Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Snakes and Ladders - my view of training

At the end of July I fell asleep on my multi-tool half way through competing in a 24 hour mixed pairs race, (as you do!) and ended up with a stiff back.  Four weeks later I found myself in tears in a doctor's surgery in France,  After 2 painful, sleepless nights my French completely deserted me as I attempted to say to the doctor that I had a "broken back". I realised I must have confused the french for "back" and "heart" as I looked at the prescription the doctor had given me -  anti depressants?!

Training for a specific goal is like playing a game of snakes and ladders. All the time you are training you are rolling the dice and progressing along the board. The more you train the more you roll the dice and the quicker you get to the goal.  Every now and then you come across a square that is at the bottom of a ladder and you make a shortcut jump closer to the goal. We all know those things that have made a difference - finding a good coach, a better piece of kit or maybe a new nutritional strategy.

I am now lying flat on my back staring at the ceiling. No bending, lifting or twisting and absolutely no strain on my back (or training) for 6 weeks. I have hit one of the biggest snakes on the board. I've landed on that snake that dumps you right back at the start. Not only that, whilst everybody else is training, I am not even allowed to roll the dice.

I should stick to riding my bike!
The pain and numbness that took me to the doctor's surgery in France had started off innocently as a stiff back. I am not sure exactly how it deteriorated from stiffness into pain into numbness, it was most probably a combination of events. The stiffness after the 24 hour race worsened on our family holiday. I'm not used to being still but tempted by the perfect sun lounger( sea view and ordering distance from the bar) I barely moved for 3 days. Although self indulgent, this didn't help my flexibility. I was then coerced into doing a beginner windsurfing lesson. The unplanned 'back flip dismount' although quite funny to see, didn't bend me in the way nature intended!  

 I knew there was a problem, but because I'm stubborn I carried on training and riding despite all my physio knowledge telling me that the pain in my leg was not good news. Medical people really do make the worst patients! The final straw that bought on the numbness and the weak leg was nothing more onerous than putting on my shoe.

As soon as we got back from France, I managed to get an urgent appointment to have a scan on my back. The scan said it was bad. It showed a huge disc compressing my spinal chord. It was in the same place as my old fracture and I couldn't help wondering if there was a connection. I decided to hold off from the suggested surgery for a week to see if it would settle on its own.  I knew that surgery would put me out for a long time and being self employed...

The scan showed a large sequestered disc.
Two days later we were getting ready to go to another race - I was not riding, just supporting the AQR team.  I realised as I was packing for the race that my legs felt really odd and the numbness was spreading to places you really don't want numbness. To my horror I realised I was getting cauda equina syndrome (a rare complication of spinal chord compression which is a medical emergency). Simon came back from a quick trip to the supermarket and realised I was looking shell shocked. 

"I think I have to go to A&E", I said. 

I had been trying to get through to my consultant, but it was a Bank Holiday weekend and he wasn't working.  I knew my condition was really serious, but I also knew that there were very few people who I really trusted to do the operation. My consultant, Mr Fahy, is hugely experienced, specializing in 'sporty spines' so I was beyond relieved when he returned my call.  He confirmed my suspicion with the words, "you are coming in for surgery right away, get to London and I will call you when I have found out which theatre I can open."

An hour later I hobbled into a private hospital in London.  My insurance company had told me I wasn't covered, but my consultant had given me absolute instructions that with any delay I risked irreversible nerve damage to my lower half - possible double incontinence and poor mobility for the rest of my life. It was a no brainer.
I was met at the hospital by a suited doorman who offered to carry my bag. He then looked very uncomfortable, not quite knowing how to carry my muddy Camel back.  Within an hour I was being wheeled down to surgery.  The anesthetist had noticed Simon had arrived still wearing his team AQR race lycra and delayed putting me under to compare notes on trails and achievements.  We even compared notes on the merits of steel hardtails and Cotic bikes - mountain bikers get everywhere!

The surgery appears to have been a success - Yaaay! No cauda equina symptoms!! Having said that, the nerves to my legs took a bit of a bashing and leg recovery is going to take time.
Can you spot the difference?

 Two months ago I was rolling the dice, and working towards my legs competing at the World solo 24 hour Championships 2012.  Then a month ago I was struggling even to walk.  With practice and determination, my legs get a little stronger every day. I am now able to (slowly) walk 4 miles! At the moment the thought of riding my bike for 24 minutes, let alone 24 hours seems an impossible dream. As my legs improve and I look back, I realise that goals originally thought of as impossible were just temporarily unavailable. So that's how I see the future too.

