I was with truly had the bit between the teeth and averaged the whole last 10km at close to 50 kph – a furious pace for passing through villages and built up areas. You really knew that you were racing!  We did this like a team time trial and I only managed one stint in front for a few seconds – it was very hard to set this sort of pace but there were a few there who could do this and the rest just tucked in behind. A while after the final “1km to go” sign the peloton, remaining tight and fast, came to a sharp bend and there, out of sight, was the finish line about 40m away. It was too short to really challenge on the sprint but I did try and managed to jump three places ahead in a few seconds. Due to the timing chips though that wouldn’t or shouldn’t be the true placing.  (You can never completely trust the timing system)

After Race
The course being brilliantly organised meant that there was an enclosure right next to the finish for a food hall and secure bike guard. There was no queue for the food so service was rapid and I spotted Chris still eating and Rob sitting across from him. Rob had finished a couple of hours earlier having participated in the shorter 90km course. The food was acceptable and when we asked for more bottled water there was no hesitation in happily obliging us. Rob had picked up his “cadeau” and it was a very smart pair of sunglasses along with a lot of superfluous junk and publicity. I keenly picked mine up before leaving but didn’t even look at the contents of the bag. At home I discovered that the bag contained a stupidly ugly pair of sunglasses that were too small. Next time I’ll check! 

Getting Lost
It wasn’t over yet. The race finish wasn’t where we started and we were informed it was a 5 minute cycle back to the start and hence the cars. Chris being impatient as usual ignored my suggestion to use my phone GPS to get us back. It was obvious that the roads were a bit complicated. We decided that the technology was not CI (Chris Impatience) compatible. Chris stated that he preferred to get lost for 5 minutes than to mess with a GPS for 5 minutes and that the “chance” involved was important. Being an ex-professional navigator I just groan to myself when people try to tell me how to navigate but that’s why we have to be tolerant. After being lost for about 20 minutes (we were not even in the right town - the race had finished in Bourg-de-Péage!) I was asked to get my GPS out. Within minutes we were at the car. The phone still had 33% power left after being used to track the entire race and give audio feedback on every kilometre split time – plus posting all the data in real time to the internet. Amazing technology!

On returning home it was a real effort to lug all the kit up the steps to the flat. I couldn’t stop eating for a while and dozed off when trying to watch a film - Johnny Depp in Sweeny Todd. Despite eating all evening when Christiane returned home with a pizza I devoured 3/4 of it. Falling asleep at night would be very quick but later on sleep would become restless because the legs and body had clearly been overworked.  

Chris had quite a strong creaking coming from his bike so he took it into a bike shop on the way to the race. Surprisingly the creak was coming from a cracked wheel rim where the spokes join the rim. The wheels are special lightweight elite level wheels costing close to 1000€ each so let's hope that the manufacturer (Mavic) will fix this under warranty. The carbon spokes are designed to work under low tension combining both compressive and tensile properties to keep the wheel better aligned. It would seem that Chris's weight and power was too much for the compression against the rim. This should be recognised as a design fault.

During the race I eventually became aware of a noise which turned out to be the rear brake rubbing on the rim. The whole mechanism was pulling over to one side. Yanking up on the cable behind me would clear it temporarily but I had to try to remember to do that after each time I used the brake. After the race I found that the braking effect of the rubbing was quite strong so no doubt this was working against me in the race. I still need to sort this out.

The Endomondo sports tracking App in the phone worked very well but seems to have under-calculated the total amount of climbing by more than 1000m. There is nearly always something that doesn't work with this software and that's why I still need the Garmin.

During the race I worked on using the core muscles and keeping the legs relaxed - particularly when going though tough periods. This is partly what helped me to avoid losing excessive amounts of time when I was in trouble. It's possibly also what helped me to recover and return to full force later on - but in general that outcome still mystifies me. I also worked on keeping the feet stiff and avoiding the ankle flexing and absorbing all the energy during the "push down". 

I noticed a possible contributor to my foot pain issues. There are two ways to use the bike when standing on the pedals - you can move the top of the bike from side to side or you can move your body from side to side. If you move your body to one side then when you push on the pedal on that side you are hard against the outside of the foot to begin the push down. This hurts the foot and may be the real cause of my tendinitis at the 5th metatarsal in the middle of the outside edge of the foot. If you move the bike over to the side (say to the left), then when you push down with the left foot you are on your instep and the bike comes back inwards beneath you as you push down. I switched to doing this because it removed the foot pain.

142km (395 finishers, 52 in age cat G - 50 to 54 - Gold diploma time limit 6h10) 
Winner  04:20:54
Chris     05:02:09 114th overall, 11th in age cat G
Ian        05:24:33 220th overall, 31st in age cat G
Last      07:29:51

90km   (355 finishers, 45 in age cat F - 45 to 49 - Gold diploma time limit 3h35)
Winner  02:39:"5
Rob      03:25:31 199th overall, 29th in age cat F
Last      06:35:11

I'm still too fat.
Well done Rob on his first ever Sportif in France - a great result!
The timing was not truthful. My group of 11 finishers are all bunched together within 3 seconds and I recognise the race numbers - but there is no way we would have started together like that.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

ChiSwimming - 50m Pool

Really feeling things beginning to click in the swimming. I still get too breathless and uncomfortable with it and that limits my efforts and speed, but that's probably not a bad thing because it forces me to focus on improvement. OK, I'm still a *rap swimmer but timed 500m at 11:45 mins so can now look forward to reducing that significantly.

Interestingly I noticed information on the web about the "Combat Side Stroke" taught to US Navy Seals because it is more efficient and can be used with or without fins. Perhaps I'll look into learning that and then if I'm struggling with the crawl can always use that instead. It's a combination of breast stroke, side stroke and front crawl. I only wanted to learn crawl to be able to compete in triathlons but if this is more efficient and saves energy then it might be a better option because I'll never be a fast swimmer anyway. 

I'm noticing now as I learned in "Master The Art of Swimming" that one arm is entering the water as the other drops into the "pull" position and the hands pass each other just in front of the head. It's happening to me now instead of being just another theory or contrived robotic action. The feeling of lifting the elbow, anchoring the arm and pulling the body though the water is becoming clearer all the time. If I wait until the pulling arm is at about chest level before really using power then I can properly feel the core muscles. Instead of just pulling the arms though the water I'm waiting until in position and pulling from the core instead of with the arm muscles. Doing this with the arm anchored in the water you can feel the body rotate and slide past the arm in a single action - it feels almost like pushing yourself through a tube and by rotating the body the arm is able to stay anchored while the body slides by. Very hard to describe. The core muscle use however is very clear - the core is either active or it isn't - and the arm feels relaxed.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

ChiCycling - Col de la Madeleine

With afternoon temperatures at 35°C in the shade an early morning workout became much more appealing than usual. Chris, Justin, Richard and myself agreed to meet for a 06:45 departure from the supermarket car park at Aigueblance to climb the Col de la Madeleine. Chris had strict work constraints so that made sense for him and to be honest the rest of us could have gone at a more civilized hour but - any excuse to party!

