Wednesday, 16 September 2015

A Ride To Remember

The rhythm’s gone completely.  I hack away at the pedals, legs like misfiring pistons using any combination of remaining power and bodyweight to keep them moving, the fluid circles of the lower slopes a distant memory.  I daren’t glance across the valley to known reference points that will end my psychological resistance and force me into my lowest gear, if the 36t doesn’t stay clean then I’m finished, doomed to admit the failure in this session.  My tongue feels fattened, an awkward sticky slug blocking the airflow my lungs crave and the thirst is overwhelming but I’m not dehydrated, the nauseating slop of unprocessed water in my gut tracking my body movements, daring me to sip from my Camelbak again.

I lurch over the road as it steepens again, Tom Simpson without the drugs.  I’d take them all right now if they’d get me to the top of this destructive road.  The heat is overwhelming, drilling down into my back, reflecting off the surface that my head is getting ever closer to, licking the front wheel.  I feel like I’m being boiled alive, my brain shrinking, fluid escaping.  Visions of the electrolytes sat on top of my fridge taunt me, the fridge, cool air, I want to be in that fridge…

A distant rumble of thunder.  Come lovely rain, my salvation from the skies.  No such luck.  The atmosphere like porridge, I’m riding through porridge, am I still moving?  Flies buzz my face, my tormenters victorious, can’t outrun them, can’t swat them, hope they’re not biters, injury to insult.

My head comes up, the circles return.  Where did this come from?  My subconscious knows more than my brain.  I’m nearing the top and defiance drives the body.  You did me on the mid section but I owned the bottom and the top, two-one to Bailey, I’m bigger than this mountain.  Satisfaction tempered by reality, that was close, too close, and I know it.  The training log won’t lie, OK legs, nothing more.

I stare down the start straight, the Skull DH.  A thousand vertical metres of sculpted corners and jagged bedrock, beauty and the beast.  Glasses off as dense foliage and a blackening sky dull the vision.  Pads on, gear selected and snap on the pedals.  Treat this like a race, attack, attack, attack.  This track has no respect for the tentative.  I’m totally under-biked and I know it, 140mm out front and the crafted compliance of carbon hardtail out back but the Ibis Tranny never ceases to amaze, no box can hold this bike, uncategorisable.  A flash and a crack, the storm is closing in fast.  No longer an ally against the heat, a warning shot.  My focus is absolute, totally in the groove and marvelling at the new found flow this holiday has uncovered, bossing lines that should be unattainable, tyres skimming the surface of armageddon.  The first bombs start to fall, initially deflected by the shield of leaves but then breaking through fast, huge droplets, instant impact.  The sky explodes with light again and the deafening rumble is right on its tail, I need to get down NOW.  Fear of crashing, mangling on the rocks seems childish, this is much more primeval, go, go, go, survival instincts honed by evolution driving thirty years of biking skills.
Staring down the start straight and the weather armageddon is about to hit 
Lactic is flooding through me, arms screaming and hands like claws death gripping the bars, right quad in agony, alternate the lead foot, a transfer of skills, practice what I preach.  I never intended to do this in a one-er but priorities have been dictated by a higher force and I’ve no choice, must… get… down.  The bedrock lower section is like ice, limestone slickrock and brakes are no option.  Light on the front end, let it drift and slide, in the air is safest.  The deep clunk of the back rim smashing hard, thirty psi and a cup of Stans, choose your equipment wisely, you never know when it may save your life.  Straight line, full bore off a few small drops and under the finish barrier.  I crack a smile but the danger is far from over.  I’ve done my bit technically but now need lady luck to see my passage back to the safe haven of the valley.

The deluge is indescribable as I hit the road, blinded by the droplets, eyelids like windscreen wipers on the highest setting, a lost battle.  Inches of rain on a flat road and I veer to avoid a car out of nowhere, lights on, horn blaring.  Praying that my route choice is still taking me down.  Out of the saddle and fighting hard, drawing energy from empty reserves, I’ll be glad to pay for this if it means I get to see tomorrow.  Redemption comes in the form of a bridge, huddled figures and a raised hand from a biker as I skid to a halt.  Cars are seeking refuge here too, nobody dares head out into this abomination. 
Glad to be under the bridge when these started smashing down!
The hailstones begin to smash down, jagged marbles bouncing off every surface but the danger has passed and I’m a mesmerised observer, the sanctity of the bridge distancing the threat, like watching the storm in a zoo.  I let out a whoop and an uncontrollable grin spreads over my face.  The other cyclists under here are bone dry, I know they’ve missed out as I squeeze my saturated gloves, water flooding out, I wonder if they feel the same way.  Twenty minutes pass and the oppressive blackness begins to lift as I start to shiver.  The storm remains but it’s said its piece and we all know who maintains the real power, mother nature has to let off steam sometimes too.

The road is still a river as I hammer down the last section, two foot deep puddles on the cambered inside of corners stop the traffic but I plough in laughing manically.  The pain subsides as I sweep through the last corners towards home, the familiar whirr of freehub finally drowning out the drumming of rain.  This one will last in the memory for years to come, I feel very alive.

The Costs of Learning...

A few years back I had my personality neatly pigeonholed by an unerringly accurate multiple statement test.  All I had to do was read a series of sentences and decide which ones sounded most like me and it came out with a pretty clear and extremely detailed portrayal of my likes and dislikes.
One of my key discoveries was the fact that I'm really bad at being a beginner.  In fact I actively hate it to such an extent that I've little interest in ever seeking new spheres in which to learn.  A good example of this is that unlike my friends who practically ran to start driving lessons on their 17th birthdays I waited until the government were threatening to bring in the theory test (yep I was driving that long ago!) before I pulled my finger out.  It wasn't only the crazy expense of the lessons or the fact that my mates were stood at the college gates baying for me to stall the motor, it was more a reticence to have to be crap at something new.

Whilst this moderately common personality trait does mean that I have limited interests, therefore making me the worst person to get sat next to at a wedding, it does manifest itself in a huge depth of knowledge and attention to detail in the subjects I am interested in.  Coaching and bikes obviously being the best example of this!  I wonder how many other people watch all the edits from EWS and DH World Cup races and ignore the soundtrack and seeing who won in order to focus in slow motion on each rider's techniques?

So all of this rubbish so far has been a long winded way of saying that some types of people really need ways to progress rapidly if they're trying something new otherwise they'll lose interest and give up.  The first time I ever went snowboarding I was equally non-plussed about the idea of being the biggest kook on the slopes.  I could've skied, something I was already fairly proficient at but this was around the time when boarding was the new, anti-authoritarian alternative to skiing's posh uppityness. Baggys, beanies and beers versus all in one tight dayglo suits and glasses of fine wine.  I was young, punk loving and a capable drinker at the time so I opted to strap one plank to my feet instead of two. Whilst my look in the bar was all 'boarder dude', unfortunately on the slopes it was more 'boarder gimp'.  If I was to save my image and develop a love for the sport then I'd need some lessons.  At the same time, Tom, a mate who was with us (who's name hasn't been changed to protect the innocent) was also in the same boat.  A natural high achiever in business and sport he was an even more extreme version of my personality.  Deciding to eschew the lessons he headed straight to the top of the steepest slopes.  On that first evening he boasted of having boarded the blacks whilst we were being taught to link turns on the baby slopes.  I have slightly guilty fond memories of seeing the roles reversed on the final day as we jumped on the lift and looked down on Tom, his confidence as shattered as the arse cheek he'd continuously landed on that was now protected by a load of pipe lagging stuffed down his trousers!  It was such a pitiful sight that we didn't even take the piss... much.

Given the lack of pistes in the UK and Ireland, getting away to the slopes is generally a once in a while pleasure.  As a result of that I never got the opportunity to practice and become really good on the snowboard.  However, by committing to lessons I was able to get good enough to be enjoying the blacks and attempting to hit some drops and even the halfpipe by the end of the week.  And herein lies the point to this rambling.

Mountain biking is different.  One of its many strengths is that there's no specific time of year, conditions or even terrain that is best to enjoy it.  I've had as much pleasure sliding over greasy roots in the lashing rain in Ireland as I have tearing down the dusty slopes of the Alps (it's just the cleaning that sucks).  As a result of this, we can do it anytime that we aren't weighed down by other commitments. For some lucky people this means every day, for others a cheeky evening or weekend every now and again.  The point I'm making is that even the busiest or least committed bikers will manage more than a week per year!  So why is it that it's the norm to get ski lessons but rare for people to seek bike coaching?
Coaching in action!
Yeh, yeh, yeh.  This is a blatant advert for my services (other coaches are available!) but I'm really just trying to ascertain why more people don't seek lessons despite virtually everyone wishing to be more skilled?  Like snowboarding I believe mountain biking to be a really easy sport to learn.  Once people are comfortable with the concepts of weight shift and braking they can learn to corner, hit drops and ride the steeps with confidence and yet so many riders shy away from the interesting terrain through fear and lack of technique.  I'm fortunate enough to get to coach many people from total beginners to experienced (in terms of years biking) riders and in many instances there is very little to tell between them after just half a day of coaching.  So many people seem to take up mountain biking and treat it like the daily commute with knobbly tyres, permanently sat down, clipping pedals and getting rattled to bits until they're forced to get off by a step or drop.  I'm afraid trail centres have to take a large proportion of the blame.  The gentrified, all weather with no variation facet of your average man made trail has spawned a generation of people who can 'just about get round the red in one piece'.  Back when I were a lad natural trails were all we had so when it rained we crashed lots and improved the hard way via smashes, snapped bones and A+E departments.

