Silverstone Half Marathon

First race of the season, done. That pretty much sums up last weekend, and an event that may well turn out to be less memorable in the long-term than I had expected, although it has taught me a few lessons which I am sure are going to be useful later on this year. But before I go into those, a few words on how my early season half marathon went down.

The Plan

I have always been a fair weather athlete, and until now every race I have taken part in since getting into multi-sports in around 2010 has been during British Summer Time, between April and October. And for good reason, as we Brits don’t usually get the best weather even during our supposed warm season, but believe me it can be even worse in the winter, which makes training a real pain. This has never been a problem, as my A-Race has always been  from around June onwards, so I have got away with indoor training until the end of March, and then topped things off with a bit of outdoor swimming and running in the sunshine, ready to hit my peak as the weather finally improves.

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But this year, with my first ever full marathon calling, I have decided to get started a bit earlier in order to bank some serious (ish) miles as early as possible, and what better way to do this than book myself onto one of the first majors of the year, the Adidas Silverstone Half Marathon. What a fantastic sounding opportunity to run on the same track on which so many F1 legends have raced – Hamilton, Senna, Mansell – the crowd cheering whilst we spray champagne on the finish line, and so on. Plus, having this in the diary would make sure I put in some effort through January & February (which to be fair has worked a bit – see my last post), to get a bit of momentum going for the year. That was the plan…

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Somewhere along the way however, I got sidetracked by the fact that this was supposed to be one of the flattest run courses of all, and therefore a great one for a PB, so I became fixated on achieving a sub-2 hour time, which given my last time of 2.03 in Birmingham did not seem unreasonable. I think you can see where this is going…

Race Day

Silverstone is probably the most famous racing track in the UK, and as an F1 fan it always feels a bit special. I had been lucky enough to go a few times before, although both times were to see my wife and brother on track day experiences rather than for major events. All the more reason to look forward to running on the hallowed tarmac.

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The first thing I want to say is that the organisation and logistics of this event were absolutely fantastic, possibly the best I have ever encountered. Signposts & parking were clear & easy, and there were an absolute ton of really friendly marshals to help out and make sure everything went smoothly. In fact I am willing to bet there were more race attendants here than there will be competitors in the next race I am booked on for in May. Great work fellas!

Sadly the weather was not playing ball, as despite the Saturday before (and Monday after) being sun-filled delights, it was raining just enough to be annoying and cold, but not quite to the degree of requiring an actual raincoat. The event plan asked competitors to be there by 10.30 am for the 12.00 start, which was sensible to avoid a last minute rush, but unfortunately meant 90 minutes of standing around getting cold before things kicked off. 

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Yep, it was a bit chilly at the start

After leaving my stuff at the bag drop I headed to the line at 11.15, assuming there would be some sort of pre-race briefing or warm up, but again, nada. Just 45 minutes of jogging on the spot (this time minus my warm outer layers) and casually trying to shelter from the rain behind a taller person without letting on what I was doing.

The event plan had said there would be various bands playing throughout the course, but every time I took off my headphones to see what was going on they just seemed to be playing Bon Jovi on the speakers. Not that there is anything wrong with that by the way, but I did prefer my own mix (which included plenty of other 80’s classics). Apparently the starting band was Scouting For Girls, who had a few horrendous songs about a decade ago, which was all the more reason to keep my buds in!

The Race

As with most races this big, the start was a bit of an anti-climax, as instead of sprinting off at the sound of the klaxon, we spent a few minutes doing the awkward British shuffle towards the line, as about 5,000 people tried to squeeze between the starting posts, but finally we were off.

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Thank you to Marathon Foto

It was a strange feeling running on the track, a bit like being in the middle of a nice wide road, but with a surprising amount of water retained in places. The corners were also a lot sharper than expected given drivers must regularly be doing over 100 mph in places!

I set off at an absolute blast by my standards, in my head really going for that 2 hour mark. My plan was basically to keep an eye on the pace screen on my Tom Tom, and keep it below 6 minutes per kilometre, which would see me through on time. And things were going great as I was going closer to 5.30/km or bang on 9 minute miles in old money, and managing to maintain it well. I hit the first kilometre in 5.15, and the 5 km mark in 27 minutes, not far off my top speed for that distance. Perhaps that should have been a warning, but I was too focused to worry for now.

Around the 30 minute mark I saw multiple Olympic gold winner David Weir zooming past on what must have been his last lap in the outside lane (he won the race in 47 minutes!), which was pretty motivating even if it was only for a few seconds. He was miles ahead of the rest of the field, and even the camera car following him seemed to be struggling to keep up.

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The Weirwolf in action at Silverstone, 2016

I have to say, it was a bit mean of the organisers to loop us around the back of the refreshment stand at the start of lap 2, meaning all we could smell as we ran past were bacon sarnies and Cornish pasties, like some sort of psychological torture. Still, I was not too bothered as I was still doing well against my plan, hitting the 10 km mark on 55 minutes. If I could keep this up I would have over 10 minutes to do the last mile or so, no problem…

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My next vehicle…

As much as I would like to say it was fun running on such hallowed racing ground, the actual experience was a bit less so. The British Grand Prix has around 150,000 spectators meaning the stands and banks get packed out, and everywhere the cameras go on TV there are thousands of cheering fans. Understandably the turnout for this race was a bit lower, with probably a few thousand family members congregated mainly near the start finish line, meaning that for 90% of the race the atmosphere was a bit quiet in such a huge venue. And if the outlying stands looked a bit empty from the front, they looked positively skeletal backed by the grey sky as you ran behind them, taking a bit of the sheen off things.

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Lovely day!

About halfway through the sun finally broke through and it warmed up, which means the weather was basically doing the exact opposite of ideal conditions for a race, i.e. warm beforehand whilst you stand around on the line, and then a bit of light rain to cool you down towards the end. Instead, it meant even more of the clichéd runners ‘throwing-water-on-your-head-to-cool-down’ tricks at the pit stops.

At 15 km things were still going alright, as I reached the three quarter mark in under 90 minutes, but I began to notice the route starting to head uphill. And from there it did not really let off for the rest of the distance. When you watch racing on TV the course always looks so flat, and the cars are so powerful they barely seem to acknowledge and gradient. But on foot it is a lot more up and down than expected, and I later found out that whilst more of the first half of the course is downhill (perhaps explaining my pace), the second half has more uphill. Not steep mind you, like the Great Birmingham hill, but just enough to take it out of tired legs.

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Covering every corner of the circuit

It was about that point that I started to struggle, the combination of heat, hills and hunger hitting my body like a rugby tackle and chopping my pace. Suddenly my target of just 6 minute kilometres seemed a long way off, and as it began to creep up over 7 minutes it hit me that the dream was over for today. That realisation and disappointment only seemed to make things worse, as my body began to give in. I was, as they say, hitting the wall.

In triathlons this is known as ‘Bonking’, apparently due to a lack of glycogen in the body. It has famously happened to both Alistair & Jonny Brownlee in recently years (so I guess I am amongst esteemed company), although I did not have anyone around willing to carry me over the line, so I just had to push on as much as possible. 

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After pinning so much on hitting my target I was genuinely gutted as it shattered before my eyes, and had I been more hydrated might even have shed a tear or two, but I was not going to let the race beat me. My pace by now was verging on walking, although I refused to actually go there, managing to get along with the classic runner’s shuffle up the final few slopes as waves of others that I had been overtaking in the last couple of hours began to flow back past me. 

Finally though, the finish was in sight, and although I could not quite manage my ‘trademark’ speed burst for the line, I did manage to get together for the last few hundred metres to the end. Finally, there were some supporters lined up cheering us on, although sadly no chequered flag to wave us over the line, possibly for the best as I might have run straight into it!

