What happened last weekend? I asked the wrong questions, but still proud as!

 

Last weekend I travelled to Albi in the South of France and rode in the World Championships and for my country for the first time. In short, we had an amazing time and waxed lyrical about the place and GB camaraderie from Friday until Monday morning when we left. That was the case despite a disappointing race on Sunday. I finished and now have a world ranking of 46th but it did not go to plan. I was dropped off the main pack after 20 miles due to excruciating pain in both feet.

When I was first motivated to write about being an academic athlete the idea was prompted by Marty P when we were chatting over tea about the difficulties of early career research or research in general. Of course, closely connected was the notion of rejection, the painful and hurty bit and this was one of the direct things that we were discussing and how being an athlete may help academic life.

But, things can also go wrong in sport too and I’d known from the beginning of starting this blog that one of the closest interfaces circumventing both realms is dealing with defeat or rejection (talk about the words later) and how my worlds support each other. And then telling you lot about it. I didn’t know when that moment of writing about the less nice bits would come, but I knew they would and this would be a very incomplete blog and idea if I just wrote the rosy bits down, right?

Here comes the story/excuses.

I have been playing with my shoe and bike set up recently to try and eradicate foot pain. It had been going on for a while but getting progressively worse during the season and through the roof bad in the three weeks leading up to Albi, though long term should get better.

So, why was I grumpy about finishing a World Champs race towards the back, even though I had been in so much pain?

Because I was having to ask the wrong questions. I spent my time querying foot pain, asking why my feet hurt so much when ultimately, I wanted to be asking my body what it was capable of doing in its fittest state of my life. Nine months into the year I had ridden almost 4000 miles. One way to describe racing is a bit like when normal (don’t know what that means) people start exercising again after a period of time. It hurts, not necessarily painful like an injury, but the exertion feels very uncomfortable, heart rate up, muscles straining, lungs burning etc. However, when one is deflecting pain in the body (rather than exerting themselves) it becomes very difficult to push your body to its physiological limits. I was bursting with fitness but I couldn’t answer the questions myself and my legs wanted to find the answers to. i.e. how fast can they go and for how long? The reason I race!

I had succumbed to the biggest rookie error: doing something new or different on race day. It couldn’t have all been avoided but an easier pair of shoes could have helped and I didn’t travel with them. The temperature was 37 degrees which makes my feet worse but I couldn’t turn that down and was enjoying the tan anyway.

And what else went wrong?

I wrecked the balance of academia and athlete. I hadn’t slept properly for weeks due to writing, with 3-4 hours a night being the norm. Whilst less sleep may equate to more deep work and writing (good!), it also means a tired Charlie who still has to train (probably at 5.15am) on those few hours sleep. These things have to work together, not against each other. A firm lesson to be taken back from work/life balance here. Agreed, sometimes deadline chaos happens, and having sleep apnoea and being on excellent medication it means my sleep pattern is very well in sync and can take it. I can get away with one complete sleep cycle of 4 hours for a night or two and I can still race at the top of my game. In fact, I do that for nearly every triathlon due to race starts often being at 6am, but the clear message is that I cannot make an enduring pattern of that. It’s not an excuse because I should have known better but I can’t imagine that it helped.

Writing this a week after the event I have had time to see how my emotions and reflections on it have changed. It might not sound it from the above but I am overall very happy to have finished and extremely proud to have ridden for my country. In the days after the event you would have found me pretty miserable and that was because I was very tired and more worried about the long-term prospect of what might be going down with my feet. I have trained this week but today was my first outside ride and in short it was better. OK, I have had a fair bit of painkiller, but, I am sat writing this after 100 miles (of sublime power and cadence) and my feet seem a bit more settled. There’s a long way to go but it was amazing to experience the endorphins and be reminded of why I ride.

Just in case you might be wondering, my application for the qualification ride for 2018 is already in.

Yours in health and fitness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

En route to Albi, World Champs: Gearing up for a performance

I’m an amateur and in practice that means my bills are paid via other ways and the outcomes of my weekend’s pursuits will not determine whether I can afford dinner the rest of the week. In theory, it also means without those significant consequences of a lack luster performance that I am free to enjoy myself when racing, whatever the result.

