Nurture

I had my last long run of the year – when I say year, I mean triathlon season; this is how I measure years now. Three hours became 2017 in microcosm. I started strong, although it was hard to quiet the nagging voices that this couldn’t last. Almost exactly on the hour, injury struck – I felt an insect bite on the ankle; looking down, it wasn’t a bite, but a wasp struggling to extricate itself from the front of my ankle. After a brief stop to nobely help this vicious beast get the hell out of my skin, wounded but soldiering on, the watch indicating that I was in a bit of a danger of hitting 13.1 miles in the first hour and a half; this was inspiring enough to keep me moving for a time, but I was beginning to flag, the fitness just wasn’t where it should have been. At just over two hours, I had to call it a day; switch to recovery mode on my recovery route at recovery pace (read: hobbling), then switch again to my other recovery route (read: train). Finally, the short jog home from my local train station, to my house which is oh so infuriatingly situated at the top of a bloody steep hill. That can be Wales.

***

Uh, yeah, it’s been a while. Hey guys. I’ve been doing… well.

After writing part 1 of the Roth report, I already had half of a follow up post written and kinda anticipated finishing it and posting again within a week. Oh, how naive I can be sometimes. Or constantly. 2017 just ain’t my year: work happened, and I broke my laptop, and mojo disappeared into the ether to never been seen again, and hey. Here we are, about a month and a half overdue, and I need an outlet. Pretty sure I was overdue as a newborn anyways; this is just the result of 27 years of arriving long after the fact. Blame the parents.

So, Roth. Where to start. I know I didn’t get the result I wanted, but I probably got the result I deserved (in an effort = reward manner, not a cosmic karma manner). I do feel, obviously, like I’ve got a lot more to give than displayed; but I can at least say that I went out on my shield, or some other wanky euphemism for the dignified failure we have such a national obsession with. Honestly, I’m not really disappointed in the time for the most part, in that I feel like I learnt some valuable lessons, and as of the last conversations I had with Coach Dan on the subject, that is mainly what I wanted to achieve by the time I got there. The last few months prior to Roth going as they’d gone (see those links in the first paragraph) it was never going to be a top drawer performance. It was resilient, and I’ll take that.

The usual post-race vivisection turned up a couple of noteworthy issues. I’m still slightly livid at myself for that swim, for one. The usual boring poblem, the same issue I had last year and seemingly forever: the swim was awful. I seem to have this psychological problem where I can’t match in a race what I do in training. Having other people anywhere near me just kills it and I panic. As soon as I have to swim within a few metres of someone else, my glorious pterodactyl wings become stubby T-Rex arms. I might as well have been trying to drag myself through the water with my teeth, or trying to swim breaststroke, or something equally over-complex and implausible.

What it amounts to is this: 20 minutes. Most Kona-contenders (yes, I am still formulating this dream scenario in my head) around my age are going to be coming out of the water in around 1 hour or less, meaning I have to bike/run at least 20 minutes faster than them just to even the playing field. This is not impossible, but it is unrealistic. Even over Ironman distance, 20 minutes is a lot of time; and while my run when I ever pull it off will be phenomenal, my bike is still under development. Which means I end up maybe needing to be running 30-40 minutes faster than my competitors if I want to be qualifying for Kona anytime soon. Actually, wait, that might be impossible. Shit. This is going to take some work, isn’t it?

How do I solve this fear of the known? The question was recently posted to me by a far more experienced triathlete than I, and I knew the answer: practise at it. I’m a very solitary swimmer, and if I want to get used to swimming around other people, I have to kind of… swim around other people. I guess that’s part of what I was trying at Roth, to intentionally get caught in the scrum I’d hate and see what happened. What happened showed that I can’t just try this on race days. Never try anything new on race day (apart from new goggles that you picked up in the expo just because they were blue and blue is best, but those worked fine so let’s ignore that).