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Brian sums up how I felt on the line…

The Aftermath

The first thing I remember after I crossed the line was the pa system playing that horrendous Disney song ‘Let It Go’, probably the most inappropriate racing tune imaginable, although I did have a feeling maybe it was aimed directly at me, to tell me to get over the time and just enjoy the finish feeling. Sadly I was in too much pain, so hobbled over to collect my finishers pack [incidentally – best goodie bag ever, with a quality medal, t-shirt, a ton of food and even a bottle of sunscreen] and downing the protein shake it contained in a single gulp.

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This was my seventh half-marathon, three of the others coming as part of a triathlon, but I honestly can’t remember feeling so bad straight after a run. I really was out of it and had to lean on the barrier for a good 10 minutes before I could do anything, but eventually came around as heart rate began to level out. My final time was 2.05.11, having taken around 35 minutes to complete the last 5 km. Not even a PB in the end, although in the end it was my second best time which I suppose is an upside…

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Now I have had a couple of days to reflect on things, and also read back what I wrote straight after, I have realised I may have been a bit of a drama queen about it. After all, in none of the 20 or so long distances events I have raced in the past have I ever been remotely bothered about my time (other than when I just made the 8 hour cut off by 3 minutes in the Avenger), and I had not done any specific speed training. Maybe this was my best chance to break two hours, or maybe it will come next time.

I also read an interview with David Weir online where he said how tough he found the conditions tough, and also did not beat his own PB either, which made me feel a teensy bit better. It was pretty cool seeing him zoom past, and had I had the energy I would love to have given him a Weirwolf howl (awoo)!

So the main takeaway here is the first race of the season is done, and I survived. Plus I have a head start on training this year, as well as some valuable lessons on both myself and racing that I plan to put to good use in future, and might even talk about next time on here. Plus a great excuse to dig into some of these bad boys that I realised I had stashed away for a rainy day in the house!

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Great Northern & Southern Runs

I realised the other day that I have not written anything on here all year, and wondered whether it could be due to something I talked about a while ago, where the bulk of my winter training has been based on indoor classes. As much as I love doing them, the thing is you really don’t get much time to think, as you focus on following the instructor in time to music, and in my case make sure you don’t fall over! With longer distance training however, you have a lot more time to yourself and your own thoughts which, for me at least, is where I end up writing most of these.

But that is all about to change, as not only do I have something to talk about now, with my opening race of the season just a few days away, but I have managed to man-up and get out in the cold for a few decent runs recently.

Night

To be fair, things actually started a few weeks before Christmas when I was working down in Gatwick and managed to get in a few evening runs, which I wrote about in my last blog. Given that my job involves travelling around the UK and spending a fair bit of time in cities – some more interesting than others – I thought I would make more of an effort to do some exploring on foot and then write about the places I get to along the way.

First up for me this year was of course London, a place where I have to spend a lot of time, usually around the Docklands area. Whilst I have been for plenty of runs around the river and into Canary Wharf, it is not always the most exciting part of town, so rather than glamorous sights such as the Houses of Parliament and Tower of London, it tends to be the Flats of mid-week Commuters and Tower of HSBC.

Olympic Park

But this time I had something different planned, in that I had never been close to the 2012 Olympic Stadium, which is located in Stratford (not the Shakespeare one), a do-able distance from where I was staying. Knowing I would need a fair bit of time to get it done before work, I bit the bullet and set my alarm for a Rocky-esque 5.45 am.

By 6 I was on the road, and heading towards Canning Town high street, and having recently watched a documentary with Idris Elba talking about the fights he used to get into there, I was pretty glad I was going to be the only one about at that time. But I wasn’t, and whilst there was definitely no sign of trouble, I was amazed at how many people were up and about at that time in London, walking, bussing, DLR-ing and all sorts. I am pretty sure where I live it is a ghost town before 7!

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Following the rough map I had in my head from my research the night before, I carried on and tried to follow the signs for Stratford, although being designed more for drivers than runners, I had to ignore a lot when they tried to steer me back to the main road. Once I reached West Ham station I climbed up and onto Greenway, a well-lit footpath which looked like it would take me all the way to the stadium.

Actually, scratch the well-lit part, as within 30 seconds of leaving the station all the lights disappeared, leaving me in pitch black conditions to fend for myself. Fortunately I had not yet spoken to my colleague who lived nearby until after, as when  asked if he knew the area his response was along the lines of “oh yeah, I remember that guy got done for murder around there last year”. Another reason I prefer early morning runs! Still, it was actually really nice once I found my footing, to be in the centre of one of the biggest cities in the world, in near perfect darkness for some distance either side of me. I may have even been able to see a few stars, who knows…

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Once I got to the other side my target was firmly in my sights, and aside from having to zig-zag along a ridiculous road layout to get there, I finally reached the famous Olympic Park. I decided to run a Mo Farah style victory lap around the stadium, which sadly is now leased by West Ham United so full of their branding, but it did feel great and a decent reward for getting up at that time. Reaching the start I saw a few other laggards had dragged themselves out of bed too and were just reaching it, but by that time I was back on my way. Ok, I did also look into jumping the fence to get onto the adjacent running track for a quick lap around that too, but it was getting just that bit too light so I chickened out!

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Having taken part in plenty of straight line out and back races where the return holds no excitement, I always try to find a different way in my runs, so veered towards the city centre and tried to find a new route, which whilst slightly less exciting (that damn main road the signs were trying to take me to earlier) was also less eventful, and given I was starting to tire by then was probably for the best.

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All in this was a 15.15 km run in 1 hour 40, not particularly fast by any standards, but given that firstly I had forgotten my water bottle (fortunately I had a single gel in my back pocket) and stop-started a load of times to take photos and get lost, was not too shabby and hopefully a good sign for my upcoming half-marathons.

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My next trip was up to the far north of England, the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, home of Alan Shearer, the Angel of the North and of course Ant & Dec. It was a place I had never visited before given it is a fair way away, but I had always fancied it given a great running heritage thanks to the Great North Run, the World’s largest half-marathon. Whilst I did not quite have the time or inclination for a run of that distance, I did manage to get in three pretty decent efforts during my fortnight there.

First up was my explorer run, another early morning job (this time a lot quieter as I had expected before), where I made my way around the city centre at leisure, scoping out the Quayside, Chinatown, St James’ Park football ground and a few nice enough parks. Despite getting a bit lost towards the end and doing a couple of km longer than planned (the city is a labyrinth in parts) things turned out well, and I got to see a good proportion of the local sights as the sun gradually rose.

The next afternoon I tried a different tack, running alongside the north side of the river. Initially I headed East and towards South Shields, the finishing point for the GNR and more importantly into Byker (the Grove!) but it turned out not to be particularly well lit, so after a mile or so I turned back and tried the other way inland. This was a lot busier – there seems to be tons of running clubs up there, all going off around 6 pm – but again there was not a huge amount to see. A nice peaceful run is all well and good, but given the short time I was there I fancied seeing a bit more, so I turned it into a bridge run, covering the four major bridges across the Tyne in turn: The Millennium Bridge with its spectacular lights, the High Level Bridge for some spectacular views, the low-level Swing Bridge, and to finish things off the famous Tyne Bridge itself.

Amazingly it turned out when I got back that my run was almost identical to the one the morning before, which was not bad given how often I was stopping to take pictures and check my GPS!

Newcastle runs tomtom

The following week I though I would try something a bit different and keep on the Gateshead, southern side of the river where I was staying. The plan here was to make a parallel run up the river but turn off after a couple of miles to run past the office I had been working in.