I dearly wish that back in 1988 someone had taken me aside and taught me how to ride.  It could've been me pulling a front flip off Edinburgh Castle and getting fifty million YouTube hits!  As it was, the first time I was ever coached was during my Trail Cycle Leader training course and it was a total revelation!  I learned that SPD's had robbed me of the opportunity to do a proper rear wheel lift and as a consequence a decent bunny hop.  I loved being observed and personally fed back to, even if it was accompanied by a mild embarrassment that my skills were so rudimentary for someone with so much supposed experience.  I lose count of the amount of riders who have since said the same to me following the coaching day of their own TCL training.  I love the fact that I've had so many potentially really good riders who I've been able to help with just the slightest tweaks to take their biking to a whole new level.  Just the other day I got an e-mail from a fella who is now manualling a hundred metres instead of two from just a couple of pointers.  Likewise, seeing the face of a sixty year old man who has just popped his first wheelie or a nervous beginner who has nailed a drop that has been taunting them makes my job eternally satisfying.

I think that the other reason that people shy away from formal coaching is because 'it's like riding a bike innit!'.  The belief that mountain biking is no different to general pootling on a bike means that because people can perform the function of pedalling and balancing they don't realise that they're lacking other fundamental skills.  Many of the people I do get to coach are under the impression that hitting techy trails, drops and gaps will always be beyond them and they're blown away when they realise there's no voodoo tricks, just a bit of teaching which breeds the necessary confidence and ability.

Times are changing, I'm getting much busier be it through word of mouth or sheer numbers of bikers now in the sport. Perversely I've actually had a fair bit of work because of the amount of serious injuries to out of depth newbies on the trail centres.  Many people have realised the potential dangers of MTB when they hear of other's misfortunes and so they seek professional assistance to prevent them having the same mishaps.

The message is clear, I need to eat and so do my kids so come and pay me to make you ride a bike better!  If that's the message you take from this then so be it but my real message is this.  You spend a a small fortune on a bike, kit, fuel to get to trails and maybe occasional accommodation.  You may take your bike away on holiday necessitating bike bags, excess baggage and bolstered holiday insurance.  You enviously watch others who are more talented than you and secretly wish you could emulate them.  If any of these statements are anywhere near to you then do think about getting some coaching, you'll never regret it.

Advert over, see you on the trails and you'd better be stood up on the downhills!

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Burning Soles - The Snowdon International Mountain Race

I was recently fortunate enough to have the honour of captaining the Northern Ireland International mountain running team at the World famous Snowdon race, here's a report I knocked up for various publications.

Team Northern Ireland were as always invited to the annual Snowdon International mountain race on July 18th.  The event, celebrating its 40th anniversary forms the highlight of a week long festival in Llanberis, the 'outdoor capital of Wales' and is attended by the cream of European mountain runners as well as a fair few 'ordinary' folk.  Team NI were in confident mood, boasting strong squads in both the male and female races.  The men's team consisted of NIMRA and Hill and Dale champ Seamus Lynch, Slieve Donard winner Ian Bailey, UK based Gavin Mulholland (currently third in the British series) and Mourne Runner's Sam Herron fresh back from success in the Mont Blanc marathon.  The women's squad were also looking powerful with NIMRA champ Shileen O'Kane, Slieve Donard champion Diane Wilson and long distance expert BARF's Jackie Toal.

The course itself was reverted back to the original 1976 route, adding an extra kilometre of road running to the usual tortuous ten miles which climbs to 1,085 metres, the highest point in Britain outside the Scottish Highlands, before plummeting back down to the centre of Llanberis.  This event truly feels unique for several reasons, the huge and vocal crowds, the brutality of the man made track surface and the buckets of water on hand at the finish line to cool the runner's blistered soles.  It's definitely one for the bucket list of any runner and for us NI Internationals it's a chance to compare ourselves to the legendary local hardman Robbie Bryson whose 1985 ascent record still stands.

Conditions didn't help in the search for fast times with a strong and blustery wind battering the competitors with increasing force as they gained elevation.  Nevertheless, the pace was predictably brisk through the town and up the 25% gradient road to the Llanberis trail that forms the majority of the route.  Rhythm is everything in this race and so our team members tucked in and ground out the ascent in their own styles, mindful of the need to keep plenty in reserve for one of the toughest descents in British mountain racing.  For the NI men, Gavin turned at the summit first followed by Seamus, Sam and Ian.  In the ladies race Shileen again showed her climbing prowess, topping out before Diane and Jackie.  The top half of the descent allowed our mountain expertise to shine against others in the field who were a bit more selective about their foot placements.  Split times for the descents show near four minute mile averages down the steeper sections giving an idea of the technical abilities as well as steely mindsets of our Mournes honed athletes!  After a quad pounding five miles and in front of a vociferous and already half cut crowd the NI runners made their ways home.  Gavin (11th), Seamus (22nd), Ian (31st) and Sam (36th) finished well in a men's field of nearly 500.  Diane (10th), Shileen (13th) and Jackie (17th) showed very well amongst 125 female athletes.  Not quite enough to secure team medals but a very creditable effort in such high quality fields.
Post race smiles!
As is traditional, team NI then went on to show their prowess in the bars of Llanberis with a couple of medicinal drinks to soothe the rapidly stiffening joints.  Massive credit to the ladies who managed to get out for a loosening run the following morning.  The men were more set on enjoying a rare fried breakfast as a reward for their efforts, especially Sam 'double sausage' Herron.  Other weekend highlights included Seamy losing his boarding card in the terminal and nearly not making the boat, the ladies 'accidentally' ordering double portions in Pete's Eats, a cafe already notorious for its large portions and Team Ireland's Ian Conroy being whisked off by customs never to reappear!

The next International fixture is the Home International on August 22nd in Betwys-y-Coed.

So that was that!  As a postscript to the article, three days later I'm still hobbling around with stiff quads, blistered feet and heavily bruised toenails which will no doubt fall off again.  I've also been to the doctors to see about a chest problem that has hindered me for the last few weeks and it's a relief to know there's a reason why I couldn't get going on the climb accounting for my disappointing finishing position.  I'm looking forward to getting fixed up and back into the Mournes and a possible Seven Sevens debut.

Friday, 29 May 2015

The Most Important Bike Related Study In History

Now I'm the first to admit that when it comes to technology I'm generally a total luddite.  I could not give a shit about your latest phone, I have no apps and my TV is still deeper than the screen is wide. I find nothing more tedious than having to listen to 21st century bores extolling the virtues of the shiny and new, except that is when it comes to bikes.  For some reason it's my one weak spot where the latent consumerist tendencies boil up in me and I involuntarily find myself emptying my Paypal account because my stem is 5mm too long or my helmet is the wrong colour.

I've been biking for a loooong time now and it was whilst gathering bits together for a retro project build (disguised as a new bike for my wife to ride) that I realised that nobody in history has done a proper in-depth comparative study between the old school and the modern.  It's probably because the writers of the world are too scared of the evil superpowers of the corporate biking behemoths who'll ruin their lives if they threaten the inevitability of 'progress'.  Or perhaps it's fear of the realisation that they've essentially wasted thousands of pounds on kit that's made them no better riders whilst simultaneously ruining their spousal relationships and denying their kids the chance of a Third Level education.

However, I'm not afraid.  My kids are still young and my wife knows I squander a fortune of our retirement fund.  So I'm going to face into the epic task and produce the World's first definitive bike technology study and answer the question that everyone needs the answer to, 'is new bike technology a bit shit?'  Before I start can I make it clear that this isn't a discussion, everything in this entirely objective piece of work is FACT.  You can disagree but you're wrong, deal with it.

So here goes, wish me luck...

Back when Bontrager wasn't just part of the Trek corporation
Frames - 
So back in the day (you'll hear that at least 100 times in this piece!) frames all looked the same. They were made of steel and had 89 degree head angles and were all welded and had bottle cage mounts and some even had rack mounts for 'touring'.  Some were truly things of beauty (Bontrager, Chas Roberts, Fat Chance etc) but the similar appearances made it too hard for punters to tell that you'd spent a fortune on one which definitely limited your chances to look cool.  Then came titanium, aluminium, magnesium (Kirk Revolution anyone?!) and carbon and everything went mad.  Without even mentioning suspension (until the next section), slacker angles, integrated ISCG mounts, tapered head tubes etc have all incrementally improved the beating hearts of our bikes.  Frankly, if you'd shown me my Nomad C back in 1988 I'd have imploded.  Frames are lighter, better handling and displaying previously unimaginable degrees of versatility and so it's definitely a point for the new school.


