Sunday, October 7, 2012

Colle St Carlos

Woke up this morning with calf muscles debilitatingly sore and stiff from running “doms”. I’d stuck to only 5km (two days’ before) but significantly accelerated for the final two kilometres and that was enough to push me though this adaptation phase. That would have been fine, but not when the idea was to get up early to go on a monster bike ride (115km and 3100m (10,500ft) climbing ) over the Alps with someone fitter and faster than myself.

Only four days earlier I’d covered 120km cycling and went through various ups and downs in performance that were seemingly due to blood sugar levels. This time it would be prudent to try to learn something and do a better job of controlling the issues – otherwise the day would not be very enjoyable. The first climb of the day (1400m) was from Bourg St Maurice at 853m altitude to the Col de Petit St Bernard at 2245m – for which I unfortunately forgot to start logging on the Xperia. This isn’t a steep climb but it’s very hard work because the climb is non stop for 30km and the moderate gradient allows you to go relatively fast. With this being the “warm up” climb for the day Chris and I climbed it together, managing to hold sporadic conversations on the way up. We didn’t want to overdo it on this climb because the real target was the dramatic ascent of the Colle St Carlos – plus there would be 5hrs 36mins of aggressive cycling ahead so it was prudent to start off “relatively” easily.

Chris wore winter style clothing with full gloves and long leggings. I wore summer gear with a base layer and arms warmers to start with plus a wind breaker. It was only around 10°C at Bourg when we left and 8:30am and it would probably be near freezing at altitude but clear sky and sunshine were forecast. As it happened there appeared to be  a form of temperature inversion and it was warmer at altitude than in the valleys – especially over on the Italian side of the border.

Pushing hard up to la Rosière ski station I was already starting to feel a form of tiredness after about 90 minutes. Although this was not the hardest part of the day we were not hanging about and it was time to put recent lessons to the test. The last thing is the world I felt like doing at this moment was eating. It’s not that the desire to eat is absent, there is a positive desire NOT to eat. The body is working very hard and all the blood is pulled away from the stomach to the legs so it’s like the stomach and all it’s needs are switched off making the very idea of eating repulsive. This appears to be what has always in the past prevented me from reacting to fatigue by eating and always associating it with lactic acid instead. I made myself eat an almond bar and drink some electrolyte fluid. Within five minutes the sensation of encroaching tiredness had subsided and full energy levels returned. It’s the first time I’ve ever made it to the top of this 30km climb without flagging towards the end! The time of 1hr 50 mins is a reasonable time and in line with a good solid workout even it was the only climb of the day. We stopped to put on windbreakers for the very long descent into the Aosta valley and that’s when I spotted that the Xperia had not been switched on to logging.

Passing through la Thuille in Italy and dropping down the narrow valley towards the Aosta alley it became very cold. This was partly due to the valley being in the shade and partly due to the temperature inversion. Fortunately it warmed up again towards the bottom of the descent and it wasn’t too bad. My descending was slightly affected by the effect of the running “doms” in the legs and the resulting sub 100% feeling that this leaves you with. To descend strongly you have to be at 100% to have the necessary confidence. I was generally hanging back behind Chris all the time – not chomping at the bit at all to be pushing on the pedals. Everything seemed to be done with a slight reluctance but acceptance nonetheless. While traversing the Aosta valley towards the Colle St Carlos I ate another almond bar and Chris gave me a large dextrose tablet – which I’d wait until about 10 minutes into the climb before eating. Dextrose is identical to the sugar in the blood so it doesn’t need to be digested and goes straight into the blood stream. Meanwhile hopefully the recharge from the almond bar would be working it’s way into the system.

The Colle St Carlos is viciously steep – up to 18% for significant stretches and climbing 1000m in only 10km. Most of the steep climbing is concentrated in the first half, which seriously tires out the legs for the second half. The first time I ever climbed this my bike had a standard 38T front and 23T rear gear setup and I had to zigzag to make it to the top. Today I’d have a 34T front and 28T rear available so there were no worries there. Most of the steeps I managed to climb in either the 23T or 25T, only dropping down to 28T on the nastiest parts and trying hard not to remain there afterwards.  The Rotor oval chainwheel is actually the equivalent of a 37T during the power phase, dropping to about 31T through the dead spot. The climb took about 1hr 2mins and it was tough. Normally I’d expect to die about half way up this climb but for the final 30 minutes the opposite happened and my heart rate was even higher at around 160 bpm average. There was no sign of light headedness or headache or of the sensation of energy draining away. The sugar management was clearly working and “lactic acid” was evidently not the main issue after all. One new drawback surfaced however! There was now no excuse to ease off with the effort! The limitations were now simply power to weight ratio and fitness. Whenever I found the thighs or hips hurting too much then some relief could be found in standing up on the pedals and getting a better extension of the hips and contraction of the glutes – also taking some of the strain off the lower back. Whenever I remembered to work from  the core there would be a dramatic recovery of speed and ease of pedalling – as if the “pull up” happened without trying. For some odd reason I felt unable to focus on that consistently, but it came to the rescue frequently when the going got tough.

