Friday, 30 November 2012

Piece of String Fun Run - Unravelling the paradox

I've been holding back my opinion on this race for a while now, partly because as usual, I hadn't really made up my mind about it. If you haven't got anything useful to say......;-)

However, some of the recent discussions and race reports from the event itself have given my ideas a bit of context. I thought perhaps that now might be a good time to get them down. As a very poor analogy, I suppose my aim of this blog is to unravel and straighten out the this conceptual 'piece of string' through the medium of my theoretical knowledge of sport psychology. Lets hope the collective mass of my theoretical approach is greater than that of a piece of string! (for reference check out the below video - a funny little link included at the end of Mimi Anderson's report on the race - I love Stewart Lee).

The Concept

So if you are interested enough to have read this far, you will know what the concept of the race is. If you don't, here is a link to the race description. In short, it is a race where the end point is not known. The theory behind this, as discussed by James in his pre-event blog, is that this format will:

  1. reduce certainty, thereby inducing anxiety and hinder performance
  2. undermine the credibility or confidence in ant given pacing strategy
  3. disarm the influence of any beneficial outcome motivation (i.e. 'only x more miles to go!!!')
In addition, there was also an:

     4.  application process 

where applicants had to submit a detailed explanation for 'Why you are qualified to run this race' including a photo of you at your most miserable/worst. 

The Paradox

For the reasons detailed below however,  I think that the race turned out to be a different beast than perhaps first intended.

1. Did the race actually reduce certainty? 

Granted, competitors would not have known the precise end point but I would go as far as to say that it was relatively clear the race was going to be of the 'ultra' variety. Although this doesn't narrow it down too much, it probably puts it in the realm of somewhere between 50-150 miles. Taking into consideration the calibre of the field and the their athletic résumés, you might also assume that it could be towards to the top end of this. (I appreciate this is very easy to say in hindsight - and I could well be wrong). On a more practical point, I felt another giveaway was the clear effort and dedication put into the race by the race directors (RDs). For all accounts they put on a fantastic race - but let's face it, after all that effort, how funny would it actually have been if it was just a 5km or 500m?

From a more technical perspective, removing all certainty of the end point could theoretically assist by removing an unnecessary distraction. If you don't know when the end is, it cannot lead you from the task at hand (or at least it shouldn't!). In a competitive sense, what often separates winners from losers is the ability to stay in the present and focus on what they can actually do in that moment, rather than speculate what might happen in the future (Moran & Kremer, 2008) - I'll talk about how much this matters (or doesn't really) later on.  But in short, such a format I think should actually help the competitors to focus on the controllables. That said, just by removing the end point doesn't mean people will necessarily focus on what they can control. You still have to decide to concentrate!

It seems relatively clear that in this instance, the more successful attempts at this race were in part helped by the more elite navigation skills. Based on Mimi's report, tricky navigation at times resulted in a slower pace and the difficulty of staying warm and eventual withdrawal. Sam also seemed to have had these problems, but at times when he used his Garmin, he showed marked improvements subjective evaluation of his performance at these times. Wouter seemed to be able to use a map well. Effective navigation in this event was one of the only things that competitors could control - it seems like those that did it better.....did better.

2. Pacing and wider strategies

Here is a quote from the FAQs:

"We don’t expect people to run the trails like Ian Sharman but neither do we want people ambling around at 2mph. You will be informed along the way how “close” you are to cut-offs."

This I feel was another indicator about the length of the race. Take into account the terrain in the area, and start from a 2mph cut off and you have a very rough estimation of how far you might have to run. Research conducted by Sam and James Elson gives some insight into pacing strategies at the SDW100 over such distances, but it is clear that the strategies are not homogenous. Another piece Sam did on the Western states also indicates that there is no clear cut answer to pacing anyway.   I feel here that the format again,  can only serve to remove something else that you might else 'worry' about. I don't know if anyone did it, but a good way to gather feedback on pacing would have been to go really slowly (and wear loads of clothes!), the race organisers would then inform you that you were close to the cut offs. Simply move a little quicker for a short while and then when you felt like it, slow down again, until warned. This way you wouldn't be going any faster than you really needed to. In a race with no finishing times, this seems like a good way to promote longevity. 

Another quote from the race description:

"All the rules of pacing, nutrition and mental focus will go out the window in a race where you just don’t know how long you have left to go"

Let's not throw the baby out with the bath water - I'm not sure how or why the fundamentals of mental focus would go out the window, nor the principles of nutrition if we can assume its going to be an ultra? 

3. Outcome motivation

This comes back to the assumption that the end (lets call it the 'end concept') is one of the major motivating factors factors for ultra runners. This is a really complicated topic and ties in with a whole load of stuff.  The fact remains that motivation is a personal construct and removing the end concept will mean different things to different people. I think that in this context, that it is an idea of overstated importance (feel free to disagree - and I would be interested to see any research on this in ultra runners - how many actually predominantly hold onto the thought of finishing as their true source of motivation?).

If I were to classify this in as general sense as possible I would describe the idea of the end concept as an extrinsic form of motivation, albeit one that is very recognisable and familiar. Extrinsic motivators do not play as significant role in self-determination as intrinsic factors, and so I think here that removal of such a motivator probably won't/didn't/shouldn't have had that dramatic an effect. Just because something is familiar or obviously noticeable, doesn't confer significance.  It all comes back to the old, what people think they do and what they actually do being different things. That said, remember its personal, as different situational and personal characteristics mix and collide, entirely different reactions and thought patterns can surface! 

Yoinked from - i hope you don't mind!

