Post 4 What I did last summer; A cycling excursion.

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Way back, on a hot August afternoon in 1985, I found myself  in France, at the foot of Mont Ventoux – the “Beast of Provence”. I was on a solo cycle camping holiday, taking in France, the Pyrennees and northern Spain. I knew the reputation of this climb, the demise of Tom Simpson, and the countless stories of Tour de France heroism and tragedy over subsequent years. It was quite late in the afternoon, and I needed to plan the rest of the day, and my night stop. I decided to leave the Beast, and do battle another time.

My next long solo tour, a couple of years later, was of northern and central Spain. It started out as a ride from Santander to Gibraltar and back, but the 40+ degree afternoons of the Meseta got the better of me. So I bravely retreated northwards, to the comparative sanity of La Rioja and Navarra for the remainder of my tour.

Two short tandem tours of Normandy with my daughter were enjoyed in 2010/2012, but in essence, my cycle touring days seemed to be over. I should explain what “touring” means to me; I enjoy the challenge of cycling long distances over difficult terrain. Ten hours a day in the saddle was routine, 150 mile days were not uncommon, rest stops were rare. Rest days almost non-existent. I used touring as training for racing, and vice versa.

When I started cycling again in 2014, I knew that I was not as sharp as I was in my younger days, so I never seriously contemplated racing. But I still needed a challenge to help motivate me. Retiring from work in 2015 meant that I was no longer limited to a two week break, and so for the summer I planned a 30 day, 2000 mile ride around France, this time taking in the Ventoux. The Beast had eluded me for 30 years, it was time for me to return to Provence.

I would not take my running shoes on this tour; I did not expect to be reaching campsites with much energy left to run. And this turned out to be the case.

I took a relatively easy route from Zeebrugge down the eastern side of France, being careful to avoid any large towns – I always get lost, or end up on a hideously busy route nationale. The highlight on the way down was the Ardeche.

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My bike was tired, so I stopped for a photo.

Wild, beautiful and deserted, with long, difficult climbs and scarcely any traffic. Villages that clung to impossible slopes, overlooking rivers winding their way through spectacular gorges. I cycled for hours without seeing much in the way of civilisation. That was the northern part. As I rode into the southern part, tourism had taken over. This part of the Ardeche is ruined.

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Rugged Beauty of the Ardeche

I used a 12 miles:1 inch map for route planning, and a 3 miles: 1 inch to plan my day’s ride in detail. This worked really well. Often riding along single track lanes, I went through unspoilt villages, where wood smoke gently wafted through the trees, and the silence broken only by the cock crowing and the earthy growl of a distant tractor. It was the France that is fast disappearing. The Camping Municipals are thin on the ground now, and edge of town Aldi and Lidl stores are closing the village boulangeries and charcuteries. The heart of the French village, and the French way of life, is being torn out.

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The Giant Pimple of Provence

You can’t really miss the Ventoux; it sticks out of the Provence landscape like a giant pimple. On the day of my ascent, I left my tent and spare clothes at the campsite, but took the rest of my equipment with me. So a slightly lighter bike, but still a load that I could barely lift off the ground. Proper cycle tourists take what they will need. I carried everything I might need.

The climb was quite long (21km) and a respectable gradient throughout, especially after the first few kilometres. The road meanders through woodland until just before the summit, where the famous “lunar landscape “takes over. I stopped at Tom Simpson’s memorial and placed a stone with all the rest. Barely a kilometre from the top.

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Lunar Landscape near the Ventoux Summit

The most striking thing about the Ventoux was the number of people on the mountain. In ’85, the roads were empty. But my ride was not ruined by the people and the cars, because I blanked them out. I blanked out the hundreds of Dutch walkers in their red and blue uniforms (I love the Dutch, but half their population was on my mountain on my day!) I blanked out the hundreds of cyclists (of course I didn’t count as a cyclist….) I blanked out the commercial photographers clicking at anyone in lycra. In my own little world, I was achieving my own little ambition. And in my own little world I made the most basic mistake. I had focussed on the climb, without a second thought for the descent. I had no jacket for the long, fast and very cold descent. I froze in the middle of summer, in Provence.

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Descending the Ventoux

It was now early September. The first couple of weeks or so of the tour had been idyllic. The French can be so kind, so generous. “Bon courage” was a regular call I would hear from people in the street, both men and women, young and old. If I asked anyone for directions in a town, they would often walk with me to the first turning, ensuring I was on the right track. I spent one evening on a small campsite being taught how to play pentanque (boules) by Pomme and Jean Antoinne. A lovely young couple, we met when I fell off my bike near their tent. They invited me to share a delicious pasta meal with them and we got along just fine.

