An anecdote. Organized chaos: A few days in the life of Hurricane Charlie

OrganizedChaos_Card01_cover

People often say they can’t do what I do, but they are usually referring to some form of exertion and the physical amount of training rather than the labour around being an academic athlete. I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have even considered that part. After a few quite hectic days earlier this week here I am thinking about what I really do, how much goes on behind the scenes to be a working academic and race fit athlete Charlie.

It is so much more than those ghastly 5.15 am starts nearly every day. Getting the athlete into the right place, at the right time, with the right kit, support team and food is a military operation in itself, like you wouldn’t believe.

We are now entering pre-season for a triathlete and it will soon be play time. Play time is sweet but essentially the more I train and race, the more I sleep, the more I eat, the more washing that needs to be done. Whilst I have been on study leave I have a bit more freedom and so last weekend I worked two long days to ‘clear’ my desk for a few hours off Monday. Except, ‘clearing’ one’s desk in my world doesn’t actually mean that because all I do is take myself away from my Mac and transport myself to the perpetual train of triathlon organizing.

Sunday: drove in the evening from Leicester to Ipswich, where I am stationed less than 18 hours. 1000 miles in a week driving. As I fly through the door at 7pm, I am an hour earlier than normal, my Mum is as always delighted to see me, but is swallowing the last mouthfuls of her tea and I can see she is wondering about what she was doing before her meal and before any sense of calm was about to be disseminated by Hurricane Charlie.

Still Sunday night and so we get to work. Every second counts in this world. What is the urgency to drive over 300 miles in sub two days you might ask? Preparing a bike box ready for the airport on Wednesday and it has to be done in case I am not back again. Said bike box is destined for Spain, except I won’t board the plane with it. It’s all in preparation for when I arrive in three weeks time. Not now. I send everything I need to ride a bike with my parents who are boarding the plane, paying attention to every last detail, from the subscription to Trainer Road trainer software, through to the right pair of socks and energy gels.

Yep, still Sunday evening. No day of rest in this house. Next job. Never-mind, been going since 5.15am, a full days work, 30 mile ride and 125 mile drive. Next, sign all forms and deal with all post etc. that needs doing and do the all-important check to make sure my writing from the week is syncing to every single Mac in every location I work (5 in total). Whilst doing that I announce another gem for my dad. “We need to put the new airless tyres on the new bike before you leave to go on holiday because we won’t actually see each other when you get home, we will be handing Baggles (the cat) over virtually. I’m riding in the Midlands that weekend and wont drive to Ipswich first”.

He sighs. “What I have to do that before I leave for holiday?” I hear my mum do a little sigh too, perhaps a more sympathetic one more sided with Team Charlie. She asks him “What are you doing tomorrow afternoon?” There isn’t a clear answer. There shouldn’t be, he’s retired.

I can almost hear my Mum telepathically communicating to my Dad in husband and wife language. I think she goes something like this…“Honey, I know you don’t really want to do that (the airless tyres) after the gym and would rather read your book and enjoy lunch, but, if you don’t do it then, you won’t like the alternative. I promise. Boomerang (our daughter) will be back at a less than opportune moment and there will be very little patience involved. Plus, I have to go to Sainsburys after the gym to get food for the machine before I leave for my afternoon appointment and so you are definitely not alone”.

Time for my dinner, no effort required. There is one prepared meal left. It’s chicken and broccoli. It was cooked a week ago and left in Ipswich with enough carbohydrates in it for tomorrow’s planned training. Simultaneously I start food prep for the next week and think that there doesn’t seem much chicken left in the freezer as I get meat out for week. Silly me, delivered on Friday at the end of the week, pre-ordered, the date chosen to maximise time riding and writing at the weekend with less defrosting required. Seriously.

Monday: I finish preparing food for the week at 7am, I then pack the right amount of meals in the car based on the number of days I’ll be away for. I count out every supplement. I work out the order of every day’s training. Writing my own training programmes (just another of my laborious tasks away from training). After I deal with a tonne of triathlon admin. Booking events, appointments, races, rides, travel, bike boxes, insurance. Endless. I then head to the gym after the rest of cooking is done and the meat is cooling and prior to the rest of the additions in the 20 odd tubs. Yes, I just organised my training around meat cooling.