Swimming with people hasn’t gone particularly well for me though, on two accounts. One, I was travelling a hella lot for work (hello from Manchester, written when I was actually in Manchester at the start of August and not sat in my London living room surrounded by piles of 3 month’s worth of laundry; oh wait, that was two weeks ago, now sat in my room sweating and listening to all of the nothing,nowhere. I can get my hands on) and didn’t always have access to/time to/energy after a hella long workday to hit the pool. Two, I fucking hate pool swimming anyways, so the combination of pool swimming plus other people is hardly going to motivate me to get to the pool, especially when I’m already recovering from three months of the Russian sleep experiment and have a whole host of other problems that need solving in not a lot of time. Maybe I need to pick a mark in day-to-day life then, make use of all of them wasted hours my job is turning up on match days. I’m sure one doesn’t need to be in a pool to practise drafting, right? Just follow someone around at an uncomfortable distance, maybe a journo, because you know it’d be amusing. Just sit slightly off their hip as they move around the media cetre. Wait for them to stop walking, or sit down, and gingerly stroke their thigh before heading off at 45 degrees to find some space of my own, and get a headstart on the stampede of security guards about to chase me out of Old Trafford.

The second great learning was the bike. Up until things went a bit sideways at 80 kilometres, I was storming it. I was storming it and I don’t know how, because having had some time to analyse the official photos, my position on the bike was awful. It wasn’t fast, and it was damn uncomortable, and I’d be lying outright if I said the thought that it might have contributed to the thigh issues hasn’t crossed my mind – also, the going out on the bike way too emotional and angry probably didn’t help. I proved on the day I can descend well in race situations with a clear, decently laid road (and not some crater-strewn warzone in Surrey) – Strava tells me that on that main downhill segment of the Roth bike course, I’m 236th out of 3547 to have logged it. Obviously not everyone on the day, but high enough that I’m comfortable in saying I was pretty swift down it. Being able to descend well will be absolutely key for Wales next month, because as much climbing as people say Wales have, it has roughly an equal amount of descending. I know I can climb well on my day, so if I can keep things in check and not go swinging for the fences straight out of the gate, and follow every perfectly-paced climb with a swift downhill tumble as well, I have a shot at a pretty decent result. Or a fasttrack to wherever the nearest A&E unit is.

We're going through changes

Don’t worry, Agro is not dead (although I do seem to have half-killed a gear shifter somehow). A few hundred quid later and I have validated my middle class status, because it’s suddenly become acceptable in my head to spend a few hundred quid on solving minor issues like this, whereas a few hundred quid would have fed me for most of a year if you were giving it to pre-triathlon, perma-unemployable Half-Rust. Well, I suppose it’s less boring than buying new plant pots, or a new blender or something. Of course, I’ve not been anything but middle class for a long time now, but one never forgets being really, really really poor. Money doesn’t solve everything but by christ it isn’t half fun to spunk it on meaningless shite.

Think, like, turtle thoughts

Some late-night mechanicary later, a morning spent at Freespeed, and this is the result. Bearing in mind it’s a bit of a false comparison, as when I whacked the new cockpit on I dind’t try and replicate my previous fit; if anything, the difference between my old and current fit is even more drastic than this. It is comfortable. It is Fast. And it has given me a new biking mantra – not quite as catchy as ‘Rage against the dying of the light’ or ‘You just have to hurt more than the other guy’, I’ll admit. But ‘Be the weird flying turtle-egg-foetus-thingy you were meant to be’ has a ring to it, and it makes me remember to keep my shoulders in the right place.