Although the first section was well lit, things got a bit dodgier after a mile or so after I turned off and headed away from the river. Going back to earlier, part of the reason I prefer early morning runs is because you tend to have places to yourself. Now with all respect to Geordies who are some of the nicest people I have ever met, Newcastle is somewhere which has a reputation for being a tough place (especially amongst soft southerners), and the further away from the main track I ran the more I imagined meeting a group of ne’er-do-wells.

After deciding against running down the deserted canal path on my own, I skirted the main road instead, and after one particularly bad stretch where all I could imagine was meeting David Patrick Kelly’s character from the end of The Warriors, I rounded a corner and found the office. I can honestly say I have never been so glad to find an industrial park in my life.

That just left me with getting home, which was equally challenging, as the bus route I knew involved a massive hill, and for some reason I was desperate to find a park I had read about which looked like it had some sort of Disney castle (no joke, google it) which involved a bit of a detour. So another couple of miles later I found myself at Saltwell Park and immediately regretted it, as it was pitch black and all the entrances were padlocked. Probably for the best as all I could think about was that it looked more like the kind of abandoned amusement park Scooby Doo would hang out in than Fantasia.

Still, the one benefit of my ‘shortcut’ was that it would all be downhill from there, and a good thing too as by the time I finished I was over 14 km, well over what I had originally planned to do, and whilst it was a long way from The Shining (probably closer to the Jeremy Kyle graffiti above…) this run it did teach me a bit of a lesson about planning my routes a bit more in future.

Gateshead run

Despite all that, I have to say Newcastle is an amazing place, and I am looking forward to going back there some time (ideally in the summer as it really is cold!) for another round of city running. But in the meantime it is tapering time, as this weekend is time for my first proper race of the year, the Silverstone Half Marathon. More on that next time!

A Muppet Chile Challenge

It’s that time of year again where, just like Michael Caine in the Muppet Christmas Carol, we can look back over the past, present and future of the Chile Challenge. Ok ok, I realise revisiting 2016 is probably fairly low down man people’s lists of priorities with the year we all had, and that talking about Christmas in January is about as welcome as turning up at an Ironman with a bike as cheap as mine, but I have been meaning to get around to writing an update for a while now, so please bear with me for a bit…

The Ghost of Chile Challenge Past

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It is almost 3 years to the day since I started the Chile Challenge, and a lot has changed since then. For those who joined late, the original point of this blog was to give me somewhere to both track my progress whilst I Swam, Rode and Ran 4,270 km across Chile from the comfort of my own county, and also as an outlet to spot the many random thoughts that entered my head during all that long distance training.

The centrepiece was to be the Avenger Triathlon, my first half-iron distance race (110 km in a shade under 8 hours on the hottest day of the year!) as well as a number of other smaller triathlons. Looking back over the photos, even at the time of the Avenger I must have been at least a stone heavier and a lot less fit than I am now, and still have no idea how I reached the finish line on my own and in that heat.

After successfully knocking off the last few kilometres of the challenge in late December, I had to decide what to do next, and with the usual psychology of a long distance amateur (forgetting the 90% of the race where you were in so much pain your limbs wanted to shut down and only remembering the finish line endorphins) I decided to go all out and entered Ironman Staffs.

Ironman was my ‘A Race’ around which the rest of 2015 was planned, and to this day is still the event I am most proud of completing, finishing in just over 7 hours. Although it was not the longest (the bike leg was 3 km shorter than the Avenger) or even the toughest (see the Isoman below), it was definitely the most memorable, and I will never forget lining up against Javier Gomez et al in transition, even if that was as close as I got to them for the rest of the race!

Whilst the rest of the year involved more new triathlons and runs to pad it out, I also began to get into Group Exercise at my gym, starting off with Body Combat and RPM, and stepping up into, well Body Step Body Attack, Body Pump and whatever else Les Mills could come up with, culminating with a weekend at One Live in Manchester involving 6 back to back classes, an indoor Ironman in itself! This more intensive training gave me a new focus on exercise, and helped me shift that spare few kilos as well as meeting some great people and learning that fitness does not necessarily have to be a solitary activity.

So onto the ghost of 2016 past, and what happened over the last 12 months. My main race last summer was the Isoman in Redditch, an Ironman with a twist, with the swim nearly doubling to 5 km (2 hours 20 minutes!), a potentially lethal non-closed road ride around the North Worcestershire countryside, finishing in a rain-soaked run around my regular Park Run venue (actually it was 5 park runs, but starting off already knackered!).

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What else? Well six of the first twelve weeks of last year were spent on the move in various chain hotels around the country, with highlights including early morning runs around Canary Wharf and a new experience of Aqua Cycling, as well as a lot of time on the same old dodgy machinery in the various hotel gyms. Les Mills Live made a return, well two actually, one down in London (pretty good) and the other back in Manchester (a lot better), as did our work football tournaments, where we seized defeat from the jaws of victory at home in April, before recovering to a win in Leicester in October.

After planning to do one for years, last year was also my first ever (proper) obstacle race, organised brilliantly by my wife. Rough Runner saw a team of us yomping around the Cotswolds and navigating a series of Takeshi’s Castle inspired obstacles, giant inflatables and the like, although in the end it was the hills and rabbit holes that proved more deadly for more people than any of the equipment. It also allowed us to achieve  lifetime dream for most kids of the 90’s with a run up a travelator straight out of Gladiators to finish up with!

Away from physical training, I managed to get in some great Scuba last year, including visiting wrecks in Cuba and cave diving in Greece, as well as managing to get my first sports related injury in over a decade when I managed to rupture my ear drum due to pressure changes. Who would have thought after all those challenges it would be the slowest moving one which would catch me out?

The Summer rounded off with my third Birmingham Half Marathon, where I managed to knock another 5 minutes or so off my PB but still could not quite crack that two hour mark: who knows, maybe there will be a chance to do it next year…

The Ghost Christmas Present

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Right, time to live in the now, and cover what has happened since I last wrote at the end of October. Well… actually not that much to write home about (which is basically what this is as I am fairly sure only my parents read this far into my scrawlings). Most of my time (and I mean most – I wonder at what point I can start claiming overtime!) over the last few months of 2016 has been spent at the gym getting in as much training as possible to avoid losing my fitness over winter and piling on those extra Christmas pounds.

crawley-runA fortnight in charming Gatwick was a lovely way to spend early December, although I did manage a great night run around the town of Crawley (proudly showing off my luminous tights), the constant expectation of mugging adding at least a few extra mph to my legs. As for my work Christmas party, does bowling count as exercise (and offset all that drinking)? Well have you seen the Big Lebowski?!

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After a year involving some pretty exotic travels, I was fortunate enough to end 2016 in the fantastic city of New York, and whilst there was little opportunity for intensive training (particularly in sub-zero temperatures) we did manage a heck of a lot of walking all over town, from Downtown (Wall Street, One World Trade Centre and the Statue of Liberty), Uptown (an incredibly long walk through Central Park to find the Home Alone 2 house!) and all over Midtown (Top of the Rock and Empire State – by lift not steps! – as well as up and down Fifth Avenue and Broadway). In fact the closest I got to physical exercise was probably cheering on the Knicks to victory at Madison Square Gardens, another ambition completed!

With everything back to reality now, the last few weeks have been gym, gym, and more gym, seeing progressively more New Year’s Resolutioners appearing in classes, and basically getting back into the normal routine of daily training. So what is planned for 2017?

The Ghost of Chile Challenge’s Future

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Right, this is most scary ghost in the film, so I will need to keep things brief (and go for Marley and Marley instead – I think I need to end the Muppet theme now). I have already hinted at my main goals for this year in earlier posts, but essentially I am going to be taking some time off from multi-sport racing (i.e. triathlons) to focus on individual events.