Altitude Min 386m, Max 2001m, Total Ascent 1808m

Chris predictably turned up late and rushing. If he didn't stay fit he'd be the first to go with a heart attack even if he pretends to be ultra cool. Justin got lost so he was even later - due to being unable to follow the speeding Chris in his supercharged Taliban pick up truck - talk about herding cats! Richard turned up on time and suitably tired - like me he much prefers to exercise in the afternoon or evening.

Setting off my legs felt relatively uncooperative and I thought they might not have recovered yet from Italy but in reality this was just because they hadn't warmed up yet.  It took just over 10 minutes to arrive at the foot of the climb - the bridge over the Isère at Les Léchères. Getting started on the climb Justin had a very untimely call of nature. I just wanted to keep my rhythm so kept on pulling ahead and realised that my legs now felt good. It was tempting to slow down because the start of the climb is steep and overdoing it there means that you pay for it later, but I was curious to see if the legs could hold out for almost 2 hours or not. I went up the steeps in 4th gear which takes quite a lot of power and gradually pulled away from Chris and Richard who seemed to be waiting in the middle to see if Justin would catch up. Justin would have his work cut out catching up at this pace but I also decided that it was an opportunity to go for a personal best time so slowing down wasn't an option. Until now my best time for the climb had been 02:05hrs and I always suffered near the end. I also wanted to try to build a gap with Chris and Richard because I knew that my shortage of stamina over long distance meant that I'd slow down later.

About half way up the climb Chris and Richard accelerated and caught me up and so we stuck together until about 8.5km from the top where I predicted that I wouldn't have enough strength to maintain the pace on the steep section. The only thing surprising was that the others didn't pull that far ahead. Once the steeps were over I was able to pick up power and speed again and maintain the gap to about 300 to 400m practically to the top. The final time was 01:48hrs - a massive improvement over my PB. It's easy to tell when I'm at my limits because I have to drop a gear and lose speed  to maintain the same cadence and heart rate - the power just starts to leave the legs - and did so about 80 minutes into the climb and 90 minutes into the whole workout from Aigueblanche. Justin arrived around 10 minutes later and on a normal day would have been well ahead of me. Chris thought that I was gunning for Justin and had deliberately attacked when he stopped for a pee. Although we joked about it that wasn't the case, I was just on my own unpredictable agenda for the morning - taking it as my legs decided. Sometimes a "suicidal" charge like that can teach you a lot. My heart rate was still around 170 near the top so I now know that I can maintain this level of heart rate for 2 hours now - something I couldn't even do at age 34! After stopping at the top and standing there for a few minutes I felt that slight breathing constriction coming over me - but this time I wasn't talking much at all so couldn't be due to over-breathing. It dawned on me at last that this problem only ever happens after my heart rate has been almost maxed out and I stop suddenly and completely - no warm down! I never feel any breathing issues at all while my heart rate is maxed out. From now on I'll have to make a point of staying active and warming down for five to ten minutes and trying to avoid the tendency to stop brutally at the end.

Preparations were being made on the road for a special cyclosportif coming through behind us. The Geneva to Nice 7 day stage race was already half way up the Col when we arrived at the summit. After a quick coffee stop we headed back down and stopped at the roadside to let the leading pelotons go through. The were all clones - small, skinny, same face and nobody struggling. Behind that spread out over most of the rest of the descent were about 250 other assorted figures including the incredible guy with only one arm and leg - and he wasn't last! He will be climbing 17,000m - over 55,774 feet - during the week - with only one leg! Part of our reason for being there this morning was to watch them coming though and see how the race was organised. Chris had a good chat with the organisers at the top of the Col and during the descent Richard spotted a friend in the race climbing and so turned around and went back up for a while with him. Once the Voiture Balai went passed us we opened up for a flying descent and Justin must still have been uncomfortable because he dropped off the back again. The road was good and Richard was bombing down in the lead so it was a challenging and fun descent - very much like skiing. The temperature had been perfect - slight chill - all morning, but on arriving back at the cars at 10:20 it was already boiling at lower altitude. I was glad to have done my workout for the day - but then fell asleep in the afternoon.

I'm working on a detailed review of the book "ChiWalking" and finding it very interesting. Something from the book connected for me during the climb. For a long time I've been aware of how in skiing you need selective muscle use for good skill levels and this equates with eliminating unnecessary tension. Playing a musical instrument is the same - the hands and arms must be very relaxed but powerful at the same time. This can be quite confusing for people and I have a few tricks for trying to communicate it. I hadn't really considered there to be any overall principle though. In ChiWalking there is a lot of philosophy so I won't go into that here - but the point is to access all the power from the "core" and not from the extremities - so the legs should feel loose and relaxed and the work should be focussed around the core. Now for some time I've been working on using the core muscles and have written about that already, but I noticed that when I really wanted to increase power I was straining and tensing my leg muscles. Letting the muscles relax and just focussing on using the core for power there was no drop in power - but the legs weren't straining. All I could feel was the pressure on the pedals with the feet muscles tensing reflexively in response to the pressure and then pushing hard from the pelvis area and midsection of the upper body - allowing some rotation of the spine up to around the middle of the back. I'd never been aware of this feeling of relaxation in the legs at such a level of stress before and realised that if nothing else this must seriously assist circulation. Displacing the work load from the smaller leg muscles toward the larger core muscles and tireless postural muscles practically guarantees an improvement in endurance.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Col St Carlos

Col St Carlos in Italy is always a daunting prospect - even more so when your training hasn't been going too well recently. Everyone had their excuse ready - "Recovering from injury", "Just been on holiday", "Had a bug yesterday"etc. etc.

Data 113 km, 05:37:47 hrs, Av 20.1 kph, 3150 m climbing av hr 147 bpm, max hr 171 bpm, 5109 calories
I had a lot of trouble extracting the data for this workout. The Garmin unit messed up by merging this workout with the previous one and my Smartphone app still doesn't export data 100% correctly to the SportTracks analysis software. Very frustrating that with two GPS and heart rate monitoring systems running I was still stuck! In the end a very nice free piece of software sorted out both problems - "TCX Converter"  which can be downloaded from this lnk. This software easily and efficiently manipulates gpx or tcx data files to sort out many potential problems. You can even replace recorded altitude data with data derived from Google maps. In the end, surprisingly, the Endomondo phone system gave better data than the Garmin and so was used both for analysis then export to GPSies.