The second half of the tour was dominated by the nights; the bitterly cold nights. I slept in every piece of clothing I had, in my three season sleeping bag. And I was still cold. The days were nice enough, pleasant sunshine dominated and an occasional warm breeze. But four days from Zeebrugge and the ferry home, it began to rain. It didn’t clear up for the rest of my tour. So I spent two nights cold and wet. My waterproofs were not. At least they were not after ten hours of continual rain. I couldn’t face the last night in wet clothes inside a wet tent, so I stopped at The Lighthouse B&B in Nieuwpoort, on the Belgian coast. This was a short ride from Zeebrugge. The hosts, Frank and Anne-Marie were lovely, and I was soon dried out and warm again, ready for the journey home.

The Lighthouse B&B
The Lighthouse B&B

When I arrived home I weighed myself; twelve stone. I had lost four stone in about nine months, and I was feeling good. My idea about the transferability of running and cycling fitness was about to be tested. A couple of weeks after my return, I had a half marathon trail run. My first event. I only had time to remind my legs of how to run, it was too late to develop fitness to run. I was relying on my cycling fitness to complete the run successfully.

I learned a lot on this tour; never take anything for granted, expect things to have changed dramatically if you haven’t seen them for a while. The warmth of human kindness can brighten up the most miserable of predicaments. Enjoy the nice things while you can, they may be gone tomorrow. Enjoy everything you can today, you may be gone tomorrow.

Post 3 Motivation; Keep on Running

 

So I had found a new sport- running, and I was trying to blend this with cycling- a sport in which I had spent twenty –five years learning and improving. Winning races was my motivation in cycling, every mile I cycled was going to help me achieve my next victory. With running, it is likely that I will never taste victory in terms of being first across the line (at least that’s how it feels at the moment), but victory is sought in rising to the challenge of finishing the long race, battling through pain and adversity, and learning enough about myself to be able to push the boundaries a little further out next time. The thought of victory over myself would be my motivation. That is the win that we can all achieve.

Without motivation, we would do nothing. In order to put ourselves through endless hours of training, we need to be well motivated. We need an ambition, a target to aim for. We might have a general goal such as improved fitness, or weight loss. Or we may have a specific goal, such as a particular race or event. Either way, we need motivation in order to begin and to sustain our effort.

The way I see it, motivation can be employed with a positive slant, eg. “I want to finish in front of that runner.” or negative, eg. “I don’t want that runner to beat me.” You can see it’s the same situation, just a different way of looking at it. But I think it makes a difference; if we are trying to achieve something positive (beat the runner), we are trying to make something “good” happen. If we are working on the negative (I don’t want him to beat me), we are trying to prevent something “bad” from happening. It’s like running towards the finish, or away from the start.

We are competing in an effort to win, not to avoid coming last.

I thrive on good news; if I’m told in a race that I am doing well, I find the strength to try even harder. I’m looking for the icing on the cake. If I’m told that I’m not doing so well, I find my motivation changes. It doesn’t diminish, it becomes a more raw, untamed motivation. Rules and common sense are thrown out of the window. This can be quite unsettling, as in this condition the motivation feeds off the body, greedily consuming whatever it needs to achieve the goal. It is cannibalistic. This is how athletes die from exhaustion. It is a worrying state to be in. In one hundred mile bike race I rode, I was trying with all my strength to get back on to even terms with my adversary, around the seventy mile mark. I was on a mild climb, giving it one hundred percent. The borders of my vision began to darken. Over the next few seconds, the darkness grew, and I was soon riding through a rapidly narrowing tunnel. I was quite prepared to continue, but I knew I was on a busy road. Falling into unconsciousness here would prove fatal. I eased a little, and the tunnel widened. This is the dark side of motivation, self-sacrifice in pursuit of success. Death before failure.

If we focus on achievement, whether it is a win, a personal best, or a finish, we are able to put our all into it. But we have to survive.

We celebrate and enjoy our motivation every time we train. Or at least we should. We are active as a direct response to our motivation; we choose the road or trail over the couch because we are motivated. Nuggets of success nurture our motivation. I ran ten miles today, and I maintained my pace even over the last three hard miles into the headwind. Success. I am now a little more motivated to emulate that achievement on my next run.

Towards the end of any hard run, it is our motivation – our willingness to dredge the depths of our fortitude- that is put to the test. Our legs may hurt, our feet may be burning, but it is the strength of our spirit, our motivation, that will determine the outcome; success or failure.