First up in the current plan is the Silverstone Half Marathon, a race around the famous racing circuit which is home to the British F1 Grand Prix, where I am hoping a nice flat(ish) circuit will finally help me break the 2 hour barrier so I can stop banging on about it. The event takes place in early March though, which is going to prove tough for someone who is does not usually start training outdoors until the clocks go forward and it warms up a bit, although that is the whole point of starting things early this year.

There is a bit of a gap until my next booked race, which I will look at filling in with something or other soon, but September kicks off the first ever 100 mile Velo bike event in Birmingham, a ride I could not turn down given how beautiful the route looks, going right through Northern Worcestershire & Herefordshire and almost past my front door. With 15,000 riders it will be by far the largest event I have ever taken part in, and being 50% further than I have ever ridden I know it is going to be a killer (although not bookmarking it with a swim and run will help) so it looks like a lot of time in the saddle in late Summer.

It is the last race of the year that looks the biggie though, the new Birmingham Marathon in October, another lifetime ambition to be fulfilled. At this stage it still seems a long way off, but like much of this year, I can imagine it will come about pretty quickly!

Great Birmingham Run 2016

It was about 24 hours before this year’s Great Birmingham Run that I started to think I should probably have done some more running. In fact, despite having already done one half-marathon back in July (courtesy of the Isoman Triathlon) I have barely run at all this year, with at best half a dozen sessions of 10 km or longer.

Don’t get me wrong, I had no worries about finishing the race as I feel fitter now than at any point in my life, including when I was playing regular rugby at 18. But as I have made clear a few times on here, running is my least favourite discipline of the Swim/Bike/Run trinity, and in general I will always look for alternative training sessions.

This was particularly relevant in the build up to this race, as for a start it was not part of my plans at the beginning of the year. Having previously done the race twice in 2013 & 2014, I gave it a miss last year due to the fact I had wanted to focus on Ironman, and also that because of major roadworks in Birmingham centre the course was going to be changing. I had expected to leave it out again this year, but then something came up which changed all that, which I will come back to later.

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So anyway, rather than signing up nice and early and planning ahead, I did not get around to entering until September, giving me a fairly narrow window to train. As I mentioned finishing was not a concern, given it would be my sixth half, three of which as part of long distance triathlons, so knowing my legs would finish up in one piece before the start gave me some advantage. The problem was more the two races before, where I had clocked in times of 2.12 and 2.08 respectively, and being a competitive blogger I knew it would be shameful to come in slower, and thus had to ensure I beat my previous times to achieve something worthwhile. No pressure then.

The other problem was that rather than go by the book / training plan, with 3 or 4 nice runs per week (including a long one on Sunday) blah blah, I just did my normal training – Body Combat, Attack, RPM and so on. This at least ensured my fitness stayed high, but probably did not get my legs into the shape they should have been.

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To make things worse / better (depending how you look at it) two weeks before the race I had a Les Mills Live day in Manchester. I won’t go into huge detail here, as it was fairly similar to last year (https://chilechallenge.wordpress.com/2015/11/20/one-live-manchester/) but safe to say it was another fantastic day involving 6 different classes, 5 hours of training, and nearly 4,000 calories blitzed. Ouch & yes! But probably not for my legs, as it took most of the rest of that week to recover.

What about the weekend one week before the race I hear you ask? Well, that was of course the time my gym decided to launch the new quarterly Les Mills releases themselves, necessitating another morning of 3 back-to-back Combat, Pump and Attack classes (in Halloween fancy dress natch!) and another few days of Doms in my legs.

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Mid-week tapering with 4 days to go? How about getting asked to play football for your work team in your bi-annual 5-aside tournament in Leicester, with guaranteed ice-hockey style tackles on the pitch and ideal-training-food-curry afterwards. Yep, that happened too.

Hopefully that all gives you a bit of an idea why I felt slightly under-prepared for the race when I was sitting looking at my kit 24 hours beforehand. But still, I was confident enough I had the fitness, all that could get in my way now was the weather…

… so it was with some irony that I woke up on Sunday to the sound of a monsoon outside, as the rain decided to lash it down with the remains of some storm or other doing its rounds through the Midlands. The best laid plans, eh? But I had a new plan, stealing an idea I had found on the race information website.

great-run-poncho

So quite what any observers would have made of me an hour or so later, crouching in the front seat of my car in an underground parking lot, trying to wriggle into my race shorts and rubbing Vaseline into my chest to avoid chafing, I will never know, but I think the fact that none of the bypassers batted an eyelid must speak volumes about what goes on in Birmingham car parks. If that did not get them, the sight of me stepping out wearing a full black bin bag and striding down Broad Street to shelter from the rain, looking like a cross between Clint Eastwood and Derek Zoolander doing Derelicte in my homemade poncho. Regardless, it did the job, and by the time I reached the new start line – which was some 4 km from where I had parked (20% of the race distance!) – I was still reasonably dry.

derelicte

 

At that point, having survived the monsoon and with a forecast of more to come, if a someone had offered me a bet that it would end up nice weather for the race I would have laughed in their face. But they would have been right, as inconceivably, just as we got to the starting area for the group warm up, the sun came out and it started to warm up. Throwing off my old tracksuit (another tip I picked up this year: if I ever spot someone on one of the Birmingham underpasses in a knock-off Rugby World Cup top I will feel I have done my bit!) I lined up in the holding pen alongside 20,000 others and waited for one of my heroes, Commonwealth Gold Medallist and local triathlete Jodie Stimpson to kick us off.

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It does not get more Birmingham than the Bullring!

As those who have entered big runs like this before will know, the start can be a bit of an anti-climax, with everyone pumped up & ready, a massive klaxon going off, and then rather than the mass brawl you get in say a triathlon swim, you have a 5 or 10 minute wait whilst you are shuffle down a funnel of barriers  towards the line (in a typically polite British fashion of course) before eventually getting to the front, looking down to make sure you start your GPS watch the moment you cross, and actually getting going!

Needless to say, by then all that adrenaline you have had is starting to wear a bit low, so rather than the measured start you have been planning before the race, you hare off at almost twice your cruising speed along with everyone else, before you realise a few minutes later there is no way you can keep it up, and forcing the breaks to conserve some energy. It never fails to amaze me how many people I see walking and looking knackered about 5 minutes into the race, who have already blown their load and are going to have a hell of a next few hours doing the other 95% of the distance. Not that I would ever do that…

Despite this, for the first half of the race, I really was motoring (by my standards anyway). My first kilometre was over in a shade over 5 minutes, and the first 5 kms were 27.11, not far off my best Parkrun time. I even managed to fly up the first mini hill as you veer off the main road just after the 6 km mark (the little kink on the map) which I remember absolutely killing me the first time I did this race, and certainly having to walk a bit the second time around, but this time around I barely slowed and could enjoy the immediate downhill on the other side.

The route through the halfway was much the same, as I focused on keeping my pace below 6 min/km on my TomTom, with a view to trying to achieve a magic 2 hour Finnish. Things were looking up as I hit the 10 km mark at 55.29, another fantastic time for me, well ahead of what I would normally do in training. Perhaps I should have known then it would be too good to be true, but I used it to keep my legs pumping as I looped around Cadbury World and started retracing my steps down Pershore Road.

cadbury

It is worth mentioning at this point the support you get in this race, which is absolutely fantastic and part of the reason I am happy to do it again and again. This is a road race, and other than a small section early on where you run around some of the less salubrious areas and warehouses of Birmingham, you are going right past people’s houses, sometimes just yards from their front doors (meaning it must be a strange experience for those who fancied a lie in that Sunday). Obviously a bit of good weather helps, but the fact is literally thousands of people turn up to watch, many giving out sweets or drinks to help us crazy runners, and most of the kids offering hi-fives for a bit of extra pace, which I can never turn down.