Cause and Cure of Outside Edge of Foot Pain (Peroneus Brevis Insertional Tendinitis)
My complaint was foot pain and the corresponding loss of training. Prior to the workout I remained hopeful of understanding and dealing with the problem better. Still working on overcoming tendinitis in the foot I inspected the cycling shoes to see if there were any clues. Interestingly the shoes are shaped as if they had a big heel - with a ramp between the front and back. If they are placed on the level ground and you stand in them then you can rock from the toes to the heels over the ramp in the centre - with ALL of the weight momentarily rocking on the centre of the foot - exactly on the upper end of the 5th metatarsal. The shoe is clearly designed not to have the foot flat but to always have the ball of the foot lower than the heel in the direction of pressure. Damage seems to occur when the foot is relaxed when pressing on the pedal and despite the axis of the pedal being under the ball of the foot some pressure gets on to this mid section of the shoe/foot. Basically the ankle acts as a lever and the foot can transmit pressure anywhere from the ball to the middle due to the tight fit of the shoe and the rigid sole. Relaxing the foot brings the pressure to the middle (force up at the front and down at the middle - rigid, tight shoe acting as a lever - with the "ramp" pressure point exactly where you don't want it to be), hence over time causing tendinitis.

Either the cure for this is flattening the shoe so it is like a "barefoot" running shoe - or holding the muscles of the feet active all the time when pushing against the pedals. Interestingly this is exactly the action required for good skiing with fine control! Most people squash onto the balls of the feet with the muscles inactive and the ankles collapsed leaning against the front of the ski boots - but the correct way is to slightly extend the foot onto the ball and actively work the foot muscles to remain there during each pressure cycle - one foot at a time. For this reason I'll go with the shoe design and work on the activity of the feet.

It's taken a while to figure this out because the pain was aggravated by barefoot running and using a forefoot to mid-foot landing on a supinated foot - close to the 5th metatarsal. It has been hard to see what the real cause of the tendinitis was. I removed the footbeds that I had in the shoes and decided to simply work on keeping the feet muscles active and experimenting on finding ways to avoid pressure on the middle of the foot.

Col St Carlos
After the weirdest weather ever - winter, spring and summer we at last are fortunate enough to have some appropriate and welcome stability, sunshine and heat. Cycling on mountains isn't all that great when you have to brake like mad on all of the descents and worry about skidding on wet gravel all the time. The roads are always freshly patched with loose gravel in the Spring and combining that with the wet makes a lethal mix. Today we had dry gravel free roads all the way with only a few potholes to deal with. Starting at St Foy town centre car park at shortly after 7am we all had an extra layer of some sort to deal with the morning chill. Clear skies actually means that there is a high heat loss during the night through radiation so despite temperatures being up over 38°C during the day the mornings remain fresh. The start was downhill to the valley floor beside the Isère river and then along for several kilometres to Seez where the climb up to the Col de Petit St Bernard begins.

This is one of those very rare occasions where everything pretty much went to plan and there was no real excitement. Going up the long but gradual climb up to the Col de Petit St Bernard was pleasant but hard work - the legs not being warmed up at first and the body not being woken up. The point of this exercise however is to work hard to get the best possible benefit. Stopping briefly at the top to regroup we dived across the border straight down to La Thuile in Italy. The descent was fast and enjoyable because you could have confidence on the tyres griping. That doesn't mean that you can fly into a hairpin bend and slam on the brakes - the braking must be done just before the turn you that they can be almost completely released during the turn - especially the front one. I overtook two cars and had a lot of fun on the descent. We all had a close shave with a bus coming the other way that had decided it needed the entire width of the road the whole time. In La Thuile we stopped for a coffee break. This has to be the greatest difference between social training rides and races. Much more civilized! Chris picked a café right beside the bridge  before the river due to it serving particularly good coffee - then proceeded to fail to communicate correctly with the young Italian girl waitress. I got my American coffee but the others didn't get what they wanted. I refilled a few water bottles but Chris decided to ask to get his filled - after putting his energy powder mix in the bottle. The woman proceeded to empty his powder down the sink - much to Chris's horror. Chris then offered to pay for the coffees and the woman refused. We are pretty sure that this was just a complete continuation of the general confusion and that she thought he wanted to pay for the tap water. Seeing that we were on our bikes when the situation started to become clear we ended up doing a runner - or "rider" I suppose from the café.

The drop down into the Aosta valley is on a fast wide road to begin with. Rob, close behind me on a steep fast section didn't see the upcoming hairpin bend or realise I was going to brake so hard and almost embedded himself into a cliff. There was a momentary tussle to get past a slow camper van but generally the descent was fast. The narrow winding final drop into the valley is down the banks eroded by an ancient glacier - so it is steep and fun to go down in the dry. It's great to throw your body and bike into the turn and feel the advanced compound tyres gripping - the great directional pressure and then spring out of the turn as acceleration takes you off on a straight line again instead of turning you. The Continental racing tyres have very  high carbon content due to nanotechnology being employed and they grip well. My tyres have done over 7000km without a puncture and are still doing well. At the bottom of climb there is a main road to cross and there was a lot of traffic bunching up. Chris just imperially nudged his way in front of the cars until being sure that they were stopped in all directions and we filed through pretending that we somehow had right of way. It's amazing what confidence can do! It's the same with traffic lights at roadworks - we never stop for them. Junctions can be different though. Not much further on down the Aosta valley, just where we had to cross back over the river to approach the Col St Carlos we were stopped by traffic lights and the gates of a rail crossing. Chris still muttered something about trying to get through but no one was responding. It was a long wait compared to French standards.