Humans are also quite an adaptable bunch. When something doesn't quite cut it, they'll grab on to something else. Rasmus Henning talks a little about his 'motivational pyramid' here, the two main points being that forms of extrinsic motivation (e.g. money) only goes so far,  and depending on the situation he'll focus on another motivating factor to get him through a training session, or race. Sam's experience at the Piece of String fits with nicely he cited one of his reasons for pushing on was:

I found this pretty unusual. If you are to look at the motivation continuum (this was the shortest most succinct explanation I could find) Sam's reason above sits somewhere between external or introjected regulation, and is certainly not what you'd expect. More classically, you might imagine he'd have said: 

"When all is bleak and lost - I just carry on in order to go on experiencing the fundamental joys of the running experience, nothing else matters"

But in Sam's case, he cites a main motivator as an extrinsic factor, not specifically driving his wife bonkers, but more insinuates that he uses how he WOULD have felt if he had quit.

 In line with Self-Determination Theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985, 2002) this isn't thought to foster self-determination. Moreover, using Need for Achievement Theory (Atkinson 1974; McClelland 1961; McClelland et al. 1953) it suggests avoidance failure (as opposed to striving for success) which is associated with low achievers. Further still, its a form of emotion-focused coping, not problem focused coping. The latter is associated with confidence, and in turn, persistence. The former is not. Theoretically, I might argue that the end concept, although motivating in some ways, could also work against you through distraction. The term 'arrival syndrome' sums it up quite well - although its great to stop and smell the roses once in a while and revel in your achievements, doing it too much (or before you've got there!) can distract you from doing the very things that will get you there in the first place!

So how the hell did Sam finish, having turned the rule book on his head in using such an 'off-piste' motivator? I don't know. Is there something about ultra running, that having run yourself into the ground, under extreme fatigue and impaired cognitive function that makes more simplistic recognisable motivators (albeit extrinsic) more potent? Is it an adaptive mechanism as a function of the weird race format? In the absence of the finish line being a motivator, did he just use other extrinsic factors in their place. Possibly, it would be interesting to know if Sam always uses this as his prime motivator. Perhaps it just goes to show that under extreme circumstances, there really are no rules. Or maybe, if you have an extrinsic motivator as powerful as 'the wife' - a man might need nothing more  ;-)

4. The application process and applicants

I think if anything this was something I didn't like but could see why it was there. I didn't like it because it felt almost elitist, and on first glance seemed to promote or was at least centered around ideas of an 'achievement' culture (I briefly discussed these in my last blog). I've certainly never liked to think of ultra running as a meritocracy.

I do however understand how the application process fits within the concept of the race. If you were going to put on a ridiculously difficult  race, as a race director you'd probably want to ensure that the participants could at least look after themselves! I think there is a collective responsibility of those in the endurance running community however, not to espouse the message that 'what you do says anything about who you are'. I think its something that is often misconstrued when we get lost in discussions of races and experiences past. Encouragingly though, I'd also like to say that its seems relatively obvious to me the position of the race organisers:

"The exact distance, finishing times and awards are all irrelevant here."

Its really refreshing to see this in an event!

I also couldn't think of a better example that undermines the idea of such an achievement culture. What better way to disprove the idea that past achievements count for anything than by selecting a field of high-achieving individuals and seeing how they do in extremely purified form of competition. 2 from 10 finished.  With a skewed competitor pool, selected for insane acts of persistance and 'mental toughness', might one not assume that you'd get a higher finishing rate than 2 from 10? Taking this further, you also might expect that if the race was really hard, the finishers would be the more decorated of individuals than those that didn't, which wasn't the case (although this experiment doesn't really tell you much when the whole field are high achievers - you would need some ultra runners with no track record to say anything about that!).

If we could agree however. that they've mostly all completed 'harder' or 'tougher' races, and the difficulty wasn't a limiting factor, then surely the difference between those that finished and those that didn't must come from somewhere else? This all ties into another blog by James about whether its always the same people that finish. I could disagree - and sit on the fence and say 'it depends'. Obviously there is a multitude of other factors to consider when looking at performance in an inaugural and novel ultra such as this - but this is neither the time nor the place!

N.B. for all those who are shouting in disgust at the computer screen having read the above two paragraphs and other sentences throughout, please understand I am merely attempting to probe at the conceptual limitations of the race and playing devil's advocate. I don't necessarily subscribe to any or all of the points I put forward....or do I?!?!?

Anyway, I'm sure the RDs have received plenty of suggestions for improvement, but for a true psychological experiement,  my suggestion would be to send out a questionnaire profiling the would-be applicants against an inventory of skills. Then, individually give participants a race format that challenges their individual psychological 'shortcomings'. I should turn out a bit like that bit Bill and Ted - a bogus journey....

In terms of research, I would have also personally loved to have seen the applications of the competitors - a thematic analysis of how these type of athletes value themselves would be very revealing! In developing their own personal hell....;-)


So while I think that the concept has its limitations, doesn't everything? Even though it didn't necessarily turn out as planned perhaps from a psychological perspective, that is not to say that it wasn't a success, nor that we can learn from it! By their nature 'experiments' rarely tend to give the results that are expected, and if they do, be suspicious!

It seems like the race has turned out almost a bit like a CPD workshop for ultra runners. In tweaking the rules, I'm sure it has given those involved a lot to think on. From an outsider looking in, if nothing else, it seems like it might have tested a few of the less well practiced but clearly crucial skills that every ultra -runner should have. Maps Schmaps! ;-)

What I personally also like about it is that is a great example of how someone from within the community can take an idea like this and contribute in a worthwhile way. It serves as a valuable reminder that its not just about racing, but that any investment of time (whether its organising, volunteering, or crewing, participating or even just talking) can be equally valuable in the wider context.  I personally am looking forward to seeing this event evolve and all that it brings with it. It is obviously also important to recognise the tireless efforts of James Elson. Its been said before but the fact that he managed to safely host 2 races in spite of the conditions is nothing short of remarkable. The community is lucky to have such an excellent character (and team of people) out there organising great events throughout the year.  Thanks guys!

Again, all comments and thoughts welcome.....

