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

muppet-carol

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!).

isoman logo.jpg

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

muppets

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?!

lebowski

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

marley-and-marley

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!

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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.

lm-live-manc-216

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.

lm-haloween-launch-2016

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.

great-run-bullring

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.

great-run-heart-rate

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.

great-run-elevation

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.

great-run-photo

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.

great-run-finish-2

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!

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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.

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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.

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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’…

Virtual Insanity

I first started writing this blog two and a half years ago to document my progress whilst undertaking a 4000 km virtual triathlon across Chile. The idea was that I could record all my swim, bike & run training miles throughout the year to accumulate enough distance to cover the world’s longest country, without the time and cost expense of actually spending a year there (although I did manage 3 weeks which was great!).

Prior to the Chile Challenge I had completed a few triathlons, although I never really had a proper training strategy, but came across the concept of virtual racing the year before whilst on a fitness website called Fitocracy: a kind of social media game which involved logging your workouts and being  awarded ‘points’ which seemed to be based loosely on numbers of calories burned with which you could compete against others. For various reasons I ended up getting bored with the site, but one thing I did take away was the virtual races, where you could challenge other members to see who could cover the most distance in a week or month, which of course helped me get the idea for my own event.

It was also towards the end of the Chile Challenge that I tried my first spin class, which I quickly became addicted to and has probably been my main training method ever since. I mentioned on here a few weeks ago that the cycle studio in my gym has recently had an upgrade, and we now have a shiny new projector and speaker system, meaning they have been able to introduce a whole new range of classes based on video coaching and on-screen racing, the kind of thing futuristic thing that would not have seemed out-of-place in the 2017 of Back to the Future Part II. Obviously being a keen rider I have had to try a few classes to see what it was like.

les mills virtual

The first class I tried was Les Mills Virtual, which is quite simply a recorded RPM class, with a number of master instructors teaching a session that you can join in with. The tracks and choreography are by the book, exactly the same as you would get in a live class for say RPM 70. Being the top instructors they do look like they have just walked off the set of Zoolander, with white teeth, big arms, and the obligatory Kiwi accents (Les Mills is an NZ company). One of the guys looks like he could play Hugh Jackman’s double in the next Wolverine film. It was fun, in that of course I like any RPM class so I have no complaints about the video itself, but I did come out with mixed feelings.

virtual RPM

The most apparent benefit to both the club and members is we can have a lot more classes than ever before. We have been lucky enough to have a purpose-built cycle studio for a few years now, with a few different bike based classes including Les Mills RPM, Sprint and normal Group Cycling, but no more than around 20 sessions per week, with a fair few taking place during the daytime which those of us with jobs do not really count, and I know for example we had been asking for ages for the Sunday evening class to be reinstated, after it was taken off during the (traditionally quieter) summer period last year.

Cycle studip timetable

They have of course been able to sort this now, as well as significantly increasing the volume of classes so there is something on nearly every hour, pushing to well over 80 classes in the same timeframe (see above), meaning it is a lot easier to have some sort of coached session at just about any time of day. They are also going to rotate the timetable, so you don’t get stuck with the same class each time if you can only go at say 6pm on a Monday.

Talking of timings, it is a little strange as the system is fully pre-programmed, so with German railway-like timing, the projector screen will automatically start dropping down at 5.58pm for the class, the video will start and play through regardless of who is in the room (I assume some actually play to empty rooms) and it will then disappear at the end until the next time. This is useful as you know it will always be on time, but can be a bit disconcerting when you are having a conversation with an instructor at the end of a session and a screen starts plummeting from the ceiling towards your heads for the next class!

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Another problem with the ending is they seem to have dispensed with any sort of warm down. The last track ends and bang, the screen is immediately starting to retract. Now this is not a huge problem for experienced riders, as we can take care of ourselves, but for anyone new to the classes they could end up with an injury or slower recovery if they just get straight off the bike and walk out. Again, it may just be the classes I have been to, but having tried both the short 30 minute, and full 45 minute versions, neither has any kind of cool down or stretches after the last track, which is usually a big hill climb.