Back in the nineties you bought a new frame and transferred all your old parts, easy.  Kids these days would laugh at that concept.  'Oh no, my forks have the wrong steerer, my headset isn't integrated, my bottom bracket has threads, my seatpost is a 30.9, my disk mounts are wrong', pass me the pills!! Gone are the delightful days of being able to waste hours in your garage plugging together a new build, replaced by hours of poring over CRC and to save a few quid on extras you'd not budgeted for.  New builds are now a protracted succession of minor disappointments of incompatibility that leave you hating your new frame long before it ever tastes dirt.  The alternative is buying a complete bike but that often means a migraine inducing Euro colour scheme with matching hubs and tyre logos.  No thanks.  So it's actually a point for the old school and if you disagree, one word, 'E-Bike'!!  Or is that two words?

Old School 1-0 Technology

Suspension -
Hmmm, £1,300 you say...
The REAL RS1's
Oh how I lusted after those RockShox RS1's.  Not the £1300 upside down, 29'er only abominations, the beautiful half-inch travel, neon-stickered originals.  Yes, early suspension was terrible until some Italian motorbikers with an excess of orange paint changed the world forever, but its possibilities have always been apparent.  I must admit I was a bit hostile towards full suspension in its early days, the XC racer in me was afraid of being morphed into a big hairy downhiller using terms like 'rad' and 'sketchy' but I wasn't hairy until years later and by then I'd seen the light.  Nowadays I own a 28lb, 160mm travel dream machine that allows me to hit drops and gaps like I actually know what I'm doing.  Surely an easy point for the modernisers?

EXCEPT... (tedious theme developing here)

In the 90's our bikes were so rigid that getting up to any kind of speed involved a rattling that could liquidise your kidneys.  That self regulation meant that although our crashes were regular they were never too serious.  Sure, we broke the odd bone or three but it was normally because we'd drilled holes in our 130g handlebars which then snapped in two when we hopped off a kerb.  Suspension has meant that we can all hit maximum velocity in the nasty stuff and when the talent runs out and the travel can't save us it's a one way trip to the morgue.  So on the one hand suspension makes me look like I know what I'm doing and on the other hand it's exponentially increased our chances of a chat with the reaper.  Only one winner then, suspension.  Did you not hear me right?  It makes it look like I can ride.

Old School 1-1 Technology

Wheels - 
Oh piss off.  If you want to discuss wheel sizes go and read the troll fest at the bottom of any Pinkbike post.  Yes, 29'ers roll faster but they're less fun than 26" and 650b is a total con (they're not 27.5"!!) and frankly any more talk about this will guarantee a change in the laws on 'assisted' suicide spearheaded by me.  I've got a garage full of tyres that'll probably never get used because I had to get bigger wheels.  I've also got the same Chris King hubs I got for my 18th birthday in 1996 and the bearings have never needed changing so hub technology clearly hasn't had to advance at all.  And since when is it ever morally justifiable to charge two grand for a set of carbon wheels that broke in virtually every bike magazine test in 2014?!  The old school not only wins, it's dancing away down a dusty trail into the sunset with its fast accelerating, brilliant in the tight tech 26" glory whilst the twisted faces of the new school glare at their computer screens pouring vitriol on anyone who dares question their supposed superiority.

Old School 2-1 Technology

Headsets and Stems - 
Ok, ok, so the modernisers just took a pounding on the hoops but can they strike back when we look at componentry?  Hands up who remembers threaded headsets?  Keep your hands up if you could tighten one whilst on the trail.  Nah, thought not.  Any component that requires not one, but two huge spanners to tweak it is inherently a bit flawed and they always seemed to work their way loose when you were in the back of beyond.  And as for quill stems, what... the... hell?!  The only surprise is how long it took someone (was it Tange?) to invent something that bolts directly on to the fork steerer. Even minor crashes used to result in the old front wheel between the legs, haul on the bars to straighten routine.  Some fella has just invented a laser guide to get your stem straight.  Back then we were happy if it was within 30 degrees after we near snapped our bar ends off getting the wheel re-aligned!  The other huge improvements have come from the ongoing shortening.  The only people who benefited from our old 150mm stems were chiropractors.  Steering was so slow you had to pre-empt a corner whilst the bike was still in the shed.  Mondraker may be going a bit far, we'll be on negative length stems next like this dude but generally shorter has meant funner, safer and sharper handling.  Better control, allen keys to tension and tighten, a firmer grip between stem and steerer, the modern day wins by a mile.  Now if they could just standardise the sizes of the allen bolts!

It took a lot of paper rounds to afford this 135mm back destroyer!
Old School 2-2 Technology 

Handlebars - 
My old mate Greeny used to have bars so narrow that by the time he'd got his brake levers, XT thumbies and cork grips on there wasn't even room to fit a novelty bell.  That set up was pure lightning... in a straight line.  As soon as he tried to corner the gyroscopic forces involved meant that he needed a physics degree to work out how to not deck it into a tree.  Bars have got wider, swoopier, and thanks to the joys of the black stuff they've got stronger too and it's revolutionised the handling of all our bikes.  I thought bars less than 740mm had been banned under EU law until I went to Lake Garda last year and found that the German tourists there must've bought them all up in the late 90's. To top it all we used to stick bar ends on too, and not just stubby ones, huge cow horns that made our bikes look like Boss Hogg's motor.  So to summarise, we had bars that were far too narrow, made of paper thin aluminium which we then made narrower and stuck bits of metal on the end to maximise leverage and guarantee catastrophic failure.  And then we drilled holes in them to save weight.  In defence of the old school, some kind (but misguided) individual did give me fifty notes on E-Bay for an old set of Pace RC Sub-130's I found in the garage but that's hardly going to sway the verdict.

Old School 2-3 Technology 

Seatposts - 
In the nineties the only time 'bleeding' and 'seatpost' came in the same sentence was when my teammate Nick Mock snapped his USE in half (didn't everyone over 4 stone in weight?) and attempted DIY stomach surgery.  These days that static tube of metal has taken on a whole new life. Now don't get me wrong, most of my bikes have got dropper posts because I'm just so damn ENDURO but really, at what point could we no longer be arsed to flip open a seat QR?  Yes, they're convenient and yes isn't it amazing how often you use them on the trail but £250 for a glorified office chair?! Plus points include not having to swing my leg so high to get on the bike and having the public saying 'oooh, what will they think of next'.  Downsides include more handlebar tat, weight, cost, getting hit in the knackers after you bleed them and forget about the rebound speed, ugly cable routing, annoying 'stealth' routing and trying to persuade an E-Bay seller in Hong Kong to honour the warranty when they inevitably break.  I'd be prepared to forgive all this because they truly are amazing except for one key factor.  Me and my mates used to ride fast to the top of the hill and then take a twenty minute break under the spurious premise of dropping the saddles for the way down. During that time we ate, drank and solved all the World's problems.  Nowadays we push a button and crack on without stopping.  End result, we're hungrier, thirstier and the World is totally screwed.

Old School 3-3 Technology

Bottom Brackets and Chainsets - 
I've got a great idea.  Let's take the set of bearings that are most exposed to the elements, low down near the mud and the mire, feeling the full weight of the lardy arsed rider bobbing away side to side and let's put them on the outside of the frame where they're much more vulnerable.  Whilst we're at it lets get rid of the threads that have worked perfectly for 100 years and make them press-in so they're much harder to replace, oh and did anyone say creeeeeaaaakkkkkkk?  Now the old square tapers and internal BB's weren't perfect.  Sometimes we all had to rob a piece of scaffold pole, stick it on a foot long spanner and get three mates to help remove a seized internal BB, but that was character building and that fella would've probably fallen off next door's scaffold even if it was fully intact.  Imagine a time when you could remove any set of cranks and bottom bracket with the same couple of tools. Granted, those tools weighed more than your bike but they worked.  Then it went all Octalink, ISIS (won't be chasing that breach of copyright), Race Face, BB30, External, Megadrive, Hyperlink, Uberchav, SPAM, Splined, blah, blah.  And what knobber decided to switch from five bolt to four bolt and make my spare chainrings and old cranks obsolete?  Technology peaked at Royce titanium square taper BB's and Bullseye cranks with maybe a nod to the Middleburn RS3's.  Since then it's been a gradual downward spiral towards a hellish mush of incompatible bits and bobs.

Old School 4-3 Technology

Pedals - 
I exposed my fledgling teenage knee joints to the original floatless SPD pedals.  I haven't walked without a limp ever since.  No further questions m'lud...