I know that it will take me a long time to work my way up the board of snakes and ladders, but if I don't throw the dice I simply wont get anywhere, so I'm going to carry on. I am perfectly happy to be throwing twos and threes rather than fives and sixes because I had a taste of what it would be like to have no dice at all. I realise that I will be nowhere near the peak I was working towards for at next year's World Solo 24hour Championships, there is no doubt - with the help of my coach - I will be there.

One final word - A massive Thank you to Mr Fahy for generously giving up his Bank Holiday - if it wasn't for him I might not even be thinking about picking up that dice again. Thank you.

Monday, 1 August 2011

From Mojo to Mojito - A lesson in happy racing...

We weren't supposed to win...
I saw Simon shooting back through the start for his second lap at a ferocious pace with a massive grin on his face. "Slow down!" I shouted - this was a 24-hour pairs race, not a 2 hour blast around our local trails. Although I had competed in this event several times, this was Simon’s first 24 hour pair and I knew (from unpleasant experience) how easy it is to push too hard in the early part of the race and just blow up.

Most people seem to think that a 24 solo is the hardest race category. I would have to disagree. A 24 hour pair is often much harder. Rather than it being a race ‘just about you’ a pair is a ‘very long relay of sprints’ between you and a partner. In my mind this is worse because you think it's going to be easier than a solo as you are sharing the work, meaning you push too hard and risk blowing up. The stronger rider also goes faster, so the other rider gets less recovery and gets more and more tired (usually me;-)), requiring a high level of awareness of your partner and communication in the short change over, which gets harder as the night draws on. Then you have to think about the potential your team mate will actually blow up, or get injured, meaning you might have to take over more laps, so how hard do you race?  You want to race fast, but to race smart you have to hold so much back.

So 24 hour pairs is hard enough, but mixed pairs adds another challenge – that of racing with a woman!  Understanding the complexities of the female brain in normal circumstances (so I’ve been told) is a mystery in itself ;-)  Communicating effectively with that same brain at 4am after 16 hours of riding can be a massive challenge!

Simon and I had never raced together before. My usual race partner (Ant, who I have raced with lots, and has a wonderful gift of understanding me even when I am exhausted and incoherent) had broken his collarbone. Simon, my domestic partner, had gallantly (naively?) stood in at the last minute.

To race a 24-hour pair well you have to know both you and your partner’s strengths and weakness. Simon and I are fully aware of our domestic strengths and weaknesses, but the fact that I know he is a great cook and he knows I am rubbish at ironing is actually not that useful in a 24 hour race! And as for that 4 am change over, Simon and my communication at 4 am has usually been limited to “stop snoring!” or “give me back the duvet!”. Again, not particularly useful. So you can imagine that I was a little anxious - This race could be Pandora’s box!

We had talked on and off over the past couple of weeks about how we would race. We both agreed that neither of us was peak race fit – I was still recovering from Exposure24 and Simon was only expecting to do a 12 hour team race with some mates – not compete as a defending champion in a 24 hour pair... We were also going on our annual family activity holiday with our 4 kids the next day, so we really didn't want to be completely knackered for that (!?). So we agreed some very basic race rules – our goal was simply to “ride for fun”. If either of us stopped smiling, we would stop riding. I knew he was serious about this strategy when I saw him enjoying the beer tasting the night before and cooking a fry up of eggs, bacon and mushrooms for his ‘race’ breakfast!! In his words, “24 hour racing is 90% a mental challenge”, so he was doing everything he could to be in the right mental state of mind.

Sprint stop, sprint stop is very wearing and we decided that right from the start we would split the race into chunks of about 2-3 laps (at our pace a lap is about an hour) between changes, to be agreed at the change over and to be stuck to unless either of us stopped enjoying ourselves. Looking at Simon’s face on those first 2 laps, he was most definitely enjoying himself (!!) but was he going to blow?

First changeover happened after two laps and I got my first taste of the course - ok I get it now, this course is fantastic – no wonder he was smiling so much! Technical, yes, and hilly, but with so much reward!! Everything from roots and rocks, to rivers, open moorland and free flowing singletrack, with the most ridiculously steep climbs thrown in to keep you on your toes. This was such a fun course, despite there being no let up. This was going to be a true test of endurance, but it was grin factor ten, tempting you to ride it faster than you really should.

Consciously I held back. If Simon was going to blow his legs up in happy ignorance I had to be prepared to take over – as Ant had done for me in previous years.