Clearly a big aspect of this is the significant cost saving for the club. I am not sure what our spin instructors charge – although in terms of the classes I frequent I am of the opinion that they earn every penny – but it means there is next to no additional cost to hold all these extra classes, other than the licenses they have to buy for the videos. I am sure they will say this will be passed onto us as members – not by reduced fees I would assume, but perhaps investment in new equipment and tech.

There is however a bit of a downside in having so many classes, in that it seems to spread people a bit more thinly. Because there is now so much choice, the 30 odd people who might have fancied a mid-week ride might now be split into up to half a dozen classes rather than just one, so instead of having a really full class with a lot of atmosphere (and sweat!) you end up with quite an empty room. Now it may just be coincidence, but the few virtual classes I have done have never had more than single figures present and in one I was absolutely on my Jack Jones. Now I am used to training solo so don’t actually mind this, but it could put others off. To make it worse though, they have squeezed an extra 7 bikes into the studio as part of the refit, making it a little cramped and seeming even more like a the Marie Celeste when it is not busy. It should help a lot next New Year, but I dread to think what it will be like in the summer.

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One final moan about the class is that on a couple of occasions during my sessions people actually wandered into the room mid-class to either set up their bikes for a subsequent session or even just have a gawk – possibly this is just the novelty as it is something they would not dare do if it was an instructor-led class, so hopefully will wear off before too long.

My main fear really is that this technology might end up replacing some of the existing instructor led classes and we will end up with something like the hologram tennis instructor Sharon Stone has in Total Recall, but for now at least we seem to be safe. As mentioned this is not because of the quality of the production, as ultimately the tracks are the same and the trainers are perfect, but it is down to the interaction. In a real class, a decent instructor will be able to tell when to talk, when to motivate the group, when to help struggling individuals or challenge you to the next level. They will be able to mix up the tracks and take requests, start and stop when needed, and generally be trained to hold the thing together. Basically, you can’t replace them with a pre-recorded video!

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So overall what do I think of the classes? Well if I gave the impression I did not enjoy them that was not my intention – I love RPM and an opportunity to do a few extra classes per week is a good thing – I just have a few concerns over how things could turn out in the longer term. But for now at least they are a great compliment to an existing training plan, giving extra variety and making excellent use of a studio that might otherwise have been empty. Those of you with eagle eyes may have noticed from the timetable earlier that the new range of classes does not end with Les Mills though. There is another big name on the scene which I am going to talk about next time… Sufferfest!

Deja Vu

I feel like I have done a lot of things in the last month or so that I could write about here, but the thing is, I have already blogged about much of it in my other 120 or so posts: Hotel based training – Check. Aqua Cycling – Check Check. Outdoor swimming… you get the picture. So I thought today I would focus on a few of my main events from April:

Football

The end of the most interesting UK football season in years and a team of underdogs from the Midlands pulling off a highly unlikely victory… I don’t think anyone would believe me if I tried to say our bi-annual work football tournament (in its stunning car park rooftop location) produced quite such a shocking result, but with teams from Birmingham, Manchester and for the first time ever Leicester, there was a reasonable chance it could have happened.

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In adding a third team to the format we were able to tear up the rule book somehow for our match, so rather than two teams of five gradually slowing down over the course of an hour, to the point (about 15 minutes in actually) where local kids would look over the fence in curiosity to see what was happening in our ‘veterans’ game as we laid on the floor exhausted / injured – the last match resulted in no less than two hospitalisations and a few other days off work the following day – we could pace ourselves a bit more.

A good thing too as we had not substitutes (in fact we only had 14 players in total), but we managed to have 3x 20 minute matches on a round robin basis, with a final match made up of those still left standing. In the end our own Red Devils from Manchester / Liverpool managed to claim overall victory having won both their matches, but all of the games were a lot closer than usual, averaging 5-4 scorelines.

As usual I had hoped I would have an element of superior fitness, given the fact I go to the gym 5 times a week and have a half-ironman coming up shortly, but there is something about the impact football places on your joints that meant I still ached for days after. Or perhaps it was more down to the body tackles seen from some of our senior management, who knows!

Cuba

As I mentioned, the theme this month is things I have done before, so I thought it was worth a few words to brag talk about the training I did out there, which included some sublime scuba diving in nice warm water (making a change from freezing UK quarries), slightly misguided attempts at tennis, relaxing yoga next to the beach and some aqua aerobics surrounded by Canadians in the sea. I won’t say any more here, just a few photos.