The second half of the course it where it starts to hurt a bit, as you begin to get a sense of deja vu going past some of the same landmarks the other way. I do like the fact it is a single lap course, having done plenty of triathlons involving multiple loops which really test your patience (although there are rumours this will change to multiple loops next year) and the other fun part of this section of the race is you can spot those from later waves going the other way.  At around 12 km I passed my Body Combat instructor going the other way at around the 5 km mark for her, although she did not look happy to see me (not sure if it was more to do with her carrying an injury or the fact I was closer to the finish line…!)

edgbaston-cricket

The next part was the only new addition to the race this year, a bonus loop around Edgbaston Cricket Ground, location of my first temp job after finishing uni. This time however I was not serving drinks, and Freddy Flintoff was not smashing a mighty 167 runs, as there was obviously no match on. Now I am sure this sounded a very good idea on paper, but I have to be honest in that the rear section of an empty sports stadium is not actually the prettiest part, so as I ran past the empty bars and bare concrete walls I had to rely on my memory to think about the lovely green pitch and the roar of the crowd. Still, at that point I managed to pass a guy running in full firefighter gear &  O2 cylinder (a real one) and Mr Potato Head (not the real one) at that point, and hey, an overtake is an overtake.

In fact that is another thing I like about this race, as whereas in triathlons I am usually the guy who turns up for fun, comes out in the top half of the swim before getting smashed by everyone on the bike and run, in a mass participation race I actually do alright and actually manage to overtake people on foot. This might seem strange as it is of course a fun run, but overtaking is a real motivator (when you are doing the taking at least!) and definitely helps with a bit of an extra speed boost.

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Pretty consistent Heart Rate throughout the race. Unfortunately it was in zone 5 (sprint) rather than endurance, so probably a bit higher than it should have, but still…

Next up on the course is the park, which involves a small hill, but more importantly the radio stand, where you get some loud music and importantly some carb drink. Whilst I am not a qualified sports nutritionist, it is one of my interests, and I like to use myself as a bit of a human guinea pig to test out different combinations during training to come out with something to at least get me through longer distance races. Here my fuelling strategy for the race had been to have an energy gel at the start, then three more spread out over 30 mins or so, with just water at the fuel stations, which had worked alright for a bit, but been based on the assumption that it would be a cold and wet race. Of course that was not to be, and with the sun out and wearing a black long-sleeved top, I was loosing fluids much faster than usual, so found myself gulping back blue Gatorade (or whatever was sponsoring the race this year, I cared not) knowing I needed all I could get for what was coming up.

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Yes, the final stage of the race could mean only one thing, looming in at kilometre 16 like an active volcano: The Hill. Perhaps the most famous part of the Great Birmingham Run, and described in the Channel 5 commentary by long distance legend Dave Moorcroft as ‘one of the most savage in UK athletics’, this kicks in around three-quarters of the way through the race (i.e. when you are most tired and need a bit of a hand) and goes on for pretty much the rest of the course. Observe my elevation profile above for a graphic illustration. Before I first did this race I used to wonder what all the fuss was about, having driven along the road in question many times without noticing any particular steepness, but on foot it is a whole different ball game, as I found out to my cost the first time I did the race. And the second. And indeed this time as well, as despite being fit enough to tackle the first kilometre section under the bridge (and are handed an orange segment by supporters for your troubles), it just went on and on.

Despite the pain of the hill, I do have mixed emotions to hear they are going to scrap it next year in favour of a different route, as it is the run’s USP and gives those of us who conqueror it something in the way of bragging rights, so it will be interesting to see what happens next time.

Still I can proudly say that for the first time ever, I did not walk at all. Sure I did that strange sort of shuffling run athletes do when they look like they have just done a Paula Radcliffe where you barely seem to be going forwards, but as far as I am concerned it was still running, and I am pretty proud of it. Needless to say the worst and hardest section of the whole race was the exact moment you go past my work office by Five Ways, at the summit of the hill where you have absolutely no energy left to even give it a wave. Or at least some sort of gesture.

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Not my best race photo… ouch!

By this point I knew my hopes of a 2 hour finish were gone, having been over the 7 min/km mark towards the end of the ascent, but with the pressure now off I could at least enjoy the end, so after being given the largest ever handful of jelly babies (to the point that they overfilled my mouth and I couldn’t actually breathe) by the kind cheerleaders at the boost section for the final km, I switched to a power song on my headphones and put on the afterburners onto Broad Street and into the finish chute with a trademark final sprint over the line.

great-run-finish

My final time was 2.03 hours, agonisingly close to beating that two hour mark, but I guess still leaving something for me to aim at in future with a bit more training. On the positive side, my previous times were 2.08 in 2014 & 2.12 in 2013, so I managed to knock off a huge 5 minutes from my PB, and I could technically extrapolate my time to around 1.58 if I was to do this again next year.

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But I won’t be doing this race again next year, at least not this distance anyway. That reason I mentioned earlier about why I signed up for this race in the first place? Well I am a firm believer in facing my fears, and could not turn down the opportunity to enter the first Birmingham Marathon, which is going to take place next October at the same time as the half-marathon, although parts of it will be on a brand new course. It is going to be a huge personal challenge for me, but in the end that is what this is all about, and I have to say I am pretty damn excited about running further than I ever have in my life. Better get training!

National Day of Suffering

Just like trains, after months of waiting for a blog on Sufferfest two come along in the space of a week, as although I could have tucked this in at the end last time, I thought this was something worth mentioning separately.

Having been around for nearly half a year, Sufferfest does not seem to have taken off quite as well as our gym bosses might have hoped, with many of the classes appearing fairly (if not totally) empty. Fortunately the company behind Sufferfest had a great initiative to help shake things up a bit, by introducing the Sufferlandrian National Day: The Day of Suffering. Obviously this was too good an idea to be missed.

suffer-day

My gym (David Lloyd) is actually pretty good at putting on special events, often to coincide with the quarterly launches of new Les Mills classes, which tend to have a theme – the last one in early September was ‘Back to School’, which saw us battling our way through back-to-back Grit, Step, Attack & Combat Classes whilst dressed in our finest shirts and ties – whilst the next one due will be a Halloween themed version in October half-term.

This one was to follow a similar format (although sadly without the fancy dress – next year perhaps?!) in that we would complete 3 consecutive Sufferfest classes in 2 hours, although to add a bit of variety the Sports Manager Kevin would be joining us, and (sort of) leading the class with a few words of encouragement and motivation. To top it off, we could also do a regular RPM class with him afterwards, taking it up to a 3 hour ride. Oh yeah, and it all kicked off at 7.15 am on a Saturday (I time when I am normally trying to stay asleep) so I had to be up at the crack of dawn to get ready.

sufferfest-starters

The Starting Line (I am on the right in the blue t-shirt)

Sufferfest 1 – Igniter: Described as a 20 minute warm up, inspired by British Cycling (who obviously took most of the Golds at both the Olympics and Paralympics – just saying!) we were apparently the first people in the club to try this. Some nice scenery and gradually increasing difficulty, although to be honest it was a little bit vanilla, but a good intro for anyone who had not tried Sufferfest before, and more of a companion to another session than one you would do on its own. Still, it got the legs spinning and was probably a good idea given the circumstances and time of day.