Starting the climb up the Col we were met immediately with a gradient of around 25%. You can see on the altitude profile on the chart at the top of this page, the middle climb is much steeper over its entire length. It averages 10% apparently over 12km but there are a lot of fairly long steep sections at around 26%. Chris had an 11T to 25T cassette on his wheel (52T to 36T in front) and so had no choice over his minimum speed. If he slowed down too much he'd fall off the bike. I had a minimum 34T front and 28T rear so it didn't take long to be in that configuration. Chris slowly but surely pulled ahead and Rob rather rapidly dropped off the back. Justin and I ended up staying together for the whole climb - but I must admit I'd have slowed down a bit if he wasn't there. Perhaps that was the same for both of us. The purpose of the day was to do this climb so although we tried to be sensible and not overcook it there was no point really in taking it too easy. My heart rate was around 165 bpm from the start of the climb and I did wonder if that could be sustained as we had already spent 01:45 hrs climbing on the first climb. Surprisingly, for the final 5km of the climb my heart was up at 170 bpm. It was interesting discussing with Chris later how as fitness improves during a season you can sustain a higher heart rate for much longer. I'd never seen that as a goal myself but it makes a lot of sense. We arrived at the wonderful café at the summit of the col and were glad to be there and off the bikes. I had been on the verge of cracking - my endurance/stamina still not being a match for my speed on short climbs. I had however made a point eating tasty almond based sports sweets along with isotonic sports drinks and so there were no energy dips. During the break at the top I drank a couple of Cokes (thanks Justin!), more energy drink and had a special energy gel from Decathlon which was delicious. There was plenty of time for this because Rob had predictably dropped about half an hour behind and was suffering. I think that my first time ever up this col had been a similar experience to Rob's so I understood exactly where he was with this. The good news it that this all gets much easier as fitness improves. That doesn't mean that it's less painful or demanding mentally but instead of suffering from feeling destroyed it shifts to suffering from placing higher performance demands on yourself - a much more satisfying form of suffering - if that's possible. Shortly after getting off the bike with my heart rate at 170 bpm I'd felt some constriction on my breathing but this was only when I'd been talking for a while. I realised that I was over-breathing due to speaking and my system being pushed to the limits was reacting - so by quietly breathing through the nose and not speaking for a few minutes that was brought completely back under control.

Descending from the Col back into La Thuile the road is wide and twisty which makes for a fast and fun ride. Chris had his back wheel skid momentarily from underneath him on one of the first bends and was more careful about timing the braking from then on. The climb back up from La Thuile to the Col de Petit St Bernard was just a formality really. Chris went slowly ahead taking Justin with him and I decided to stick to my own pace now just a little bit slower. Rob was labouring a bit behind and with the typical strong headwind, coming from France in the West right up the Tarantaise valley, growing in strength with altitude, Rob would certainly feel how soul destroying the long passage is at the top of this col. We waited for him again having drinks at the top (I have to thank Chris for the Coke this time!). To pass the time on the way up I'd composed a silly song and sang it to myself while climbing. Chris asked for a rendition at the café and soon regretted his request because it could only be sung out embarrassingly loudly - which doesn't bother me! On previous occasions I've felt much more like Rob would be feeling and the descents are not enjoyable when you are tired and hurting all over. This is where for me the benefits of all those long races and training sessions came clear for the first time. I might have been at my limits in terms of performance but didn't even have a sore bum. There was no sore back, nothing. Even the feet were behaving well. I felt good and only a healthy sort of tiredness. The steep descent from the col back through the high villages (Le Châtelard) directly back to St Foy and our starting point was very enjoyable. Everyone was pleased with their own efforts for the day and Rob was very satisfied to have done what was clearly his most challenging bike ride to date.

After the ride I went into town and had a couple of coffees and then to the 50m pool for a refreshing clean up and swim. I was not hungry and so didn't look for a meal. Swimming is just great after a long hard workout or race. That evening not much was achieved due to general fatigue and next morning I was short tempered and so over reacted a bit to Christiane. I'll need to stay on guard for this because hard training can make me a bit grumpy without realising it!

The foot was a bit sore afterwards but nothing bad and only if pressure went on the outside edge directly. I'd tried to focus as much as possible on the foot during the ride and found that sometimes pulling the toes up (still pointing the foot down) helped and sometimes it was easier to keep pressure on the balls of the feet though letting the ankle flex more. I tried to consciously avoid the whole time getting pressure on the middle of the foot and it seemed to work. It seems that the best bet is to activate the foot muscles though and to only relax with flexed ankles (feet horizontal) occasionally for a change.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Doc Superglue

I've heard that if you lose a limb or something then boiling pitch (tar) does a good job of sealing it up - otherwise many people seem to now use superglue for repairing and sealing cuts. I thought I'd look into it a little.. so as to be prepared - especially when running barefoot.

Found the following on a medical forum:
To quote, "(Quinn & Kissick, 1994) Current use: Although not labeled as such, over-the-counter Super Glue products contain methyl alcohol, because it is inexpensive to produce. Cyanoacrylates cure by a chemical reaction called polymerization, which produces heat. Methyl alcohol has a pronounced heating action when it contacts tissue and may even produce burns if the glue contacts a large enough area of tissue. Rapid curing may also lead to tissue necrosis. Midwives have not noted such reactions because minimal amounts are being used for perineal repair. Nevertheless, with a greater toxic potential, over-the-counter products are inappropriate for use in wound closure. (Quinn & Kissick, 1994)
Medical grade products currently available contain either butyl, isobutyl or octyl esters. They are bacteriostatic and painless to apply when used as directed, produce minimal thermal reaction when applied to dry skin and break down harmlessly in tissue. They are essentially inert once dry. Butyl products are rigid when dry, but provide a strong bond. Available octyl products are more flexible when dry, but produce a weaker bond. "

I think the point is that you only risk using industrial superglue on small cuts! Apparently the cyanide component is not dangerous because cyanide is only toxic when ingested due to reactions with the stomach acid. The danger seems to be from the heat produced if you use a lot of it - a bit similar to the boiling pitch option perhaps.

Perhaps a medical grade product like "Liquid Skin" would be better for bigger cuts and skin loss.

I might leave my pitch boiling kit behind in future which is a shame because I really wanted to find someone to try it out on.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Thanks for all the Fish (Cause and Effect)

While the great 50m outdoor pool is open here during the summer I'm using every break from cycling or running to go and do some swimming. It's not my favourite activity and it probably tells me that I wouldn't be a good astronaut either. I like gravity and seem to be a bit lost without it's full effects to deal with - though it would be handy if it were just slightly reduced at times - like if I lost another 5kg. I can imagine a workout on a space bike - you'd get good at pulling up with one pedal at the same time as you push down on the other because it's the only way you could stay in the saddle.

Swimming also relates to outer-space in the sense that you can very quickly suffocate. That's something else I'm just not all that comfortable with. Guess I'll never really feel at home there. Perhaps that's why Douglas Adams had Dolphins migrating though space naturally and the "Thanks for all the fish" parting message as they left the planet for good.