I’m very adept, to say the least, at getting myself into a frenzy about my academic performance (there’s some very good friends with ears who can vouch for that!), perhaps because that does pay the bills (well, mostly anyway, bikes are not cheap) but also because it’s my sole purpose so to speak. Probably not quite my salvation though. In the hurricane of early career research and academic performance environments generally, my harsh self-critique may be a little more justified than in my sport, although a considerably gentler version of that would often be most welcome.

I don’t need to give myself a hard time riding my bike too and so once I started to race more, got faster and gained some confidence, I tried to tell myself, ‘the result does not matter’. I’m still doing that several years later, but it’s not entirely easy though because once labeled as an ‘athlete’ or put onto a start line (as opposed to going to an ‘event’), the effect is a very different mind-set that becomes emotionally invested too. If one wants to race, then the very idea of such suggests they are not doing so to ‘get around’ by themselves at the back of the pack. I won’t lie, I am dead excited, proud and happy to be heading out to France to ride for Great Britain at the World Championships. Not many get the chance to do that.

But, given what I have said above, and that I am now sitting here in the departures lounge at Gatwick, waiting to be called for boarding for probably what outsiders would call the ‘biggest’ race of my life, what I am thinking? How am I feeling? What’s been going down the last few weeks since I last had a chance to write? Does this race matter?

Regarding, the last question, yes! But also no! I’m approaching it with the same ambivalence that I approach every other race, using a classic self-protection mechanism to deflect the responsibility and pressure from myself. So, in the days leading up to a race, I begin to look past it and instead think about the next one, not because I have reason to believe that the immediate one is going to be an entirely awful experience, but because I like to tell myself that there’s always another day if plans fail or I don’t cut the mustard. I do that to protect myself from an onslaught of defeatist thoughts and because of the prominence of sport in my life. I also do it so I can be realistic about my chances; whilst I have had the best year physiologically on a bike, I’m still a triathlete, and to a certain extent a little bit of an unconventional rider that got faster by carrying an enormous set of lungs. Using this technique, the longer term and calmer proposition is that whilst I am fit and able, any potential can be unleashed by my efforts, decisions and judgements that I could make at any other time. I am already making ambitious plans and adjustments for next season and those are exciting the hell out of me.

How does this slightly neutralised mind racing mind set work for me? It lets me race. That wasn’t a surprise, really was it? You knew it was coming. In the early stages, it protects me enough to set out and head for the starter’s orders. It then takes all the pressure away and if the body is in a fit enough condition, it will just go on its own, probably even before the ‘beast mode’ switch is tripped consciously.

What’s the goal for Sunday then? Just to finish, even last would be cool. This was a race planned 5 weeks ago, not 10-12 months like would normally be the case. The achievement was in qualifying but has also been in knowing that within that short turnaround time I have made a few adaptations and gotten myself, legs and pedal stroke, into the best possible position that I could have managed for the distance and setting. I’m pleased with that and I happen to quite like surprises sometimes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Learning success: You better believe

I had some pretty big things happen a week ago and combined they were so exciting that at some stages it all felt a bit much, in a good way though I think. Every few minutes I seemed to get a ‘congratulations’ email/text, a hug, a thumbs up across campus, some chocolates, etc.

Things happen in threes.

In the space of less than a week I had qualified to represent Team GB cycling at the Gran Fondo World Championships, finished my third full distance triathlon (coming 6th with a huge personal best) and received a second research grant.

I was simply elated and nothing gave me more pleasure than sharing those moments with those who ride the Charlie rollercoaster train with me everyday. At the time these seemed such big things and I will probably look back on this week as one of the most defining in my career, life and sport. As it was all such a giant leap from where I had been previously I was a little unsure, these things were for me? I did them or got them? Are you sure? Really sure?

It was clear I needed to ‘learn’ how to accept success just as I had tried to manage the setbacks. This was quite polemic thinking, not uncharacteristic at all for me, but, had I been successful before?

Was I successful the days I sat in my pyjamas all day, paralyzed by fear and depression trying to plug away at snail pace in the hope that something would work, just once, one day?