Sufferfest 2 – The Wretched: This is where things kicked off properly with a session best described by their website as “like a a 35 minute fall from the tallest ugly tree and your legs hit every ugly branch on the way down. Except you’re falling up. Did we mention the ugly tree is on fire and your legs are on fire and everything’s on fire?”.  In fact the whole Sufferfest blog is awesome (I can only dream) and I highly recommend a read: https://thesufferfest.com/blogs/the-sufferfest-blog/111999110-taking-a-closer-look-at-the-wretched

Anyway, the set up is you are a washed up former hero Sufferlandrian, who has left your glory days behind, but managed to make it to the final stage of the Tour de France, and need to finish well to earn enough for your bus fare home. What follows is a 6 hour Tour leg crammed into 45 minutes, which includes 2 King of the Mountain sprints and a huge race for the finish line at the end (spoiler –  you win the race). Sounds simple enough, but it is a real killer, with huge climbs accompanied by stunning French mountains (I have a feeling you might end up in Paris, but geography is not important here).

There is plenty of humour along the way (one of my favourite features of Sufferfest) which is mainly at your expense, and you do actually find yourself getting into the storyline as you pass bystanders lining the race who express their surprise at how well ‘the Sufferlandrian’ is doing when they thought you were old news. Painful yes, but I am sure I will be doing this one again before too long.

tour-de-france

Sufferfest 3 – The Nine Hammers: The last of the video sessions was a climber’s paradise (which for most sane people means a nightmare). Again, this one had something of a back story, with you attempting to complete a legendary series of mountain climbs in Sufferlandria (banned by the United Nations!) 6 of which were VO2 max, and 3 threshold climbs. If that last sentence makes no sense apologies, but it is a bit much to explain here: suffice to say it was tough, especially after the two earlier runs. The hills seemed to go on forever, but by this time we had been joined by a few more riders, and we managed to get to the end with a great atmosphere.

In all around ten of us managed to complete all three sessions and earned a coveted Sufferfest T-shirt (both unexpected and surprisingly good quality!) At that point any normal person would leave the room to relax / vomit, but at that point Kevin announced he was about to run a normal RPM class, and full expected all of us to stay for it. Of course we could not say no, so the morning turned out to be a bit longer than planned…

sufferfest-finishers

The hardy finishers

Les Mills RPM – To be honest I can’t remember any of the tracks we did in this class, as by now I was pretty gone. It was nice to get a bit of different variety for my legs, as whilst the Sufferfest element was almost entirely based on endurance, with average speeds from 80-100 RPM, this brought in some more top speed 140 RPM sprints mixed in with high gear hill climbs at closer to 60 RPM. Anyway, I made it through, and that was the main thing!

One thing that really interested me at the end was the data I managed to get from my TomTom Heart Rate Monitor, which if I am honest I don’t usually spend much time on. Having kept it going for the whole morning rather than each individual element, it actually creates a great visual representation of how the sessions panned out. As a starting point, my resting heart rate is around 50 BPM, and my max heart rate (220 minus age 34) is 186 BPM.

The first peak from 0-25 minutes is clearly Igniter, taking my pulse up to around 160 and then calming down as would be expected from a warm up, although note it does not drop below 100 BPM for the rest of the morning! The next hour or so to 1.20 is The Wretched, with another steadily increasing climb, with a couple of massive peaks at 187 BPM for the two hill climbs at the end. Up next to 1.20 is Nine Hammers, which perfectly displays the 9 peaks (you can actually count each of them) and shows what a textbook interval session this is, with peaks and troughs for maximum exertion and recovery. After a short recovery gap to get the RPM class started the last session from around 2.35-3.10 minutes has a slightly lower average heart rate, although by that time I was concentrating more on getting the pedals around than working too hard!

heart-rate

Day of Suffering Heart Rate Chart

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Official Nine Hammers heart rate chart: pretty similar if I don’t say so myself!

I have to say, when I first saw my gym was going to be offering virtual training, my first concern was that it could ultimately see a reduction in instructor led classes (as part of a drive to reduce costs I guess), which would be a real shame given the loss of experience, adaptability, motivation and other factors this would mean. Fortunately six months on this does not seem to have happened too much (although our old Sunday evening class has been replaced by a video one), although time will tell.

So the aim of the day was obviously to kindle some more interest in Sufferfest, and did it work on me? Well I will definitely be going again, although as someone who loves spin classes and tends to have a bit of extra time in the week from working from home (my own virtual commute!) this would be ‘as well as’ rather than ‘instead of’ my usual times. It also firmly ingrained on my brain Sufferfest’s catchphrase ‘IWBMATTKYT’ which is translated below:

iwbmattkyt

Sadly all that extra mileage and sweat we put in over the weekend must have caused a few issues for the machinery, as the AV equipment has apparently gone on the blink and there have been no virtual classes for the last few weeks whilst it is being fixed. So I guess those real instructors are safe in their jobs and I will have to take a break from suffering… at least for now…

 

Welcome to Sufferlandria

After months of promising and distraction by other events it is finally time to talk about Sufferfest!

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I will start off today with a bit of a Meet Cute, as I first came across Sufferfest a few years ago in a magazine (Men’s Fitness  I think), where one of the reviewers was talking about an insane new program, where people rode stationary bikes whilst watching a torturous video of cyclists riding Le Tour or something similar, and trying to keep up like some sort of computer game. At the time I was doing Olympic Triathlons and whilst I had a turbo trainer, I had never even done a spin class, but was looking to try to find ways to motivate myself to go longer, so looked into buying one of the DVDs. Sadly they were a bit out of my price range, so I thought better not to not take the risk and forgot all about it, and kept trundling along on my bike in the lounge, watching endless repeats of the training montage from Rocky IV to spur me on.

Fast forward a couple of years, and thanks to Les Mills RPM and some great instructors I have turned into a spin class addict, ensuring I do at least one session per week (preferably more),  even down to the part where I have special clipless cycling shoes especially for indoor spinning (in addition to my regular tri bike shoes) and do most of my solo bike training whilst listening to bike specific RPM tracks.

Sufferlandia motto.jpg

So I was pretty excited when I got back from an Easter holiday to discover my gym’s spin studio was being refurbed, and a new AV system being put in place which would allow ‘virtual’ spin classes, and specifically they had purchased a licence to run Sufferfest sessions, so obviously I had to give it a go so booked myself onto one of the launch classes. But what it is all about?

It turns out that there is more to it than just watching Bradley Wiggins on a big screen and pedalling as furiously as possible to keep up (although there are plenty of famous riders in the films); there is a whole back story / history within Sufferfest. Originating in the fantastically named fictional Kingdom of Sufferlandria, where riding is religion, suffering is a must if you want to achieve mastery. Only those who work the hardest, ride the fastest and climb the steepest hills are considered worthy. This is all made clear to you during the introductory video, which explains how the on screen instructions work, and gives you a scale of how hard you need to work. Having done a few different classes now, these are always different, and usually raise a few laughs, involving phrases such as’Ride like you are being chased by angry Sufferlandrian wilderbeasts’.

sufferscale

Those involved in the videos who support you in becoming a hero cyclist are classed as Minions, whilst non riders are given the ultimate insult of eating donuts in the rival region of Couchlandria, where hard work is shirked. There are a lot of nice little touches to add some humour to what could otherwise be a pretty painful and serious experience, such as at one point during one of the films where people might otherwise be slacking off, a door appears onscreen, and a large gentleman enters the room like a door to door salesman asking if you are from Couchlandria as you are not working hard enough!

The classes being with a fantastically overblown, James Bond style title / credits sequence, where details of what you are going to be down are interspaced with animated shapes morphing across the screen, accompanied by classical music to build up some atmosphere. Whilst this is totally irrelevant to the remainder of the class, as a massive Bond fan myself, I personally enjoy this bit, plus there is the bonus that it is the few minutes of the class where you are not in pain.