In order to “top up” my motivation, I reward myself in a variety of ways. We are all different, and so the rewards have to be geared towards you as an individual. I love food, so towards the end of a long run, it will often be the promise of a culinary treat that will keep me going. If I can keep up the pace to the next tree, I can have a chocolate milkshake when I get home. Or if I look back over the last few weeks satisfied with my efforts, I may promise myself a little something from the running shop if I can manage another good week.

Variety helps. I have different runs that serve different purposes, some are off-road, some hilly, some are one way, point to point. They all have something to offer but in winter, the run I look forward to each week above all else is with the Lincolnshire Wolds Head Torchers. The main run is usually seven or eight  miles at a reasonable pace, and there is often a shorter option. Friendly and sociable, they wait for everyone, regrouping every mile or two. Mostly off road, the atmosphere with a long thin line of thirty or so runners winding through the dark woods is magical. (I can see the long line of thirty runners because I am usually somewhere near the back!) These runs are the only time I run off road in the dark, the only time I am in company, and the only time I am “really” off-road. It can be muddy! The runs are held in different parts of the Wolds, always from a pub. The post- run food, drink and chat is just as pleasant as the runs. If you live anywhere near this area do give it a try, you do not have to be a member of a club, and you are guaranteed a friendly welcome, no matter what age or ability you may be. For more details go to the Lincolnshire Wolds Head Torchers website.

In the end, it is our sense of purpose as runners that will determine just how much energy we can expend, how much pain we can endure. How much we need our victory. The promise of all the puddings in Creation will not help us if we do not have the determination to succeed. This, in my view, is what we do when we train; we are developing our strength of character, our ability to continue when the chips are down. The beauty is that this mental strength is transferable. You learn to see things through, to the bitter end. My professional life was littered with difficult, sometimes impossible situations, where running away or sinking would have been quite understandable. But the toughness developed in bike racing helped me overcome even the most difficult obstacles. An awkward adversary became nothing more than a long climb, to be mastered and then dismissed. I survived professionally in the same way that I survived long climbs in the Alps and the Pyrenees. In the same way I hope to survive my planned ultra races; ” Nil carborundum illegitemi.” Not ever.

Of course, it takes time to develop physical and mental strength. But I believe that, once developed, both can be used in different disciplines. As a cyclist, I was able to build physical and mental fitness that would benefit me as a runner, and vice-versa. It was with this in mind that I planned a long cycle tour for the summer of 2015. Being realistic, I did not expect to be able to run during this holiday, I was relying on long, hard miles of cycling to retain the fitness I was developing through running.

Post 2 Getting Interested; Running and Cycling

 

I needed to organise my thoughts and feelings about cycling, which I had loved for so long, and running; the new kid on the block, packed with a whole range of exciting challenges. And there were questions I needed to answer; would running adversely affect my cycling, would I ever be able to run for more than a few weeks without injury, and how could I develop and maintain my cycling whilst learning to run?

In England, we are blessed with year –round rain. I hate cycling in the rain. You get spray from anything that moves on the road, you can’t see what a puddle may be hiding, for example a wheel- bending pot hole, and when you arrive home at the end of the ride, you have to wash and dry your bike before you start removing cold, wet clothes from your cold, wet body. To my relief, I found that running in the rain was tolerable. It was just a matter of wearing enough of the right kind of clothing.

But cycling was all I had known for 25 years. My body (apart from the bulk and bulges acquired over the last 18 years or so) had previously been modified by cycling countless miles up hill and down dale, in all weathers, twelve months of the year. So it made sense to supplement my running with some cycling, to mix the unknown with a little of the well known (if slightly forgotten).

And so through trial and error, I stumbled into a training programme of sorts, that would mix the two. Quite simply, I would run and cycle on alternate days. This meant my running would continue to improve, as would the cycling. I hoped that they would be helpful to me and to each other.

Running was creating pain in places I didn’t know I had; front of the knee, back of the knee, inside the knee…you get the idea. I found the impact-free, circular action of cycling was helping to ease the running pains. Each week, I studied weather forecasts carefully, and arranged activities to give me the best chance of cycling on dry days. So some doubling up was necessary, involving occasional back to back runs. At first, I ensured one of the runs- usually the second- would be a little shorter, a little easier. Back to back cycle rides presented no problem; the muscles and the mindset of bike racing gradually came back to life, if at a more modest level than was the case in the nineties.

As my body, principally my legs, learned to cope with running, I began to enjoy it more. I think most endurance athletes enjoy the challenge of pain. Not the pain of say, an injured achilles tendon, but the pain from our whole system that screams “Ease off!” or even “Stop!” when we are forcing our bodies to go further, faster, harder. I had only been running a matter of weeks, but I was fascinated by this new way of creating and then coping with pain. A new way of facing  and fighting the challenge.