I wouldn’t have said so at the time but I categorically say so now. Big and shouty nice things happened this week, and people were very lovely to me, yes, but without those laborious days, months, and years of arduous effort those wouldn’t have happened. Those were the even more successful days, the days where I held on, or at least others kept me on a train that I thought was going into an eternal black hole.

Success undoubtedly breeds success, that’s well known and when I’d quite believed what had happened, the effects soon started to show. In that week, I wrote more words than I had in any of the other weeks in the previous 6 months, even though I have a very strict and regular writing routine and wasn’t exactly slacking. I raced my bike the best I have ever done so. I know I have a huge amount of work ahead of me, but I appreciate that by having some things that went right behind me that it will mean I will give everything I have, with the resources I have, with my project of self and do so with utmost pride.

I’ve had more time to reflect on these things now and I know the bad bits will still be there but I am at least starting to learn more about the troughs and peaks accommodating success (what does that word mean anyway?). Things are more normal now and I am back to my usual routine but I can at least visualize how this works. I wouldn’t want the good bits to happen all the time, just as I haven’t wanted the bad bits to redfine me and my life. But now those good things have happened, and they will occasionally get forgotten in amidst the hard labours that one loses oneself in, they will seem much less significant too, but I can at least visualize and feel them close enough to draw a steady state of energy from them. Classic athlete mindset, let me have a little and I’ll give you everything I can in return.

Stopping when you are done versus when you are tired! (And qualified for World Champs!)

when I am done

I’ve just returned from being in Rome for work ten days and it’s probably been my biggest challenge so far without meds. I could only run in 35 degrees, no gym, little writing and a shed load of carbs. But I managed a short 6 miles running each day and I stayed sane. This week I am back to work proper, in my routine and I’ve been writing. It’s also a big race week, full distance triathlon, and I have been thinking about what it means to finish or complete both of those activities.

I write in blocks of either 90 or 45 minutes. Usually the former and manage 3.5 (90’s) a day when I have no other commitments (apart from training), but regardless I do 10 of those every week at all costs. Its called ‘Deep work’ (more on that later) and I started doing this about 6 months ago when the anxiety was sky high and I had no meds to fall back on and my body literally screamed at me. At first I could only manage a few sentences without hating everything I wrote (and about myself) and tackling demons beyond belief. As the months have passed this has been my savior, strict routine with 15 or 30 minute breaks of easy or brainless stuff. It might not always lead to direct outputs but it keeps me calm and that works for me. I am very meticulous with the timing of these, I use a timer and I always stop when the timer announces the end of the session. I have chosen those times because they are about as long as my small brain can manage, but also long enough to get a good amount of thinking and writing done. Any longer and the bad thoughts increase rapidly and I get too tired to fight them off. I therefore know as a matter of fact that if I try to do longer then I will be writing shite and start to go ballistic. My treat is knowing that I made it until the end of the time and that my work is done for now. It’s tempting to do more but I have experimented with that and it ends in tears, every time.

Being a big week of racing I have also been pondering how different the finish line is in endurance sport to writing. I mean everyday writing rather than longer outlooks on things like journal submissions. It’s this difference that probably has caused me a lot of pain over the years when trying to do academic stuff. I am trained and built to stop swimming, biking and running when you are done, and at the required distance, not when you are tired, hungry or feeling a bit bad. I have the mind set of dragging every limb over the finish line, even if that involves crawling, and a lot of paddies and painkillers. In triathlons, I am rewarded for being uncomfortably tired with a medal, t-shirt and points. When I am writing, I am rewarded for protecting my sanity. And that is a very significant and important difference.

Anyway, I am not overly convinced I am ready for a full distance triathlon this weekend. This might be some nerves settling in, although it will be the fourth year on the start line. Perhaps I know how much it bloody hurts. It is such a long way that one only dares to dream of finishing the 140.6. miles once about 20 miles into the run. I have foot pain and I am not quite at racing weight, it will definitely be a day of just keeping on going. I will be tired and in a bad way but I can’t stop because that won’t lead to a medal. After today’s very exciting news of qualifying for the World Champs in Albi as a Team GB rider I have also had to downgrade this weekend to a B race. Whatever, the aim is to finish. More to follow on Albi soon!

Birthday race report: Outlaw Half (70.3) Holkham. Steady Eddy and Confidence gained.

14th place, 6 hrs 8 minutes.

Well, today was the 7th 70.3 (half iron distance) race I’ve started and finished. I am absolutely delighted in the face of adversity. I have been unwell most of the week and was several thousand calories short on the start line, still wasn’t eating but decided to put myself in the field of play. I didn’t in a million years expect to finish one discipline, let alone three, but as my bike was left overnight nearly two hours away we had to go and fetch it anyway and I thought I’d have a little go.

Once in my starting pen in the lake about 1000 people sang ‘happy birthday’ which was nice. It would have been far more embarrassing if a significant number of those people weren’t all looking the same in wet-suits and the same colored swim caps.

Started swim steady, knew I could have got right up there into the lead but didn’t as shaving a couple of minutes off the swim time would have significantly increased the chances of bike disaster and illness. I knew the bike would take 3000 calories and was where I needed to manage things the most. The whole day I stayed on energy drink, water and coke. I didn’t dare risk gels or solids and it worked a treat. I felt sure if I got the bike into T2 I would very likely get a medal as I would easily be able to make the finish cut off, even if I walked the whole half-marathon.

The run is the bit I am really chuffed with. Whilst a 2 hour 13.2 miles isn’t that fast for me, it was solid running, I gained a very large number of places, managed a prolonged sprint finish and I finally felt I could compete in that bit as well. A negative split proved that! I did have foot pain but I managed that and the calories well.

So whilst today was a second Steady Eddy in a row, there is much confidence gained. Getting up at 2.30 am on my birthday was well worth it. Kill or cure as they say! And you’ll be pleased to know I have just eaten 1/4 of a large family sized cake.

Next up: Full Iron distance at Outlaw Full in three weeks.

 

 

Race report: Ironman 70.3 Staffordshire – 18th June 2017  

Pre-race: It’s 05.02 am, having been awake since 03.30am I am now waiting on the shuttle bus ready to move like cattle down to the lake for a 7.15am swim start (in the elite wave). Sitting at the very back, as usual. The slightly rebellious triathlete coming out. Writing this is proving a necessary distraction. I’m surrounded by a 100 or so other athletes in this just one space and I quite frankly don’t want to hear what time they’ll be having their caffeine gel, what pace they will set out and when they will be going to the porta loo. This doesn’t usually bother me as I normally have headphones and a coffee. I have neither and so I’ll just have to be irritable (again). It’s like a noxious concoction of sugar and caffeine, anxious farts and nervous energy.

I guess what’s bothering me as I inhale these fumes is the usual thrill of endurance racing and especially triathlons, knowing that so much can go wrong during a relatively long period of time (several hours, up to 15) and the majority of that not going wrong or it being fixed is down to one person. Yours truly. Yet if it goes right then the endorphins later will be mine and Team Charlie’s.

Anyway, spirits up, the weather is looking like it’s going to be the hottest day of year. Racing in the heat bothers a lot of athletes but doesn’t usually bother me. Last year at Stafford it was rain and a mud fest, that really didn’t suit! Time to enter T1 now, one final bike check, bike computer on bike, eat 2 hot cross buns and a gel, wetsuit on, text my dad happy Father’s Day, shed a tear at the national anthem and then GO. Turn it up!