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The format it actually very straightforward, with one countdown bar to show you how long you have left until the next section, one to give your cadence (pedalling speed), and one to say how hard your gear should be. This also tends to be well mapped to what you see on-screen, so when the riders start going uphill you gear up and slow down, and when they come down you can open the gas and start pushing faster. And really that is the main thing you need to go. There are other elements, such as notices to get out of the saddle for hills, and warnings that an increase is coming up (by way of an engine revving sound) but otherwise they stick to the Keep it Simple Stupid formula.

The videos / classes range from shorter 20 minute blasts, to full hour and a half marathons, and have at least a dozen different varieties, each with its own theme depending on the workout target. Examples of ones I have tried include ‘Do As You’re Told’ which involves a race where you are followed by a support vehicle who tells you to speed up or slow down during certain parts of the event depending on team tactics to practice your endurance and sprint skills, ‘Climbing Angels’, where you complete sections of the Giro d’Italia, which unsurprisingly involves a lot of hill climbs, and others with names like ‘The Wretched’, ‘Long Scream’ and ‘A Very Dark Place’ which I will leave to your imagination.

do-as-told-graph

One moment I particularly enjoyed during Do As You’re Told was when the guys in the car following received a text (from Dr von Agony) saying it did not look like you were working hard enough (with a cat meme and everything !). It was also quite a nice moment when at one point you got a virtual puncture and a few minutes rest!

As you would expect, there is music throughout the films, which all seems to be either custom-made for the videos, or at least non-mainstream, as I have not recognised any of the bands or tracks so far. This is actually good, as it means the music does not distract you too much as the tracks change every couple of minutes, so you don’t find yourself singing along. The tunes tend to be on the heavy side, either hard rock or hip hop, and whilst they do not match the pace perfectly as they do in say an RPM class where you could track your speed even with your eyes closed, they do at least fit the mood of whatever you are following on-screen, such as sprinting or powerclimbing.

There are also some interesting and even unexpected extras in the classes. Th first one I did for example had a whole separate five minute docu-film at the end, as a warmdown of sorts, about a young lad in the Lake District who was trying to ride fast enough to set off a speed camera on a quiet country road. It showed various clips of him riding and making improvements to his bike, clothing, helmet and so on, each time getting slightly faster and more aerodynamic to try to beat the camera. Totally irrelevant to the 45 minutes that preceded it, but actually fascinating as a study of speed, which most cyclists find themselves interested in at some point.

So is it any good? Well as with everything there are positives and negatives. Because it is automated it makes great use of the cycle studio at my gym, taking the number of classes from around 20 per week, to nearly 100, meaning you can get in and do some extra training almost whenever you want. Because it is all pre-programmed in and automated, the classes will also always start and finish bang on time, which is even better if you are in a rush, although it has meant that on occasions the projection screen suddenly drops down during the cooldown in my regular spin class, much to our instructor’s annoyance.

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The videos on screen are really high quality, and make the most of he fantastic locations they feature, most notably the Tour, Giro and Vuelta (in France, Italy & Spain respectively), with stunning views of mountain tops, alpine forests and seaside cliffs to motivate you. This is countered by the fact that you lose the element of imagination you can get in a spin class when imagining climbing a volcano or riding through a desert landscape (or is that just me?!) Obviously there are those who are against all indoor cycling and say ‘why not just go ride outside’ but this really does make it feel like you are taking part in these glamorous and famous races, that in reality would never actually happen to most people. On that note, when you do it in a fairly full studio it feels even more like you are in a peloton as you hear others whirring around you, although it does still work well when you are on your own and want a bit of (virtual) company for your ride.

smash-climb

Although it is available to riders of all abilities, the fact it is not directly ‘coached’ does mean it is more suitable for experienced riders, who know what they are doing with gears and bike set ups, particularly as there is no stretching at the end. Also whilst the jokes and other motivation (or beating with a stick!) does encourage you along, it can’t compete with having an experienced instructor in the room who can offer advice, tailor the class to your targets, or even slow down if you are struggling (and of course speed up if you are slacking). For those who have not done any indoor riding before, I would recommend going to some normal spin classes before, to learn how to properly set up your bike to avoid injuries and ensure maximum effort, before going into something like this, but of course it is open to anyone.

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Having done most of these now, I would say if the opening few paragraphs of this piece sound like your idea of fun, you would love this kind of thing, but if Couchlandria sounds more your thing then that is understandable!

Next time, Sufferfest goes big, with the ‘National Day of Suffering’…

Rhodes Cave Diving

When I think of ‘extreme sports’ my mind conjures up images of skydiving, surfing, snowboarding and the like: basically the kind of adrenaline fueled adventures Johnny Utah has in Point Break, or maybe Xander Cage in xXx. The official definition of an extreme sport (according to Wikipedia) is one which is perceived as having a high level of inherent danger, often involving speed, height, high level of physical exertion and highly specialised gear.

johnny utah

For many people (including insurance companies!), scuba diving is also classed as an extreme sport, which interests me. Despite the fact I have over 40 scuba dives to my name, some of which have been to the maximum recreational depth of 40 metres, I have never really tend to put it in the same ballpark as it’s ethos tends to be the exact opposite of the above definition – ideally you participate as slowly as possible, controlling your breathing & heart rate and generally try to take it easy. Yes, it does have some unique and specialised gear, but does that make it extreme?

That is not to say diving is not exciting – far from it – as despite the fact most of my sub-aqua adventures have taken place in freezing quarries in the Midlands, I have been fortunate enough to see some amazing things, which certainly get the adrenaline pumping, including barracudas, lobsters, eels, octopus and even sharks, as well as some amazing tropical coral and interesting wrecks. But other than a slightly elevated heartbeat, these have all been on nice laid back dives, where (despite what you see in films) I was more at risk of cutting myself on a rock or getting cramp than being bitten by a crazed sea-monster or trapped inside the wreck.

Last week however, I finally did what I would class as an extreme scuba in Greece, when I was fortunate enough to do some cave diving in Rhodes.Although I had brought my kit on holiday, I had not been planning  a cave dive, and did not even realise that where I was staying was apparently one of the top cave dive sites in the whole country, but when I found out the opportunity was there I jumped at it, and booked on with a centre called Waterhoppers who seemed pretty decent.

waterhoppers

Under the Padi system they do offer a cavern diving course which I have not actually done (mainly as there are no caves to dive where I live!) but then again they have a course for pretty much everything – wrecks, ice, and even how to dive properly from a boat – which you don’t actually need to do, but can help out. Still, there was no way I was going to be turning this one down just because I had not been on a course, and I did have experience penetrating wrecks from that course (as well as my rescue diver course should anything not go to plan), which was good enough for me.

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Once of the other things I love about scuba diving on holiday is how multicultural it is, and when I arrived at the centre it became apparent this would be no different. Our dive leader was a tough looking Serbian called Gregor, who was ably assisted by the Greek boat captain Costas. My buddy was to be a Russian dude called Mikhail who had 80 odd dives to his name which I was happy enough with, and we also had a German guy and a Geordie lad doing an internship with the centre, who both had 150 dives each. This meant I was the least experienced, which was fine by me as I am happy enough in my abilities, and reduced the chances that I was going to have to worry about the others doing something too crazy. Fortunately English was also the mutual language, as it tends to be, so I could also understand the pre-dive brief properly.

The boat ride to the dive site was an eye opener, with Costas really opening the throttle on the rib along the way, and the tourists amongst us clinging onto the edge of the boat for our lives: I know powerboating is an extreme sport, and this definitely fitted the description from my opening paragraph! At least we made it in one piece, and soon enough the anchor was dropped and we were backrolling in to the beautiful warm Mediterranean.

