Monday, September 23, 2013

Running against Entropy

Entropy is the single most defining feature of the universe so it's utterly unavoidable. The best description I've heard is that the universe is like a gigantic waterfall of increasing entropy (disorder) with the spray being all that is creative and organised. When people become depressed it’s probably because they perceive the hopelessness of the overwhelming odds of entropy. Organisation and creativity go together - it's just that one is a pure battle against entropy and the other involves novelty. Slaves are very good for handling entropy - so I guess that's why accountants and lawyers are forced to develop (or have to begin with) a slavish sort of mind. The trouble is that you can't be creative without being organised. My tool boxes tend to appear to be chaotic and disorganised - but I know intuitively where everything is kept - even years after last using things. It's the daily things like keys that get lost because there is so much distraction. Saying that, I pretty much know where everything is without spending large tracts of time pretending to be better organised. I guess it's about working out the payoff from time put in fighting entropy with respect to the gains in creativity - finding that sweet spot that lets you stay in the spray. When a runner joins the 60% of other runners injured each year – then entropy has won. We love to run – but how much energy do we put aside for organising our running mechanics? We don’t have to be slaves to this process – but we need to be able to know where everything is – what all the body parts are doing and what the whole is doing.

Einstein may have been a bumbling plagiarist and manufactured product of Zionism  - and got “relativity” utterly wrong - but he did have some good moments. He pointed out that the state of a person's desk surface reflects his state of mind. His desk was always a major mess - but what is the mind like of someone who's desk is empty? The runner who’s “desk is empty” is the runner who simply runs against the clock and using power and force – and so ends up injured.

For the past two months I've been trying to get my running sorted out after abandoning it completely since last year . I was amazed to feel like I simply couldn't run - utterly useless - and focusing on technique didn't change this. About three weeks ago I took 1hr 18mins for a 10k and even after that suffered from delayed onset muscle soreness (doms) in the legs - particularly the calves due to the barefoot technique. I persisted with pushing through progressively increasing the distance or pace and going through the resultant pain and uselessness that follows for several days. Yesterday I was at last able to run “properly” - 10k in 53 mins with a 4min kilometre to finish - and no doms, just fatigue from the increased load. During the process of starting to run again I genuinely felt that running had become impossible so it's interesting to see how persistence changes things and how persisting with technique is also now paying off...

The day previously when hiking Christiane mentioned during climbing that the Achilles tendon stretched quite a lot with the flat shoes. I realised that mine wasn't stretching because I was pulling back the knee during the leg extension - so it felt just right. I explained to Christiane that when stretching the soleus (below the calf) as an exercise you keep the heel on the ground with the foot behind and leg extended behind and then bend the ankle and knee to isolate the soleus and Achilles. Christiane initially disagreed but after thinking about it she went quiet. I then pointed out that if the knee goes back during the extension then it reduces the stretch on the soleus and the flex of the ankle as the body moves forwards. Yesterday I thought about that in running and realised that probably the soleus/Achilles doms problems I get are caused because of not extending the knee back far enough. (It's not hyper extension - just getting rid of all the forwards flex). I feel now that I can really start to work out what is happening with the muscles and coordination when I'm running - it's beginning to make sense to me – after several years of inquiry.

During the hiking climb it's the first time I've felt that bending forwards at the hip was not a good thing to do. The extension of the leg, working from the centre outwards - core - hip - glutes - hamstrings - quads - knee - calves - ankle - feet - made me appreciate standing upright when climbing for the first time ever!

I notice that when people are injured podiatrists look at the problem from the foot upwards - never from the centre! I think that's what causes most of the persistent problems and injuries in running.