Back from the gym. Note to self, no dirty kit from Leicester, no dirty kit to Leicester. Remember. If you came with kit, make sure you go back with it. Otherwise, you will totally disrupt the balance of the right kit in the right place.

Guess what dad’s doing, the tyres!

I pause for a brief moment as I ferry around the kitchen and I notice Baggles sitting by his food bowl. He hasn’t had his breakfast, its 1pm. A gentle and calm soul of a cat. He’s not starving, you don’t need to call the RSPCA, he’s just patient and delightful. He offers me a little meow, not a screaming “do it now” (the kind I regularly deliver) but just a little reminder “hey! I’m here, I’m ready now, whenever you are”. He’s used to the madness around here.

Dad carries on in the kitchen with the tyres. He says it will take him another 45 mins to prep the second tyre before he needs my help finishing them off. So, I train a second time, next door on my Watt bike and come ready, dripping in sweat at my allotted time slot.

Monday afternoon progresses and I am all done here for now. A 13 minute shower. Back in the car. Drive to Leicester, via Norwich. Yes, you read that right. Foot treatment in preparation for racing season. All part of the deal. I make a note of how my feet are feeling and also set a reminder in my phone to check progress in 6 weeks. Performance and fitness monitoring all on my to-do list too. I arrive in Leicester where every single thing is ready for an interrupted day of work tomorrow before driving back to Ipswich. And of course, meal and clean kit included.

Tuesday: Back to Ipswich after work where I am then all installed for a week of heavy writing and training.

This all sounds like hell, I know, and it also sounds like I micro manage my life to within an inch of it, because I do.

However, these last few days epitomise organized chaos. I live in busy and chaotic moments now to ensure the day to day running later is totally organized and entirely not stressful. These give me the calm spaces to write and train, eat and sleep with very little effort required. I have as much space and time as I want for all of those things. It goes like: train 6am, write 4 hours offline, 30 minutes recovery sleep (very important), write another 4 hours offline, train 6pm, finish remaining odd bits of work. Sleep.

I work just as hard at all of the preparation to get the quality academic and training time as I do the training itself. And as you can probably see, I am very gratefully supported by my loving parents (who probably collapse the moment I hit the A14 out of Ipswich). I couldn’t do it without them.

Oh, and where’s Baggles? In the bath fast asleep. Thank God. Team, the fort is held for another little while.

Being Allegro: Riding the waves of being an academic athlete with music and tattoos

I already have tattoos, my first an M-Dot Ironman emblem on my left wrist, the second a self-designed initial of Bradley Wiggins on my right wrist. I got my third three weeks ago. Of course, I am proud of being an Ironman that has held a world ranking, and I’ll never stop admiring Wiggo. However, this latest piece of ink is more about me, being Charlie, day in day out. It represents the interdependencies and interconnections between being an academic and an athlete via the medium of music, a very large part of my life. Whilst the design took months to decide upon, the idea and what it resembles travels back to my teenage years: when I became academically minded and began to grow athletically.

You may know I operate on two categories of noise: deafening silence to work, or ear bleeding music when I am not. Whilst I train to music often (a separate story for another day), when I am not working I will have my headphones on. I own at least ten different pairs and I go everywhere with them, including the 6-minute walk from the car park to my desk in the mornings, to make a coffee, or to walk to a meeting two minutes away (I am not kidding). Sometimes I am trying to take myself to a different (probably happier!) place but often I am thinking and reflecting in the short and long term, finding my energy and rhythm. That energy then seeps into my academic work when I return to my desk and sit quietly. Perhaps I am thinking about something I wrote that I was pleased with, perhaps a perfectly nailed set of intervals performed cycling or running before work. I also look forward, sometimes a paper I am thinking of writing for instance, my listening therefore becomes the space where the dots are connected and the final part of the jigsaw falls into place producing a coherent argument. Perhaps I just feel ropey and want to be in someone else’s world.

Here it is:

tatt3

What do the various parts mean?

Primarily it is based on Blink 182 because they are my favourite band (since a teenager), for those not familiar, fast pop punk music. The roman numerals in the middle obviously (hopefully?!) total one hundred and eighty-two (a bit late now if not). The blue and pink colours have also been mixed to match the official colours of the band. The words “A new hope” represent the title to one of the oldest Blink songs that contains one of my favourite (albeit short) bits of guitar. But, the words in themselves are also significant, you’ll see why in a moment. It is located on my right bicep, directly opposite my heart, also not insignificant as the right side is where the heart pumps blood to the lungs to pick up oxygen and function.