Something else happened that seems to be the mental equivalent of physical centring with the core muscles. Deprived of my normal “get out” and default “plodding” mode with my head completely zonked out, then a new strategy would be necessary for dealing with discomfort. For some reason enforced “plodding” limits the self inflicted discomfort you experience. The body defends itself and goes into fat burning mode, which you can maintain almost indefinitely. The discomfort levels associated with fat burning plodding are not so great – it’s just that it’s an enforced condition and the brain won’t permit you any other options once this happens. Recently I read a letter by Stephen Gough – famous as “The naked Rambler” who has just spent 6 years in solitary confinement in jail. He is a man with incredible integrity and courage. He discusses how people’s prejudices are mostly caused by their inability to question their own assumptions – in other words – to participate consciously in their thoughts and acts. He gave an example of a neighbour in prison who would complain of boredom. He responded to this other prisoner by asking him if he had ever questioned his assumption that he was bored. When his neighbour actually interrogated himself on the issue he realised that there was no boredom. Christiane, when she walks or runs likes to see the ground and scenery as if they were moving towards her, so that she can feel centred and focused more inside her own body instead of externally. During the discomfort of extreme effort in cycling I noticed the same issues arising. Looking ahead at the long steep road it could quickly become discouraging, so it was important to bring the focus internally. Bringing the focus internally also would mean avoiding “external” assumptions of discomfort or anxiety. It was necessary to question the assumption of discomfort – was it really that bad? When observing the body attentively and putting this to the question it became obvious that the discomfort was largely an illusion, an assumption – an “external” thought just as external as the long steep road ahead. Centring the mind meant focusing directly on the body and asking for accurate real-time feedback. 

The summit of the Colle St Carlos has a fantastic little cafe / restaurant which is always open even on Sundays. They serve REAL thick Italian hot chocolate, but today a coffee would be fine. The sun was out and it was warm enough to sit outdoors and try to dry out a bit. Removing my headband and wringing it created a large puddle of sweat on the ground. It took a good ten minutes to recover properly from the exertion. Drying out was important because there was a 500m vertical descent back to la Thuille before the final 700m climb of the day back to the Col de Petit St Bernard. We refilled the water bottles at the cafe from an outdoor tap and set off refreshed.

Arriving at la Thuille we bumped into two British cyclists preparing to set off up the same climb – Martin Row and Sam Pritchard. By now my legs felt weary and although I’d expected a relaxed final climb it was obvious that this wasn’t going to happen. Chris and I packed away the wind breaker jackets and set off on the climb at a good pace. Looking back we could see one of the other’s also attacking the climb at a good pace. I could stay with Chris at the start but found myself working at a level that was unsustainable so once we arrived at the steeper parts I let him go ahead. For my part I simply maintained a solid workload – most of the time in third gear or dropping to second when absolutely necessary and applying all the technique and psychology that I could muster. Once again my body was failing to default into plodding mode so there was no “get out” possible. The distance grew between me and the “competition” behind so that was quite satisfying considering the big workload from the day already in the legs. Chris waited in the Italian cafe at the top of the col and when I joined him it was difficult to walk into the cafe. My legs seemed to be seizing up mainly from the running “doms” and somehow this was now really catching up with me. Inside my thighs started to ache and throb – a fairly unpleasant sensation. This left little desire to pedal on 30km descent to Bourg – which can be greatly assisted by pedalling hard. I ate more sugar to help with tiredness and once again it did seem to help. However I WAS genuinely tired by now.

At home I was totally wasted and unable to even watch TV or a film, my powers of concentration were so seriously depleted. Sleeping was not an option either because of aches everywhere. The fantastic thing is that I had learned why the quality of long workouts had so often (but strangely not always) been so poor due to blood sugar management. Endless hours of plodding through an inner fog are just demoralising and discouraging. Short fast workouts are great but they don’t build enough stamina – or at least they don’t teach you how to cope with longer demanding rides and how to develop appropriate tactics and strategy.

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