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

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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.

Gifts for cyclists? Or rather, the gift of cycling?

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It’s that calendar month of the year that seems to offer a magical opportunity to don fairy wings and “let it all go”, “blow out”. A license for several thousand (extra) calories, an option to skip workouts, consume extra alcohol and freedom to reign and create a snowstorm of any of our existing routines. At the same time, there is also the myth “Oh, you are an athlete, you will burn it off very quickly”. Alas not. What I pile on my frame now wont contain the necessary macros for successful endeavors up hills in Spring. I’ll warn you now, the rest of this post will be full of cheese and scrooge.

I am a cyclist, in the right mood, I can give anyone a run for their money eating and on occasions (e.g. post Ironman) eat my body weight in cake. I have a very sweet tooth. I could eat at least half a Christmas pudding in one go, with a good load of trifle on the side, drowning in cream. That would also be after about 25 Celebration or Roses chocolates for breakfast, and a full Christmas lunch containing in the region of 5 yorkshire puddings. This off season thus far I have managed to continue bracing the cold much longer than I would normally and given my current fitness and body fat I am deserving of a little treat and rest. Perhaps sadly the somewhat less eccentric notion of moderation still needs to be applied. Getting myself into a food coma with a festive belly bloat helps no one in the Christmas survival exercise, because that is what it is for me. Like a lot of people, I genuinely struggle with the idea of Christmas, particularly because I am not religious. I struggle with its  commercialization, waste and equally with the forced happiness, there’s 364 other days of the year when I can be happy, no need for extra pressure for this one to work out.

Before you tarnish me with the scrooge hat, let me offer a little more festive cheer.

I have learnt to enjoy it in my own way and make some of my own fun whilst also spending time with those closest. We often hear of professional footballers training on Christmas day ready for their boxing day match, but I’m an amateur triathlete without such pressing needs for performance, and I still train on Christmas day. Every year. This is not some obsessive feat, but rather something I do out of love and it gives me the utmost of pleasure. It puts some grounding to the day as it’s my normal. Training is my pleasure all year round, so why should it be banished out of my life at a time when we are supposed to be enjoying ourselves?

Throughout the Christmas week (because let’s face it, that’s what it is these days), I train a bit harder and a bit more often. Not so much to cause lasting damage or injury, but enough to make a difference. Enough to know I may have knocked a few of the competition off the perch too. I also train more because it gives me the space to be exceptional within my normal routine and the routine in itself is my savior during otherwise unstructured days. I have a very managed approach to carbohydrates given my body shape and type and a few short sharp efforts are a good way to burn off any excess before it settles as fat, or before I ride sugar roller coasters from too many sweets.

And then there’s the gift giving. Buying for a triathlete/cyclist is pretty easy, they almost never have enough kit, on most websites there are gifts for under £10, under £50, under £100 over £2000. Basically, covering every price range possible from a pair of socks, to a box of gels, to a new set of carbon wheels and if you are very well behaved a new bike.

Of course, I find it hard not to buy cycling goodies when they are things I genuinely need all year round and are at a good price, but my best and most precious gift comes at Easter. When the clocks change and I’ve cracked the deal with the sunlight and I’ve sweated buckets indoors for months on end, pushed myself past boundaries I didn’t even know existed, increased my FTP significantly and I head outside with a new and better level of fitness. Boom. It’s perpetually hard during the winter and especially at Christmas, but for me, with a little bit of patience, that is true reward. Some Spring times I have raised a glass (non-alcoholic) in celebration of what is to come, knowing I am heading into racing season far better than I started the last and in the best fitness I could be. Providing no injuries, great things should come. This year the signs are good, by the time you read this on Christmas day I will have ridden my 6500th mile towards the end of my morning ride. The most I have ever done in a year but also with the highest wattage outed.

Festive best. Enjoy doing whatever you choose to do. Make at least a little bit of it your day if you can. If you are an athlete, you are an athlete 365 days of the year.

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On riding for 24 hours: Discipline got us there!

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Two weekends ago I embarked on quite an adventure, even by my endurance athlete standards. A 24-hour solo bike ride around Brands Hatch race course. Before I head into the gory details, the short of it was that the result was 3rd female soloist, over 18 hours moving, 108 laps and circa 20,000 calories burnt. Mileage was 262. And let’s also get one thing straight: this was the hardest thing I have ever done. I went to places I didn’t even know existed. Full Ironmans are a walk in the park compared to this and the fact I still believe that two weeks later is a firm indicator its true.

I had already written in the days before about the enormous military mission that we were about to embark on and so when we arrived at the track, already feeling a little bedraggled, it’s easy to understand why for the first time in my life I had chills down my spine. I have never had that before in a race setting. Immediately I went to my default race philosophy, one also used by the cyclist Geraint Thomas: “Convince yourself that none of it matters, even when it matters more than anything you will ever know”.