Yeh, thanks Shimano for not thinking about 'float'!
Old School 4-4 Technology

Gears N' Stuff - 
Everyone used to know that more gears equalled cooler bike.  In 1992 if someone asked me how many gears I had I could proudly say '21' and know that I was instantly rad to the power of sick.  In 2015 my Nomad and my Ibis Tranny only have 20 gears between them, not very impressive!  But wait a minute.  Who the hell actually needs a big ring?  And whilst we're at it who needs a granny ring either? (answer; roadies and people too fond of pies).  I'm running a 30 tooth ring and an 11-36 cassette and it's more than enough for Alpine riding.  I happily scaled the steep sides of the Chamonix valley last year and only span out the 30-11 combo when chasing some Belgian mates down the road to Lake Garda after I'd already been waiting for hours on the techy bits.  Even better, new school ratios have finally canned off the worst of components, the front mech.  Less weight, cleaner lines, less clutter and unhindered suspension designs.  The mech is dead, long die the mech.  I do still very occasionally hanker after the beautiful simplicity of thumbshifters in friction mode when fighting with one of the many bikes that get thrust at me because I'm 'handy with the spanners' but advances have resulted in gears that work stunningly well at all price points.  On top of all that, clutch mechs and narrow wides have made dropped chains a real rarity so we don't even need to shell out a ton to E13 or MRP.  Happy days!

Old School 4-5 Technology

Tyres - 
Aaaah, the Onza Porcupines
Aaahhh, the halcyon days.  Onza Porcupines, Panaracer Smokes, amber walls...  Hang on a minute, halcyon my arse.  Tyres used to be too thin, too flexy and I know the lighter walls are creeping back but boy do they look terrible.  There have been huge advances in compound technology and tread design.  Super Tackys have saved my bacon on plenty of occasions when pushing to the limit on the loose.  The super wide rims on the Nomad have allowed me to safely run pressures as low as 12psi and tubeless technology has changed everything.  Imagine, we used to get punctures!  How prehistoric is that?  On the sizeable flip side, the tyre companies have been totally complicit in this whole wheel size debacle.  They knew what they were doing when they embraced the expanding diameters and I bet the smug gits can't wait until the decent 26" tyres become endangered species and they can shift them from bargain basement to retro item.  I bet I end up handing back that pile of loot I got for selling those hideous elastomer stuffed Rock Shox Judy's to help pay for the last High Rollers in Europe.  My heart rate is doubling and my face burning with the injustice of it all.  Despite all evidence to the contrary I'm handing this one to the old school.

Old School 5-5 Technology

Brakes - 
Disc (why not disk?) brakes - Amazing modulation, brilliant stopping power, can run with buckled rims BUT can't be bled on the trailside.
Cantilever brakes - Just rubbish power, needed 6 hands to get them set up right, still had to be accompanied by a foot on the back wheel to stop in the wet.
Maguras - Who are you?  Hans Rey?
V-Brakes - Great power, super light, easy to set up and fix, Avid levers were pure jewellery.  They needed straight rims to not rub which was a bummer but if your wheels are bent then get fixing!
I know disc brakes are the best but who ever lost a fingertip setting up V's?  Who amongst you has had to suffer the ignominy of never ending squeals because you accidentally got 0.05ml of any chemicals near your pads?  Who is slightly perturbed about having to explain to the in-laws why there are syringes sitting on your draining board?  Don't be blinded by their superb performance and obvious superiority over rim brakes, discs aren't all that and so the V's win.  What do you mean this study is rigged??

Old School 6-5 Technology

Saddles - 
Selle Italia reintroduced the 'classic' Flite Titanium twenty odd years after I refused to run anything else on my bikes, only this time they were quadruple the price.  Ignoring the pointlessness of I-Beam and the 0.6 gram saving of carbon rails they're really just somewhere to park your arse, just like they always were.  This one's a draw.

Old School 7-6 Technology

And so that's the final result!  Undeniable, incontrovertible evidence that whilst some technological advances have definitely been to the benefit of all, the overall balance points towards old school bikes being the pinnacle of MTB creation.  It's a shock to me but you'd struggle to deny the impartiality of this most rigorous of studies.  When this goes viral I'm afraid the ramifications for the wider bike industry could be catastrophic as the enlightened turn their backs on senseless consumerism and start to just enjoy riding their bikes again.  Forum monkeys and trolls will have to reconnect with the real world and some may even eventually talk to someone of the opposite sex (or the same sex, whatever floats their boats).  Corporate greedmongers will cease from attempting to force their lust for change on to a savvy new breed of technophobes.  And as for me, well I've been writing for a long time now and so I'm off for a spin.  I know now that my hydraulically braked and suspended, perfectly indexed, super lightweight, superbly balanced, frictionless bearinged, big wheeled carbon dream machines aren't the answer and so I'll take out my 20 year old steel hardtail instead.

Well I would, but it's just a bit shit isn't it...

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Reaching the Peak - 54 Minutes Of Flow

My legs feel relaxed as I drop out of the woods into the car park and on to the main street; the rhythm destroying transition from steep roots to flat asphalt not affecting me like in the previous three years. Hitting the seafront I involuntarily punch the air as drivers beep their approval and the gathered crowd clap and cheer.  Needlessly I hurdle a sign on the pavement before cruising through the finish line and releasing a guttural roar, pure emotion cascading out.  I'm not in control of my actions, the essential link between brain and body is somehow removed, a severing that took place sometime prior to the race and remained missing throughout.  I've smashed a course record that seemed previously untouchable and it felt painless, almost effortless.  I feel that I may have discovered the most elusive of sporting qualities, the concept of flow, and it feels incredible!

I have a love/love relationship with Slieve Donard, Northern Ireland's highest peak.  Rising 853 metres directly out of the striking coastline of Newcastle, County Down it has provided me with some of my most satisfying athletic achievements.  Last year I completed a 3hr 25min Donard Hat-Trick as an extreme training exercise in preparation for the World Running Champs in mountainous Colorado.  This year I completed a different kind of Donard hat-trick, winning Ireland's oldest and most prestigious mountain race for the third consecutive year.  It's the peak that initially inspired my interest in fell running when I read about the exploits of superhuman athletes who could somehow reach its distant summit and return in under an hour.  Now I can count myself amongst that elite group, a triumph of hard work and self belief over age and inexperience.

My first attempt at the Slieve Donard race was back in 2012, two years after Stevie Cunningham tore up the record books with a blistering 54:33 winning time.  I ran pretty well for a newcomer, finishing 7th in 1:00:46 but it was a result that brought more frustration than satisfaction.  Position mattered little to me as I never considered that I'd be a contender for honours but I badly wanted to break the hour.  The worst aspect of this was the knowledge that I'd be compelled to return the following year and go through the sheer agony of dragging myself over the steep and treacherous ground once again. So twelve months on I returned fitter, wiser and with better technique, aiming purely to knock 47 seconds off my time, thus allowing me to retire from competition happy in the knowledge that I could do 'the hour'.  That year saw a mini blizzard decimate the lead group high on the slopes and I found myself alone out front. The shock of winning took literally weeks to sink in.  My name was on the trophy with a 57:01 and some kind folk were even suggesting that I could've troubled the course record if conditions had been slightly less ridiculous for a mid-May day.

With that optimistic inspiration in mind I returned the following year with the sole goal of beating Cunningham's mark.  A weaker field left the result in little doubt.  I'd continued to improve rapidly in the sport and my closest rivals were away with the International squad so it was mainly the fast time that I sought.  I buried myself on the climb, summitting in 38:42 but my legs were hollowed out and I limped down, collapsing over the line incredibly in an identical 57:01.  I never considered it possible that I'd win the Slieve Donard race and be left disappointed but in truth I felt none of the buzz of my previous totally unexpected victory.  My ambitions had shifted and I'd fallen way short of the 55 minute times that characterised the wins of the top previous champions.