Look at that perfect hair on the left

Giant parenthesis paragraph incoming! By the by, that suit. You’ll be seeing it a lot, so I might as well explain. The Sunday a week before Roth, after 7 months of agonising, I received this year’s custom race suit – and it is Glorious. For those interested, the design is the brainchild of my mad ramblings and the creative interpretation of such by my cousin Alice, who is pretty-darn-downright talented at the whole fashion design thing. After much to-ing and fro-ing, our initial design was the passed to a succession of companies who… well, they let us down. Much like last year, I didn’t leave it so late entirely by choice. Eventually, No Pinz stepped in and were frickin’ awesome, saved the day, and made me the most beautiful sweaty ultra-athlete at the ball. Given the weird painfaces I usually make during a race, it is without a doubt the most attractive thing about me whenever I wear it. Beautiful is a strong word… and maybe perhaps too dignified for sport. The thing is skin-tight, like, skin-tight. In a fast/aero way, not an uncomfortable one. Someone bandied around the words “painted on”, which considering they were walking behind me at the time I have basically taken to assume means that the junk in my trunk looks straight slammin’ bootylicious in this thing. Also, look at all them flowers, my go-to motif! It’s just fabulous.

Ahem. Moving swiftly on.

The run, frankly, was an absolute shitshow, but there’s another couple of key points here. One, when I was running well at the start, I was very surprised how comfortable a 6:30 minute/mile pace felt on flat, once I got my creaky leg moving and loose. That was a big psychological boost, considering my pre-event target had been 6:40-6:50 for a 3 hour marathon, including water break stops. Obviously I had the benefit of not really being able to exert myself properly on the second half of the bike, so this is maybe a bit of a false indicator, but there’s hope yet for a sub-3 Ironman marathon in the future. Not at Wales, of course, because hills; but given the right course, it seems achievable.

The key thing about the run however, and indeed the entire race, that has been stuck in my mind ever since is my mental state during the run. In Sweden, I was (eventually) joyous. I was happy, genuinely happy just to be running, to be doing something I’d thought I couldn’t, and knowing (eventually) that I was smashing it out of the park, having a breakthrough moment. It felt like achievement.

I was not happy during the run at Roth. I was not smiling, and the high fives were half hearted. I did not know enough German, even without a race-fried brain, and the cheerleaders were too young to impress anyway. As a former musician, it was drilled into you that you always finish a gig with your best song, as that’s the bit people remember most. The bit of Roth I remember most is the run. What happened to only doing the things you enjoy? It felt like going through the motions.

Injured and in an increasing amount of pain, with not a lot of nutrition sticking in the heat, it was a steady four hours’ grind, and most definitely not a victory parade. My theoretical time of 9 hours 30 minutes had buggered right off into the land of the patently implausible, to rest with other fine ideas like the sporf and a resurrection of Dave Benson Phillips’ TV career. All that existed was the grind to finish, to prove… what, exactly? I don’t need to do things like that to prove I’m tenacious, because I’m doing an Ironman-distance triathlon. Not only that, it is the second one I am doing. I no longer need to prove that I am tough. This is not an arms race. I definitely don’t need to artificially increase the challenge further.

Just in finishing Roth, I learnt a lot about myself as an athlete, I guess; more so than I did about myself as a person, which was more the case in Sweden and everything leading up to that. But it feels like I checked a box rather than achieved something profound. I’m not sure what I was expecting, because not everything in life is going to be earth-shattering, and maybe there’s a childish part of me that still wants it to be so. Everything has to be 100%, the best ever. Clearly this was never going to be, even ignoring the injury thing. The run up was so fractured and unfocused compared to last year’s that I’d have always found ways to poke holes in the result. I don’t think it would have been possible for me to be content with Roth.

Relief was the overriding emotion I got from finishing at Roth. There was no delayed thunderball of joy that I had at Sweden last year – I woke up on Monday, and it was just like a weight had been lifted. It was done, good or ill. There are so many comparisons I can draw between Roth and Kalmar – obviously, I only have two points of reference, so this was always going to happen – that they could probably fill their own post, if I could ever find the time and energy to bloody write it. But I can’t. Cricket needs me, and my time is short.

***

Or so he said. You may wish to make a second cup of tea. I’ll wait.