Today I played with technique again - because I'm crap at going fast or far or anything else for that matter. The sensation of anchoring the arm in the water and pulling the body forward is really starting to come. Lots of the stuff I have read and studied over the years is starting to happen by itself - though it's never quite the same as when you directly try to make it happen. The language for communicating feelings just doesn't exist. It's a shame that all this effort goes into developing computer programming languages today and yet nobody has the vocabulary to describe swimming. Perhaps Dolphins could accurately describe it for me - but unfortunately they have fins instead of arms so it might not work even if we could understand them  - and Douglas Adams is dead now so he wouldn't be able to translate.

The anchoring is linked to the body's rotation. If you rotate the body towards the arm during the down phase, lifting up the elbow, it somehow anchors the arm and then with a continued body rotation the arm keeps it's whole surface area presented to remain anchored as the body slides forwards. The pull also goes though the core muscles and the body feels like it arcs around the stationary arm. (Imagine the elbow going from overhead, out to the side and then close to the waist - tracing an arc. But it's the body that moves instead!) Perhaps an exercise could be invented for doing that as a means of propagation on a mat. Don't know where this is leading or if it has made me any faster but there was less suffocation, less tiredness of the arms and better feeling of power. My swimming has such a long way to go though - but it's getting more interesting. How do other people learn all this as kids? Guess this is part of my education that really didn't happen! 

One sure fire way to know if something is "right" is when it starts "happening to you". When you have spent time trying to do something by rote - but it remains mechanical and deliberate with no great feeling linking it to other aspects of the activity  - then you are just going through the motions and not really understanding it. Eventually the body "self organises" around this coordination and suddenly the whole thing works and starts happening to you - not as a cause but as an effect. That's when you know that something is right. Most technical descriptions confuse cause and effect and that's where the language of "feeling" always breaks down.

Running for Healing (Foot Adaptability)

Just when I thought I'd be able to step up the running and really lose some weight - it's all gone pear shaped! The foot pain is persisting and has dragged me back down to a bare minimum of effort - plus I've started eating too much again so I'm going physically pear shaped too. I'm also having a bit of a rest from cycling due to feeling that I'd been overtraining a bit and getting much too grumpy along with it. Today - a full week after the La Bourgui the legs felt back to normal for the first time. It was depressing however to miss a race yesterday in glorious sunshine - but it felt more like withdrawal from some form of addiction!

Peronius Insertion Tendinitis
The foot injury appears to be "peronius insertion tendinitis" - that is the bony bump on the outside edge of the foot near the middle hurts if I step on it. (Isn't life so much easier without jargon?) It seemed to be sparked off by cycling - not running - though the running has now become an issue. Standard advice is to use anti inflamatories, rest, ice, orthotics (especially a wedge under the outside edge of the foot) and to immobilise the foot. There should be no barefoot walking.

Adaptation - over 100 muscles - per foot! (Can you name one?)
Going by feel alone I had done the opposite of those recommendations on the bike -  wedged the shoe so that there was more support on the inside edge - and it worked beyond expectations. For walking though, at first I thought the experts might be right because walking barefoot was painful and obviously not a good idea - or so it appeared. I'd tried running in soggy cushioned running shoes and it worked but this didn't seem to really address the issue. The cushioned shoes seemed to mask the issue instead. It occurred to me however that the foot has 26 bones, 33 joints and over 100 muscles - it must be pretty adaptable. 1/4 of all the bones in the body are in the feet. Perhaps trying to adapt the foot temporarily would be a better idea instead of locking it up in a concrete block and trying to forget about it as usual. This is the approach that I already take in skiing when I get people to lose their footbeds and learn how to use the feet - to make shapes with them and to feel how this then affects the leg muscles and posture - and also the feedback and function of the ski.

Walk This Way!
First experiment was to walk on the inside edge of the foot and this worked straight away. I could do this by extending the ball of the foot downwards and increasing the main arch of the foot - thus eliminating the need to stand on the outside edge of the foot and pronate inwards. This is something I use a lot in skiing to permit pressure on the ball of the foot without flexing the ankle and it resembles the "toe down" sensation in cycling that also strengthens the foot and transmits power more effectively. In skiing I sometimes stand on the outside edge of the foot too - but the inside edge of the ski! Walking should be simpler that and of course it is - so I was able to adapt and walk painlessly. Is it possible to remember to walk this way though even for a short while?

What I've realised after 25 years of teaching sport is that people do what they learn to do - and that instinctive natural responses are seldom appropriate. Sometimes the instinctive natural response is really bad - just throw someone who can't swim into a pool and watch the natural response - or stick them untrained in a boxing ring or on skis - all contexts which require learning.

For me "consciousness" is really simple. It's nothing more than a feedback loop that allows us to re-program unconscious behaviour. Most animals aren't very good at that but humans can be. (not all humans!) We can consciously re-program behaviour so that the new patterns or coordination are the new automatic unconscious response. I've been doing that for many years myself in very highly skilled sports (and violin playing - not so skilled!) so altering how to walk temporarily shouldn't be a big issue. The real issue is just realising that it should be done - when everywhere people are trying to stuff you into shoes, orthotics and plaster casts and de-responsibilising you (if there is such a word.)

Risking the Barefoot Run
Yesterday I decided to properly test out this theory of "foot adaptability" by seeing if I could run with the foot functioning so as to protect itself. To ensure the clearest possible feedback I decided to run properly barefoot on tarmac. (Also potentially the greatest risk.)

I ended up running 3km in the Vibram Five Fingers and then 3km  barefoot - about 30 mins altogether - all slowly and concentrating on form. I tried barefoot first but the foot hurt and switching to VFFs the discomfort disappeared. Once warmed up and focussed on good mechanics I went back to barefoot and it was fine after a minute or two to adapt.
I'd decided that if at any point there was a sharp pain I'd stop immediately. As expected the pain was more evident fully barefoot on the road - but what this did was give me clearer feedback and obliged me to correct the mechanics even better. I found that the natural "protective" response to pain in the foot is to actually land slightly more on the outside edge (where the injury is) - perhaps to generate more cushioning effect though greater pronation. This isn't felt clearly with the VFFs so I couldn't spot it until going barefoot. Another tendency I spotted was to bring the foot too far forwards - also some sort of protective measure (perhaps to avoid committing pressure to the foot) - and for this to cause the foot to land mid-sole  - exactly, once again, on the point that is hurting! I consciously stopped "over protecting", made sure that my foot landed underneath me so as to land properly on the forefoot and then everything was fine at a low speed. I used ice on returning home and next morning my foot actually felt better than before the run (no ibuprofen). Not planning on doing too much of this but if I can manage once or twice a week at the moment then perhaps this approach will be OK.
It's amusing that "sensible" advice is to not even walk barefoot and to immobilise the foot or to at least use orthotics in a shoe. If that was right I should be in a mess after yesterday but I'm not.