I’d been training and looking forward to this since Janaury 2017 but at 2pm on the Saturday afternoon before the 3pm start I just could not get my head around the fact that this was the last hour before I would be getting on my bike for 24 hours. N.B. It was called something less polite than a bike after about 10 hours of riding.

So, here are the high/low lights:

At 4pm (the first hour!) it absolutely tipped it down. Wet and cold rider. First kit trashed and needed to be worn for 5 more hours.

After dry clothes at 6pm (I couldn’t wait any longer) I rode for about 3 hours which was pretty non-eventual really as there was too much further to go. In the zone.

9-10pm I could see our plan was working and I was starting to make progress up the field as others tired so I decided to keep pushing into the night.

11pm brought a big smile, as I left the paddock for my next one and a quarter hours stint my Dad put my freshly charged lights on my bike and said, “See you tomorrow”, as I wouldn’t be back until after midnight. That genuinely brought home what we were doing.

2am. Delirious. I remember going to the toilet, I didn’t need to, it was just something to do rather than ride my bike. The whole thing was all starting to feel a little odd. My eyes were blood shot and stinging, and I felt so spaced out I could barely manage to even open the door handle to the toilets, let alone hold a conversation.

Sometime during the early hours, my dad also joked that “We are going home today!” that made it feel temporarily better too.

3-4am past delirium, now into “The waking dead” shift. The coldest part of the night and pedalling without even knowing I was doing it. After the tenth jam sandwich I realised I never wanted another. I was also approaching the point of never wanting to ride my bike again. Ever.

4.58 am I couldn’t take anymore. Yes, I remember the exact minute! Because my body was spending all my calories keeping warm, I was just getting too tired and could have easily slept on my bike. It was getting really quite manic because of the fog, lack of visibility and slippery track. So I sat in the car with the intension of 20 minutes sleep. After just 5 minutes I got such bad cramp in my legs and was shivering so profusely that I called it a day. “Up you get, back on that thing”. Relentless.

8am – Breakfast! One’s sense of taste and appetite after so much food and sugar tends to go a bit crazy. So I had cold chicken noodles. Delicious and perfect to take us up until lunch.  The fog was at last lifting and so I could dispense of lights and my headlight. Good job.

At about 1.30pm my Mum had managed to work out that if I could do 10 more laps then I would secure 3rd place and that became my mission. Once done I had a brief sleep on a cold concrete floor at 2pm, before heading out for the final time at 2.20pm for 40 minutes of victory laps.

When the chequered flag came down at 3pm that was one very proud moment. In a flash all the bad bits had been forgotten and the gushing moments of pleasure from being an endurance athlete came flooding back. Pure elation and very surreal.

The recovery?

Well, that was all very fun. The legs were a bit sore but nothing in compared to my self-diagnosed “endurance-flu”. I often get it in events more than 12 hours and it goes along the lines of a sore throat, indigestion from so much sports energy stuff, dehydration, sick, headache, groggy, sleep deprived and generally feeling rotten. And Oh My God. Blood sugar crashes like never before. In the three days post riding, I ate the world. Given the calorie and sleep deficit, recovery necessitated a very managed approach with light riding but all is good now!

I won’t lie, I was disappointed with the mileage, a cyclist of my ability should be heading for at least 350 miles. Of course, there are a huge number of factors to take into account but I firmly believe in warmer and flatter conditions then I would get closer to that. I am minded to do another attempt early next summer but I can’t drag my parents through that again. The poor souls! I will be needing a hand. The job description includes (in no order of importance): stay awake for 24 hours, charge Garmin, feed and water rider, pain relief, provide and dry clothes, keep tabs on distance, sort out mechanicals, monitor and charge lights, be visible to me when riding and do the transport stuff. Contact me if interested!

Ultimately, regardless of my moaning about the mileage, this was a pretty big achievement. If there’s one thing that got us to the end, and on the podium, it was good ole fashioned discipline and consistency. I rode for 75 minutes with 5-10 minute breaks for 24 hours. Although the “breaks” were hardly rests, I don’t remember sitting down with a cup of tea chilling during any of those. I was busy shoving a little food in, changing clothes at 6 hours, keeping tabs on battery in lights and garmin, and massaging my feet. However bad I was feeling, we rarely changed anything unless absolutely essential to the performance. No big sprints or efforts, just plod all day long, literally.

I should have done this first but I owe a massive thanks to all of those who dragged me through the night in what turned out to be one of the hardest things I’ve done. You will never know how much those words and support helped me. An equal giant thanks to my parents. If my job was hard, then I feel damn sure they had it harder. I was kept awake fuelled by an inordinate amount of sugar and adrenaline and a bit between my teeth to just get the job done. They just had to drag themselves through the night working their hardest for a cyclist.

That’s almost certainly me done racing until next February/March, I’ll be back soon with something other than race reports and promise to keep developing and updating my page during the darkest months.