Although benefitting from a running career that was barely more than embryonic, I had decided that I would become a distance runner; long trail ultras were the ones for me. The more I read the more convinced I became, and I had soon set out a programme of training and racing for my first season. The mainstay of my training would be the weekly long run. I would start this in September (2015), at three hours, and build one hour on to this each month. So October would be four hourly runs, November, five and so on. I would carry this as far as I could. I used to do well in twelve hour bike races, I was hoping to be doing unsupported twelve hour training runs by the next June (2016). This may have been overly ambitious, but I believe that if you aim high, your actual  performance will benefit more than it would with only modest ambition.

I was enjoying getting in to this new sport, I read everything I could about distance running, and took the advice that seemed to make most sense for me. The rest, I just made up or improvised. Over time, I lost the fat man running look, and began to feel a little more like a runner. Losing weight helped my knees, with the reduced pounding, and my endurance, which was beginning to develop.

I read Killian Jornet’s “Run or Die”, and found his story inspirational. His descriptions of running in the mountains, and how he kept going when battling exhaustion are fascinating. I found this read much more useful than any of the training schedules that litter the web, because it was written by a man who has achieved so much. This enables the reader to believe what is written. It is real life, rather than a table of instructions that could just as easily have been written by a robot.

Because we are human, we all have our different ways, and I think we need to learn for ourselves how and when to train. We need to become physically fit, but we also need to develop our mental strength,our motivation and our determination. The one fuels the other. Numbers on a table are just that; fine if you are a robot, but our own training plan needs to ensure our own mental as well as physical development.

One of the most important aspects of mental fitness is motivation; what makes us tick as a runner. Why do we do what we do, why do we continue when our body is telling us to stop?

 

 

 

 

Post 1 Getting Started; Up and Running!

 

Christmas, 2014. It wasn’t only the goose that was getting fat; I was topping the scales at 16 stone. I used to race bicycles at less than 10 stone, so I was becoming a bit of a mess. I’d not turned a pedal in anger since 1996, when I retired from bike racing after a 25 year career in which I enjoyed some local success, mainly in long distance races – 100 miles and more. My best 100 was 3 hours 58 minutes, my 12 hour distance stood at 265 miles. Now aged 58, I did not relish the thought of sliding quietly into decrepitude, I had to do something.

I had dabbled with running a few times over the years since I retired from bike racing, but each effort was stopped short through injury. My knees, calves and tendons all had a say, and no attempt lasted more than a few weeks. I think the excess weight I was carrying was part of the problem, my knees were taking one heck of a pounding with every step. So I started walking. Wendy, my ever-slim wife, works in Lincoln, about ten miles away from our home. I began walking to meet her from work, finding a route along quiet lanes, tracks and across fields that was really quite pleasant, even in the middle of winter. I timed my walks, and I gradually became quicker. By February 2015, my leisurely walk had become an energetic march.

Wendy is a regular runner, and she encouraged me to have yet another go. So one day in the early Spring time, I donned trainers instead of walking boots, and ran the ten miles to Lincoln. Well almost. By mile seven I had resorted to run/walk; running five minutes, walking five. But it was a start, and my legs were not complaining too loudly. I persevered, and after a few weeks I was able to run the whole distance. I soon began timing my efforts. My walk/run evolved into a timed run. I wasn’t breaking any records, but I began to build my mileage with other shortish runs during the week.

But it was not all easy going. I was getting complaints from places I had forgotten about. Thighs were a constant trouble. I would start the next run still in pain from the last. When running, I could barely breathe, even at  a pace only slightly above walking. I certainly could not talk. I questioned my sanity with every step. I felt embarrassed, pretending to be a runner. Even wearing baggy tops and bottoms did not completely hide my Michelin Man shape. I was pleased that most of my routes were off-road or on very quiet lanes; fewer people could witness this ridiculous spectacle, plodding through the Lincolnshire landscape, gasping for breath with everything wobbling. But at least the sheep and the cows seemed to accept me. The ducks, just down the lane from our house, were still scattering in mad panic as I approached. I didn’t blame them. Often, I would run in the darkness, to avoid being seen by “normal” people.

It was during this period that I also began to train more on my bike. This was much more home ground, though rather neglected. Inevitably, the two interests would clash occasionally. When there was only time for one activity, I was having to choose which one. I knew that I needed a schedule, so I could cycle and run without the guilt trip. I had to bring order to chaos.