Monday, August 11, 2014

Perfect day

Courtesy of Dani
It says something that the verb "to abstain" when used without specifying from what, is generally understood to refer to the non-drinking of alcohol. Sitting outside in a terrace on a lovely day in Madrid, I ordered a cool alcohol free beer and it was sublime: I thought that this was going to be a breeze. It was only after I had greedily gulped it down that I noticed that familiar pleasant buzz and realized that I had been cheated! It did contain alcohol after all. So much for my drought. Still, I find that it is harder to do a little of something than not at all but, having said that, I'm sticking to my plan. My belly already feels better for it, although it is probably a placebo effect. Either that, or the "paliza" I endured on the bike the next day helped trim the fat.

I met up with Dani and Oscar at precisely 8 am the next day (it's nice to have a punctual Spanish friend at last!) and we headed off to la Sierra ("the saw" - the mountain range to the north of Madrid). Manolo was not quite so punctual but it is often the way that the person who has the least distance to travel arrives last, as they don't have to plan so far ahead. I had turned up in a culotte which inadvertently showed a bit too much of my culo because some of the seams had come a bit undone so, after a bit of obligatory ribbing, we set off.

In spite of starting at an altitude of just over 1,000 m, the first part of the ride was very flat. I'd ridden around here once before, with my ex-trainer, Jonathan who used to live in Collado Mediano. I'd forgotten just how much it helps to be drafting (or chupando rueda - sucking the wheel) especially behind Dani who, as a basketball player turned triathlete, moves about as much air as a small truck. At one point a couple of randoms joined onto the back of our little procession. I have no problem with people joining in but one of them made me a bit nervous as he kept on creeping up on my inside every time I had to brake or freewheel to avoid running into Dani's back tire.

By the time we got to the pretty little village of Miraflores ("look at flowers"), we were back to just the four of us. From there we started our ascent of the puerto (mountain pass) of Morcuera. I had only climbed this once before, on a Mountain Bike with my then boss, who insisted on chugging up the hill with full suspension. I remember going down to be quite hair raising and that was with the relative comfort of a Mountain Bike - I wasn't sure what it would be like to fly down on a Road Bike, on which you feel every little bump in the road.

I found that it seemed easier to get into a certain rhythm and I started to pull away from the others. I kept searching for a lower gear (oval rings with 39 teeth on the front, 25 teeth on the back) but my bike was unable to produce one so it meant that I went up at a relatively quick pace. At least it would be over sooner - I can't say I enjoy pedaling uphill. I finally got the the top some way ahead of the others and had some time to myself to enjoy my achievement. I realized that I hadn't spent more than 2 consecutive hours in the saddle (apart from the Half Ironman itself) and that I had actually been a bit nervous before the ride that I would end up holding everyone else up.

Such a perfect day
We regrouped before starting the descent. It was exhilarating bombing down the hills at some unfathomable speed until, on a level curve, I got overtaken by a car which then proceeded to block me all the way down. I tried to get past it but, on the first attempt, a troupe of motorbikes happened to be coming up the other way (they seem to get off on the bends) and, on the second, a bull was in the road. At least, I thought it was a bull because in England (most) cows don't have horns as far as I know, so I am culturally programmed to assume that anything bovine with horns is a bull. I was later informed that it was a cow but, at that speed, it wouldn't have made much difference had it been a sheep. On the third attempt, I managed to get past the car and enjoy an unfettered blistering descent until the road ran out of hills.

We stopped off in Rascafría ("cold chill") where the others had a coke and I abstained (this time from sugary drinks). Mistake. I asked "how much further" and Dani explained that we were going up one more puerto before heading back. I vaguely remembered him saying something about dos puertos in his email but my oxygen deprived brain had inconveniently forgotten the fact as I was climbing the first one. He told us an anecdote of another Robert who had raced up the first puerto only to ran out of gas on the second. Oscar added that this second one was more challenging mentally as it appeared to go on and on for ever. Just to finish it off, Dani reminded us that it would also be a lot hotter now, as the sun had fully risen.