The aspect that connects it all together is the wave on the left side with a music note at the bottom. To some extent, it reflects the ups and downs of my character, in Blink 182 terms: “I’m a little shy. A bit strange and a little bit manic”. I wouldn’t say I am manic in the medical and strictest sense of the word but I do live my life with many roller coasters, those are a bit fun, and the troughs and quieter bits create the energy for the ups. If we deconstruct a wave then, it is something we usually understand as form of disturbance, predominantly has a moving ridge, an urge and a rush of feeling. It can move more freely and gently, back and forth or it can move as more of a sudden occurrence.

In creating that rush of feeling, another important point of the wave is the Crescendo – the crest – akin to peak performance and the euphoric moments when riding my bike. One does not do the athletic things I do without being an endorphin junkie. I can get my fixes in many ways but some examples might include a personal best of some form or winning a race, for example. So, the crest is the peak, it gradually gets louder, creates excitement, and its petering or crashing out does not have to be bad. The point is that it is a cycle, it picks up again with its rhythm.  It’s “A New Hope” but that hope does not have to derive from something gone wrong.

wave

Moving on, if we think of the composition of music broadly, beyond the single note etched on my arm, there are several elements: rhythm, dynamics, melody, harmony, tone colour, texture and form.

Lyrics are often the part that touch most people in an emotive sense, but for me, the defining aspect is the rhythm – the element of “time” in music, when you tap your foot, you are keeping time, in time with the pulse of the music. In Greek, rhythm (rhythmos) means any regular recurring motion, some form of symmetry that is marked by the regulated succession of strong and weak elements, but also of opposite or different conditions. Not too dissimilar to the peaks and troughs of the wave described above.

The rhythm is divided into two parts: how long the beat lasts, and the tempo: the speed of the beat. It is the tempo of the music that emotively affects my thinking and feeling, and I think about both academic and athletic things listening to the same tempo of music. Tempos are not specific and relative to each other but they do have some broad categories:

tempo

And they are described in the following ways:

  • Largo = Labored
  • Adagio = Slow
  • Andante = Steady walking
  • Moderato = moderate
  • Allegro = fast/happy
  • Presto = Very fast

So, how does this tempo play out in what I listen to?

I own around 700 full albums, which is a fair bit of music, but even with a few examples below and what I have explained already about Blink 182 whom predominantly sit around 125 beats per minute (BPM), there is a pattern emerging here. I nearly always listen to a specific speed of music, none of that slow and sad stuff, never, not on even the darkest of days. I’m into “Allegro”, music that is relatively “fast” and “happy”.

  • Blink 182: After midnight (167BPM)
  • Up all night (156BPM)
  • Always (158BPM)
  • Goo Goo Dolls: “Over and over” (123BPM)
  • Avicii: “Wake me up” (124BPM)
  • Train: “Working girl” (124BPM)
  • Ed Sheeran: “Castle on the hill” (135BPM)

It is also not insignificant that the BPM of the music I listen to are relatively close to the Revolutions Per Minute (RPM) riding my bike. For instance, a standard British Cycling warm up starts at 90RPM and progresses to 110+ RPM. When I am racing full pelt I’d expect to see 120RPM at least. For most of the time then when I am not training I will be listening to music at 120BPM which is not far away from an effort level of 8 out of 10 when doing my sport.

Adding these rhythms and waves together it represents a series of cycles and daily patterns that bring my worlds together and create moments of pure elation in my otherwise normal day. It is extremely telling that I listen primarily to music that is labelled “happy” and use and embrace it as a form of energising my worlds. I know our ups and downs can be caused by the chemicals in our brains, but I know for a fact that I can use music to fundamentally alter the way I think, feel and embrace the rhythms of my life. It is the space where I garner some confidence and above all else, believe. It’s also my medium of energy. Had a mediocre – ‘meh’ – day – spruce it up on the way home. Had some good news? Whack up the volume, celebrate and dream. Had a terrible day? Bad enough that you just can’t think of anything else? Put a song on repeat, lose yourself in the beat, let it carry you along.