Skiing Therapy
The idea to oppose apparently sensible advice really comes from something that I have learned from ski teaching over the years. Most injuries involving joints, muscles, backs (sciatica) etc. can actually be helped by skiing despite doctors advising people not to ski. The docs would be correct if the people skied with a "normal" understanding of the activity - but with an accurate set of insights and perceptions as to how it really works skiing becomes incredibly safe and literally therapeutic for the body. Using accurate feedback and good mechanics everything is worked in an intelligent manner. This allows the body to protect itself and to heal - through good posture, getting reflexes to work for instead of against you, working with physics instead of against it and applying many counter-intuitive rules. Barefoot running is exactly the same in this respect. Skiing makes us work to find the appropriate set of natural actions to use in a modern context. Barefoot running makes us work to become aware of a natural set of rules to use in a natural context - the work being necessary to overcome a lifetime of being forced into the modern context of shoes.

Monday, August 8, 2011

La Bourgui - 10th National Ski Instructor's Challenge

Ten Ways to be Sensible - and return straight back to bed
When the weather turns really foul it's amazing how many excuses you can invent for not participating in outdoor events. Yesterday at the 10th edition of La Bourgui - billed as the "The National Ski Instructor's Championship" (notably - ESF - French ski instructor communists) - my own list was growing quite long. This would be my second participation at the event and last year I had found it very hard, demoralising and just unpleasant - and that was in very good weather! This year my left foot had been killing me when cycling recently and the problem had become badly aggravated though running "barefoot" long distance. The issue was so bad that a possible abandon would be on the cards - unless I could manage to climb uphill pedalling with just one leg. To make matters worse I'd gone running a few days earlier, after a two week lay off from running, with cushioned running shoes. Although that didn't seem to hurt the foot it did leave me with an appalling attack of d.o.m.s - the muscle soreness being so bad in the thighs that even a light touch with a finger was painful. Now, on the morning of the race it was debatable whether I'd just been woken up at 5am by the alarm clock or by the torrential rain hammering down outside. The other thing in favour of a quick retreat was that I hadn't managed to register or pay online and so not only would I not lose a pre-paid fee but I'd avoid the more expensive 30€ starting fee that has to be paid for those registering at the race itself. There were a lot of good sensible reasons to go back to bed.

How to successfully avoid being sensible...
Perhaps the greatest appeal of those events is the fact that there is nothing sensible about them. I knew that if the weather cleared up later I'd be really annoyed with myself for not going - so there appeared to be no option but to go. The bad weather must have been a warm front because air temperatures were still acceptable despite the dense cloud cover. After breakfast, wearing waterproof jacket and waterproof shoes I loaded the car and set off just as dawn was breaking. The headlights of another car were immediately in my rear view mirror and it happened to be someone else heading for the same destination  - St Martin de Belleville only 32km away. It was reassuring that at least this madness was collective and I wasn't completely alone. The drive was through pouring rain and dense patches of clouds at different altitudes. Moûtiers is at 483m altitude and from there it is a 20km climb up to 1450m altitude at St Martin de Belleville. The clouds were in layers at different altitudes so you would go though one dense layer where driving was difficult and come back out into clear air again. This didn't seem to make much difference to the deluge that was coming down constantly though and we would have to descend back down though this freezing rain on our bikes soon - on partially flooded roads with gravel and possible rock falls washed onto it - with brakes that would scarcely work and tyres that might not grip on the turns. For me priority would be to stay warm and in control of my body as much as possible - having learned the importance of that at the recent Etape du Tour (Etape out of Hell) where over half the participants abandoned due to hypothermia.

Registering - familiar faces
Last year I remarked that there is no one in this race over 3ft 6ins or over 50kg - and this year it was not much different. It's a race for mountain goats really and everyone else appears to avoid it. After parking up and registering by 7am in the centre of town (for an 8am race start) I headed straight for the neighbouring café for a final warm coffee before changing into racing kit and readying the bike. Inside were the familiar friendly faces of John and Carolyn Thomas (Mâcot-La Plagne club) on their usual family podium hunt and Jacques Matt who is the only Bourg St Maurice club member to turn up at races without fail - regardless of his physical condition. Everyone was being reasonable and going for the short 80km (1750m climb) course - except me - sticking to the principle that there is nothing sensible about any of this anyway so might as well do the 124km (3624m climb 11,900ft) course and be completely absurd. Last year it was this long course that I'd hated but the only way to find out if there was any improvement in performance was to do the same course again. With the short course having only one climb at the end I couldn't just try and see if my foot would be okay and then switch courses. The switch would come before enough climbing had been done to see if the foot was bearable or not.

Race Start - Micro climate
Rain was pouring down at the start of the race. In front of me was one lightly dressed man shaking with cold already - how he would survive the 20km descent down to Moûtiers at the start of the race I really don't know. I'd put on a base layer, jersey and proper waterproof jacket. In addition I had a membrane/fleece under-helmet hat on top of a wide bandanna (normally for stopping sweat running into the sun glasses) and neoprene full fingered gloves on top of normal fingerless mitts. I also had full arm and leg warmers and a waterproof covering for the shoes. The shorts getting soaked through and being cold was a worry - but there was no problem with that in the end. All this clothing seemed to create a small clothes based micro climate that sustained itself all day with only opening and closing front zips on the jacket and jersey. I never stopped to alter any of this because there was always a threat of having to stop again and reverse the decision as the weather remained unstable all day.

Descending safely though the deluge
People were suitably cautious on the first descent and although the front peloton vanished into the distance very quickly everyone else focussed on safety. Water was flowing down the road in parts and rim brakes don't work too well in those conditions. I made sure to do all of the braking in a straight line before the bends but sometimes it seemed like it was already too late and that I couldn't slow down in time. I'm sure that with good tyres (as I have) taking bends fast and less braking would have been possible but there was no desire to put this to the test. I don't want to spend the rest of summer with a broken collar bone or worse - and most people seemed to feel the same way. Down in the valley however the skies were already clearing and after passing Moûtiers and starting to warm up the body properly from pedalling it felt great to be there. I knew then that the decision to participate had been the right one.