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The beautiful acropolis at night (picture from Google)

The cave was on the side of a steep cliff near the Acropolis of Lindos, directly underneath the tomb of Clepbulus, who was apparently one of the seven sages of ancient Greece, so a very important guy. I was pleased to see we were following proper scuba protocol, in doing our deepest dive first (it helps with underwater time, which I will come back to later)

Visibility was fantastic, well over 20 metres, so it did not take me long to notice my first problem, in that my Russian buddy who was with me a few seconds earlier as we started to descent, had disappeared – never a good thing underwater! I soon realised he had only descended a few metres and was hanging about the surface, which is usually a sign of having problems, but when both myself and our dive lead signalled him he gave us the ok sign. Given he had nearly 100 dives and he seemed to know what he was doing, we swam on, albeit slightly uncomfortably, whilst he followed on the surface looking down on us like a snorkeler. Weirdly once we reached the cave a few minutes later he dropped right down and carried on next to me as if nothing had happened.

When we questioned him after the dive he acted like it was fine, and said ‘oh yeah, when I dive I always take a while to descend’… one bollocking later from both myself and our lead for the fact he had omitted to mention this, and nearly messed up the whole dive in the process, and hopefully it will be the last time it happens. Anyway, I digress…

As we got to the opening of the cave at around 25 metres I was pleased to see it as pretty massive. Having had a few concerns it would be a tight opening, which would be awkward in hired kit we were not used to, it was a huge gap the size of a two storey house. Pulling out the torches the centre had thoughtfully lent us we drifted in, and spent a few minutes exploring the opening, which was even bigger inside.

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The reason this sort of diving is considered more extreme and dangerous, is that whereas on a normal dive if you have a problem, you can head directly back to the surface, even if you have to take your time to minimise decompression issues. But on a cave dive, you have an overhead, so to get out you have to swim across (and possibly even down first) to find your way out and then up again, which is why it is strictly for more experienced divers. Obviously the further into the cave you penetrate, the more experience and extra equipment you would need. In my case, I made sure I kept my sneaky Russian buddy in my eye-line at all times, in case I needed to make a grab for his alternate air source to keep me going, although fortunately the hire kit was decent enough not to let me down!

 

Whilst it was interesting looking in, what was really special about it was actually looking back out of the cave, as you had an amazing light blue view from the sea outside the cave. I can’t think of a good way of explaining it, so fortunately I had my camera and for a change the pictures have actually come out well, so you can see it for yourselves.

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The cool thing about this dive that really sold it to me though, was that you could swim inside the cave, and actually go further into it to surface in an underwater freshwater cavern, that could only be reached with scuba gear. The lighting was crazy, with out torches piercing the water like lightsabers, and giving a strange green glow to the cavern. For me this was real hardcore cave diving, and was a fantastic experience, surfacing in the middle of a cave which few people had ever set eyes on, and having a brief chat with the others before going back down. Seriously, an experience I will probably always remember as a diver.

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Inside the cavern

 

We descended back down a slightly different (and tighter) way that really tested our buoyancy skills, but pleased to say we all smashed it and found our way back to the main cave – although I found myself counting everyone about 5 times just to be sure no one had been lost!

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Once we exited the cave again the remainder of the dive was spent swimming along the cliff wall, looking at the marine life and for me at least, soaking up the rush of being in a real cave. I can barely remember the rest of the dive, other than deciding to try some selfies on my action cam given how clear the water was, which in hindsight probably looked a bit strange to the others.

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After surfacing onto the boat we drove (a bit slower this time thankfully) over to our second site, an island right off the back of Lindos bay. The plan was another smaller cave penetration, this time though a small crack of the sort I imagined before, although at less of a depth. We were into the dive pretty quickly, with just an hour surface interval in all. To explain, this is the time between reaching the surface in the first dive, and descending in the next one. Back home we usually have a pretty long surface interval of up to two hours, as this lets you ‘off gas’ which means clear more of the nitrogen from your body. But for a tourist centre like this, they understandably want to get through the dives at a reasonable pace to get in four per day, so an hour it was.

 

This was another pretty good dive, with some different coral and rock formations as we were a little further out to sea, and also a lot more fish to see. It also turned out to be a drift dive, which means you basically let the current take you and push you along underwater – a great experience, kind of like a scuba version of a lazy river in a water park, although in this case you have to be a bit more careful not to let it take you away out to sea. Along the way I was really pleased to see a red starfish which was a new one for me, although unfortunately in my excitement the photo did not really come out.

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Red Starfish (honest!)

This was a more traditional dive than the other, so compare the two I have included the profiles from my dive computer above. On the left is the cave dive, where we went to the max depth quickly, then worked our way into the cave and surfaced in the cavern in the middle (a sort of W-shape), before basically re-tracing our steps out. On the right is the drift dive, where we descended more slowly and drifted along the bottom before working our way back in more of a U-shape.

When you are diving there are two things that limit how long you can spend underwater. The first is obviously your air, as once you get low on that it is of course going to be time to finish up. Whilst recreational diving should never be competitive, there is always a bit of competition as to who can consume the least air on a dive, and generally the better you get, the less you will use as you relax into the dive.

The second restrainer will be less well known to non-divers, but I alluded to it earlier, in that when you dive your body begins to absorb nitrogen, and the deeper & longer you go for, the more it will absorb, which risks you getting ‘the bends’. This will vary a lot between divers, not least because you will never be at exactly the same depth as each other throughout the dive, so experienced divers (well anyone even semi-serious) wear dive computers, that help calculate how deep you have been at all times, and how much nitrogen you have. I hope I am not losing too many people by now…

Anyway, long story short, I had noticed I was getting close to my own limit (not last because of the shorter surface interval) so began to rise up a lot towards the end – it is amazing that being a few minutes higher can add ages to a dive – but our Geordie lad had clearly had other things on his mind, and managed to bust his NDL – No Decompression Limit. Whilst not the end of the world, it is a bit of an embarrassing thing to do by mistake, and resulted in him having to spend an extra 10 minutes underwater on his own decompressing, whilst the rest of us sunbathed on the boat. Interestingly his German buddy (with over 150 dives!) had not brought his computer (as it was too expensive / big!) but did not do any deco, which staggered me, as to be honest there was no way he would not have exceeded his time too, but I guess he was comfortable enough, so there you go.

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My dive computer: NDL is 23 minutes in this one.

Sadly my story did not end there, as after finishing the dives and heading back to my hotel, I started to get an increasingly worse pain in my left ear. At first I thought it was just trapped water, but it refused to clear with all the normal methods, and eventually I had to take two each ibuprofen and paracetamol, which is pretty much unheard of for me as I usually avoid things like that unless I have had heavy dental work (sadly all to often).

The pain eventually went away, but my ear never cleared, so two visits to the doctor later back in the UK, and  it turns out I managed to perforate my eardrum. I can’t pinpoint an exact moment when it happened as the dives were comfortable enough, so have to assume it was just the repeated changes of pressure of the two dives. I will spare you the Google images here as it is pretty horrific, but it did not actually hurt past the first day, and my deafness does not seem to be much worse than normal (according to my wife anyway…) Unfortunately it does mean that my diving for this summer is now over, although I do have my eye on a night diver course over the winter for my next challenge…

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Taking it a bit too easy by the end…

So that was it, two amazing and pretty unforgettable dives, and one finish that I will probably also take a while to push out of my memory. Still a valuable lesson learned, and as sporting injuries go it is certainly a new one for me. And the next time someone suggests to me that scuba diving is not an extreme sport, I will have plenty of stories to tell them!