At 5 hours in the pit crew were ecstatic - all the Cotic / AQR Holidays’ teams were in top 4 positions. We were in the lead of the 24 hr mixed pairs - but only by 4 minutes. Oh no! This was not part of the plan… We were supposed to be riding for fun, not racing!!!. This pressure could make it difficult to stick to our 'happy laps' game plan. At the next change over we established that despite riding reasonably 'fast' we were both smiling and that we would ignore our position and just keep enjoying the course. The sun was shining and as the course dried out it was getting better and better.

Nightfall arrived and lights went on. We were now in the lead by 11 minutes but I didn’t want to know. I met Simon in the change over area. Both still smiling? Yes :-) Right - off I go for my next two laps.

Cotic  / AQR Holiday's pit
At midnight Simon and I decided to give each other an opportunity to sleep by doing 3 laps each. I was really looking forward to this longer stint on course - I could relax into my 24 solo pace and concentrate on smooth efficient riding.

After my first lap of three I knew the 12-hour race would have ended and I was desperate to know how my teammates had got on. As I came past our pit I could tell by the whooping and hugging that there was good news. This was the only time during the race that my smile wavered. I was torn between needing to ride and wanting to join in the celebration!  We had got 3 podiums, including two wins and Rachel coming 2nd doing her first 12-hour solo. Sod it - I just had to go and give her a hug! As AQR Holidays’ physio and dynamic core guru I knew all about her tough journey to this point, having fractured her pelvis earlier in the year. I was so happy for her!  Hug done and back out on course. With the 12-hour riders gone, and many other riders seemingly given up for the night, the course was deserted.

Lap three of my night stint and I was suddenly aware that it had cooled down. Dew settling meant the course had become slippery and I fell, misjudging some off camber roots.  After my hypothermia problems at Exposure 24 (just 2 months before), I went into a sudden panic. I was out on the open moor with no one else about and I was petrified of getting cold. “Focus! Keep riding safely! Up the pace to keep warm and don't stop!!" I told myself.

The last run into the campsite is an awesome, fast flowing down hill section. My full suspension Cotic KP 24 shot down it like an arrow. It was such a great end to a lap that I half hoped Simon wouldn't be at changeover, giving me the chance to keep riding. But there he was - looking as fresh as at the start of the race.

My turn to sleep. I have the ability to fall asleep instantly and anywhere. I lay down in the tent and nodded off in seconds.  I woke an hour later with a sore back - something to do with my multi tool and pump still being in my back pocket! Doh!

For me this is the hardest part of pairs riding. It's now just gone 5 in the morning. We have been racing for 17 hours. Not only have I been pedaling for nearly nine hours, when off the bike I have been making decisions about food, hydration, bike choice and race strategy.  Our pit crew (Ant – my normal race partner – and Carole) was fantastic, doing all the bike maintenance and my catering. All this is great, but getting up after an hour’s sleep and having to decide between tea and coffee is just too hard!

So it’s dawn and Simon is out on the course somewhere.  The crew told me we were now at least 2 laps up. What had happened to the people in second and third? Had they stopped for a sleep and, with fresh legs, were they already out there blasting out some quick morning laps? I met Simon in the changeover and he was early - he was still putting in some good lap times. If this is Simon riding for fun I couldn't help wondering how he would fare racing with some serious endurance training!! I said we were up by two laps, and we quickly established that we were both smiling and that we wanted to keep riding - who wouldn't? I was having a great time - the course was great and my bike was awesome to ride. I had bent my brake disk rotor at Exposure24, but the guys at Magura had come up trumps, not only with a new rotor, but also with some new forks that meant both my bikes gave me confidence on this technically challenging course.

Team mates

We agreed I would do two laps and off I went. As I came past the AQR pit, just before leaving the campsite, a massive cheer went up! It makes such a difference when racing having a happy pit! As I rode around that lap I thought about how the whole Cotic / AQR Holidays team had been helping and supporting each other throughout the race; Swapping bike bits, massaging legs, lending spare kit, making the pit look lovely with fairy lights for the night laps. I also reflected on what a difference a year had made.  Meeting up with Kate and Ian at their base in Luchon the previous Summer transformed me from being the support rider in this event the last year – let’s face it, Ant had always put in the lion’s share of laps in our pairs – to being very much an equal partner this year.  Not only that, but a year before this course would have freaked me out, particularly at night.  I have learnt so much from both of them. It was impossible not to keep smiling with this the fun course, legs that were coping well, being part of a brilliant team and with Simon nailing his first 24 pair.