When running faster yesterday I thought of the movement starting around the navel (relaxing the lower abdomen to breathe in and contracting when completing the exhalations). Pelvis is held up at the front and tucked in without tensing up the hips - so that the abdomen can relax during breathing without posture being affected. The leg lands slightly flexed with the front of the heel contacting the ground just under the body. The pelvis starts to rotate around the spine, hip moving backwards - right up to the rib cage. The glutes and hamstrings extending the hip - then fractionally later the quads join in to extend the knee. The rebound comes when the cadence is increased and the whole thing feels like single fluid movement. When the leg is properly extended like this - reaching behind the body then you naturally don't reach ahead with it during the recovery. The key to getting the stride right seems to be in getting a proper extension out of the whole leg towards the rear. Once again the Achilles doesn't feel any stretch even with the heel on the ground to the last moment - same as in climbing.
My last Km was almost at 15kph and I still didn't red line with the heart! Now I could manage 17kph before so that's not unusual - but I would have been totally red lining even with much greater running fitness. It's going to be interesting to see where this leads now. (Might have to appropriate some of this for the blog...)

Running is a battle against entropy! Just a little bit of work organising the body gives a massive payoff. Most runners get injured due to entropy winning the battle - the key being that they don't spare any energy at all for organising – they are only focused on power and performance instead of efficiency. You know when you are “surfing in the spray” of what Erwin Shrodinger called “negative entropy” because that's when perceptions start to really change. You start to get intelligent feedback from your body that lets you know what is happening between all the parts – in a meaningful way. You start to listen to your body and learn from it. Chi-running is the key to the battle against entropy.

(The reason I’d stopped running was due to demoralization stemming from long endurance cycling. That problem was sorted out by changing nutrition – notably consuming 90g of maltodextrin and fructose 2:1 ratio per hour during training and racing. Performance in long endurance has turned around and training now has an energizing effect instead.)

Monday, September 16, 2013

9th Semnoz Hill Climb (2013)

Thunder and lightning were forecast for the race morning but in reality it was was probably raining far too heavily for that to happen. At the race start the roads had turned into rivers and it was certain that it would all be cancelled. The French however do have a significant streak of madness so I should have known better. This could probably have been billed as The Wettest Race in History of the World. The organisers must have been horrified. The Vélo Club d’Annecy waits all year for this event and mother nature targets this day with a deluge of biblical proportions that would have made Noah smile. Perhaps that’s where religious superstition comes from in the first place. You absolutely couldn’t plan such a situation if you tried.

…One of the local inhabitants

Night was spent sleeping with the bike, stretched out in the back of  the estate car, being lulled by the constant patter of rain. Camping would not have been a pleasant option and hotels are a ridiculous and expensive fuss. Chris would be driving to Annecy in the morning but I didn’t fancy getting up at 5am.Trees have to be avoided when it’s raining because they release big droplets that clatter against the car bodywork, but the constant sound of “normal” rain is relaxing and drowns out any other potentially disturbing noises during the night. Despite being right next to Annecy this road up the mountain to the Semnoz ski station is remarkably quiet overnight with no traffic circulation.  In the morning it wasn’t even clear if anyone would turn up. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve found myself the sole person there for an event that had either been cancelled or had the date or venue shifted. Information in France travels along weird channels – probably a legacy from the Revolution. Being British by birth means that I can’t perceive any of this information until after I’ve been shot. Eventually, quite late, a few cars and vans did appear. Before breakfast I wandered over still in jeans and warm clothing and became the first person to register for the race. At this point it was looking like I’d be racing only against Chris as there was not a single other bike in sight. Eventually 57 people did turn up to race – which is actually a surprisingly large turn out considering the semi-apocalyptic conditions. The only saving grace is that it wasn’t very cold, though the high mountains, albeit out-of-sight, were accumulating significant snow already. Semnoz isn’t in the high mountains so at least snow wouldn’t be a problem here. Smaller mountains in France are called “middle mountains”. That’s a bit odd really because there are no “lower mountains". You learn to go along with the madness.

Looks like this guy was last…

Right from the start of the race I found myself “red-lining” and building up lactic acid faster than desired. You can tell when this happens because breathing starts to become a losing battle. I don’t need to look at my computer to know that my heart rate is too high – which for me means above 168bpm. It’s good to record it all though just for verification at the end. For 18% of the ride I had been in the red (above 168bpm) and most of that was at the start. Fortunately you only need to back off a little to then be able to stop the exponential rise in lactic acid and to burn up the rest as fuel. Despite the discouraging conditions I managed an average of 165bpm over the whole climb – which means that going physically faster was impossible. That was the whole purpose of participating – to be motivated to get the maximum out of an hour long workout – so it was a success in those terms.