There is so much more I can say on music in relation to both of my worlds, and if we add driving and travel to the mix it shows even more, but it’s beyond the scope of my ever-growing post here and my multiplying to-do list for a Monday night. I’ll save it for a chapter in the book. In case you are wondering, I have considered what the new ink will be like when I am 70 years old and it simply is no issue. This is me, this is it for the rest of my days, it’s my love, my drug and where I find authentic happiness. For now, I’ll sign off with my favourite race philosophy: “Let’s pick up the pace and the volume”.

Being a responsive academic: On the radio and in “the zone”?

Monday and Tuesday this week involved very long hours with end to end meetings and a lot of travel, and so by the time Wednesday came around I was well up for a day that involved just 6 hours of meetings and stuff. A whole two hours spare in my working day for….a power nap? Catching up on emails? Filing an expenses claim? Eating food sat at my desk rather than chewing and walking to or from it?

In my usual 5.30am wake-up quick morning news check (before I peel myself out of bed for training) I could see there was a lot of traffic on the Government’s launched inquiry into vaping and e-cigarettes late on Tuesday night. No time for in-depth reading, interesting, but one for later – and to send to my wonderful research assistant for safe keeping.

Anyway, Wednesday ‘hump day’ didn’t quite live up to its alluded expectations of a gentler pursuit in the journey to the weekend. Mid-morning during a meeting I did a quick cursory glance of my emails and saw the BBC in the subject. “XXX from BBC Radio 5 live here, can you give us a call as soon as you get this, we would like you to talk about the Government vaping inquiry this afternoon”.

For someone who is relatively new to this academia game, I surprisingly have a lot of nostalgia for an ancient scholarly way of living that I have never actually lived. The kind who reads and writes in a dark room without an internet connection and engages with civilization and people about once a week when they go to buy groceries from a shop 15 miles away up a mountain.

Should an academic drop everything at short notice to response to news related to their funded project? Or is it perhaps not a little churlish of me to say no when we are supposedly the experts on this topic? Or do I ought to remember that Impact, Dissemination and Outreach are the boxes that a modern academic is required to tick?

I had two days notice when I last went on BBC Radio Leicester and 3 weeks when I went on BBC Radio 4. Ample time to prepare. Can I really do this in circa three hours?

Can I speak about a project that has no data yet? How will I wake the cat in time to deliver him the obligatory ten practices of key points?

I’m an academic, who is supposed to talk for part of her living but who in other guises is a perfectionist and does not suffer a lack of control at all well. Can I be “on form” in three hours and avoid making an entire plonker of myself?

I suppose the answer is yes. Game time.

ISDN line and room booked: CHECK

Key aims of project rehearsed: CHECK

Notes prepared to key questions anticipated by BBC: CHECK

Early afternoon meetings re-arranged: CHECK

Lunch eaten: CHECK

With those bits seen to it was then very soon time to get in “the zone”. “Good afternoon, this is your captain speaking….” (it does actually feel like that!).

At that point the adrenaline was flowing, a gentle raise in heartbeat, safe in the knowledge that there is little I can do in this moment but live it in full force and be myself. I am no expert in the psychology of speaking but just like when I race, I cherish those rare moments and opportunities to be the best that I can be in any moment whilst being me and also being me who carried earlier reservations.

Unsurprisingly it all went very fast from there on in. Done and dusted in a flash 7 minutes and the world didn’t end. All good. Job done. One up to Pocket Rocket.

Out of “the zone”, leaving the dungeons on campus (where the recording studio resides), feeling a little relieved I reflected on the past few hours. How had I got myself through a minor state of terror being the academic and person that I am towards doing something that was actually rather fun, enjoyable and filled me with pride to do what I do? And with the added bonus of being able to talk about something affecting people’s lives right now?

It’s all rather easy, really. Just like being a triathlete at a race.

The months and months of training and learning are etched on my liver and can be delivered in an instant. I wasn’t going to forget the key aims and debates of our project. I live and breathe those virtually every day. Instead I prepared and organized the more local situation and made sure I could press the “on” switch at short notice. In those moments that embrace the more immediate and short-lived performative elements of academic work, I often draw on the embodiment of being very fit and healthy and that in itself brings a load of energy and confidence too. I had the fundamentals already and just added the magic ingredients of food/fuel, a few tracks of my favorite tunes (always headies before something big) and armed myself to deliver.

Over and out.