Monday, 24 February 2014

Training ride up into the Apiti Hills

This wasn’t a race, but a rather fun training ride, so maybe worth a quick write-up.  Also some photos, which I've stolen from fellow riders that were clever enough to take their cameras (thanks guys!)

Of course, we all probably define “fun” somewhat differently!

My plan was to dove-tail my ride with a “Big Day Out” ride organised by one of the local cyclists, Adrian McKenzie.  They were going to take a couple of vans up to Mangaweka/Utiku, which is about 200 km north of us, then cycle back to Fielding, a distance of around 140 km along some hilly country roads.  I needed to do a 10 hour training ride, so planned to ride up to meet and join them on the way back to Fielding, where Tim Neal was going to prepare a BBQ for us all.

The Big Day Out group (before I had joined them)
Not a good night’s sleep before the ride.  The alarm was set for 3:30 am, but I woke up at 1:00 am and couldn’t back to sleep, thinking about different aspects of the ride and especially how I was going to get nutrition over the last third of the ride.  A total of only 2 hours sleep.

So, at 3:55 am, I was out the door and away.  It was quite windy, with the wind mainly coming from the side.  This didn’t worry me too much.  I just adjusted my pace when I rode into it.  It was going to be a long day, so no point beginning my battles too early.

Because it was Sunday morning, the normal heavy night-time truck traffic wasn’t too bad.  After around 1.5 hours I was off the main highway and travelling towards the country town of Shannon.  Speed-wise, I wasn’t mucking around.  I had only left 4 hours before the others were going to drive up to Mangaweka/Utiku, and wanted to meet them as close to Mangaweka as I could manage.

The night sky was lovely, with bright stars shining between the clouds.  Dawn was even lovelier.  By this time, I was through Shannon and riding along narrow country roads in the heart of flat, cow country.  The farmers were already well and truly up, as I smelled the pungent pong of cow shit of herds going to be milked.  I’ve never travelled these roads and it was great enjoying the new views.

Tim Neal was going to leave Fielding at 6:00 am and meet up with me.  I was looking forward to this and would look ahead for him at every corner or bend of the toad.  It’s nice having a distraction on a long ride and it’d been a while since I’d caught up with Tim.  At last I saw a bright light ahead, and there was Tim.  He was surprised at how fast I’d been, which is always pleasing to hear.

It was good riding with Tim.  We cycled to his place, where I prepared my second lot of Perpeteum (a 4-hour bottle) and refilled my three other bottles with water.  Tim then rode me out of town (!), before returning to do his household chores.  I had cycled a bit over 110 km by now.

Just as I was parting from Tim, several bunches of local riders sped by.  I tagged onto the third and rode along for a while, chatting with one of the riders.  He couldn't believe what I was planning to do for the day.  This is the usual reaction I get from people I talk to, and I never cease to be surprised (and, I admit, rather pleased).  For me it’s just a normal part of the training – no big deal – and it’s something I've worked up to and approached very methodically.  I’m just lucky to have enough time to devote to the vice!

I was probably with the group for 10 minutes, but they were still fresh and a bit fast for me.  Just before Valley Road, I said farewell to my riding companion and dropped off.

I've no idea where this is, but thanks to whoever took it.  It gives a great idea of the lay of the country!
Now, at long last, the flat bits were over.  It was about 10 km down Valley Road, then around 50 km up Pohangina Valley East Road, which follows the … you guessed it … Pohangina River.  Lovely windy roads, quite a few sharp hills, hardly any traffic, and the odd glimpse of the river – this is riding at its best!

The road was getting higher and higher, peaking at around 650 metres.  By this time, I was riding along South Road ... north!  Things were going well.  There was the odd niggle though.  My backside was a bit sensitive and I was continually shifting to ease the discomfort.  My left ankle was also hurting and now, a day after, is quite swollen.  One thing I was trying for the first time was music.  Helen had given me a speaker and iPod for my birthday, and this worked really well.  I will definitely use music at the Graperide.  Another positive development was that I was following some advice from Adam Johnson (owner of local bike shop, Ranga's), who suggested that to reduce neck muscle fatigue I not hold my head so high but instead look upwards with my eyes - it seemed to work, so thanks Adam!

Working their way up one of the many hills.
Unfortunately, by now it had started to rain.  Albeit the rain was light, but when combined with a strong, cold wind, it meant pretty chilly conditions.  I stopped to put on my short-sleeved polyprop shirt, but even this combined with my wind jacket failed to keep me warm, skinny bugger that I am.  Finally the road turned to gravel.  I rode along it for a while, thinking it would soon turn to seal, but this failed to eventuate.  By now I was concerned, as I was worried about getting hypothermia.  I was also out of my Perpeteum.  What should I do?  Continue on to the group, where I could refill the Perpeteum and at least have the option of sheltering in a van if I got too cold, or turn and race back to Fielding?  My worry was the gravel, which I hadn't expected and thought that maybe somewhere I’d taken a wrong turn and so would miss the group.  I sent a text through to Adrian, but of course it didn't transmit given how isolated the place was.  I decided that the choice with the least down-side consequence would be to turn around.  So I was now on my way back.