Painful Preparation
During the week before this event I'd managed one workout on the bike and a run. The cycling had once again aggravated the painful left foot even though I used my old shoes/cleats that had never troubled me before. I guess the damage was already done. A few days later I tried running again after a two week lay off since the foot flared up. The pain was on the outside edge (underneath) and near the middle of the foot and both running and cycling were aggravating it. To help with the running I used cushioned low profile Mizuno road running shoes - which allowed proper natural technique (more or less) but with the cushioning preventing any serious foot pain. This appeared to work and there was no increase in pain during the run nor any significant deterioration afterwards. I'd reduced the distance to a short 6km (1000ft climb) route but ended up running it in record time - all because of a mistake! I'd used the smartphone training app with GPS in "beat yourself" mode to run against the best previous performance. Right from the first kilometre the audio feedback told me I was 12 seconds ahead - so I got into it properly despite the lack of run training. Having had a good rest up until this point it was easy to focus properly on technique, coordination and cadence but the sponginess and lack of tactile feedback from being back in cushioned shoes was horrible. After the second kilometre I was 12 seconds behind and then started dropping even faster behind - so I started working harder but by the top of the climb was a full 2 minutes behind. Gritting my teeth I accelerated on the downhill - despite good form being difficult to maintain with the heels on the shoes almost preventing a forefoot landing on the descent. Eventually I managed to pull back over a minute of the lost time and finished only 57 seconds down. The time didn't seem to be quite right though and then I noticed that I'd selected the wrong route and was actually racing against my bike which would have been climbing up towards Granier. In fact I'd beaten my personal best by 4 seconds despite a long lay off. The price to pay for this would be very sore muscles and the impossibility of recovering completely before La Bourgui.

Instead of just going in for the race and hoping for the best I decided to go by feel and actively try to reduce the pain in the foot. Direct massage was making things worse and ice seemed to do nothing. Ibuprofen removed the pain temporarily until the foot was used again - but I didn't want to use painkillers in a race as that can be detrimental to many aspects of your system. If soft cushioning could make running possible then perhaps it would work for cycling too. I tried on several cushioned footbeds in a big sports shop finally selected one that had a big pad right under the sore spot on the outside of the foot and also a strong arch support. The footbeds were trimmed and squeezed into the cycle shoes. This would add weight for sure - but that was a minor issue in this case. I had no idea if this would work or even make the situation worse, but time would tell. I also found that my Speedplay cleats were on the wrong way around on my new shoes which made adjustment of the position impossible. The cleats were switched around and pushed as far to the inside as possible to make the load on the foot more to the inside - whereas it had been about central before. It was also possible that the high saddle and "toes down" action were contributing - the ankle being held stiffer and stronger as force is applied to the pedal  - but I really didn't want to change that too and risk losing efficiency and effectiveness.

Returning to the race...
Basically I'd managed to do exactly the same as last year and get myself pretty much at the back of the pack from the start, never to see it again! The small pack I was in at Moûtiers turned out to be mainly people on the short course and so they would all vanish shortly after the start of the first climb where they would turn off and descend back down the valley. The first climb is quite demoralising because you think it is short but it isn't. After about half and hour of steep climbing there is a sign saying "10km to Summit". This sign would show up 3 times today and was always extremely unwelcome! The field was so strung out from the start that there was no overall change of position during the climb. I was overtaken by two people and overtook two myself. Last year I remember pushing really hard on this climb and paying for it later. This time the speed was probably higher but the workload seemed easier and heart rate averaged around 158bpm - which is not too excessive. I knew that the main difference from the previous year was technique - the high saddle position and the pulling up on the pedal with the core muscles being involved. Although I'd managed to use this to excellent effect on short hill climbs and even to get on a podium at Les Arcs I'd never managed to convert this into results in long endurance - which this was going to be. The positive thing so far was that the race was becoming enjoyable. The clothing had been effective for warmth on the descent and it was tempting to stop like some others and remove all the extra stuff - but this climb would eventually reach higher, cooler altitudes and be followed by another wet descent, plus the rain was not totally switched off yet. I kept the clothes on. At the tiny village of Naves (1350m) at the top of the first climb there were a lot of people out to cheer us on. With this being a dead end at the top it's probably the only excitement they get all year. Once again the public were impressive in their selflessness for overcoming the bad weather to encourage others. The last few kilometres of road up to Naves were horrible with patches and bumps all over the place. This is the sort of section of road that is exposed to all the winter elements and might not even be open in winter as the main road up to Naves is on the other side of the valley which we would later be descending. One clever thing about this course is that all the climbs are on twisty narrow back roads but the descents are wide open and fast - when dry. The first part of the descent however is still very bumpy and somewhere along there I lost my second Zefal Air Control CO2 regulator in under a month. The stupid thing was well screwed onto a CO2 bottle which itself is screwed onto a holder attached to the bike. There was a big screw thread and it was on the upside so it would have had to unscrew a long way upwards! What on Earth makes that happen? It's just so perverse. If I'd had a puncture it would have been a problem. Further down on the descent I stopped to assist someone who did have a puncture - but he had tubular tyres and had broken the valve on one when trying to inflate it. There was nothing I could do to help and once I stopped he kept on wanting to talk as I tried to get away - as if we weren't in a race! As Sting says "No act of kindness will go unpunished!"

The flats from Aigueblanche to Cevins would have to be done as a time trial because as happened last year there was no one around to ride with. On the short climb at Les Léchères below the start of the Col de la Madeleine I was just going over the crest and starting to descend when the main peloton was coming up the hill on the return leg - already! Talk about demoralising! It didn't get to me though as I felt good. Last year riding this leg alone had been depressing but this time I was enjoying the workout and relative dryness after the early morning deluge. Reaching Cevins, the mid point and turn-around for the flats I was caught by someone who I'd overtaken on the climb. He signalled that he'd worked hard to catch up but willingly worked his share of drafting until we got back to the climb below the Col de la Madeleine where he must have died because I never saw him again. (but thanks for the help on the flats whoever you were!) To my great surprise there were about half a dozen or so other riders descending, coming towards me just as I'd done with the main peloton. If I had been demoralised then they certainly had a lot more to be worried about. That cheered me up a bit!

From then on I was on my own for the rest of the race. Through Les Léchères, Aigueblanche and up the climb to Doucy (1250m) I saw only two people - the two who slowly ground past me on the climb. There is a very improbable small ski resort at Doucy which links to Valmorel. Despite living in the Tarantaise valley for many years the only reason I know this resort exists is because of this bike race! Already on this second climb my legs were not cooperating so well, heart rate was down to 154bpm, I was dropping through the gears and power was evaporating. Regardless of all of that I felt fine and still enjoyed the workout. At Doucy some locals were still out clapping and encouraging the stragglers. Each section of road was etched into my brain from the year precedent and was associated with one form of unpleasantness or another. This year seemed like a re-programming exercise as that slate of bad memories seemed to be in the process of being re-written with a much better and more positive script. It was weird how the memories came intruding into the mind at each turn and straight and how I could feel them being exorcised from deep within.