Apparently pushing the pace from the start!
And so to 2015 and an anticipated epic head to head with the most exciting prospect that Irish mountain running has seen in a long time.  My friend and occasional training partner Seamus Lynch has propelled himself to the top of the elite pile this year.  He's served his apprenticeship over previous seasons and pushed me to new levels in 2014 in my desperate attempts to keep ahead of him.  After a Winter that demonstrated both his improving speed and widening versatility, victorious in Cross Country races as well as 10k's, he's crushed everyone in the hills so far this season, winning everything that he's entered.  The knowledge that he's never beaten me on an open mountain race kept me confident but although the official pundits had us as joint favourites I knew that the majority fancied Lynch for the win.  My preparation generally went excellently and even a flare up of a stomach ulcer three weeks before the race allowed some enforced recovery time which ended up as a positive.  Nine days before Donard I achieved a long held ambition of taking the title on the brutal 'Binnian to the Top' race on a route that climbs a tortuous 2,000ft in just two miles.  It holds both special importance for me as venue for my first ever fell race and also special frustration after three consecutive second places! Following that success every session went as planned and I maintained firm self control to drop a few extra pounds to keep my weight to an absolute healthy minimum. With every quality session my self belief grew.  It's hard to explain but my psychological strength grows very gradually, day by day, with every strong training performance and every day of minimising unnecessary calorific intake. When asked by others I maintained my line that a sub-55 minute time was my only ambition but with a week to go I began to re-frame my objectives.  I could feel something special brewing.  As ever I visualised every inch of the race, playing out possible permutations in my mind.  What to do if I find myself behind, how to react if I'm alone out front, when to attack, what lines to take.  It sounds like overkill but these races are won as much in the mind as the legs.  A single thought kept returning to my mind and that was the commentary of race chief Joe McCann as I ran the home straight to win and then his shocked proclamation that I'd beaten the record.  This theme dominated my thoughts, a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Race day was simply perfect.  An early morning jog felt good with the pain of recent Plantar Fasciitis in my heel flaring less than expected.  My kids were really placid, minimising race day stress and as I drove to Newcastle I felt an excitement devoid of the usual nauseating nervousness.  I managed to secure the last parking place right next to the start area and was signed on and registered with ninety minutes to spare.  And that's when strange feelings started occurring.  With time to kill I went to visit my wife Anna at work for a chat and as I did I became aware of a total calm, all nerves dissipating and anticipation disappearing.  The best way to describe it is that time was no longer relevant. Instead of the usual longing for the event to be over so I could release the pent up tension, I felt that I wasn't even sure that the race hadn't happened already.  Reading that back sounds ridiculous but it was genuinely how it felt.  Most people have heard of being 'in the zone', a state of intense focus on a singular goal but this went beyond that to a state where the goal was no longer tangible.  I felt almost absent, out of body as we lined up and the whistle sounded.
Leading out towards the open mountain
I went easy down the road, legs moving without cerebral input and breathing barely registering.  It's only seeing the photos afterwards that I've realised that I opened up a lead on this section, shaping the fast end of the race into the kind of arrow you see when the pace is high.  The lower forested sections of the course are steep and heavily rooted but my feet found their way instinctively and I pressed on, still feeling remarkably comfortable and waiting to be passed allowing someone else to dictate the pace.  Crossing the river on to the open mountain I continued to move smoothly up to the famous 'black stairs' a rocky outcrop that runners pick their way through with varying degrees of caution or abandon.  It was at this ridiculously steep section that I noticed a gap opening back to Seamus, only a small one but on ground that wild in gradient even a few feet is enough to constitute a breakaway. Under normal circumstances I might've been tempted to accelerate and try to open a potentially race winning gap but my tactical mind was firmly overcome by the overwhelming calmness.  As I pushed on up the open moorland I maintained the rhythm, lacking both the usual muscular pain and also missing the common leader's sense of feeling hunted by the 200 hungry runners behind.  I never look behind me when I race, it serves no function but the temptation is often overwhelming.  On Saturday it seemed irrelevant, if Seamus was back on my shoulder I wasn't concerned and when I moved out right to gain better, more runnable ground I expected Seamy to appear on my left taking his usual aggressive direct lines.
The masses hit the Black Stairs
I topped out in exactly 37 minutes.  My previous fastest ascent was 36:45 on my return from the Worlds last year when I was benefitting from some time spent running at high altitude.  However, that time didn't include the two road minutes of the race route so by that reckoning I'd just done the climb in 35 minutes!  Between the Northerly summit cairn and the actual summit cairn is fairly flat and it's essential to sprint this section on the way up to maximise any gaps on chasers.  A friend on the summit has assured me that I looked in a fair degree of pain as I fought the vicious headwind and turned to descend but inside my head the calm remained.  A heavily folded ankle simply sprang back into place and I dropped my head and sprinted as I passed Seamus still finishing his upward journey. I could see that I had a gap but I know that Lynch is an incredible descender, just the right combination of nerve and technique and I knew that he'd be dropping like a man possessed, whittling away my lead.  As I passed numerous ascending runners I was aware of a strange sense of enjoyment that I've never experienced on that technical, ankle straining plummet before.  I was also aware of at least four people saying 'go on Seamus' to me, unsurprised to see a flash of red Newcastle AC running kit but not aware that it was hanging off my back and not his.

My pre-race visualisation had always included a mantra that stated if I was leading as I crossed the river then the race would be mine.  I'm so familiar with the bottom section and it seems to favour my slightly skinnier and shorter body as we weave through trees and jump through slippery rocks and roots at full speed.  The auto pilot continued to guide me off the final steep section, leaping the ditch and hitting the car park where this blog began.

Coming back from the mountain alone
The finish straight was met with an overwhelming euphoria.  Yes I pumped my fist in the air, yes I pointed at the crowds, yes I hurdled that sign and yes I screamed out loud as I crossed the line.  But no, none of those actions were planned or even conscious.  The disconnect remained, mind and body working harmoniously but independently.

I've been told I looked fresh at the finish.  I certainly felt fresh.  Adrenaline, endorphins, pure delight, who knows what was in control of my mental faculties, but physically I felt good for another lap.  I bounced from handshake to hug and was vaguely conscious of Joe McCann announcing the new record.  On the one hand it was a huge shock as all the way up I'd been telling myself I'd better start putting some effort in if I wanted a decent time.  On the other hand it was no shock at all, I'd already heard him announce it tens of times before in my head the week before the race.

Reading this back I'm aware that it could be seen as disrespectful, claiming that the biggest performance of my life was actually pretty effortless whilst others were burying themselves behind.  I haven't written this blog to boast.  I'm actually trying to find some kind of explanation for myself, if only so I can replicate that performance again someday.  Another bizarre happening in the run up to the race is that I couldn't get an image of Pete Bland out of my head from the photos in Richard Askwith's brilliant 'Feet In The Clouds' homage to all things fell running.  Bland is leaping in the air in total ecstacy after finally winning the Ambleside race in 1968.  He was quoted as saying 'it was like being in a dream - I had no pain'.  All I know is that I now understand what he meant.

Pete Bland after Ambleside 1968 (wearing kit borrowed off Barney Rubble?)
And so to the facts and figures.  I finished in 53:45, slicing 48 seconds off the previous 'modern day' record that involves the four minutes plus of road running to and from the mountain proper.  The previous record for 'just' the mountain was 50:30 held by Ian Holmes, a man sometimes described as 'the greatest fell runner of all time'.  My mountain time was definitely faster than that and I'd confidently, if totally speculatively go so far as to say that I may be the only person in history to run the mountain in less than 50 minutes.  Other genuine greats have also been surpassed including Irish athletic legend, World Championship medallist and all time Snowdon ascent record holder Robbie Bryson who's fastest win was 52:28 in 1999 and nine time Donard winner Deon McNeilly who's 1998 personal best stands at 55:08, neither including the road.

Let me state this in clear, unquestionable terms.  I'm not suggesting for one minute that my abilities are on par with those legends of the sport.  I've undoubtedly now made my mark but those men won all the big races in many record times that have stood for decades and may well stand for all time. What I have done is helped prove that there is a new generation of Mournes based runners who will hopefully be viewed in the same league as those few (and there are others I've not mentioned).  I've also moved my psychological goalposts and now believe that I can compete in the biggest races.  I dearly hope that I'll get one last run out for the NI squad at the Snowdon International race and I'll attack it without fear.  Likewise, with an entry for Ben Nevis and the World Masters taking place in North Wales I may well be looking for a blaze of glory end to my running career!

I've stated my desire to stop competing on numerous occasions.  The pressure I put on myself to achieve can be debilitating and effects my health, my mental state and those around me who have to put up with my moods and singular focus. Unfortunately I can't compete purely for enjoyment, and the quest for results sometimes hinders my appreciation of the pure joys of being able to get amongst the peaks at will, moving at speed and appreciating the connection between man and nature.  It's a sad affliction but one that I have to accept.  I just wonder whether having had a brief glimpse of that unique mental and physical state which I've best heard described as 'flow' will leave me happy to stop, content in the knowledge that I once reached that level or will it leave me forever chasing the unique set of circumstances that generated it in the first place.

Only time will tell but in the meantime I'm just enjoying these memories...

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

The Energy Crisis - Killing the Kids

A while back I flicked on to TG4 (the Irish language channel) in time to see some slickly shot 'extreme sports' footage that caused me to pause a touch longer than usual.  The skills on show by the riders were astounding, from FMX to MTB to Snowsports, numerous athletes were putting their arses well and truly on the line to pull a trick that would gain them a few brief seconds of TV coverage. Whilst marvelling at the unique range of abilities, I couldn't help instantly noticing that the whole show was like watching a super-extended Red Bull advert.  A double back flip on a motocross bike got maybe ten seconds of footage with a full speed and a slow-mo but then the lingering view of the rider with the focus almost completely on the branding on his full face helmet got double that.  Up next, a skier in a Red Bull skinsuit, oh, and look, there's that Felix Bumgardener dude doing his big skydive thing from a Red Bull capsule.  I started to get pretty perturbed by this advertising bombardment but was intrigued enough to watch to the end to see what the story was and sure enough at the end of the credits was this; 'Xtreme Sports – Best of Yoz.  Red Bull media house'.