Thanks to whoever took the photo :-)
And I was racing, with my mind focussed on keeping warm and getting back to Fielding as fast as I could.  Strangely enough, there were many aspects of this that I enjoyed.  I was no longer aware of any discomfort or niggles, just on gripping the bike hard (I was cold!) and powering along.  I felt strong, fit, and very independent.  It’s a great feeling.

I did ponder several times whether it would be safer to find a sheltered spot and wait for the group and jump in a van to warm up, but pride wouldn’t let me do that.  There also really weren't any good spots to shelter.  By now, I was totally out of water, had eaten my banana and three gel packets, and only had two One Square Meal muesli bars, which I didn’t even bother with given how dry my throat was.  No great problems, but it would still be uncomfortable making it all the way back to Fielding.

Finally, relief!  I was passed by the lead group of cyclists from the Big Day Out bunch.  I dropped back to the first support van, where Mark Donald gave me the last bit of water from his bottle.  I then set out to catch up to Glynis.  Hilariously though, I soon found the bunch stopped.  We had arrived at a country cafĂ© where we’d planned to have Devonshire teas.  If the group hadn’t caught up to me, I would have cycled past.

It was good to stop, chill out, have a coffee, and catch up with people.  However, because there was a crowd of us and only a husband and wife looking after the place, we were there for a while too long.  But eventually we were off again.

Group photo outside the country cafe (I'm 5th from the right)
Stupidly, I had re-filled the water but failed to re-mix my Perpeteum, arguing to myself that I would be fine for the remaining 40 km of the ride.  It was really just a case of laziness, which would have its consequence.  After about 20 km, I found myself really flagging.  The lack of food over the last few hours was beginning to take its toll.  We were now on Valley Road, re-grouping after having climbed the last big hill.  From now on it would be flattish, but with that strong wind still making conditions somewhat challenging.  It wasn’t long before I dropped off the bunch.  Adrian nobly stayed behind to help me.  I assured him that I was alright, but he said there was a rule of “No one rides alone”.  Great rule, but not one I appreciated.  After a while I rode up to him again and finally persuaded him to ride ahead.  He did so and actually managed to catch the group, which by now was a long way ahead.

Once Adrian had left, I immediately stopped and lay on the ground for a full 5 minutes, relaxing body and mind.  Then I forced myself to finish one of the muesli bars.  The break was just what I needed, and I got back on the bike feeling re-charged.  I think it was only about 15-20 km back to Tim’s place, and I just got into the endurance mind-set and slugged it out.

As I wheeled into Tim’s place, I quietly felt a bit of a champ.  It had been a good day out and I felt I had put in a great effort.  Tim and Liz had a spa and swimming pool and had also laid a superb BBQ out for us.  Tim congratulated me earnestly, which I felt very flattered by, and forced a beer into my hand.  It was wonderful catching up with people and I think everyone thought their Big Day Out a great success.  Fantastic hospitality from Tim and Liz!  Great organizing from Adrian!  As for me, it didn’t take me long to begin to wilt.  I’m afraid I wouldn’t have been much company, but I think people forgave me.  In all, I had been on the bike about 12.5 hours, not including stops, and covered around 270 km.

The full team!
And here's some great footage taken of the ride by John Barber:

Monday, 17 February 2014

Why I do endurance cycling

What is it that attracts people to endurance cycling, or endurance anything?  This is something I’ve often pondered but have never been able to answer satisfactorily.  What makes it so difficult is that the reasons are many, varied, and, in my own case, seem to change with how I’m feeling.  I’ve tried to put my thoughts down here and, sadly, it’s not adequate.  But I think that it needs to be explained.  Why does a person do something that hurts so much and consumes all your time?  I’ll divide my answer into three parts: (1) what got me into the sport; (2) what kept me persisting; and (3) where I am at now.

1. What got me into the sport?

Two things probably attracted me to the sport in the first place, one positive and the other not.

First was a childhood and continuing adulation of those who push themselves physically and mentally.  As a child, the people who fired my imagination were not necessarily sportsmen or super-heroes, but the explorers, mountain climbers, and other loners who faced immense odds and did not always win.  What attracted me was their courage.  This is what has drawn me to solo sports.  It also fitted in with my introverted personality.  I initially got great pleasure from tramping, with running eventually becoming a more time-efficient way of getting similar highs.  Cycling was forced on me by knee problems that worsened as I got older.  It coincided with my children growing up and leaving home, which has suddenly given me a lot of more time to spend on myself.  The perfect recipe for endurance cycling!

Second and not so positive, throughout my life I’ve been subject to depression.  As such, an appeal of endurance sports had been the negative one of being able to hurt and humble myself, of being able to punish and physically crush myself.  Not so good!  However, there was a positive spin to this wish for self-annihilation.  In the hurt and hunger I might feel on a long run or bush tramp, or the fear I’d feel scrambling up a steep slope or kayaking off-shore on a stormy day with no-one around, I would gain a new appreciation for life.  We have a natural desire for self-preservation and there is no better way to kick this off than to put yourself at risk.  It definitely puts things into perspective and jolts you to the reality of what is important in your life.  Strangely enough, it also gave me a peaceful, almost religious connectedness with the natural world around me.