The foot had started to feel a bit numb on the first climb but then returned to normal. Astonishingly the adaptations had worked completely and there was absolutely no pain - even when standing up on the pedals. The d.o.m.s. pain had only been felt at the very start of the race until the legs warmed up. All the reasons that had piled up to try to prevent me from racing had proven to be fallacious and just a result of that natural instinct to avoid potential hardship instead of overcoming it.

The descent from Doucy was enjoyable and I was able to drink freely having refilled a bottle at the feeding station just before Doucy. I'd consumed a gel just before climbing and now another on the descent (plus one earlier at Cevins). All that sugar is pretty horrible but you just have to make yourself eat it. Aigueblanche was rapidly traversed and then heading up to Moûtiers the second guy who had overtaken me on the Doucy climb was coming back towards me having taken a wrong turn and ended up on the motorway. It's a problem with this course because not all the junctions are marshalled and last year I also ended up on the motorway in the other direction. He seemed pretty annoyed with himself and tore off in front of me to make up time (in the right direction). He did seem to have the energy for it though and I didn't. Lack of marshalling would make cheating extremely easy on this course - and I'm sure it has been done! After Moûtiers was the main climb of the day - 25km from Moûtiers at 483m up to Les Menuires at 1850m. Right from the start of the climb I was in the granny gear universe.

Endurance Scale
It has occurred to me that there should be a scale for "endurance" based upon each 1000m of climbing. Currently on the 1st 1000m I'm "Very Good", 2nd 1000m "Good", 3rd 1000m "Not Good", 4th 1000m "Bad", 5th 1000m "F****d"! Untrained riders would hit the "F" category on the first 1000m and the best would stay at "VG" the whole way. This year I went through VG to G to NG and to B on the last climb. Last year it was G to NG to B to F.

Each time the road flattened a little it was an excuse to move the gears back up and try to increase speed a bit. Working heart rate had dipped at the start of the climb but was now back up to 152 bpm though power output was simply not great - I'd slipped clearly into the NG category. Mentally things were fine and so I kept working. The smartphone GPS output had gone haywire some time back but the music kept playing until after 5 hours the playlist had run out. I'd listened to music the whole way because it was obvious that there would be no one to talk to and with the bad weather it would really help morale and to ignore various pains. After the music stopped it was however very nice to pull out the ear plugs and hear the world around me again. I took another gel somewhere on a plateau and the energy/protein drinks were doing fine. In total I'd drink less that two litres due to the cool temperatures. Only two people overtook me on the entire 25km climb but that's probably because there weren't many left out there. As soon as you slip from the VG category people start to overtake and the further you slip down the more guarantee there is of being overtaken.

The final drinks station was back in St Martin de Belleville and here I had one bottle filled up again and Isostar tablets dropped into it. From St Martin de Belleville it is still steep to begin with but then the climb flattens out on the main road. It's great to be able to get some speed up once again and realise that the legs aren't really dead. The last section up to Les Menuires however is a killer because you keep thinking that it is over and as you come around each potentially final bend there is yet another long steep straight lying ahead. Only in this very last section - reaching into the 4th 1000m did I feel that I was slipping into the B category and not enjoying it any more. "B" or "Bad" is when the legs still work in a weak but regular way but there is no enjoyment left and all you want is to finish. (F is when the legs have gone too)

Crossing the finish line is always a bit of a disappointment when there is nobody there! To be fair the rain was now heavy again and everyone was sheltering plus riders were arriving about 10 minutes apart now. It had really started to cool on the final 10km with the rain picking up in intensity again so I was very glad not to have stopped and removed any clothes during the lower part of the climb. There was a stand at the finish serving drinks and food - real food not sugary gels and first priority was to devour some of this. The best part was a hot sweet tea and some chocolate squares. Within minutes this brought a warm glow inside as energy seemed to flood back into the body. I should add that this simply does not happen if you reach the "F" endurance stage - from that unfortunate state there is no quick return. With the temperature dropping and rain increasing I decided to waste no time before descending to St Martin de Belleville to get back to the car. On the way up that last leg several people had shouted encouragement to me when they were returning to St Martin - and it really did relieve the isolation factor - so I made a point of doing the same for those still climbing because they were pretty obviously near or in the "F" stage.  It just seems so much better than everyone bombing back down ignoring those who are still battling and suffering. Getting to the car in the pouring rain was the second best feeling next to the sweet tea and chocolate. Getting into warm dry clothes prolonged the euphoria. From St Martin I drove back up to Les Menuires for the pasta party - basically to feed properly after the exercise. The hall was pretty full but there was plenty of food, drink and coffee left. My only problem was that after eating all I wanted to do was go to sleep - so when the prize giving presentations were starting I quietly slipped away. I just wanted to get home now and chill out watching movies for the rest of the day - nothing else would be possible anyway.

My final time was 6hrs 15mins and at first I felt very disappointed because it didn't seem like much of an improvement over last year's 6hrs 25mins. Initial disappointments like that are usually due more to fatigue than anything else and quickly pass away. A great deal of time had been lost on the slow descents so times would not really be comparable. The best reference would be the against the winners. The same top people were up there on the podium as last year and their performance level does not change a lot. last year I'd been 2hrs 15min behind them and this year 1hr 50mins - quite a significant improvement considering they would not have been descending as cautiously as me and all my subsequent gains must have been made on the climbs. That's where the tiredness and exhaustion were coming from. The d.o.m.s. had not been an issue and the foot was completely pain free plus the rain and weather posed no problem at all. Thank goodness I'd been reading "Feet in the Clouds" about hardcore fell (mountain) runners and their exploits in all conditions or I might have not had the inspiration to resist returning to bed in the morning. Building endurance up from scratch is a long term job and sometimes appears to just not be happening - so any positive measure of success is an encouragement to persist and keep up the training. It gets more enjoyable too the better you get at it.

My placing on the long course was 42nd out of 49 finishers and 10th out of 12 in age group - basically only hard core mountain goats were left after the rain washed the rest away. 63 either abandoned or did not turn up - more than half the field - there was no detailed information as to how many abandoned. One young woman who finished over half an hour after me finished 1st on the podium for her category. For me the satisfaction was in having enjoyed the exercise, the mountains and the whole event.
(Last year I placed 107th out of 117 and 18th in age cat out of 19 - seems like the best way to improve my result is to hope for bad weather!)

In the short course 94 finished and 56 didn't. John Thomas came 12th overall and took 2nd place in age category - but he also greatly reduced the gap to the winner to only 5 minutes from last year's 15 minutes. Carolyn also ended up 2nd in her category and they should really be given a special first prize for being the most successful couple participating.