Now correct me if I'm wrong, but TG4 is a partially state funded channel with a remit of promoting the Irish language and culture, not an advertising platform for an 'energy' product (more on that later). I realise that programming is expensive and there aren't that many Irish language TV production companies or indeed Irish speakers around to fill a schedule.  However, at what point did it become acceptable to allow this degree of subliminal marketing to masquerade as a legitimate programme, especially one that is clearly targeted at the youth market?

And herein lies my dilemma.  Red Bull, and latterly Monster have clearly ploughed ££££'s into the sport that I love alongside many other sports that have shifted distinctly towards the mainstream whilst funded by the gloopy drinks companies and their slick media operations.  In turn, this has undeniably allowed more full time athletes to pursue their goals, pushing the standards of skills to previously unimaginable levels.  Beyond that, Red Bull have been central to the development and sponsorship of a plethora of events that would otherwise never have been conceived.  The question is, at what cost?
They undeniably support events and make cool stuff happen.
 Sorry, couldn't find a credit for this pic.  Contact me if it's yours.
Back when I started riding MTB it was a very different animal.  Now I'm not claiming that it's in any way 'cool' now but at least it's got a recognisable and largely positively regarded image.  We've come a long way from the days of riding circles round muddy fields in full lycra with 500mm bars and bar ends.  Skills and mindsets have changed rapidly and technology has had to constantly adapt to keep up as the boundaries of possibility have been blown off the scale again.  If you'd told me as a sixteen year old that within 20 years there would be people backflipping 70+ foot canyons on MTB's I'd obviously not have believed you.  Back then pulling a five foot huck to flat was about the pinnacle of radness!  And it has to be said that, credit where credit's due, the driving force (cash and vision) behind these phenomenal advances can be traced back to the original Red Bull Rampage.  If you don't know what it is then YouTube it but basically it represented a seismic shift in what was conceivable on a bike with maniacs like Robbie Bourdon and Wade Simmons (and our own Glyn O'Brien) hurling themselves off huge cliffs in a space like Utah desertscape.  So Red Bull can claim to have advanced MTB (and other sports) and also maintained them through event development, mainstream marketing and individual sponsorship deals.  So where's the catch?

The catch is that the product itself is so harmful and it's being deliberately targeted at a youth market who are the last people who should need artificial stimulants to be consumed as a norm on a daily basis.  Now I'm not definitely claiming it's inherently dangerous (although let's not forget that for several years it was banned in France, Denmark and Norway and evidence is mounting that it is potentially lethal), what I'm saying is that it's totally unnecessary, particularly for kids.  Here's a couple of tales from my experience.

Back in my student days Red Bull was just appearing and we quickly realised that alongside Vodka it made a potent mix with pretty enjoyable effects (more for us than for anyone near us!).  Back then I was already big into my training albeit with virtually zero knowledge of proper nutrition.  Following my selection as the University MTB team captain I decided to go all out for results at the National Champs and stay off the booze for a whole term!  Of course I didn't go out any less, I just drank this new Red Bull stuff which gave me the energy to keep on clubbing.  And then my form began to slump.  Funnily enough, the inability to sleep, the battering of my Cortisol levels and the peaks and troughs in energy weren't conducive to physical performance and in fact my training results after a few cans of Red Bull were worse than after nine pints of Tetleys and a dodgy spring roll. Experiential learning duly noted, I vowed to stay off the Red Bull anywhere near race time.

A few years later in my formative years as an Outdoor Professional I was working with a group of teenagers doing the standard range of 'team tasks' that blight the burgeoning careers of semi-qualified young instructors!  The group were a nice bunch of kids and were actually pretty engaged in the activities.. until after lunch.  During the break, one of the lads drank a litre bottle of Boost (cheapy Red Bull) and for want of a better phrase turned into a total dick.  In fact he became so disruptive that it was really difficult to keep them all functioning as a group at all.  Prior to that he'd been fine and unless someone had laced his Tayto's with amphetamine I can only assume that it was the drink that had brought about this complete personality transformation.  I can only wonder what teachers make of the substances.

So who the hell am I to question people's lifestyle choices?  Well nobody really except I'm perfectly within my rights to be concerned.  I'm also pretty sure that from a nutritional standpoint these so called 'energy drinks' are actually a rapid way to ensure huge fluctuations in energy levels, problems with attaining proper sleep patterns and all the associated physical and mental health issues that subsequently arise.  Is there really any difference between Gee Atherton having Red Bull adverts all over his kit to him having Marlboro ones?  What would the reaction be if Sam Hill sat on the hot seat and nervously chain smoked instead of supping from a can of Monster (and really, are we meant to believe that athletes of that calibre are actually drinking that shit?).  I'm not alone in these concerns either.  Pro snowboarders Bryan Fox and Austin Smith actually started a 'drink water' campaign in 2011 as a direct reaction to Smith being offered a lucrative deal from one of the drinks companies. They felt that as role models who kids aspire to be like, they should be sending a positive message of health, and we're not talking Volvic here, their logo is simply a tap.
Fair play to these lads turning down the cash and sticking up two fingers to the corporations.
Sorry, couldn't find a credit for this pic.  Contact me if it's yours.
So what am I saying?  Personally I think that all these energy drinks (and all fizzy drinks really) shouldn't be on sale to under 18's and should have hefty limitations on marketing, just like cigarettes. The links to all sorts of nasty illnesses, from the obvious diabetes and heart conditions to less obvious mental health issues have been documented many many times over.  Latterly, something much more instant and terrifying has come to light as the correlation between 'energy drinks' and the spate of sudden deaths amongst seemingly healthy young people have been further researched (check this out and there's loads more too).

The money and likewise the innovation that Red Bull bring into sport have undeniably assisted athletes but it's such a shame that those talented individuals have to push a harmful substance on to a vulnerable consumer group in order to pay their bills.  I'm sure some of them don't care one bit what they have to sell their soul for in order to buy shiny new crap but it's heartening to see that a few others do place their social conscience beyond economic factors.  If their actions can persuade just a few of the kids I see slugging that syrup at bus stops on the way to school to stop and think about the physical effects then they've done a worthwhile job.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Mind Games 2 - But the flesh was weak...

Kevin Carr stumbled into the Clonakilty Hotel at 9:40pm on Monday March 16th.  He'd been on his feet for fourteen hours and run over fifty miles.  He looked understandably exhausted, older than when I last saw him, dishevelled and stressed.   I looked him in the eyes.  Bloodshot and glazed with the proverbial thousand yard stare and a look nearing delirium, the day's exertions had clearly taken a heavy toll, not to mention the previous six hundred.

Fast forward seven days and I was dropping a seemingly different Kev at Newry bus station, on the exact spot to the centimetre that he'd stopped his GPS trackers the previous evening.  Looking stronger, more relaxed but with the same steely focus, he jogged off towards Belfast and the end of his brief Irish odyssey.  This is an account of my fleeting role in one of the most remarkable athletic feats in human history, one that astounds me even more for having had a glimpse at the true magnitude of it and one that took me closer to my own personal limits than I'd ever have imagined.

I've explained my relationship with Kev and the reasons he undertook his epic World run in the previous blog.  To briefly summarise, we're old school friends who lost touch for a decade and having regained contact realised that we're both lovers of running, pushing our own physical limits and both sufferers of mental health issues.  I got counselling, Kev ran round the World!

The actual process of running with Kev never really occurred to me until the evening before I left for South West Cork to join him.  Over the previous couple of years we'd kept in touch as he paced around the globe and I'd always intended to join him for the Irish leg without stopping to consider what that would actually entail.  I'm a mountain runner and my strengths and interests lie in running up and down steep, wildly uneven ground as fast as possible.  I actively eschew the road, finding that the tedium and joint pain far outweigh the available endorphins so what was I possibly thinking?  The truth is that I wasn't!  The romantic image of being involved in a truly inspirational challenge along with an old mate had blinded my judgement and even when I realised the immense daily mileage required I blocked out the implications.  As I worked out the logistics of an epic bus journey and threw together some kit it simultaneously dawned on me that not only was I intending to run beyond double my previous maximum daily mileage but I was planning to do it for three consecutive days! The fear of realising what I'd signed up for hit me like a train and I wanted badly to back out but knew that it was by no means an option.  Grabbing my least knackered pair of trail shoes I then grabbed a fitful nights sleep.

The next day began with a frantic series of phone calls that culminated in a very bemused looking taxi driver carrying a pair of Inov8 shoes around the bus station having just sped down from Belfast to Newry via a local stockist.  As an Inov8 sponsored athlete Kev has had a choice of footwear that have been delivered to him throughout the run.  Unfortunately, having recently changed shoe and binned the old ones, he'd suffered a torrid two days between Shannon and Kenmare struggling to adapt to an unfamiliar model.  The result was a race against time that we won by a whisker thanks to a man who left me with the words 'you may have a couple of fines to pick up!'