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Achievement motivation in ultra running, ironman and endurance sport

I've not written a blog in a while, and for the masses that are wondering what happened in Transalpine 2012 after my last post - I'm going to be lazy and refer you to Lotte's race report (part 1 and part 2) :-)

The seed for this post was actually planted during my participation Transalpine this year, and relates to that of achievement motivation in endurance sport. Its a topic that I have been chewing over for a while now, and even after extensive thought, I'm still not sure I've got to the bottom of it. Anyway, here goes:

What first appealed to me about endurance events (ultras, marathons, ironmans etc) is that to just to finish was an achievement. The battle to be had was with the race itself. Not that there isn't a competitive aspect to every "race", but there was fundamentally something welcoming and encouraging about the fact that my performance wasn't going to compared so much with my competitors (a competitive climate) but with myself (a mastery climate).

The fact I, (and many others) have been drawn to this aspect of endurance sport isn't surprising. There is research to suggest that mastery climate fosters task involvement, where persistence, and personal improvement are rewarded. In competitive climates however, only the best prosper and it can be an extremely debilitating environment for those who are less able.

According to Nicholls' (1984) Achievement Goal Theory, there are two basic stable personality orientations: task or ego-oriented. The former prefers to participate in a given activity more for the opportunity for self-improvement, whilst the latter head out and like measure success relative to those directly around him/her. Although this is a somewhat simplified description of the theory, I think its enough to go by. Cury et al. (1997) showed how task-oriented people are far more likely to select challenging tasks so that they have the opportunity to assess their development that they have achieved through persistence. It follows, that those who tend to participate in endurance events, are likely to be task-oriented the scraps of research that have been conducted on the topic would seem to point in this direction also; Krouse et al. (2011) found that female ultra runners had a tendency to be task-oriented.


Now not to get too far into this, but musings have led me to consider the bigger picture. I believe within each race (lets call this the micro-level) a mastery climate is more or less predominates. On any given day, while the ego-oriented amongst us are free to look at just how far up the 2nd from last page or results they came, most will contextualize their performance relative to their personal goals, reminisce and head home. Only a small percentage really seem to care that much about how they did relative to others, and thats perfectly ok.


When you zoom out a little, I think the mastery climate is somewhat diminished. People naturally begin to compare between races (lets call this the macro-level). You get all the talk of the toughest, the hardest, the longest etc. (a blog post in its own!)  In doing so, I don't think its unfair to say that maybe what an individual has achieved say in a less difficult race, might often be overshadowed by more 'impressive' achievements, even amongst those in the know! Personally however, I like to think I value some of my less notable achievements far more than some of the more "impressive" ones.  A good example of this came up at a recent race I attended. During the race briefing, the organiser spent a few moments welcoming the group, then went on to specifically mention a few of the more outstanding achievements of the competitors toeing the start line. I'm all for celebrating success and was it inspiring? Sure. Also, was it important to recognise the influential names who's opinions might help define the success of the event in future years? Definitely. But I can't help but think what those taking part in their first ultra may have thought when the goliath challenge ahead of them was effectively devalued amidst the trans-national and trans-contienental accolades of their very immediate others. It reminded me of animal farm a little actually.....

"All ultra runners are equal, but some are more equal than others"  

Ok, maybe that was a bit far, but hopefully you get the jist? Now there was no negative intent at all in the organiser's words, quite the opposite, but I think it shows how when you look at more than just one race, the aspects of a competitive climate begins to surface. Needless to say, this comparison of races is a bit of a pet-peeve of mine, and something that I think is kind of missing the point! (but thats just my opinion - each to their own).


The final level it made me consider was the contrast between those who participate in endurance sport and those that don't participate at all (let's call it the meta level). Here, I think the balance between the mastery/competitive climate is heavily in favour of the latter. Even though all your mates  might ride 100 miles every weekend, get up at 5.30am to go running all the time, or train 15 hours a week, you are in the minority.  I suppose it feels like a collective narcissism of sorts, where it the 'why' and 'how' of what you do are lost, and people 'looking in' only see the number....... 26.2, 112, 50, 100.....

I've tried to conceptualise the three layers below. Red denotes a competitive climate, and blue a mastery climate. The Micro-levels are the races, where the mastery climate predominates. In the context of this environment, for the most part, the task-oriented can thrive and prosper. As you begin to look at the broader picture and the wider endurance scene, denoted by the pill shaped area - the competitive climate starts to make itself known. Here the substance and value of personal goals can be lost amongst someone who has gone harder, faster and longer.  Finally, at the meta-level, where those that do and those that don't are compared, the entire world of endurance sport is nearly enveloped, where what you do, seems to start to say something about who you are.

As far as I can tell, I'm task-oriented, which might explain why the comparative nature of the ego-oriented types, and their influence on the endurance environment bothers me a little. This post didn't turn out how I expected it to, and its pretty loose on the ground in terms of theory. It's certainly not watertight and I've not even really touched upon achievement motivation in competition - a pretty relevant topic. I've more tried to explain my perspective (very crudely) of how the dynamics of competitive and mastery climates interact in different contexts within in endurance sport.

If you want to test whether you are task or ego oriented you can do so here. Doesn't mean much on its own, but might explain why its important to you that came 655th NOT 656th in your the 12th wave.....on the Saturday, not the Sunday......

I hope you enjoyed reading, and welcome all comments.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Final Preparations - The Gore-tex Transalpine Run 2012

So the final preparations are more or less complete, and somehow, against all odds, Lotte and I will seem to be on course to toe the start line in Ruhpolding in a 2 days time. Training this year has gone well, more so for myself than Lotte, who was hampered by a couple of issues (back and foot) post Roth. Despite this, we have got in a good amount of running together at the weekends with Lotte coping well with the consistent running.

For myself, after 7 days complete rest post-Roth, I've managed to get back into the swing of things pretty quickly. I've got to the gym for 1-2 hours each week which keeps things ticking over nicely, and got through approx. a 15 hour week of running with no niggles of note. The last couple of weeks, I've focused on consolidating that bigger week and staying supple (by my standards). I've had a couple of massages and things are looking good. I think its funny when you put the time spent training in the context of the race, which this year I estimate might take up to 50 hours; the larger volume week (week 4 - approx. 90 miles) is completely dwarfed.

