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.

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