The eight hour bus journey passed without incident as I enjoyed the rare experience of being able to stuff as much food into me as possible, safe in the knowledge that it'd all get burned the following day.  The bus pulled into Clonakilty at 8pm and I strolled the quaint main street which was all prepped for the big St. Patrick's day parade the following day. I half wished that we'd be able to stay for the festivities!  Then, having explained at the desk that I'm not that fella who's running around the world (they were anticipating Kev's arrival) I settled in and waited for him.

I don't really know what I was expecting.  I've been in intermittent contact with him throughout the run and so I knew the difficulties he faced not just in terms of the physical aspects but also the emotional stress of continually moving, never stopping unless forced to.  However, I don't think I was prepared for how utterly demanding day to day life has become for him.  In terms of the hierarchy of his fundamental needs following that day's efforts, food and sleep should've been the only priorities. Unfortunately he had to precede that by updating GPS trackers, charging multiple essential bits of equipment and checking his physical state.  The failure to undertake any of these tasks could critically delay departure the following morning and with an intended schedule that will incredibly see him shave just two days off the existing record there's no margin for error.  He never intended to finish the run with a month of back-to-back fifty mile days but sickness, bureaucracy and horrendous luck with the weather have slowly eroded his margin for error.  The result has been a gradual increase in the required daily mileage which he said wasn't too daunting with six months remaining but now requires superhuman daily efforts.  We eventually got to sleep at 11:30 with a 5:30am alarm set.

The next morning I wolfed down a couple of bananas, excited at the prospect of running 50+ miles but understandably apprehensive.  Above all I didn't want to be a hindrance to Kev.  He's run alone for so long now and I felt that possibly my presence could upset subtle balances and routines.  I remembered reading that Mark Cavendish actively avoided socialising when nearing the conclusion of his round the world cycling record attempt as he was mentally set so hard in his routine.  Kev allayed my worries by saying that the company would be a good boost and so I felt a bit more comfortable as we started the tracker and jogged out into a dewy early dawn.
Definitely a grimace
What followed has already become a blur in my memory, the brain has an inherent ability to blank out painful experiences, but I remember some aspects clearly.

1) There was no pace that we could comfortably share.  Kev has fine tuned a perma-pace, one that is incredibly efficient and low impact and designed for travelling immense distances but it's not fast. He's also a few inches shorter than me and so whatever I did, I found myself pulling ahead.  I knew that this would bite me in the arse sometime but I had to adapt and adopt a shuffling half step.  It felt uncomfortable and unnatural but it kept us within talking distance.

2) Kev was suffering.  I mean really suffering.  He was gritting his teeth and pushing on but I'd estimate that most people wouldn't consider leaving their beds in his physical state.  He'd been too sick to eat any breakfast, his digestive system was in turmoil and he repeatedly had to stop to dry heave, attempting to expel non-existent stomach contents.  He explained to me that he's actually changed the shape of his bite through 19 months of gritting his teeth and muscle wastage on his legs has diminished his quad muscles to a smaller circumference than his calves!  Anyone expecting to encounter a fine specimen of athleticism would be astounded.  His run has been physically debilitating on a scale that I'd never anticipated.  Pushing bodily limitations is something I'm familiar with but enforced suffering on this scale is definitely at the outer reaches of my comprehension.  We celebrated when Kev reluctantly forced down a couple of jelly babies and marked it as a sign of improvement but he later admitted that it was the worst he'd felt in the whole challenge!

We pushed on to Bandon through quintessentially rolling Irish countryside, the early morning darkness retreating and the first tickles of warmth indicating a fine day to come.  A conversation in a garage encapsulated for me how incomprehensible the scale of the world run is.  The girls there raised eyebrows as we briefly explained where Kev has been but they were more impressed by the evidently more tangible fact that we'd come from Clonakilty on foot that morning.

3)  We looked far from athletes!  I was wearing my Ireland athletics singlet to mark Paddy's day and also I must admit, to show others that I'm an international team runner.  However, at our pace we looked like a couple of lads sloping back from a heavy night out.  Kev had put his donated Eircom hi-vis jacket over his backpack so with his stubble, cracked lips, yellow jacket and baggy waterproof trousers there was no indication that he wasn't an out of shape electricity worker.  We managed to laugh at the fact that we probably couldn't catch the woman on the other side of the road who was out for an early morning jog/shuffle but it's a pride denter that Kev has had to learn to live with.

As we passed the 26 mile mark I rewarded myself and stretched my legs for a couple of miles. Running on ahead in the sunshine allowed me some time to pause and watch a local horse show replete with Father Ted'esque commentary on the speakers.  Kev had perked up and managed to hoover down some sugar laden snacks at the next garage.  Buoyed by his improving state we continued on, the comfortable temperature and easy company coupled with quiet roads and pleasant scenery making the experience pretty bearable.

4)  Traffic never ceases to be terrifying.  The Irish drivers were actually very conscientious, often indicating and moving well wide of us as we picked our way up a shoulder-less road that was carrying an unexpected volume of vehicles.  Kev filled me in on just some of the shocking occurrences that have befallen him through the run, exacerbated by the width of the stroller that he was pushing for the majority of the route.  He described crazy overtaking, being forced into walls and towards huge drops with nowhere to move to on roads that were never designed for non-motorised transport.  Multiplied by his reactions being dulled by fatigue, poor visibility, terrible drivers, drunk drivers, drugged drivers and more, it's a small miracle that Kev has only been run over once.  My brain was rapidly tiring and as often happens when under stress, emotion came to the fore.  I was genuinely scared and thoughts of my family were prevalent.  The pointlessness of my involvement in this venture coupled with the ever present danger actually made me angry at myself.  At least Kev is undertaking a life changing, never before achieved, multiple record breaking challenge.  What was I actually gaining?  A chance to (possibly) help a mate and run some ultramarathons to simply entertain myself.  Was it worth risking my life for?  I longed for the openness of the mountains and realised how much my love of running is tied into nature and the surroundings.
A fake smile in Cork
The road into Cork demonstrated to me one of the unavoidable pitfalls of the run.  Kev's online maps told him to proceed on the main Cork to Waterford road, bypassing the city.  Greeted by a four lane motorway, we clearly had to seek an alternative, legal route.  This meant an about turn that added an overall 1.2km.  The rules of the world run state that no distance re-covered can be counted, an eternal annoyance for Kev but one designed to stop anyone completing the required 26,000km on a running track before briefly visiting four other continents to meet that second criteria.  There have been thousands of occasions where Kev has had to strike off distances travelled, sometimes just the hundred metres to a nearby garage and back but equally sometimes multiple km as a result of poor or non-existent mapping of areas.  A conservative estimate would be that Kev has run at least 300 miles further than his official stats state.

5)  Emotional tiredness is at least as debilitating as physical tiredness.  Losing that 1.2km hit me hard and I cut a miserable figure amongst the thousands of revellers enjoying the bank holiday in the vibrant city centre.  I asked Kev about this aspect of the challenge, the draining effects of never knowing where he'd sleep that night, not knowing if he could find sufficient food and water, the traffic and a myriad of unknown dangers.  He said that the constant threat of Grizzly Bears throughout Canada was by far the most draining fear, ruining sleep patterns and leaving him on a constant state of alert that battered his Cortisol levels resulting in an unbreakable mental turmoil.  I was beginning to understand the root cause of that thousand yard stare.  This run has to be viewed as being akin to military combat with Kev genuinely feeling that he was under mortal threat for much of it.  The aforementioned traffic and bears, gun toting locals with an aversion to campers, extreme weather (and he's faced some unbelievably shit weather), sickness, lack of safe food and enough liquids, the list goes on.  All of which have conspired to generate untold levels of additional stress.

Leaving Cork we had our only stop in the whole day.  Worried by the '10 year old boy' look of Kev's shrunken quads I was seeking protein and calories, lots of them!  I put away some Southern fried chicken breast and a few sandwiches whilst Kev got some distance between us.  Feeling fuelled for the first time since the morning I vaguely enjoyed playing catch up, overhauling Kev a couple of miles up the road.  Pretty much from this point it rapidly lost any fun.

I was anticipating, and even relishing the point where my body would tell me to wise up and stop moving. This is where the mental fortitude kicks in and you just have to dig deeper and deeper to get what you want.  The subsequent non-stop, mostly straight fifteen miles in fading light tested me to somewhere near my mental edge.  My feet were hurting, both hips giving me abuse and the boredom was preventing any thoughts other than my current predicament forcing their way in.  I longed for the end of the day as the kilometres ticked by agonisingly slowly.  Eventually we reached another garage where caffeine was consumed and we limped on towards Castlemartyr, hopefully our destination for the day.