Transalpine run-in, and predicted run 2012
 I feel I've managed my recovery well since Roth too. I did nothing for a week, and despite a wobble at the end of July (stag-do for a friend), I've managed to get enough rest to prevent major deterioration. As you can see, having rested up this week, I'm now feeling pretty good heading into the weekend.

Restwise score - Roth to Transalpine
Compare this approach from 2011, where after running the NDW (week 4) and pulling out due to a knee issue, I did very little approaching the race. Wise to rest up perhaps, but I've certainly noticed I run best when carrying a little more consistency and form into a run. That said, almost anything can happen in stage race of this proportion, so I guess we'll have to wait and see as to whether my approach has paid off. In 2010 I completed the race off just 18, 25 and 30 miles in the 3 weeks leading into the race, so maybe its actually really easy and you don't need to do any training at all ;-)

Transalpine run-in 2011
In addition to the higher volume I've managed this year, I've complemented my training with my POWERbreathe device. I'd like to say I've really gone to town on the functional strength work whilst using it over the last 6 weeks, but in reality, I've just made sure I kept things ticking over. With only a couple days work a week (morning and evening sessions 30 breaths, twice daily) I've easily managed to sustain the level I reached from my foundation training before Roth. Its encouraging to see that the gains I made have stuck, and are so easy to maintain.  Although everyone is different, for me, anything above 2,200m seems pretty noticeable, so I'm looking forward to the benefits that the POWERbreathe training should bring with it.

I can't wait to get back out there, and as there is a good group of us going out together, there will undoubtedly be some good memories to remember for several years to come.

The photo below is from part of the route on stage 7, and a view I remember well. Its also been my desktop background since 2010. Let's hope the weather is just as good when I return (hopefully), with Lotte (hopefully) Saturday week!

If you want to follow us during the race, please go to and they have pretty good coverage of each stage! We are Team POWERbreathe UK - number 90!

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Swimming & POWERbreathe

I only needed to read one of yesterday's posts on the POWERbreathe facebook page to remind myself of the potential benefits of using the a POWERbreathe device to improve swim performance:

“Increased swimming performance by up to 3.5%
Improved inspiratory muscle strength by 31.2%
Improved inspiratory muscle endurance by 27.8%
Reduced whole body effort during exercise
IMT improves 100m(1.7%) & 200m(1.5%) swimming performance*”

Its not to say that I haven’t put in a good deal of work to my swimming this year. In fact I’ve swum a lot (by triathlete standards), consistently hitting 15km+ a week for the 6 weeks leading in to the race, which culminated in 55.28 near-solo, traffic ridden swim split at Roth. Nothing unbelievable, but enough to place me in the top 5% of the men (inc. pros) at one of the most competitive Iron distance races on the calendar, something I am certainly proud of, and am sure that many of my quicker cycling and run-discipline tri-colleagues would want ;-). Anyway, this post isn't to brag, I just want to talk a little about my experiences with how POWERbreathe has helped my swim training.
Swimming in Zug lake
I'm not for one moment suggesting that my swimming hasn't been influenced by an immeasurable variety of factors, but in line with the extant research, I would certainly suggest that there has been a  improvement in my swimming that co-incided with a focused regimen of inspiratory muscle training (IMT). After about 3 weeks of training I began to notice how:
·      Sets with fins were noticeably easier, in particular dealing with the underwater fin-kicks off my turns. Normally managing at best a couple of kicks at best at full throttle, I comfortably began to manage 3-5.
·      My breathing and perception of effort also decreased across the fins sets (where I most noticed breathing discomfort), off the same or faster times at which I had previously plateaued.
·      For the first time in my swimming it felt like my breathing had ceased to be the major limiting factor to my speed and effort level.
The rationale for Inspiratory muscle training (IMT) training to improve swim performance is three fold.

First, improved inspiratory muscle strength and endurance mean that you can fill more rapidly and maintain lung volume, thereby enhancing one’s buoyancy in the water.

Second it also helps you to keep more stable trunk for longer, which further minimizes the disruption to body alignment. Both the added buoyancy and ability to maintain posture (with good technique) will decrease drag.

Finally, the more generic benefits of reduced breathing effort from IMT also hold true; through decreased activation of the metaboreflex, you can continue to send blood to the muscles under exertion - the normal reflex being when oxygen deprivation is detected, the brain will restict blood flow to the limbs, to enable you to slow down, use less oxygen and recover – no wonder exercise feels hard ;-)

Leading out the swim at Hercules triathlon
I am certainly aware that in the context of my training that the measurable performance benefits that I can entirely attribute to my IMT are all but impossible to prove. Qualitatively however, I feel that both my enjoyment and confidence in the water has noticeably increased, and for me, my POWERbreathe training has undoubtedly been a part of that. If you struggle with your breathing during swimming, as I think many do, I would strongly recommend IMT.  If you don't, no reason not to swim faster :-)
Having now completed a solid foundation phase of IMT training (8 weeks), and a short respite around Challenge Roth, I am now looking forward to incorporating IMT into my functional strength work that specifically targets my running in the lead up to transalpine. Again, the run-specific benefits I won’t be able to accurately measure, but that doesn’t mean I won’t continue to accrue the psychological, physical and physiological benefits associated with knowing that I am putting in the hard (and smart) yards!
And hey, even if you don’t believe me, the training is so minimal, why wouldn’t you give it a try?
*See Breathe Strong, Perform Better (McConnell, 2011) for critical evaluation of data

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Challenge Roth Race Report - Sunday 8th July, 2012

Swim - 55:28
T1 - 2:53
Bike - 5:49:05
T2 - 3:03
Run - 3:59:00

Total 10:49:27

First things first. I really enjoyed the whole week, largely due to the fantastic company of Tri Londoners, but also because it is a fantastically organised race! I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone.

If anything, this race has made me appreciate a few things. First, in iron distance races, (barring illness/mechanical misfortune etc.) you get what you deserve. Second, it is crucial to contextualize your race, and the preparation required. It is easy to be influenced by the goals of others, and fall into the trap of assuming that what is important to someone else should be important to you. Moreoever, I think we can also too easily assume that what we intially think is or should be important, actually is.
We all place value on different things, which is fine in its own right, but I believe however we should all challenge these assumptions on a regular basis. I certainly have learned that many of things I once thought I placed value on, perhaps are of lesser importance than I first thought. Finally, I think that endurance challenges - as bad as they may be for your short/medium term physical health, are a great way to focus one's perspective.

Anyway, the race.

My bike, does that rear tyre look flat to you?
I had put a suggested 'best time' of 10 and a half hours when I signed up for the race, which put me in a start wave at 07.10am. The girls were starting at 06:45am and a few Tri londoners in a couple of the waves before me. My plan was to really go for it on the swim. I've put in a good amount of work in swimming this year, and its something I'm proud of. I wanted to see what I could do. As an indication, I've swum a little over 200km this year up until the race, and 100km of these have been done since mid-late May. I acheived my goal of 15km a week for the 6 weeks preceding the race, and had seen my times come down and down. After a good swim at Wimbleball, I certainly felt very confident going into the swim of a time around 55 minutes, with a draft maybe even faster.

The girls entering the water
Having watched the previous waves go off to the second that they were scheduled, I knew I needed to get to the front row of my wave of approx 250 swimmers, to be ready for the start and have a chance of getting the feet of any fast swimmers in my wave. I eagerly waited in the holding pen and made my way right to the front of the swim start. A guy asked me in German my predicted swim time to which I responded funf un funfzig (55). He said something back I didn't understand but slowly tread water backwards away from me ;-)

Nervous smiles before the swim?

The girls....

The gun went and I went "f****n' mental" (as was the plan). I pushed as hard as I could, until I could barely breath, and settled into some feet just ahead, but this guy wasn't settling and sped off into the distance. I merged across and swam alongside 2nd in the wave for a good while and then settled onto his feet. Within 4 or 5 mins we were starting to swim through the waves ahead and the guy I was drafting was obviously doing a fair amount of navigation to steer through the crowds. I would have personally chosen a line closer to the buoys, but I preferred the draft. After the turnaround and more of the same, other than feeling incredibly hot, I decided to go it alone. I veered left and took a line closer to the buoys leaving the guy ahead of me on his own to the right. A couple of guys were on my toes and followed me. I continued to work hard all the way in, remembering all the training I'd put in, the moments at Cally where I could barely breathe, and what I would feel like knowing I'd slacked off at the end of the day when there was nothing to do but rest. The second turn around seemed to take a while to come, but the satisfaction of smoothly cruising past the stuggling swimmers ahead was great, (in fairness some of them were probably swimming around the hour mark ;-)).

I kept pushing and felt tinges of cramp in my calves, which stimulated thoughts of 'oh my god, I've done a lance!' (re: Lanza 2010). I felt ok getting out the water and charged through transition. I did have trouble getting my suit off as my arms were aching pretty bad, but with only a number belt in my bag, was away pretty quick. I saw Tomas in transition, faffing around, and gave him a shout (sadly I'd not managed to make up the ten minutes in the swim and 'dunk' him as had been bantered earlier in the week, but I'd take leaving transition before him - beggars can't be choosers and all that).  I was pleased with my swim having done a least half alone, considering the traffic, dead pleased with 127th fastest men's swim (inc pros) out of 2570. I was 20 out of 160 (inc pros) in my AG. I ended up 4th in my wave too.

To the bike. Tomas soon screamed past me shouting something, it was presumably in Irish and about potatoes?! I was taking it steady to start, and stuffed down a daim bar in a bid to recover from the swim. I noticed the wind on certain parts of the course, and was pleased to have been lent Chris Wilson's disc wheel. I felt pretty good, and was pushing with a cap of 150bpm on the flats and a cap of 160 on the hills.  I soon passed Ana and gave her some encouragement. She certainly seemed to be having fun. I saw a lot of people get pinged for drafting and was careful to ease off or make a concerted effort to pass around the many risers that caused the field to bunch.  By the Solarerberg I saw my brother who told me Lotte was just ahead and before the end of the first lap I passed Roz, Lotte and Naomi in quick succession. Jokes about whether it was a club ride were exchanged.

Coming round past T1 again, I got out of the saddle on one hill and noticed my rear tyre seemed a little soft. I ignored it, but soon it was clear it was really down. A slow puncture.....hmmm, thoughts rushed through my head, do I use a canister to refill it and hope it holds, then my second canister to change it later if necessary. I stopped, busting for a pee and got that out of the way first. I decided, no, I've got to change it. Do it once, do it right. I only had one small valved inner for the disc on the back and one long for the rim on the front. I had to get it right, as the pump I had wouldn't attach to the right-angled adaptor for the disc either. I checked for the puncture but it wasn't noticeable. Shit. No real guarantee this just won't pop when I fill it, or go down slowly again. Deep breath, and inflate. It worked!!! I didn't fill it all the way, and left a little splurge of gas in the canister in for emergency refill. By this time, Naomi, Lotte and Roz and Nick had now passed me all asking if I was ok. I got back on the bike and worked hard to catch them again in the hope that if I was ahead and I punctured again, at least they might be able to lend me a canister or tube or something. It had taken me exactly 10 mins to change the tyre, but I wasn't riding angry - these things happen. I remained positive and thought, better to get one in a long race than write-off a short one.

