Saturday, 12 February 2011

Riding to London to seek my Garmin

What a great day!

What seemed like forever away at the beginning ogf January had rapidly arrived, and today I awoke to "Janathon Lunch Day".

I was really looking forward to it.

When I initially accepted my Facebook invite, Cathy (Instigator in Chief of Janathon, and runner of the infamous "dressing gown shuffle" round her garden on January 1st)  jokingly inquired whether I was going to run to the London meeting from home. "I don't think so" I thought, and immediately looked up the distance. Thirty four miles on foot, and I definitely didn't think so (I tend not to run more than twenty if meeting people for the first time - ho ho).

But... after the revelation of buying a new road bike last week, I started to think about cycling there. Of course if was coming back by train (no point in overdoing it) there would only be an infinitessimal saving on my single ticket versus a return,  and I'd have to carry some running gear on the bike, probably running in my lightweight sandals, but I figured it was worth a go.

I picked a route avoiding the A3 (and M3), and totted it up at about 37 miles. I figured that three hours was probably doable for my rusty road-legs, so I awoke early, and left the house just after half eight.


  ...and arrived at Hyde Park at half ten. Ooops.

I'd kept an eye on my pace just out of curiousity, and was amazed to be averaging between 19 and 20mph, including a glorious peak at over 30mph (where's a speed camera when you want one?), but I never expected to be able to sustain it. For a month, my bike has been on sale across the country for £350 - and today, that suddenly seems like apocalyptically good value.

It's been years since I owned a road bike, and whilst I've borrowed a couple for a few rides here and there, they've always been a bit too big, or a lot too small, and it's never been a comfortable experience. Today, on the other hand, was incredible. Gobsmacked with my sustained pace I pootled round Piccadilly for a bit, twiddled my thumbs in my stretchy clothes and clippety clogs, had a cup of tea, and joined the Janathonists at 1145 with a big grin on my face.

The Janathon mob were brilliant. It was great seeing a bunch of people that until then, had mostly been connected only by computer, and mileage. I shan't try to list them for fear of overlooking anyone, but they were all very smiley, and didn't look too nervous about being in the company of a person they clearly thought a little unhinged.. Sean AudioFuel (with cold) arrived from the Triathlon Show to oversee proceeedings, and despatched the half dozen of us that fancied a run on a loop round Hyde Park, in the capable hands of navigator Rachel.

Next followed the presentation of my new Garmin 405, for which I was, and am incredibly grateful, a quick call from Pyro and Duncan, who where having a northern Janathon get-together at Hype Park in Leeds, and then onto Prezzo off Park Lane for some much deserved scoff, and a chance to have a natter to a couple of other Janathonists.

Highlight of the  afternoon was definitely seeing Cathy (the originator of all this Janathnonsence) receiving tokens of thanks from Cass and Adele on behalf of all Janathonites. Cathy brought hands up to face, to cover mouth-agog, and had a little happy cry. Which I think was shock and gratitude, rather than fear and sadness. They'd also produced some fantastic gifts to commemorate the occasion for her. Well done team.

All in all, a really inspiring day: a love affair with road-bikes truly rekindled, and a very fitting and comfortable conclusion to all that jogging and blogging.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Wheels of freedom.

There is a mathematical formula that relates to bikes. It is as simple as it is accurate. It is:

N = n+1

"N" represents the ideal number of bicycles a person should own, and "n" is the number of bicycles that person currently owns.

I have for some time, been a two-bike man. As of last weekend, I'm now a three-bike man, and I have to say, my life is considerably improved. Whilst I bask in the dewy afterglow of my recent acquisition (the formula above only applies once this honeymoon period wears off), let me share my bikes with you.

I got my first bike aged three and a half. My parents bought my elder brother and I identical bikes for Christmas, which my Dad assembled out of large, flat boxes. These "Golden Arrows" came complete with one brake, solid tyres and stabilisers. My brother and I tore up and down the flagstone pavements of our seafront road, and before long it was a race to see who could take the stabilisers off first. I think mine lasted about two weeks.

Our next bikes were Christmas presents again, a few years later. The Golden Arrows had fallen from favour, and the three letters in the heads of small boys everywhere were BMX. Our parents took us to the shop to pick our bikes, and a yellow Raleigh Boxer was the closest thing I could get to the Holy Grail, in my size.

Raleigh Boxer

By that spring, my brother and I would be lost for hours on evenings and weekends, riding our bikes up and down our road to a quite cul-de-sac so we could jump off the kerbs, and over the park, where we would see if we could clear the bunkers at the pitch-and-putt. Always returning home "when the street lights come on", we'd rig bicycle assault courses in the garden from bricks and planks, turn all the lights on in the house, and ride in the dark.

At barely seven years old, I took a fairly innocuous tumble, and unbeknownst to everyone, busted my spleen with the end of a handlebar. The following morning I was rushed to hospital and brought back from the brink. A week later I was back on the bike.
Peugeot Super Sport

Eventually, as we grew, so did our need to get further afield, and for our birthdays, our parents bought us second hand racing bikes from the newpaper. My dad cleaned them up, put new tyres on, rewound the handlebar tape, and we got to grips with gears for the first time. As much as I still wanted a BMX, there was no hiding the fact that this little ten-speed Peugeot gave me an independence that I thrived on. For the first time, we would venture from the house at a weekend, either together, with friends, or solo, armed with basic supplies and spares, and pedal between towns and villages we'd previously only thought you could drive to. The outside world became smaller, as ours suddenly seemed huge.

Redline RL20

These racers got us into paper-rounds. Pocket-money stopped, if there was anything we wanted, we got on our bikes, and earned it. My brother first, then a year later, I followed, and soon enough, every day began at 0530, as we each took a couple of rounds to save for "stuff".

We both bought second hand BMXs. We stripped them down, and fixed them up, and these became daily workhorses, and weekend thrashers. Sunday morning excursions across building sites and waste ground would often leave one of our group coming home on a "backy", someone else carrying the broken bike. Mostly it was me. If there was something stupid to do on a bike, I was your man, and by now I'd learned how to heal fast and fix anything.

Raleigh Pursuit
In the meantime, our parents had put some money towards "grown up" bikes for our thirteenth birthdays. Full sized racers, twelve gears, and the fastest things we'd known.

Our world widened again. By this time, my Raleigh Pursuit meant some space between siblings. The year between my brother and I somethimes seemed more, sometimes less, and whilst we still wanted to do the same things, by now it would be alone, or in the company of separate friends. By now, a week might involve hundreds of miles of cycling, just doing our paper rounds, and nipping off for a long ride at the weekend.

Understanding nostalgia for the first time as an awkward teenager, my cycle rides would often take me the fifty miles down to the coast to the old house. I'm sure my brother's may have done too. Interesting how we keep rejoining those dots.

Before the arrival of motorised transport into our lives, these racing bikes were transport. I'd cycle the thirty mile round trip to college a few times a week to pocket the train fare, and if I wanted to take a girl out,  I'd leave my bike locked round the corner of her house, with a binbag full of my cycling gear tucked under a hedge.

And then, motorcyles, and cars. Suddenly, the bikes just stopped getting used. The appeal of the open road was now measured in tanks of petrol, and after years of BMX related injuries, I just wasn't that crazy kid anymore.

Issimo F100

The combustion engines have stayed with us. But like the bikes before them, the cars and vans have become the transport, the means to an end. My brother's back on two wheels at the weekend, bombing about on his 900cc Triumph Bonny, but for me, it's still pedal power.

On-One Inbred

I realised this evening that in the last seven days I've ridden all three of my bikes, covered over fifty miles, and unthinkingly, bicycles are an important part of my life again.

Last Wednesday's commute to the office was on my Issimo folding bike. A £40 eBay bargain, and now wearing triathlon-style "aero" bars. You can't help but see the funny side, especially when you're doing fifteen miles on most outings, overtaking everyone.

Monday saw me darting around a country estate on my steel-framed hardtail mountain bike. Frame by UK firm "On-One", and built by me, this bike has won races, crossed the Hebrides, taught people to ride, and belted up and down the trails and mountains of this country in the company of my friends. It has never let me down.

bTwin Sport 2
Finally, today I pedalled my new roadie to Farnborough Pool. The swim was rubbish, I got out early, rode the long way home to blow it out of my hair, and felt better for it. For the first time in years I was back on a bike that seems to weigh nothing, and yet devours the tarmac beneath it, craving the far, and the fast.

Every bicycle I have owned has come with something intangible, beyond the glow of owning a new trinket. Quite apart from the exhileration of the actual riding, the bikes themselves awake within me a sense of opportunity. Whether it's the foldie that slices past public transport; the mountain bike that thinks it's a sheepdog; or now, the roadie, that may only come out when the sun is shining or the roads are dry, but feels like it may again broaden my horizons.

Monday, 7 February 2011

The Thames Trot

The Thames Trot is a race from Oxford to Henley on Thames, comprising of almost fifty miles of the Thames Path, on foot.

I wouldn't recommend it to anyone that's just doubled their "most mileage in one month" record, for the following reasons:

1. It's an early start. An 0515 alarm call and an early train - euch. 
2. It's a long way, mostly through vast riverside fields of grazing sheep, with the occasional narrow footpath of mud so claggy you finish each section an inch taller than you started.
3. It's flat. No hills means no reason to slow down, and no chance to catch your breath. It's relentless.

For the freakishly fast, the course record is something like six and a half hours. Which, frankly, is just ridiculous.

I was one of four Hart Road Runners to enter this year: I'd pulled out of this event after thirty miles in 2010, so I had unfinished business; Javed has run sections of this route in other ultra challenges; plus Fiona and Nellie, for whom this would be an ultra-landmark of going beyond thirty-ish miles.

All in all, I had a pretty worthwhile run. Nine and a half minutes per mile felt comfortable (if a little slow) initially, and I managed to maintain this pace for the first half. I suspected it was probably half a minute too quick on tired legs, but any slower felt uncomfortable.

Approaching mile thirty the pace started suffering. The morning's headwind returned a field at a time, along with some soft ground underfoot. Keen to dispel last year’s bad memories, head down, I held position among the few runners ahead and behind.

Thirty two miles and it was time for a mental adjustment. The legs were dead weight, and I was struggling to lift my feet high enough to clear mole-hills, or move them fast enough to maintain a run. No cramp, no blisters, no stomach upsets, but just nothing there.

“A to B, Vallance, A to B”

I pulled my windproof on, and continued at a fast hike, running sections when the wind died, or "past that gate", or "beyond that bridge". A couple of runners overtook me, with pats on the back, and words of comfort. I assured them I was going to make it, and continued my run a bit, shuffle a bit strategy: chin up, taking in the view.

“When going through hell, keep going”

But I really wanted to stop.... but I couldn't, and I wouldn't, so I didn't. So I'd walk instead, because running was too hard. But then I'd think about how long I'd have to walk for, and I wanted to finish sooner, not later. So I chose to run, or to walk. At times, I had to make that choice with every step.

“Play the odds” 

There must be a better analogy, but I don't know one, so this is what I mean:

Consider the goal, and the path that leads towards it.
Consider whether the choices you make on that path increase your chance of success, or defeat.
Choose success.

It sounds easy, but the reality is hard. If the target is to run fifty miles, then the only choice is to keep going. Commiting to run the next step is much easier when you're already on foot, moving forwards; particularly if the alternative is to stand in the middle of a field.

Drop the spade, and you never find
out how much deeper you can dig.

Yesterday, as I plodded forwards, there was never a question of stopping. I was finishing, it was simply a matter of when. After every few minutes of dragging my feet, the legs would recover enough to start running again, and if the ground ahead was good I might string together a couple of miles before I had to slow again.

When I was told at the final checkpoint that only six miles remained, I saw a chance to finish in eight hours twenty, my original “best case scenario”. I’d need to run at least two thirds of this last section, though possibly more as my pace waned with the evening light.

With the end ever nearer, the ground hardened, the running became sustained, and places were held and regained. Then finally, from half a mile away, the illuminated finish line dragged me towards it, while the first of the spectators cheered us in. Within minutes my world had turned from grim determination to a deckchair, a cup of tea, and a glow of satisfaction.

Javed, Fiona and Nellie all finished soon after, with smiles intact.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

....and the rest

Ahhhhh, Rest.

I've always prescribed to the principle that training makes us weak, and only rest makes us strong. But I've always suspected that rest alone is an over-simplification, hence the accepted abbreviation of R&R.

Different people take the expression R&R to mean different things, most assume it's "rest and relaxation", but perhaps the sportier minded prefer "....and recovery" instead.

So my Janathon of daily masochism finally reached a conclusion on Monday night, with a short(ish) run bringing my total distance run in January to a very satisfactory, and slightly mind-blowing 450 miles. With that particular episode of my life complete, I looked forward to a few days to "repair and recharge".

At which point I was reminded of two things:

1. That simply "not running" doesn't really count, you have to get some sleep too.
2. The body can feel worse before it feels better.

The first three days of February were less comfortable physically than the last three weeks of January, and I felt shattered. With the constant weight of planning runs, running runs, and blogging about runs lifted from my shoulders, it's as if I suddenly lost traction, and instead of floating above it all, I just spun my wheels, late into the night, convinced there was something I should be doing.

Multiply that by a couple of very early mornings, add some whooshing around on the folding bike, plus some dashing about in a country park, and I've been really glad of today, my first guilt-free lay-in of the year, and the first day of real R&R.

Ahhhh, Recovery.

Oh yeah - I almost forgot! We have a new addition to the family!

On Friday night, I arrived home the proud father of a beautiful bouncing bike. 21lb 11oz, with perfect little carbon forks, and perfect little carbon seat-stays. It's a roadie.

Father and bicycle are doing well.

Mother is going to the pub to wet the bike's head.