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Les Mills Launches

Ahh, a new quarter, a new set of Les Mills releases: Body Combat 67, Body Pump 97, Body Attack 92 & RPM 70. This time around we had a bit of a head start as these were tracks we had already tried out at the Live event in London a few months ago, and given we were hitting Launch weekend less than 24 hours after returning from Cuba it was probably for the best!

To be honest it is such a blur I can’t actually remember what order we did the launches in, nor much about them at the time, other than the theme (there is always a theme on launch weekends) was ‘Pink & Pigtails’, sadly neither of which I owned anything appropriate to wear. Having spent the last month doing these releases I feel I know them a bit better so am able to pass at least a brief judgement as follows:

Combat – Not a million miles away from the last few releases, with some of the more recent themes such as floor work and HIIT training featuring again. Whilst none of the music is quite as cheesy / awesome as the Black Pearl track last time, there is a pretty cool remix of ‘Fight for your Right’ , a proper 90’s classic in ‘Set You Free’ and following on from Firestarter a few years ago, we now have the Prodigy’s ‘Breathe’ as a Muay Thai track.

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Pump – After years of cardio training I am starting to like pump more and more, and it is easy to see how people get hooked on the endorphin rush you get from so much lifting. That said, this is a killer release, and I am fairly sure the ‘How Deep is your Love’ leg track has only been put in so instructors can yell ‘How Deep is your Squat’ as your thighs start to buckle after a seemingly never-ending set of reps.Our coach claims Les Mills always do this for Q2 to make sure you can get your ass in shape for the summer! Interestingly I managed to obtain the below chart which someone has agonisingly (metaphorically and probably literally) put together on how the number of reps seem to increase with each Body Pump release, now averaging well over 1000 per class. Ouch…

Body Pump Reps

Attack – Kicking off with the same ‘How Deep is your Love’ as Pump, and some more old school with ‘Rhythm of the Night’, this is another pretty decent release. As with Combat, I am not yet convinced I like the music quite as much as the last release, but still not one to complain about.

RPM – Arriving back I discovered a massive change in my gym’s cycle studio, with a brand new projection screen and sound system. It turns out they are going to be offering virtual cycling sessions in the future, as well as third party classes such as Sufferfest – but more on these in a future blog. As for the new release – taught (for now at least) by a human – things start well, with ‘I Don’t Like It, I Love It’ and finish strongly with a couple of great tracks in ‘Zero Gravity’ & ‘Sparks After the Sunset’ but I am not quite as keen on the middle few which are either a bit too heavy or too ‘jungle’ for me!

I think I could sum up my thoughts on all four releases with the same thing: some good tracks and great moves, but overall I am not quite as keen on the music as for the last set of releases, or maybe that is just early nostalgia.

So there you go, another month, another three activities to write about. For those of you who got the joke in the opening thanks for noticing, and until next time, hasta luego.

 

 

 

Déjà Vu

I feel like I have done a lot of things in the last month or so that I could write about here, but the thing is, I have already blogged about much of it in my other 120 or so posts: Hotel based training – Check. Aqua Cycling – Check Check. Outdoor swimming… you get the picture. So I thought today I would focus on a few of my main events from March:

Les Mills Live

Les Mills Live

Sounds familiar? Yes, I first wrote about this back in November, although at the time the event was called One Live and took place in Manchester (https://chilechallenge.wordpress.com/2015/11/20/one-live-manchester/). The name may have been re-branded and the location different, but this was basically the same thing: A full day of high energy gym classes, run by the Les Mills Group with all their latest tracks. To give you an idea of the key numbers involved for us:

6 Classes, 5 Hours, 4,000 Calories burned!

Les Mills Live 2

As we now knew how the day worked, we were able to get in a bit earlier and book onto some of the more popular classes which sold out last time. This turned out to be a bit good, but also a bit bad as they were extremely busy, but I guess the atmosphere made up for it. My own classes & thoughts on the new releases were:

  • RPM (Spin) – First class of the day for everyone at the event, and it showed as the room was only about 20% full so a lot of empty bikes. In terms of the music, I have to be honest that I was not too keen on the first half, but the last few tracks were great and made up for it somewhat.
  • Body Attack – Normally one of my favourites, but so busy it was difficult to move at times (must have been 1000 people there). The sound system was also terrible in the room used so I could not actually tell what half the tracks were, but it was still fun to have that many people involved, and I am looking forward to trying this out back at my gym soon.
  • Body Combat – Pretty much see above, although at least there was a but more room in this one (useful when you are kicking at head height!). The tracks seemed a bit better, and to be fair this is in part all about watching the lead instructors on stage who seemed to defy gravity with their amazing martial arts technique.