My brother and his wife warming up for their support act (mit der Tri London tea towel)
I soon went past Nick and had a chat, who said he was having an awful race struggling to keep nutrition down. I peed again, he repassed me, and then I went back past him again, exchanging stupid banter once again, but also telling him to stick with it! I then found Lotte on the big descent then Roz again. They seemed happy enough, and it took me another 10 mins to catch Naomi. I told her of her gap to Lotte and Roz, and to keep up the great work. She even repassed me as I stuck to my cap on a steeper hill, to which she gave me a "come on Andy". Not rising to the bait lasted about 3 seconds as I ignored my cap and pushed past. ;-)

I did feel like I had overcooked the bike a little (thanks Naomi), but had done well with nutrition and soon enough I was onto the last stretch into Roth. My calves had continued to cramp a little, but other than a few aches I felt good. Looking at my splits I had slowed on the second lap of the bike quite dramatically, which is an honest reflection of the long rides I've done. Only 2 rides of over 100 miles in May, and reduced cycling volume through June as a result of a knee niggle from using someone else's bike in Geneva. Estimations from the pros of the bike were 10-15mins slower compared with other years due to the wind, and 10 mins for my puncture, puts me around the 5.30 mark on a good day with which I would have been happy before the race, so all things considered I am pleased with that leg.

In T2, the little kid struggled to find my bag, and I went for another pee costing me precious time on the split competition.

Onto the run and I planned to take it steady until 30km, put my music in, then see what I could do. Nick came flying past early on with some banter, but knowing he'd not got much nutrition in on the bike, could be a risky strategy. On the first out and back I saw, Jo, then Tomas, with Kris hot on his heels, then I saw Russ all coming the other way, giving them my encouragement. I just tried to keep it rock steady, walking the aid stations to make sure I got on everything I wanted. I'd said to myself before the race I'd rather have a steady yet unremarkable race than blow entirely.  My HR was sitting pretty at just under 150 bpm. I saw Nick a couple of times at the turn around and marked my splits to him. By 20km I had reeled him back in, chatted for a short while then pushed on at 21km, he looked like he was in a bad place. Here I took on some bananas, and over the next few km started to feel an horrendous stitch that slowed me to a walk! ARRGH! Take it easy, just recover and get moving again. I walked the 60-70m or so into the next aid station, and had some more coke, but no solids from now on. I stopped for ANOTHER pee!!! and at the final turnaround seeing I had made 4 mins on Nick, but only had 9-10 mins on Roz and Naomi, wanted to really push on. At this point, cramp had returned, (despite) regular salt tablets, for which I stopped shortly to stretch it out just before the 30km mark. This really was a no option rule - I was going to run, and run hard to the end, so thought it best to treat myself to a stretch while I could. I saw Lotte who looked like she was having a bad day at the office, then Ana (WHERE DID SHE COME FROM!) only moments behind. A dark horse indeed! She looked very happy and I screamed some support. Some caffeine pills and my final salt tablet, a coke, some sports drink and a gel, music in. Let's do this.

Early celebrations with 3km to go...
I ran trying to find the limit for the final 12km between cramping completely and speed. The music really helped me dig in and I began to pass quite a few more people (music in sport is the area of my dissertation, and I am utterly convinced of the benefits of its application). If I was in any doubt before I only need to look at the declining trend it helped to halt in my run splits, and the stimulation it provided to my heart rate which had begun to sink. Obviously to be taken with a pinch of salt, but I didn't exactly plan to fade between 20-30km.

km time avg/km
10 0:54:04 05:24.4
20 0:56:03 05:36.3
30 1:03:10 06:19.0
42 1:05:05 05:25.4

You can see a in HR recovery at just after the 580 min mark split (where I put my music in)
The time really flew, and soon enough I was back into Roth. I remembered the short hill and ran it all with my bro alongside letting me know the layout of the last 2-3km of the course. I had started to slow a little, as the cramp was now really knocking at the door. Ignore that, and then upped it as best I could until the finish - 3:59. Again, I felt like I executed the run very well, but just my volume of running had let me down a little in the lead up to the race. I had a great April, but after that, it had been a gradual decline in run fitness. Combined with going a little hard on the bike meant I came away with a time I think is quite a lot slower than what I am capable of.  I felt pretty sick at the end, but after I'd sat down for a while and had a massage and shower, I felt almost back to normal (if a little tired) within an hour.

Final pep-talk
On reflection, I am utterly confident, that with work I can go considerably quicker in an Ironman. The question is whether I am willing to do the work to get me there, as it would require a financial and time sacrifice I think at this point in my life I am probably unwilling to commit to. Furthermore, would going quicker necessarily make me happier?! It's hard to say. The improvements I have made have certainly been rewarding, and I know I'm a competitive individual, but just how competitive? I raced at Roth without the specfic pressures of a time goal I had previously put on myself, and feel I was better for it. That isn't to say (as is clear from my report) that I still am not naturally drawn to looking at times and those relative to others.

I will race another, of that I am pretty certain, but it won't be without a level of preparation that matches my ambition. We had some in depth discussions of time goals and the reasons for them, and I need to have a long hard think as to what those are, why, and when I might be ready to commit to them.

Next up, Transalpine! :-)

The finish and medal...

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

IM UK 70.3 - 17th June 2012

Swim - 27:46 (12 in AG, 65th Overall)

T1 - 4:59

Bike - 3:13:48 (32nd in AG, 274th Overall)

T2 - 2:33

Run - 1:41:28 (16th in AG, 141st Overall)

Total - 5:30:35 (20/141 in AG, 151st Overall)

Barring the organisation of this race - I had a great time. Sadly Ironman has decided that because this race sells out, they'll try to cram a few hundred extra athletes in, keep upping the price and offer nothing extra in return. I had an amazing time two years ago and was really looking forward to going back. Unless things change however (I accrue more money than sense) - I won't be going back.

I felt sorry for the Rotary volunteers who had to deal with hundreds of angry people as we were stuck in the car park for over an hour and a half just trying to leave the venue after registration. The whole system had snarled up, and gale force winds and rain, left inappropriate cars stuck in the mud let right and centre. Add to that the hour queue to get into the car park in the first place, the first day didn't go well. They left people queuing in the rain when there was plenty of room in the registration tent and the desks were hugely understaffed.   Race morning was no better - as the race was delayed by 30 minutes - and the two wave start (due to the added numbers of athletes) was no better. The water was cold, yet they still insisted on the unnecessary singing of the national anthem pre-start, which left people around me shivering uncontrollably. There was no starter horn, and everyone just started swimming at the end of the national anthem - perhaps out of sheer frustration - many, myself included, were WAY infront of the start line, as the kayakers made the most apathetic attempts to push us back I have ever seen.