Post race: I suffered very badly out there today, much worse than anticipated! 1st in swim, 4th on bike, 14th on run and overall. I had clear traffic out in the swim, and felt a bit like royalty in elite pen next to the pros, but on hindsight ‘I boiled in the bag’ and the dehydration then ruined the rest of the race. During the swim I got kicked in the eye, that was a first, but thankfully I didn’t lose my goggles (or contact lenses!). I then had a solid transition and was out on the road in good time to only just start suffering. At mile 33, I got off and had a “I can’t” moment – someone who has helped me enormously knows all about those since I’ve told them I can’t do even the most mundane things over the past two years. Anyway, they weren’t there and I didn’t have a phone. My back was hurting, I was feeling lethargic and I was just uncomfortable. I got back on my bike and plodded on, knowing my efforts were all going downhill. I had only seen one other female go past me at that point but knew I was heading for torrid times. With the rolling hills and heat by the bit of climbing at 45 miles I was in bits. Eventually I made it to transition, with a worse time than last year. Transition two was also slow as I sat there in a boiling hot tent for two minutes dreading the thought of running 13.1. miles in 30 degrees. Soon as I was out of transition the struggle become even more apparent. I was needing full sugar coke by mile 2, something that I usually save until much later in the run and sometimes try to avoid entirely. It was just an oven and I couldn’t get enough water, even with stops less than two miles away each time. I don’t like being defeatist but I knew I was rapidly losing places so I ran when I could, jogged when I could and walked when I had to. The latter of which was pretty often. I was absolutely soaked in water from standing under pipes but still couldn’t get the body temperature down. I therefore decided very early on in the run that the day’s mission had to be a “get a medal and a t-shirt and avoid the medical tent” job. I want to go as fast as possible, preferably all the time, but I also know when to listen to my body, admittedly that isn’t very often but I also knew I’d had a crazy few weeks of work and had lost an enormous amount of sleep. That all said, I finished and still got the racing high driving back home south having had 400mg of caffeine in about 40 minutes. Sometimes you are proud to do what you can do. Today was one of them.

 

 

Race report: Cambridge Gran Fondo 4th June 2017

This was my first ‘Gran Fondo’ race, 79 miles racing around Cambridgeshire. I have ridden sportives for years but never really raced a bike over that distance without a swim before or run after. I was quite excited at the prospect of racing with 8500 others, on the flat and not just plodding along to get around. It also seemed a nice distance, stopping 20 miles before a tonne and when fatigue starts to develop quite substantially.

I was in the female 30-34 ‘race pen’ and this was perhaps my down fall. I was dropped from the peloton very early on (why do I never warm up properly?) and then spent a good 45 minutes out on my own in the wind, waiting for another peloton to come along. Anyway, soon they came in their hundreds and I managed to tag along into a train. All on. I had set myself the target of keeping to 20mph as this would get me home in about four hours and last years’ slowest time for a world champs place was 4 hr 13 min. I had worked that out in December 2016 and trained with that goal. However, sustaining that pace wasn’t proving easy, I was having enormous foot pain from about 15 miles in. Unlike never before. Tears of agony were streaming down my face at one point and I had to keep unclipping and pedaling with one foot for as long as I could maintain reasonable cadence. Anyway, once in a group I picked it up. Got to 50 miles, now firmly onto my 20mph average. Sugar level wasn’t doing great, especially as one of the gels in my pocket had gone off (repulsive!) and I wasn’t planning on any feed station stops. The best I could do was keep forcing in my favourite powerade energy drink. Around 66 miles I had the last of my gels, it wasn’t enough but inspired by still holding the required average I had a big moment and realised the next 13 miles could be some of the biggest I have ever ridden.

With the gauntlet firmly laid down I decided to go all out. A kind guy could see what I was trying to do and that I was shifting fast and said to me “you just get on my wheel and stay there”. That lasted for about 5 miles or so until we got separated but it was a big help. Inside the last ten miles I was hurting, really hurting but I was also really motoring along and over took several of those in my age group. I was starting to believe. I could see baring mechanical I would be home in 4 hours and I gave everything I have ever owned to get that bike home in that time. Made it in 3 hr 56 minutes. Although I was dead chuffed with that time as it was way more than I would have achieved last year, I knew the poor start had let me down and I also knew that the quality of the field had gone up dramatically from last year. I waited for the results very ambivalently and sadly I hadn’t quite made it. I was just ten minutes away from qualifying for a world champs place. I was gutted, only blaming myself for accepting unconditionally last year’s target. I had such a fantastic time though, this was also my first UCI organised event and it didn’t disappoint. With 400 people working on the event they did an exquisite job, just what one would expect from the UCI, but still, an athlete is always grateful when things are perfectly organised and they can just ride. I know there’s more in me though and I have already signed up to try again next year. Once triathlon season is over I am sure I can make some big gains during the winter just as I have done during winter 16/17.