Les Mills Live RPM

  • Sprint – My second bike based class of the day. This one is a more intense version, with a 45 minute class squeezed into 30 minutes, meaning you work just as hard but in less time, i.e. it is a killer! The class has only been going 6 months so is still new, and I have not been a huge fan so far, but I liked this a lot more, great music and choreography. An unexpected highlight of the day.
  • Sh’Bam – We picked this as a bit of fun after first experiencing it in Manchester. My thoughts are still about the same, in that there are a load of amazing professional dancers on stage with most of the audience dancing around wildly like a drunken wedding crowd. I have no co-ordination to manage this, but who cares when it is so much fun and you are burning calories too!
  • Bodyvive 3:1 – By the final class we were flagging a bit, and this last session is a three in one class involving Cardio, Resistance and Core workouts in one. To be honest it was all a bit of a blur by then, but I remember coming out pretty happy – although that could have been as much due to finishing the day as how good the class was…

Les Mills Live 1

Overall it was a decent day. There were a few technical issues around music volumes / broken microphones / overcrowding, but nothing I do not see every week in regular classes. The Les Mills lead instructors seem to be pretty superhuman, whether demoing ludicrous tuck jumps at nearly head hight, or showing better moves than Beyonce’s backing singers, they are hugely inspiring. Of course, the best part is the general atmosphere, and mixing with thousands of like-minded exercise nuts – Bring on Manchester later this year!

BUPA Medical

Is it weird to write about your own medical report? I don’t think so, as there is nothing really too personal there, at least that I will go into here. This testing is a company requirement, which we undertake every couple of years. I first wrote about this early on in the Chile Challenge (https://chilechallenge.wordpress.com/2014/04/25/whats-up-doc/), so thought it would be interesting to see how things had moved on after two years of fairly intense exercise.

The medical involves about 2 hours of various tests and I find it fascinating, having never really spent any time at the doctors before. I did notice there was an enhanced option which included VO2 Max and some other bits which I would have loved to see out of curiosity, but the extra cost was too high for just personal interest.

After the visit they send a huge pack of data, covering everything from your blood pressure to risk of diabetes, and the good news is everything is not only acceptable, but also moving in the right direction. I have copied some of the data below, for BMI (which I still think is a huge con!) and Body Fat, and the trends say it all – the exercise does work! In terms of BMI, I did get asked once how I was planning on getting this down, and I think my response (by doing an Ironman in 2 months) pretty much covered it!

Another of the findings was around Estimated Average Energy Requirement, which is the amount of calories my body requires, based on both body tests and activity levels. Apparently mine is 2724, which is more than the 2,500 I always assumed, so a bit of a bonus there I guess!

Spine Doc

A few days later, I noticed a queue of people in the gym around a monitor and could see them checking out some sort of x-rays. It turned out he was a physio with a specialism in spine alignment, and had some sort of fancy portable MRI scanner to check for signs of stress in the upper and lower back. Of course I got mine done, and it came out with the below image.

Spine Scan

To be fair, I am not too sure what it meant as it was one where you had to go for a follow up appointment (i.e. pay extra) but in short it meant I have some extra stress in my lower back, possibly as I had just recently had a series of long (4 hour +) drives, and also as I had just done a Body Pump class, where 1000+ reps might have impacted my spine a bit. He did say although it looks red above, it is not the worst it can be, with some people getting a stress score in the thousands which need urgent attention. Still, always interesting to see something like this, and maybe I will test it again in future and it if gets worse I can follow it up further.

 

Anyway, that is all for today. I am off to do some training in sunny Cuba… although I have already written about that too!