As an aside, let me say that I’m not like that anymore.  It’s been a while since I’ve been in a depressed state.  Sure there’ve been ups and downs, but that’s normal; depression is another thing altogether.  And part of the reason is endurance cycling!  Essentially, what it’s done has been to fill my life with an easy-to-grasp sense of purpose and has put things into perspective.  Pretty much, it’s filled the void that was a contributing factor to much of my previous depression.

2. What continues to keep me in the sport

Obviously the above reasons also serve to keep me in the sport.  But there are others too.

One reason is the great sense of satisfaction of successfully overcoming a challenge.  When I think of the particularly memorable parts of a race or hard ride, it’s always the bits when I’m suffering the most that I think of.  And I remember them with fondness and pride, because they are what I went through and overcame to get to the finish line.  The greater the challenge, the greater the satisfaction!

Another thing about this sport is that it gives an almost primeval sense of purpose.  It brings everything down to the simplest of levels – to ride, to ride fast, and to finish.  And, when not riding or racing, then to prepare for the next one.  It’s away from frivolous things such as television, computer games, work plans, the opinions of others, household goings-on, and so on.  It’s life at its most basic and instinctual.  To look after yourself, to go fast, to keep eating, and so on.

Existing at this primeval level also means there is absolutely no bullshit.  Bullshit won’t get me over yet another hill while in a state of absolute exhaustion.  The bullshit of others won’t help them either.  Endurance cycling is an honest sport.  In the end, it’s about getting to the end and doing so in the time you want.  That’s what counts.  If I don’t, then I don’t need to embellish things with excuses.  I just need to succeed next time.

Here’s another variant of some of the above reasons.  How many wars in the yester-years did not begin with teems of young men rushing to join up and be a part of it.  So many things attracted them.  Endurance cycling offers the same thing and does so without the misery and toll of war.  And I think that there is definitely an urge to do this sort of thing for humans (men anyway), even though most confine themselves to realising it in books and computer games.

All of the above sounds dreadfully earnest and dull.  Here’s a more positive and light-hearted reason.  Cycling is a great sport.   Period!  It’s just great riding a bike.  The almost air-borne freedom you feel; the speed and power you can achieve from that supremely efficient machine beneath your backside; the joy of charging down a steep hill, or powering up and down rolling hills, or taking sharp corners fast!  It’s exhilarating.  It also takes you places quickly.  Within an hour, you can be up in the hills; within a couple of hours at a beach 50 km away.  There is also that sense of camaraderie with all those fellow cyclists that you socialise and skirmish with.

I do enjoy the social side too, even if it is brief.  I’m part of the endurance cycling scene.  Endurance cyclists are amongst my good friends.  I also have made good friends amongst wider circles because of their interest and respect for what I do.  I may be an introvert, but in the end the human is a social animal.

And, I must admit, I do enjoy the recognition and praise that comes with the territory.  This is by no means the reason I started this sport or remain in it, but it is rather nice.  I was stunned at the adulation I received when doing my first Taupo Enduro.  It wasn’t something I was used to and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it.

Endurance cycling has also given me a lot more confidence.  Interestingly, it’s not just that I know I have the ability to push myself and have people’s respect.  In fact, it might mainly be because I just couldn’t care a less.  What do a lot of the petty things we have to deal with matter when I’m dreading the intense 3-hour training session I have this evening, or the fact that I’m still really sore from the last ride, or that I have to get up well before dawn tomorrow for an all-day ride, or that I know just how much I’m going to suffer in the next race.  It’s easy to be confident in such circumstances.

But basically it comes down to this.  Endurance cycling fills what has been an existential void for me.  I have always felt the need for something greater than myself, something to really challenge me and push for.  It’s how I’ve been made.  And not many things fill that void.  I’m too analytical to be swayed by religion.  Ego doesn’t take me far, as it’s hollow.  I’ve tried politics and “good causes” in the past, but do not have the personality for it.  Work is pretty empty.  I’ve never been interested in developing close networks of friends around me.  And I’m too far removed from the world’s trouble spots to know how I can make a difference there.  But endurance cycling does it for me.  It’s hard, unbearably hard sometimes.  And it’s a mission.  It’s filling my life.

3. Where I am now

In a nutshell, endurance cycling is currently my life.  It fills my time, energy and focus.  It’s how I define myself.

This is not all good, as the duration and intensity of the training is tough.  It’s very easy to feel quite overwhelmed by it.  Most importantly, it is a lot of time away from Helen.  I also often have a sense of foreboding and fear for the next race on the schedule, which, as always, is yet another step up in distance and difficulty.

But I do love being on my bike, riding with others, pushing myself, and continuing to work towards my goal.

I know that there will be a time that I will move on from this fixation.  Hopefully it will be replaced by something more healthy and moderate.  But, in the meantime, endurance cycling it is!