The follow up, that was meant to be all of the introspective thoughs on Roth, a counterpart to all the solid facts that had already been presented, is now very muddied. Lots can happen in a month and a half; things get forgotten, perspectives change. A lot of notes were made, but I’m not sure which ones are pertinent anymore. The above is the abridged version. There’ll never be a full Roth debrief. Reality is harsh like that.

Long distance triathlon lends itself very well to introspective musings, what with the many, many, manymanymany hours spent training and racing alone. What also lends itself well to way too much time to think is deciding one is too stressed, one needs a break, and booking the rest of the month off work. The excuse about not having enough time, above, has been rendered bullshit. I’ve had all the time in the world these past couple of week (well not quite, but you get the drift). I spent the first few days trying to ease myself back into the swing of things, in time to smash the fortnight of peak weeks I had planned. A fortnight isn’t enough that I was ever going to really profit in any phsyical sense from it (other than maybe some fast loss of the working-away weight, but me needing to lose weight is a whole ‘nother kettle of psychologically wounded fish anyway).

I have not spent this time swimming. I have not really put peak training effort or hours in. I have one excuse, a dozen reasons, and a palpable sense of failure. Excuse first.

We're all goin' on a, summer holiday

After not much short of a year of planning, it was the small matter of the Clapham Chasers’ club champs. Hoo boy, dragging an estimated 80 triathletes, plus a few hangers on and supporters, down on a yearly summer vaycay turns out to be a fair bit of work. The weekend was, I think, a smash hit. Lots of fun was had, the race organisation was a bit ramshackle but in a funny way that kind of made it more of a spectacle (in between the bits where we were all terrified that someone was going to die at the bike out/lap/bike in/run out/run in/open road megajunction). A week later, I think I may have recovered.

It must have been pretty obvious on the Friday we arrived that I was pretty stressed and nervous. Due to work commitments over the last few months, unfortunately my role as Head of Triathlon at the Chasers is one of the things I don’t really think I’ve been able to give the proper time and care it deserves; then dump in a boatload of inadequacy over why the hell a two year journeyman is doing that role and not someone who understands the sport a lot better than I, and not really having run any kind of event that large before, meant I didn’t really relax until the Saturday evening, at which point it meant I could mostly stop worrying and dump the opinion on how Sunday would go in the hands of the unsuspecting race organisers.

On the basis that I was meant to be peak-weeking, I actually ended up in two relay teams; swimming in one, running in another. My swimming has not got any better. There was a bit of a mixup with different groups of swimmers beng sent to do different courses, and for my sins I did the long course version of the swim. I thought I swam really well, I felt like I had a good powerful swim where I was more comfortable than Roth, I extended better, I worked harder. I swam slower than I did at Roth (early reports that it was my best ever swim were infact me misreading my watch completely, who reads there speed in yards anyway). I did ace the long run from the swim exit to T1 as well, with my little floppy half-wetsuit party going on down south all the way.

It's water, not sweat

The run went slightly better, despite a mild hangover. A very challenging trail course was absolutely not what I wanted, but we don’t always get the things we want. I almost stormed home under the 1:30 mark, but just over 20k in the beers caught up with me, and I had to stop and walk for a couple of minutes before I could manage the home straight. No worries, though. Still a respectable run.

Except putting that effort in seems to have trashed my legs – they’ve not been feeling right all week. My two peak weeks have been an absolute mess, emblematic of any serious training I’ve tried since about April. Physically, things have been half arsed. Psychologically, I have done myself no favours whatsoever.

I was at the lido earlier in the week, and again, feeling like I was swimming pretty well – except when I stopped to check my times, it seems like I’ve managed to misplace a minute off my 500m time since I made such improvements at the start of the year. And that was in a wetsuit now vs not in a wetsuit then. On the bike, I’ve not been able to put any power down on the turbo at all, and when I go to vist the great outdoors, I’m happier to amble along than to push and try and hit targets or maintain efforts. Running has been a series of strong starts to sessions, followed by complete and sudden capitulation around 3/4 of the way through whenever I have to do anything above a recovery pace effort. It’s almost like a sustained period of not training properly has trashed my fitness, or something.