In fact I found my legs wanting to go faster and faster - yee haa! I cant remember ever feeling like this after 21 hours of racing. After my second morning lap I flew down the last descent and into the changeover area. Simon at 6ft 4 is hard to miss, but a second quick scan and he clearly wasn't there. I rushed over to the pits where I found him mid conversation.  “Wow you were quick”, he said. Half of me was pleased that he noticed and the other half annoyed that he wasn't ready for me. “We have won”, he said. The second place team had stopped through the night and we were five laps up.  The third place were back on the course, but with two hours left it was impossible to make up five laps. He said he would go out if I wanted him to, or I could go out again, but he would prefer to save his energy for our holiday…

Then it dawned on me. Really? We had won?!!!! But that wasn't the plan!!! Women can be so unreasonable sometimes ;-)

I am now lying on a beach in an activity centre in Turkey writing up this blog and reflecting on what is easily the best race I have ever ridden in. It has nothing whatsoever ever to do with first place. It's simply because we had so much fun. If you can smile for 24 hours, keeping riding is just easy.

Recovery ride in Turkey

Massive thanks go here to an awesome pit crew, who worked tirelessly to keep us supplied with clean bikes and butties, and to my teammates who made it such a fun weekend. Also thanks to AQR Coaching – to Kate and Ian – for their continued advice and support.  My stamina has improved immeasurably over the last year with Kate’s programme and this course would have been a nightmare without Ian’s technical riding training. But the biggest thank you has to go to Simon. Simons 'racing happy' rule was exactly the right plan – we both loved the course and had such great conversations with fellow competitors along the way! But most importantly, we discovered out that we can communicate effectively (even in a sleep deprived state) on topics beyond the status of the duvet at 4 am ;-)

I still think that 24 pairs is tougher than a solo, but a good race partner and full pit support eases the burden! Full credit to the other pairs, teams and solo riders for completing the race and a final massive thanks to everyone at the Bontrager Twentyfour12 organising team for putting on a great event.  Roll on #7 in 2012!
Mojito - the next Torq recovery drink?

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Yay! I found my mojo!

When you get a call from the doctor, asking you to call in to talk about your ECG and blood test results 4 days earlier than you are supposed to get them, you presume the worst.

As a fully qualified ‘internet hypochondriac’ I had self-diagnosed everything from thyroid dysfunction to heart failure. Something had to scientifically explain the way I was feeling. 

Racing at Exposure 24 in May (the European 24 hour solo mountain bike championships) had been exhausting. 24 hour races are hard. They are meant to be! But this race had left me feeling beyond empty. In part I could blame the hypothermia - more to the point, dragging myself out of the pits after ‘coming round’ and pushing out another 2 laps probably did all the damage.  Note to self – when the paramedics tell you that “your race is over”- they mean it
Racing at Exposure
(Thanks to Helen for the photo)

Two months after the race I was still really struggling. Normally I love riding my bike - It’s what makes me smile even if the rest of the world seems grey. I love to fly around the woods on my bright orange bike - just grinning as I whip around the corners and fly through the trees faster and faster, my inner soul as bright and lively as the steel Soul I am riding (My bike is a Cotic Soul – how cool is that ;-) ). But now I wasn’t motivated to ride my bike at all.  My legs felt like lead. My heart rate shot up alarmingly on doing relatively little then refused to go back down. I got breathless walking up the stairs, let alone riding my bike.  Apart from these physical symptoms I just felt crap - not a particularly scientific word, but when getting my 10 minute consultation with the doctor, crap was the only word I could think of.  My normal inner spark had just shrunk to a dim glow. I felt broken.

My Bright Orange Soul
People always talk about their mojo - that slang word for passion, the desire to do something, your inner spark. Whatever it is I had certainly lost mine, but what I was most uncertain about was where to search to get it back? Is your mojo mental or physical?

Kate, my coach at AQR, encouraged me to go to the doctor to rule out the latter - to get blood tests particularly to check thyroid function and vitamin D - hence the visit to the doctor.

So the physical element to my mojo was being investigated, but what about the mental side? For the last 8 months my life had been focused on training. kate had devised my training specifically to peak initially for the European champs in May and then a bigger second peak for the World 24 solo champs in October. Motivation for riding was easy with these clearly defined goals. My mojo pinged me out of bed every morning, raced me up all the hills and spun my legs until it seemed as though the turbo trainer glowed red.

Riding for fun
Then my goal got taken away. The venue and time for the World 24 solo champs didn’t get announced after the European champs and it became apparent that they were no longer happening. Without this big goal, training seemed pointless and I felt flat. My once supercharged cycling mojo began to oversleep. It gave up half way up the hills and found solace in the deep cushions of the sofa.