Anyway - rant over. The race:

My bike - ready to roll (really slowly round the bike course)

All smiles (not sure why) pre the delayed swim start - photo courtesy of Tobias Mews
I had grouped over at the front left of the main pack with Amy, Rob and Mel and I swam hard and found no feet whatsoever for the first stretch.  It was a 1 loop triangle course that they have reversed from years past to stop one stretch from swimming directly into the sunrise (the only beneficial improvement they have made - shame the sun was hidden behind clouds). Anyway, after the first turn I found some good feet, but ended up going past them as I felt I had started to take it a little easy. On the final stretch I kicked on, and saw another group about 25m ahead - dammit - too far to bridge and I just conserved my energy. At Roth, I am going for glory, and going to swim hard all the bloody way! I came out of the water with 26.30 on my watch - but my split was 27.46 - no idea how that works - as a guess it would be that we all jumped the start and they retrospectively guessed when we had started post-anthem (and got it wrong).

The swim start - photo courtesy of Tobias Mews

Swim exit - photo courtesy of Tobias Mews
Anyway, 20 yards up the steep slope Brundish runs past - (damn, I really thought I'd be able to hold him off to the finish ;-)) gave him a bit of encouragement, and felt like death as I ran the rest of the way up the hill. Changed into arm warmers and was out on the bike in reasonable time. As you will see from Gabriel's report I fortunately had a clear transition to go through. Had I been a reasonable swimmer in the second wave - it would have been utter carnage. At this point, I was happy with my swim - but when I saw the results and that my time was only good enough for 13th in my AG, I was a little surprised - I guess it just goes to show how competitive some races are now.

Bike HR data
Anyway, out onto the bike and took my time up the first hill. Amy flies past me grinning like a looney, she was clearly already having fun, and went on to put together a brilliant race. I am used to the usual flow of bikes coming past me early on, but was suprised to see how many kept coming past. Since Geneva 3-4 weeks ago, I've had issues with my right knee and been riding less than 50 miles a week. I thought it had finally cleared up but after maybe only 10 miles it was already starting to ache. I know the pain doesn't get unbearable, so just carried on, trying to conserve energy in the hope of a good run. I think I could have and should have gone a little harder on the bike - as my avg hr was still about 5 beats below threshold, but it was clear my legs weren't up for it. On the second loop, I did push a little towards the end and I went back past a few who had clearly imploded, and came in off the bike 6 mins faster than two years ago - so not all bad. But still - I had gone out on the bike in 65th overall, and come back in 192nd! Clearly a lot of work to do on the bike.

Lap 2 of the run - photo courtesy of Tobias Mews
Luckily the course was still quite empty - photo courtesy of Tobias Mews

Up yet another hill - photo courtesy of Tobias Mews
A quick pee in t2 and out onto the run, which I left with Gabriel exchanging the odd grumble.  I felt good though.  Took it steady on the hills and openend up on the downhills. I wanted to hold something back for the last lap. It was muddy underfoot and some trainers with decent grip would have been nice. The racing flats couldn't really cope, so I spent a lot of the time running on thick grassy verges to get some purchase.

What goes up, must come down - photo courtesy of Tobias Mews
Anyway, I think I wimped out a little on the run too, as although I pushed a little more on the last lap avg HR for the section was only 164 and my threshold is 170ish, so again clearly could and maybe should have run harder, by quite a bit :-S.  It is a great run though and I think the best thing about the course. The terrain suits me down to the ground.  I had a caffeinated gel at the start of lap 2 and then was on coke and water at every aid stop. I seem to have some run strength in me at the moment, so I look forward to leaving it all out on the course come Roth.

Run HR data

I managed to pass 37 on the run, with a comfortable effort, but not close to making up the 100 others that passed me on the bike. Steady improvement over the last 2 years though and 15 mins off my time from 2010. Who knows maybe in another 6 years I'll be mixing it with the speedy ones.....;-).

Well done to all the Tri Londoners (Mel, Lotte, David and Joe) for some great performances, and the other two for their quite frankly ridiculous performances - Amy looks like she had the race of her life, and Rob showed that even without a training plan, or knowing anything about exercise - it is still possible to mix it with the best ;-)

One more week of hard work - then I think thats Roth o'clock......

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Why POWERbreathe?

In spending the majority of our free time with triathletes (who are also our friends), Lotte and I are often found discussing upcoming races, training and the season's plans. This year, the Gore-tex Transalpine run has received more than the odd mention, and along with it, our team name - Team POWERbreathe UK.

On occasion, these discussions then move onto the details concerning our sponsorship deal with POWERbreathe, as people try to extract some of the 'juicy details' of said (assumedly) multi-million pound arrangement - yet the deal isn't quite what they expect.

In return for a POWERbreathe device to help with Lotte's training (I already had one) and a couple of t-shirts to wear out and about at the race, we will blog on our training, race under their name and spread the word where we can.

The reaction from many is almost little disparaging at times, but to me the beauty of the deal is in its simplicity. Just like a POWERbreathe device - its understated, yet functional.

The responsibility of blogging on our training and fulfilling our part of the deal will keep us honest. It will make sure we do the training, and remind us when we let slip, that we have an deal to honour.  We talk about our training anyway, putting it into words isn't difficult. Its not even like the training is difficult - 30 breaths, twice a day takes less than 3 minutes! But it still needs to be done! If we put in the work - the results will follow (I believe this because of the extensive peer-reviewed evidence base that exists). Those results, in the scenario I outline below, are worth more than any sponsorship deal money could buy! (maybe if the sponsorship deal involved a helicopter......;-))

I do not need to think for long before memories of the full force of what Transalpine has to offer come flooding back to me; trying to pick my way through technical trail covered in snow and slushy ice at for 10km at 2000m, three-quarters through a 50km stage after back to back marathons, sucking in air but not getting nearly enough. Cursing myself for not training harder as I slow to a stumble, my posture failing with fatigue and with it, the abundant aches in my legs beginning to amplify......