During the climb there are a couple of long flattish sections about one third of the way up. Headwind was already increasing and flattish sections really require partners to draft with but it looked like I was going to be isolated. Fortunately two guys caught me up just as motivation and speed were dropping and this provided a lifeline. Fighting to keep up and then draft were rendered difficult due to the upwards vertical spray of water from rear tyres. There was so much water that is just wasn’t possible to draft directly behind – but even being on the shoulder of someone makes a difference. There were several exchanges of position and in the end when the gradient ramped up again it was me who pulled away in the lead. (One caught up again and beat me later on) Further up the climb the wind started to become significant and eventually we disappeared into thick fog with the rain intensifying constantly. The work rate was so high that although it was like being beneath a cold shower for an hour there was no chill or cold – except that with the bare legs it felt a bit hard to keep the muscles properly warm.

Me (left), Chris (Right)

All the time I was working on chi-technique – pulling the hip and knee backwards, working from the abdomen and “ankling” in good coordination. The major limit was simple fitness level – and of course power to weight ratio considering it was a straightforward hill climb. There were no fireworks at the finish – just a sense of relief to be able to get to shelter. More importantly there were no breathing issues despite stopping cold from near maximum effort. I thought I saw 49 minutes on the clock coming round the final bend and was really pleased to be at least 5 minutes ahead of last year’s time – but afterwards realised that it had been 59 minutes – ending up at 01:01:19 – much more realistic considering the conditions. Chris came home in 00:56:14 – about a minute slower than my last year’s time – so that proved to me the slow times were definitely due to the weather. Unfortunately not all of us were affected by the weather as the winner Mickaël Gallego finished in 00:40:10 – less than a minute off the course record and 5 minutes ahead of anyone else!  What did Lance Armstrong (according to Tyler Hamilton) say to describe things like that? Oh yes:“Not normal!”

The winner…


The reception and hot drinks were near the finish in the ski station building. Water was flooding off the roof and jetting from the ends of the gutters so it felt good to get indoors. Finding my dry clothes I walked out again barefoot to get to the outdoors toilets to change properly into long and partially wind/waterproof  bottoms.  Although there was a full prize giving ceremony the only thing that interested me was finding hot coffee and eating.

Smart people had planned ahead and had a car planted at the top to get back down the hill. Idiots like me and Chris hadn’t planned properly so we were cycling down even though we had two cars at the bottom. Four upper body layers, dry socks, shoes and shoe covers plus thick gloves and a Goretex liner beneath the helmet meant the descent wouldn’t be too bad – but it was still very dangerous. The brakes were almost non-existent so there was no sense in picking up any speed and then wiping out at the next bend. When you see how often the pros crash there should be no illusion about how easy it is to fall. Even on the straights speed remained impossible due to the driving rain piercing the eyes. It was a question of patience and safety first. Astonishingly, right at the arrival in Annecy, the rain stopped and blue sky appeared above! This made the final change into dry clothes a heck of a lot easier – despite my socks falling into a puddle. (I put the shoes on barefoot after that). Everyone was gone – nobody hung around after this event. It was already as deserted as it had been early in the morning. Chris and I drove out of Annecy and past the lake until we came across a good restaurant for a spot of lunch. Both of us had trouble finishing lunch – clearly an effect of lactic acid on the system. About that time – an hour or so after the race I started to feel a slight lactic acid headache which stayed with me until the the following afternoon. This is clearly distinct from a hypoglycaemia induced headache which starts during exercise and is more severe. Other than that there were no ill effects and altogether it was a good race.

Out of 57 participants and 16 in our age category Chris came 30th overall and 6th in category, I came 39th and 9th in category.

Some other victims…




Almost at the top…