I had a couple of smaller races penciled in as part of my training, including a 24 pair with my race partner at an event called 24 /12. With no long term training goal, still feeling awful from the Europeans and my mojos heels stuck firmly in the ground l didn’t even feel up to riding let alone racing. I could feel my fitness seeping through the floorboards.
Struggling to race

The world has a funny way of working sometimes. My race partner fell off his bike and broke his collarbone and suddenly the pressure of ‘racing’ in 4 weeks at 24/12 was lifted from my shoulders.  I knew I wasn’t capable of racing so the opportunity to ride the race for fun with Simon (my other half, who offered to stand in) suddenly made me smile.  For the first time in weeks I thought about riding my bike. Nothing had changed except the fear of failure being replaced by permission to have fun.

Was it possible that my Mojo was just a state of mind?

That same week I got the call from the doctor. Everything was fine. No heart failure, no thyroid problems. However there was one problem, my vitamin D was too low.
 I didn’t know much about vitamin D, apart from that you get it from sunshine and that it has been implicated in illnesses ranging from rickets to cancer to multiple sclerosis. What I hadn’t realised was a deficiency can also cause mental symptoms. On the plus side it has been shown that taking vitamin D supplements can improve athletic ‘performance’. Did that mean that a low vitamin D can give deficient athletes legs like lead?

Did this mean that my mojo was actually related to a vitamin level??
With all the ‘slip slap slop’ awareness apparently lots of people don’t get enough sunshine. Kate had cleverly picked up all the signs - slow recovery, fatigue and feeling crap and insisted on a vitamin D test against the doctor’s wishes.

I never did discover if my cycling mojo was physical or mental - the two events happened too closely together to be truly scientific.  I’m not sure mojo is a scientific concept anyhow - heck it’s not even a word in the English dictionary! In all probability, it is more likely to be a combination of both mental and physical wellbeing intertwined in an upward spiral.  All I know is that with vitamin D supplements and a new goal of having fun at a 24 hour race meant my mojo returned.
Yay! Ive found my mojo!

My spiral is now upwards and my spark is now glowing again as brightly as the colour of my (cotic) Soul, the lead has been removed from my legs and the turbo trainer is glowing red once again.

Thank you doctor for taking my symptoms seriously. Thank you Simon for reminding me why I ride my bike. But, most of all, thank you Kate for being the most amazingly patient and inspiring coach.
Enjoying the view.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

The year according to my iPhone


 It all began a year ago.....

EXPOSURE 24 2010
Second place (vets ladies)
 Qualification for the world 24hour solo championships

An interesting dismount bouncing knee off stem injured my kneecap
 keeping me off the bike for 4 months:-(
'Training' resumed in August for the world champs in October
Ie I went on a few bike rides;-)
Riding in Australia at the world solo 24 hour Champs
Sooo hard!!
4th Place at World solo champs
Now sponsored by COTIC AQR


Beautiful Orange Cotic Soul 

Father Christmas bought me a band spangly blingy race bike:-)
The Cotic KP24
'Father Christmas' Building bikes

multitasking to save time

To get my base miles in I cycle any how any where!

Positive side of training
 I can eat all these!

Negative side of training
  Im so tired that I accidentally put odd shoes on to go to work
My training seems to wear the kids out
But I can now get into my daughters jeans!:-))))
She doesnt know I tried yet oops!

I get nominated for Sports personality
A winter with lots of snow makes training hard.
Long training rides are planned
Yer right- like I can really read a map!!
How many films did I watch while pedaling?
hours and hours and hours.......

Riding whatever the conditions- but still smiling:-)
hours and hours on the turbo indoors
"There is no such thing as pain"

Simon is knackered from me cycling at strange hours through the night!

My legs are getting stronger!
And Im getting my first ever cyclists tan!!

The Weather Finally warms up! yipeee!

Training involves theme parks to conquer my motion sickness fear
And getting used to getting soaked apparently!

I win Surrey media sports personality:-)
Thanks to everyone who voted for me

Training involves the family
Lots of obstacle courses and agility training with the kids

Some cross training goes down well

High gi foods are ordered by my coach for build training
I could get used to this yumm!
Training is exhausting, but shopping is even harder;-)


A trip to Boots
makes the pharmacist worry what I might be suffering from
A trip to the supermarket where calories are compulsory
An unplanned dismount a week before the event is not good news

Signing on
My team socks at the beginning of the race

My race mantra- just keep swimming......
(swimming it was too!)

Conditions are awful and 6 hours off the bike with hypothermia slows me down

I get out of bed and finish the race
Grrrrrrrrr I have not put all this effort in to give up before the end!

My team socks after the race
Second ladies vets at Exposure 24- European solo 24 hour Champs.