Reflecting on moments like those,  I often think "what I would have given to make it feel even 1% easier?" The answer is certainly a lot more than 3 minutes a day for the preceding few weeks, and putting my training in writing.

"Only if the training works!" I hear you say. And you'd be right, it needs to actually have a benefit for this elaborate sponsorship deal-training motivation exercise to pay off. Over some subsequent posts I'll put forward the rationale and evidence from peer-reviewed journals that suggest that it will....and how.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Cyclotour du Leman 180km - 27th May

Riding time - 4:52
Elapsed time - 5:06
So my brother had signed up to this a while ago and asked me if I wanted to do it, I had 'ummed and ahhed', and without much in the way of money, a weekend foray to Switzerland didn’t seem like the best of ideas. However, after an extremely generous offer from my brother to pay my entry and accommodation, I didn't take much convincing - I booked a flight on air miles and was on my way to Geneva.
The forecast for Sunday during the week had suggested thunderstorms, and as I stepped onto the plane in England, flying away from perfectly good weather in the high 20s a small part of me began to question whether my decision to go would be a wise one.
After a hassle free trip with my Tri London emblazoned Amphibia bag, I arrived in Geneva and made the 40 min train journey to Lausanne, where the event was to start and end. I dropped my stuff off in the hotel and heading off to Bussigny with my brother to register. After catching the final few moments of the penultimate stage of the Giro, I began to feel more up for the event.
I collected my bike (borrowed from my brother’s friend) and set it up as best I could. It was slightly large for me, but a titanium frame with carbon forks and campag chorus groupset was still certainly better than I am used to. We went out for a meal, and a couple of beers, I had steak with vegetable, everyone else ordered pasta as recommended by official event briefing literature.

The route....
After about 6 hours sleep, we were up at 5am for breakfast. Sugar free red-bull, some ‘energy-milk’???, some salami, and a handful of strawberries. Having not ridden 180km before my brother was a little nervous, but I told him he need not be – his only previous sportive experience being a 120km sportive in Davos, in the rain with 2600m+ of ascent – compared with that this would be easy! We rolled down to the start about 4km away and waited in the pen to be let off in groups of 25-30. There were about 4-6 of us that knew each other and the plan was to vaguely stick together. With a supposed 2,500 riders almost all in the same race jersey, this seemed unlikely. 
As we set off, our group of 25 started out fairly brisk and soon we had merged into a large group of about 40-50 riders. My brother and I sat at the back and we crusied along at 40kph without much problem. Suddenly as we passed through a small town as the peleton pinched, the whirr of wheels was pierced by the sharp crack of carbon slamming down onto the floor, a lot of groans and the group swerved around a rider who had gone down. The group continued to be trundle along but sadly after 35km my saddle began to come lose, I called back to my brother who waited and I adjusted and re-tightened it as fast as I could. It was gutting to lose such a large group. We set off again and my bro jumped on my wheel, a fast guy came past on his own and I jumped on his wheel and alternated the work with him for a while. I looked back and suddenly there were 10 people stretched out behind us. I kept working until we bridged up to another small group ahead, I was clearly working too hard – but it was great fun. This group then worked well together growing as we accumulated those individuals ahead of us latching on.
Before I knew it we had gone nearly 70km, and my bro and I decided to pull in at the aid station for a quick refuel. I filled up my water and just as we were about to leave a couple of the group we had started with rolled in. We waited for them and head off after a short break. Again we began to build up a group up to about 40 odd people, and suddenly a group of riders in green, obviously some sort of race team, came past cranking it on a mixture of high spec road and TT bikes. The group surged but managed to latch on and so we sped along at 45kph for another hour or so. We pulled in for another stop at Evian where I had some Evian, you know, for novelty value. 
Drinking Evian
We carried on at a good pace, round through Geneva and its distinctive fountain that could be seen from miles away.  The weather had been perfect 25 odd degrees and not a hint of a thunderstorm. We had set off so early though, so it was still heating up, but I was really enjoying the ride - a far cry from the poor road surfaces in and around Hertfordshire. Eventually we got caught by another huge peloton being led by a scooter and a guy on a recumbent bike. With about 60km to go we decided to take the draft and stick with them not stopping until the end. Another guy went down, taking a girl with her, she was obviously in some distress and it was a stark reminder to keep focused. 
The fountain in the distance, its huge!
I kept on taking the gels and cracked out a can of coke I’d been carrying for the last push. I offered my brother some coke which he gladly accepted, and also gave him a caffeinated gel. It was getting hard work as now we were overtaking a lot of those who had started the 110km or 60km events – every time we passed them, the large group pinched and people not concentrating would lose a couple of lengths and the group would fragment. The same happened with the risers and many of the mini-roundabouts. In a couple of instances it required absolute max efforts for 30-60s to latch back onto the group.  
With about 10km to go there was a moderate climb which totally split the group. Ten or so riders absolutely bolted off the front and it all stretched out, my bro stayed with me as we pushed over the top, but the next time I looked around he was gone. I waited up, and he told me he had completely blown. I made several attempts to cajole him to stay on my wheel, but each time he just fell off. As the event has gone on he had started to feel a little sick, and stopped eating, thinking there was only about 20km to go, he thought he would be fine....d'oh. He certainly took it in good spirits, and fortunately it was very close to the end.  I had certainly worked hard for most of the day, and was happy to roll in with him the rest of the way, on smooth swiss-roads and glorious sunshine. If only I could post that time at Roth!
We enjoyed a free massage and the pasta party in the sun at the end of the ride (if only I could do that at Roth instead of the marathon?!) It was great fun, and I am certainly considering entering the etape come next year. The rest of the day was spent relaxing in the sun down by the lake with a beer.….all in all a great weekend.