My resilience has gone missing. I’m sure there must have been times last year when I felt like quitting, and a few times when I did quit. But I know I felt more focused in the last week of training for Kalmar than I have at any point this year. I know that, not because I can remember it, but because I wrote it down. I keep linking to that post. I keep drawing comparisons between this year and last one, and I’m not sure I’m comfortable with where that is headed.

Time. I hate wasted time, but I’ve been wasting so much of it. I’ve spent the best part of two months writing one (okay, maybe a double) post, in drips and drops, because I can’t focus long enough on one thing to just get it finished. Focus, too, that seems to have gone. I didn’t hit every session last year, but I felt accountable when I did. This year, through my fault or others, I’ve been going off-piste from the plan for such long lengths of time that I’ve begun to wonder why I pay a coach, if I’m not completing any of the sessions. That’s not Coach Dan’s fault at all, who’s been very accomodating in trying to set something that works around all the wildly careening plates that make up my life; it’s just another failing of mine, another reason why I’m not doing as well as I should be.

It’s a recurrant circle. Lose fitness, pine for what you lost, get depressed. Get depressed, bang goes any motivation to train, lose fitness. I made such strides at dealing with this all last year, wrapping it up and wrestling it back into Pandora’s box. I just want this year to be done. I’m kind of back in the same place that I was before Roth, where I’m questioning how invested I really am in Wales anymore, because I do this shit for performance and I know it won’t be a good one. Maybe I can still pull it out on race day, maybe. I did for the run last weekend. Not being able to hold what should be half a minute slower than my marathon pace for more than two hours today, not being able to hold Ironman-power levels for more than a couple minutes at a time on the turbo, swim speed being directly opposite of how well I think I’m actually swimming; all of these suggest I’m not in good enough shape for an Ironman, not nearly anywhere close to the high placing I was hoping for.

A lot of this comes down to my job, which has eaten in to so much of my time this year. I honestly enjoyed it a lot, but it ruined my personal life at a time I really didn’t need it. I resent, a bit, that I raised all these fears that it might to people and was told to go for it anyway, and that I was to weak to say no. I need to have a think on that front. The problems this has caused have made me pretty miserable. Y’know, in case you were missing that. I need to seriously consider that whole situation.

sacred notebook

Ah. And then there’s that. Had a good run for a couple years of peace, at least. It hasn’t happened again since and I’m about mature enough to have not acted on it, but it’s lodged at the back of my mind like the wasp stinger lodged in my swole ankle.

My whole mindset has been off. Last year I was pretty religious about the whole no drinking thing for a couple of months before the big day. This year, I just don’t care enough to stop, and that scares me. My whole justification for drinking again after the events of a few years ago is that I don’t want to be controlled by no-alcohol any more than I want to be controlled by alcohol. Oh please, it’s not like I’ve been drinking great amounts, at all; I’m not going out and getting blackout smashed every day, but I do seem to be losing the ability to say no. I think I will try and enjoy the rest of 2017, because sod off am I not drinking over Christmas, but I get the feeling 2018 needs to be a non-alcoholic year. “You’re just feeling a lack of control, you’re not dealing with the right problem, you’re being too serious yadda yadda yadda” sod off I know what it is I’m doing and I’m okay with that. I like going all in on things. Half-arsing something I’m passionate about just doesn’t feel right.

Yeah, that got grim and more than a little self-indulgent, but I got tired of silence. I thought it was worth an explanation as to why I might not have written so much recently. I’ve spent so many days trying to think up funnier, more dignified, more intelligent ways to come out with all of the above, to answer the criticisms I get. Sod it. Somewhere the honesty decided to hide away. I don’t want any panicked phone calls, thanks. I’ve been doing well.

Don’t know when I’ll post again. Will try and do something post-Wales.

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