I say hopefully because we still didn't know for sure where we were sleeping that night.  Someone had kindly promised to donate us a free hotel room but the hotel was about five miles further than we wanted to go that day.  A tiny amount in normal terms, but at the end of that day it would equate to another hour and a half less sleep that night, not an option!  Finding accommodation is another difficult facet of Kev's challenge.  In many places he's camped but even this has proven extremely arduous in countries where the bears (Canada), prevalence of guns and private land (USA), overpopulation (India) and weather (everywhere) have made suitable spots hard to locate.  Add to this the fact that I'm a softie these days and neither of us were in the mood for lying in a ditch that night and we needed to get something sorted.  Hotel manager Milo came to the rescue, not only picking us up but feeding us and dropping us off the following morning, a true gentleman and running enthusiast himself.

We laughed at my rapid physical destruction as I barely scraped up the stairs to the two apartments we'd been given.  I was delighted to be finished for the day and pleased at how my body and mind had aquitted themselves running my first ever ultramarathon.  I glugged down some strawberry milk, read about one page of my book and slept through til 05:30.

The next morning I felt remarkably sprightly as we packed up and headed out.  Luckily we were able to start the day without packs as we'd be running back to the hotel from our previous night's endpoint. Milo dropped us back in the Castlemartyr village and I tried to warm up in the sub-zero dawn as Kev updated his tracker messages.  We walked the first mile to give our bodies a chance to get acclimatised to moving again and then broke into a jog.  That's when the real problems started.  I was getting a really sharp pain in the front of my left ankle coupled with one in the back of my left knee. Kev advised me to walk it off and hope that it eased and fortunately after fifteen minutes I was able to break into a relatively pain free run.  We covered the 14km back to the hotel in an ambling two hours; little did I know that my average speed wouldn't hit those heights again.

Having stuffed in a few croissants and lamented the way that static minutes seemed to fly by we stepped out on to the beach and another beautiful morning.  This should've been a high point but I was suffering badly, the time spent seated had done me no favours and the pains were back with a vengeance.  Several times I attempted to up the pace but the pain was excruciating.  It dawned on me that I'd be walking from here on in.  The mental arithmetic started immediately; maximum average pace around 6km per hour and 66km still to cover, it was going to be a tough day.  Leaving Youghal, Kev was kind enough to walk with me but the previous issues of pacing were immediately apparent again.  Kev is too short to be able to walk at my maximum walking pace and so he had to keep running a few steps to catch up again.  In covering distances like these rhythm seems to be essential and so that approach wasn't really sustainable.
About to begin a VERY tough 6 hour speed march
Youghal to Dungarvan was horrendous.  I was taking the longest strides possible and maintaining a strong rhythm in order to keep the speed as high as manageable.  Unfortunately, as with the previous day, an unfamiliar stride simply created new problems and my body gradually caved in.  I've never done a non-stop 25 mile speed march before and won't be rushing to repeat the act.  Ibuprofen had lessened the tendon swelling in my ankle but I had new issues, big blisters forming on the soles of both feet, battered and aching toenails and constant heartburn from an unfamiliar sugar loaded diet. My mental state plunged to new depths, worsened by a road with no discernible interest and nowhere to stop for a mood enhancing hot chocolate.  It was with mixed emotions that I finally spied Dungarvan.  The view along the coastline was spectacular and it was predominantly downhill but by then I was in perpetual agony and getting increasingly concerned about causing long term injuries. The only break in my continual pain was when the blister that was my little toe burst with a shot of searing wetness and briefly provided an alternative focal point.

Kev had dropped back to take a phone call and so the last few km were a solo battle against a growing malaise.  I'd long since decided that Dungarvan would be the end of my day.  Making it that far had become an incredible struggle and the idea of another 30km was preposterous.  By the time I reached the outskirts of the town I had a discernible limp and was a shadow of the athlete I'd felt just 34 hours earlier.  Nagging at the back of my mind was a sense of failure and also a sense of letting Kev down but I knew I'd be a hindrance if I continued and instead found other ways to be useful. Having raided the supermarket for Kev's chosen dinner I jumped into a taxi and asked to be taken to Dawn B+B.  I explained that it was nearly twenty miles away so was a bit surprised when the driver stopped after about four minutes.  Having to re-explain myself about fifteen more times and then do all the navigation myself would've been comic if I wasn't so utterly f***ed and the meter wasn't spinning round at breakneck speed.

At the B+B I was able to assess the damage.  Both feet had sizeable blisters in the centre, the nails on both big toes were already blackening and my right little toe was swollen, misshapen, weeping heavily and the nail was totally black.  The tendonitis in my left ankle was back with a vengeance leaving me hobbling and the long strides had caused my right knee to start hyperextending worryingly.  I lay on the bed and contemplated the previous two days.  It had been an audacious plan to run 150 miles in three days, made all the more so by the fact that I'd never even run a marathon distance before.  Looking at it in black and white reveals my utter naivety.  Kev has been building up to these mileages over years of mountain marathons, ultras and the small matter of 24,000km run over near consecutive days during the last year and a half, and even he was suffering heavily.  As much as I'm proud of my bullish self belief, it does sometimes set me up for a fall.  I managed to stay awake long enough to see Kev in, discuss the day and let him know I wouldn't be able to attempt the third day with him.  He wasn't overly surprised!
Found the most appropriate roadside junk outside Dungarvan
I made my way back North the next morning, my enjoyment of the journey tempered by a nagging sense of failure.  Part of me was kidding myself that I'd rejoin Kev following a hectic weekend of coaching work but deep down I knew the fear of killing my racing season before it started would hold me back.  Remarkably my legs felt fresh enough but for a few days I experienced a heavy general fatigue and the injuries continued to hamper me.  I was delighted that in my absence Kev managed to meet up with Irish world runner Tony Mangan as well as having a few other unexpected running buddies and when I picked him up in Newry on the Monday night he was clearly in good spirits.  A good feed and an all too brief chat and Kev was off to sleep again.  Even the normality of conversation with an old mate is too much of a luxury when it limits the body's fundamental need for rest.
A starstruck Rowan got up at 5am to meet Kev
I'd been worried and intrigued for a while about Kev's future plans once the run is over and I quizzed him the next morning as we drove back to Newry.  My biggest concern was that he may not have any plans and would be left with the very real likelihood of some kind of post traumatic stress issues.  He slightly allayed my fears with talk of returning to personal training, writing a book (which I can't wait to read) and other potential challenges involving running ridiculous distances.  His final comment was extremely telling though and revealed how much he's simply surviving from day to day because even thinking a week ahead is so overwhelming.  Far from craving fame, fortune, recognition or material wealth, Kev craves a time when he can start moving without having to press a button on his watch.  The smallest of desires for a man who deserves the utmost respect.
Find the EXACT spot, press the GPS button, start running, repeat.
I wrote these blogs both to promote Kev's monumental achievements and also to highlight the reasons behind his run.  His website states that he 'aims to provide a very real demonstration that an ill mind is in no way a weak mind' and that 'there is no shame in mental illness and it needn't hold you back'.  Kevin's mental strength is astounding.  Witnessing first hand the stresses that he's put on his body and mind and come through successfully is humbling.  Dealing with fear, exhaustion, the unknown and a physical battering on that scale takes degrees of belief and mind management that most of us will never get near to achieving and hopefully most of us will never have to.  Everyone experiences difficulties in their lives and for many of us evolution hasn't blessed our brains with the ability to cope yet.  You WILL know someone suffering mental health issues right now, that is an undeniable fact.  You may not have noticed because you're too busy with your own life or more likely because they're very adept at hiding the symptoms.  There's no doubt that the stigma is lifting and people are becoming more receptive to the fact that mental illness is as tangible and real as all other illnesses.  I truly hope that Kev gets the plaudits he deserves and this incredible journey of his buys him a larger platform to keep sending this valuable message.

I was overwhelmed by the response to my first blog.  From personal messages of thanks from close friends to handshakes and comments from virtual strangers.  Many people called it brave but to me sharing my experiences for my own therapeutic reasons as well as the potential to help others was just another step on a road that hopefully leads to the end of my anxiety issues.  If you find yourself stressed, anxious, unable to think or breathe properly, light headed, tight chested, suffering continual stomach complaints.  If you find the world occasionally goes dimmer, there is no enjoyment in life, nothing to look forward to and an unseen weight is on your shoulders.  If you get manic episodes, times when you're too inspired, too buzzed up to sleep with no kind of chemical assistance.  If you've experienced any of these things at any time then you may have a mental illness.  Don't panic, just seek help and talk about it.  From then on, things truly will start to improve.

Follow Kev's progress as he tears down through England to hopefully finish back at Haytor on Dartmoor inside the record on April 9th.

Please donate to Sane, a mental health charity that Kev is representing so well.  The self-supported nature of his challenge has left Kev unable to really promote his achievements so far, limiting his fundraising potential.  Give a little cash and please share this blog on your social media, his achievements deserve to be raising millions, not hundreds.