After a few kilometers llaneando (on the level), the sign saying "10 km of puerto to go, 7% gradient" came into view. The sensible thing to do would have been to hang back and try to hang on to the group, but the gear I was in (the easiest one) meant that it felt somehow harder on my tired muscles to go at their speed. So with a bit of bravado I set off at what felt like a comfortable rhythm with shouts of "You're crazy! this is a puerto!" coming from behind. I said that they would probably see me again in 5 minutes, half believing what I was saying and half not but certainly totally hoping that I would pull it off. I'm not sure whether it was even as many as 5 minutes later, but I suddenly ran out of steam and couldn't keep up the rhythm any longer. This meant that I had to result to the forced two-stroke rhythm I had been trying to avoid. I heard the whirring of Dani's chain approaching and soon he and Manolo passed me by. After a while I stopped and stood straddling the bike on shaky legs while Oscar went past. He slowed a little for me to catch up but then I once more found myself going slightly faster only to have to stop again to recover. In this way I made my way up the mountain. Now on my own, I wondered whether the plan was to go down the same side of the mountain, in which case the temptation to stop and coast down was enormous. I have to say that I felt embarrassed to have gone off like an inexperienced kid and the punctuality in me made me feel bad that people were waiting for me. I also knew that I'd be very angry with myself and even more embarrassed if I didn't finish the damn thing. Onward and upwards I pressed, stopping every 500 m or so. With 2 km to go, I started counting down from 400 breaths (I never normally start a count down the finish line so high) with a little standing break every 100. At last, I made it to the top where Dani gave me a gel which started to course around my veins and would give me back my legs after a few kilometers drafting behind him.

We decided to go on the flat before coasting practically all of the rest of the way back to our starting point. I definitely preferred to do it that way round, rather than have to do any more work after the descent. Having said that, the gel had started to work its wonders by then and I was feeling much better (but not so much that I would have been up to another bloody puerto!).

I felt quite pleased to have completed a challenging ride - 100 kms, about 3 and a half hours in the saddle and two ascents of about 1000 m, all at altitudes of 1000 - 2000 m. Next time I'll make sure I have a hearty dinner the night before and that I take enough fuel for the ride...

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Statement of Intent

Sometimes it is easier to achieve a goal if you make it public; the shame of not meeting it is motivation in itself (although, it is what I would call a double-negative motivation). With the summer heat and lack of any competitions on the immediate horizon (not to mention my foot problem), I have cut down radically on intensity and it is showing. I'm starting to put on a bit of weight and, unchecked, it could be quite annoying to get rid of after the summer. So I hereby state that I will be abstaining from all alcohol as well as eating more carefully until further notice (and at least until the end of September). I went for a year and a half without touching a drop, so I know it's not that difficult. My vice is the tinto de verano which is a mixture of extremely cheap, bad quality wine (Don Simon) with a watered down lemonade (Casera) - at least the lemonade has zero calories. It is so refreshing that it is all too easy to drink, especially after a sweaty cycle ride. So no more!

I was just thinking about New York this morning - I re-read my own write up of the Marathon I ran last November to relive the experience. It's a while since I last read it so it was quite a coincidence that I received just now an invitation to speak at a conference in New York in December! I can't really say no to that. (Just as well I had already turned down a similar invitation for the same dates in Amsterdam, much as I like Amsterdam it is not New York.)

I've been cycling in to work a fair bit the last few weeks, making the most of having the roads to myself now that everyone else from Madrid seems to have gone to the beach already. This weekend I have agreed, albeit with some trepidation, to go on a fairly challenging ride by my recent standards with Dani and his group of fellow triathletes. We will be taking in a few puertos (or, "annoying hills" as I call them) along the way which I am looking forward to going down and it will be the longest I have spent in the saddle probably since the Ironman itself, over 3 years ago.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014


It was only a matter of time before I found a good enough excuse to buy some Huaraches - the sandals worn by the running tribe of Tarahumaras described in Chris McDougal's best-selling "Born to Run" book. The excuse is that I will soon be going on holiday to Malaysia where it will be ridiculously humid and I know from past experience that it is not fun running with extremely sweaty feet. Arguably, it is not much fun running in those kind of conditions - full stop. To be honest, I'm not sure if I will actually run in them, but I will certainly wear them for walking around as a much more comfortable alternative to the flip flops de rigeur and I'll take it from there.

The other excuse was that I recently discovered that the shop where I recently bought my Merrell Trail Gloves (which, incidentally, are still rubbing the tops of my feet when I run at any kind of lively pace, even with socks) are producing a variation on the Huaraches that tries to combine the best of tradition and technology. Lastly, it just so happened that I was thinking about them when a colleague told me that he had just bought some and it just so happened that I had to get my vaccines done not too far from the shop...

The LightRun Sandals are made from a 5mm Vibram sole (what else?) with a soft leather foot bed and a leather strap to hold your foot in place. They look a little Jesusy (I went for the brown ones) but they are quite elegant if you like that sort of thing. So far I haven't tried running in them but the initial reports are that they are very comfy. I'll keep you posted but in the meantime, here is a link to the product: