On the Aftermath
Agro is still in the bike box, disassembled. It took a week to chuck my mud-caked trail shoes in the wash, and the stains still show around the crumpled newspaper poking out. The mirrored twat visor helmet, my C-Originals stalwart from the early days of 2016, has finally succumbed to a couple of dangerous-looking dents as a result of poor bike-box handling. Until now these things sat in place, tarnished reminders of a conquest I’m trying desperately hard not to lose grip of.
It’s a losing battle. I don’t feel that, most of the time; it’s the quiet moments, when I sit to write about it, and the words that are conjured up are not the ones that I intended. They’re just the words that arrive. It was nice to live a week away from here, where life was dominated by something other than depression. I could already feel it coming back, less than 48 hours after being back in London. It’s never quite gone away.
It is, was, nice to put everything on hold for a few days. From the point where you leave your home, beginning a pilgrimage of variable length and destination, you enter another dimension, an alternate state of being. Days as you regularly know them lose meaning: it is simply D-2, D-1, H-3, H-2, H-1. A long, slow countdown, to those last few moments of silence and shivering intent. Then the blast of a whistle, or an air-horn, or a starter’s pistol, and it hits like a drug. Those seconds, the first few seconds of purest intention, where the body and the mind are unified in one single task, and nothing else in the world exists but the singular urge. Move.
It is like a setlist if you’ve ever had to plan a music gig. You place your fan favourites at the beginning and the end, because those are the moments people most remember, and god forbid they should walk away remembering the weak finishing tune. The moments I remember most clearly across 5 long distance races are the immediacy of the starts, and whatever emotions were left to me at the finish. They weren’t always positive.
On 5 Ironmans, or Full Distance Triathlons, or whateverthefuck they’re called
If you asked me to rate the 5 big events I’ve done, from most to least enjoyable, it’d go exactly like this:
The two Sweden races, they were experiences. When I was originally going over this in my head, I thought they were the races that I went into with the least outcome goals, but that’s not really true. I probably had more solid Outcome goals for Kalmar than any of the others. It isn’t a lack of Outcome goals, but rather, these were the two races that I went into with the most Process goals, and the least amount of expectation. I’d have settled for just not quitting, in either race. I can’t have said the same for the other three.
Lanzarote, in it’s own unique way (snigger), was definitely an experience race. I definitely achieved something, even if that something was embedding irreversible oil stains into the shoulder of a brand new white speedsuit. But I can’t pretend that when I think back on it, there isn’t a tinge of anger there. It’s the race where I was best placed to actually live up to some of the potential I’d placed on myself since Kalmar, and it didn’t quite pan out.
Wales was a wakeup call. It did more mental damage than any of the others, because it’s the race where I realised that I was good, but not that good. If I had the option to do any of these races again, it’d also be this one: partly because I think the shit weather kind of meant that the much-lauded Tenby experience was a bit watered down (har har), but also because of the three malady races, it’s the one where I think what went wrong on the bike was probably the least within my immediate control, and I think it’s probably the race where I’m most left wondering what might have been.
Roth… oh, this is going to be about as controversial as hairy legs in the weird, niche world of long distance triathlon, but I just didn’t love it. The swim has lots of support but it’s a dull up the canal, down the canal. Maybe the run course wasn’t great, or maybe I was in too much pain to really enjoy it, but I thought the support was underwhelming after Kalmar and the course was pretty grim in parts (the idiotically narrow canal path and the long dusty climb through the woods). The bike has some gorgeous road surfaces, yes, and it’s pretty, but not more so than any other race I’ve done. I blame myself the most for fucking up performance-wise in this race, and I think the pressure of having some very punchy outcome goals probably contributed a bit to spoiling the experience, and retrospectively I wasn’t in a good place psychologically going into the race. But that’s my honest assessment. It’s overrated. I’m a long distance contrarian hipster, come at me.
On Moving Flat, Again
I’m trying to remember who I’ve actually spoken to in the past 48 hours. You know, in person. Helpful self-storage guy. New housemate, briefly. Bike shop. Self storage guy for a second time. I think that’s it. Other than that, it’s been the endless numb repetition of trying to find the right object for the right place in the right box – Tetris for the melancholy. Or trying to figure out which objects no longer fit into a life at all. There’s another week of this twilight to live through.
On the other hand, I do get to be exploring North London for a few days; curious, quaint, fresh North London. North London, a Saturday morning ghost town. Rolling through Balham at 6am, the weekend’s first round detritus would still, just about, be of the sentient variety. Highbury? Nothing. No-one The first 10 minutes of 28 Days Later wouldn’t phase these people.
This is life post-Ironman. The 6am grand departs have faded, but the craving to use every morning minute efficiently remains. I’ll wake at 5:30am, or 6am, and the body will be ready to go. This is the skill I most need to conquer right now: how to be content in the vacant moments, those underlined only by my own wandering thoughts.
On Having Resigned From the Chasers Committee
This has only now, a good 3 months after the fact, begun to sink in. I didn’t really have so much time to get used to it in the first couple of months; far too busy with a succession of new and old regimens for it to feel like much of a seismic shift. With no more daunting events of athletic self-flagellation on the horizon, and having finally freed up some time to sit and contemplate at length, it hit. The sense of being other, and apart, and failed.
It was strange watching the whole thing continue around me without my involvement. Utterly alien, like I’d melted myself through the doors of a tube carriage and fixed myself to a wall, immobile and transfixed as behemoth after self-contained behemoth rumbled past. We feel loss over the strangest things. That, or my commute this one day has been particularly boring.
On How to Off-Season Successfully
You don’t take a break in this life, once you have it: the bug, the urge, whatever you want to call it. The hobby that is slightly more invigorating than stamp collecting (sorry not sorry stamp collectors). Any kind of formal, coherent training plan is wrapped up, and my debrief with Coach Tim now seems like a distant memory. I am a free man, eating far more pizza than would be considered physically healthy (but mentally oh golly gosh it’s refreshing).
Appetite is the second remaining constant, thankfully following up the 6am bodyclock. I think the depleted-fever state of climbing Åreskutan kickstarted my metabolism again or something equally bad-sciencey, because since then I’ve been inhaling enough carbs to have comfortably made up on lost time. I still have a pair of electronic scales, but the fuck am I going anywhere near that dusty glass plate right now. The off-season weight gain is strong.
Well, maybe, anyway. Since the Swedeman I have swum 0 times, I have run a handful of times, but the final constant is that all I want to do, every waking moment, is ride a fucking bike. Long rides, short rides, bumpy rides, flat rides, whatever. Pedal pedal pedal. It’d been a joy getting out on Ariadne again, definitely the most-neglected-per-GBP bike I own this year. Oh, it’s something else to ride – so zippy, so responsive…
…So very fucked. Oh goddammit. Well, there goes that: ‘that’ in this case being several hundred quid, coupled with my strange reluctance to grow up and do sensible things like purchasing bike insurance. Curse you, poor past decision-making skills. Along with my Garmin Edge fucking up and losing my HR belt, well… they say bad things happen in threes.
So it’s mid-September, and my new room is filled with all the bikepacking stuff I’ve just bought for a bike that is no longer operable. Fantastic. Ever the one to make sculptures out of shit, and having at this point already planned a multi-day solitary road trip to Cornwall and back because fuck it, I have leave days at work I needed to use up, I went about working out how to fit these bags on Agro (newly disassembled and reassembled post flat-move) for one last charge before the winter sets in and TT bikes are no longer in vogue.
As it turns out trying to fit bikepacking stuff designed for road bikes onto a TT frame is challenging. It’s probably more possible than I made it seem, but I guess the prospect of spending a few days with no shoes (well, none of the variety that don’t have carbon soles) or coat seemed less challenging at the time that a tired and stressed George trying to figure out how to secure a 6 litre saddlebag to a rear cage wing. I did manage to pack a spare set of cycling socks so I guess that’s a win for prioritising.
The hastily-christened Tour de George started with a quick prologue to Paddington station followed up with the slowest 90k I’ve probably ever done, TT bike or no TT bike, from Exeter to North Cornwall and directly into the face of the same gale force winds that cancelled Velo South that weekend. Determined to ride 5 successive days, a quick shakeout on Saturday evening cleared the Cobwebs, and reminded me what unbridled joy it is to have access to the countryside and fast roads without spending half an hour traipsing through Croydon first. Then it was time to get ready for the next 3 days of newfound idiocy.
Along with visiting family, wasting time (necessarily) and getting some headspace, there was another reason behind my meandering down to the wet, windy atlantic coastline that weekend. Last year I took part in my hometown triathlon, and this year the same organisation headed up by a former schoolteacher of mine had decided to try running a hill climb event. Well, less ‘climb’ and more ‘climbs, 8 of them successively, as part of a 50k out-and-back with no breaks’. And less ‘hill’ and more ‘cliffs, with all the severity and none of the metaphor often attributed to’.
For the last few years I’ve wanted to have a crack at some of the more daunting roads around my old stomping grounds, but I kind of imagined doing it on a feather-light climbing machine, not an aggressive and thick-framed time trial machine. Still, bedecked with all the carbon wheelset and electronic accoutrements that bedecked Agro for my misadventures in Lanzarote this year, I went at it with as much gusto as 3-day-old legs can manage. I like the picture above because the beach in the background, with the distinctive zig-zag cliffs? That’s my old bit of peace where I’d go and read, or write, in the wilderness years post-university. Could walk there from my parent’s house through a lush green valley, 20 minutes down, longer on the way back up.
52 minutes of climbing in total, it took me. 52 minutes, inside 2 hours 30 minutes of total move time across the 50k route. 52 minutes is a lot of teeth gritting, wheels slipping in the wet, gripping handlebars so tightly that at one point I ripped my bar tape loose. I don’t have any power data from the event because I’ve removed the batteries from my power metre for the time being, in the name of cycling for fun and not for targets, but I’m willing to bet I set a new max recorded power somewhere along the way. The final climb was the opposite face of the one featured in the first picture above, shorter and steeper, with a hairpin so viciously sharp and slow you had plenty of time to take stock and consider how best to tackle it. Well, if it was possible to take stock of anything between the snarling and heaving up the ‘shallow’ 20% incline between the start of the segment and it’s climax.
I never imagined, being one of the many triathletes who is secretly just a frustrated runner, that in the bizarre event I actually triumphed in a sporting contest that it’d be in cycling. I guess I never imagined either that, on the day this happened, I’d be enough of a dick to wear a cycling cap for the podium shot because ‘that’s what the pros do innit’. A great many people were surprised that day, I guess. 52 minutes was 2 minutes faster than my nearest competitor, enough to bag me the overall win; plus trophies for the fastest 18-29 year old up Millook South, and the fastest in the open category up Boscastle to Beeny. None of which I could carry back, of course, because I couldn’t make the bloody saddlebag fit, could I?
Probably for the best, though, as I wouldn’t really need the extra weight where I was going. I’ve been interested in proper long distance cycling for a long time now (read: only incredibly casually until attending the Islington Cycling Club yearly do as a guest a few weeks ago, and hearing from a few of their members who’d raced the Transcontinental this year), so the Tour de George rolled on, now on it’s return leg. From North Cornwall, to London, over two days.
Cycling a multi-day, 450km trip teaches you some things. It teaches you that 10 hours is a long time to be pedalling solo when you exist in a permanent state of emotional uncertainty. It teaches you that there are very, very good reasons why people don’t suggest going bikepacking on your prize TT bike. It teaches you that you really need to be better at routing to avoid getting frustrated trying to navigate your prize TT bike down a very narrow canal-side walking path, that finding hot food between 2pm and 6pm outside of London is strangely difficult, that Mars bars are the heaven-sent fuel of the Gods, and that it’s possible to have a second wind 8 hours into a ride.
Cycling a multi-day, 450km trip for the unprepared can be a bit of a fever dream. It teaches you that riding a bike is a wonderful thing.
On How to Off-Season Unsuccessfully
Running, running is a fucking terrible thing.
I’m not really sure what I expected, to be honest. I’d been a bit ill in the week leading up to Ealing, but I doubt that had nearly as much impact as just having not really done any proper training for it at all. The last time I’d run in anger would have been… July? June? Months ago.
The arrogance was overwhelming, really (and I’m not just referring to being the only dick turning up in arm warmers). That it almost paid off was the worst of it: everything was fine and dandy – I use ‘fine and dandy’ in the loosest manner, it was hellish pain and suffering – up to about 16k in. Just over 16k. Less than a parkrun to go, and I stopped. I stopped for a minute and I missed my London Marathon championship qualifying time by 36 seconds.
To be fair, the tweet I sent out at the time blaming my stomach was not entirely accurate. My stomach was only part of the problem. Other parts include: my legs, having done virtually no running, having cycled stupid distances the weekend before, not having the willpower to push myself, the course being 250m long (according to Garmin), the course having too many hills, the course having too many corners, the course having too many poor surfaces, having broken my race sunglasses so I had to run with an uncomfortable cycling pair, lack of nutritional preparation, etc. First world runner problems. To be brutally honest, I think only one of them matters. Willpower. I didn’t care enough to push myself. I didn’t want it. I wanted to do well with none of the hardship and discipline that such a thing requires. I let it be about the result and not about the process.
But that’s that, and it happened, and time only spins in one direction. 1:15 is not bad for a first (road) half marathon. A decade ago I thought running a 4 hour marathon was the pinnacle of fitness; I didn’t really think that people seriously ran half marathons, and if you’d have asked me what Ironman was I’d have told you it was a Black Sabbath song. Furthermore, I absolutely can run under 1:15 so long as I can not mentally shit the bed when things begin to hurt; so much so that I’m going to do it again in November (having done at least a month of decent running, maybe) to prove it.
Well, the two-week’s bombshell has exploded, and the dust is winding its way slowly toward the scarred, pitted floor. I’m going to have to explain the same sorry mess to someone new, while they stare at me from behind thin-rimmed glasses and steepled fingers, looking wise and making ‘hmm’ noises at the conclusion of every garbled sentence. I’ve got kinda of used, by now, to having to explain my life in a nutshell to people; but it doesn’t exactly mean I relish the prospect. More and more, I am gaining the inclination to try and forget all about it. Maybe that’s what they call ‘putting it behind you’, I don’t know. It’s acceptance, but debatably of the healthy sort.
Therapy is weird. My therapist, having seen me in various guises for the past 5 years, probably knows more about me as a person than anyone else. They become like parental figures, over time. Like parents, you think they’re immortal. I spent the week between our final two sessions cataloguing every thought I had on the subject of it ending. He wrote me a letter. We feel loss in the strangest ways.
Listening: True Detective Season 1 OST – The Tiara; flat circles
Reading: Sebastian Barry – Days Without End; Brokeback Mountain, but for the truly woke generation