Under Pressure

Regular readers of this blog will have become accustomed to stories about the weather, about me falling off my bike and about me not being prepared to give up when the whole shooting match gets a bit too much like one big hard slog. But that’s where this week’s blog fits nicely into the recent trilogy of stories about hard work.

I challenged Cat from my Omega 4 running squad to give me a theme for this week’s blog and she came back with “the pressure you put on yourself, and the stress it creates”. Wow, curve ball or what? I have to say that this is not a million miles away from a subject that we discuss endlessly in the search for the perfect training programme but it still touches a nerve to translate into print the workload that I demand of myself in order to turn my desire into miles..

But first, let’s give this theme some currency…

On 11th October, I completed the first 1000 miles: 34 cycling days

On 28th November, I went through 2000 miles: 29 more cycling days

On January 28th, I went through 3000: 29 cycling days

On March 13th, I went through 4000: 27 cycling days

Do you see the trend?

This week: 152 miles in 4 days, a record. The previous 4 day record was 151 and that was last week. LifeCycle is really hotting up, and it’s not just the weather…

January was a 600 mile month, despite having a late start due to the New Year holiday. February was another 600 mile month, despite being a short calendar month and the odd holiday thrown in. March dangles the prospect of a 600 mile hat-trick but it brings with it five days of annual leave. So we’re looking at 600 miles in just 16 LifeCycling days. Hmm…

Can I do it? I don’t know. Am I going to try? you bet I am.

All of that pressure comes from within. There is no one telling me that I have to do more and more miles, only myself.

Competing against other people is all well and good, but there’s nothing quite like competing against yourself. I used to have a running group called Team Infinity. The name was derived not from the fact that it took an infinite length of time for my guys to run a race, far from it. My philosophy is that if you can run a PB today, then there’s absolutely no reason why, given the same conditions next week, you couldn’t run 1 second faster than you did today. And then repeat the feat the following week; and the week after that. I like my athletes to know no boundaries. They are limitless. The pressure to deliver a PB this week, next week and the week after that comes wholly from within: from within the group, from within the coach/athlete relationship but most importantly from  within the athletes themselves. And the reason it works is because no athlete ever has more reason to deliver, and more motivation to succeed, than when they heap positive pressure  on themselves through repeated success. Learning to deal with it comes through a combination of confidence and experience, sometimes your own, but more often than not the result of encouragement from your support team. It is a rare animal indeed that can motivate itself, deliver, then repeat the cycle. I am definitely not that animal, nor indeed have I ever worked with anyone who fits that mould.

Being able to deal with that pressure, and turn it into a positive force for good, is the Holy Grail of sports performance, and in LifeCycle, I live constantly with the fear of having to deliver miles that I never thought I was capable of producing. Every week is a challenge; every week is an adventure, and ultimately every week is the one in which the whole pack of cards could come crashing down.

In my case the pressure to deliver comes from within. I cannot remember a day, except perhaps during those first two or three weeks when I was quite literally finding my feet, when I have not been on it 100%. And the pressure keeps on growing. With every passing day that extends the record of maximum miles into a week, then two weeks, a month, then two and beyond, keeping my foot flat to the floor just seems like the norm. The miles may be on max but something has to give: speed. I am no longer concerned at being passed by men in lycra on flash road bikes doing 10mph more than I am. I merely ask myself “hey son, where were you when it was pishing down on a gale force headwind back in December? I don’t remember seeing you then”.

So let me put all of that into perspective by example. All I can do is deliver miles: speed is not important: I learned early doors that what I termed Friday legs are indeed best left to the end of the week rather than being introduced rudely on Wednesday due to a rush of blood to the legs. I touched on this a couple of weeks ago but the record shows that the average number of miles cycled per actual cycling day has increased steadily since the end of August: 26, 29, 31, 32, 32, 33 and 33 demonstrate evidence of having twisted the knife through the most difficult months of the calendar year. Increasing the ongoing daily average miles comes about only through continuing to operate at a higher and higher level.

That’s an expectation that I’ve loaded onto myself.

And those maximum mile days are creeping up too: now approaching 50 in a row since the turn of the year, there is now increasing pressure to keep that run going because every day that extends the run adds extra tenths of a mile onto the daily average and that in turn brings down the asking rate to complete 25,000 miles.

The whole project is driven by pressure.

Which brings me to another tantalising question: can I deliver 100 straight maximum days from the start of the year? If it happens, that day will come sometime in June. And if it doesn’t, the consolation prize is that I’ll get another shot at it before Christmas…

If pressure is internal, something that I feel, the stress is its public image. That’s what other people see. When I’m stressed, you can cut it with a knife. Jane says I get grumpy. That may be partly true but I get grumpy when I see things that are just plain wrong and it annoys me: like two teenage boys playing football on the back grass after heavy rain and turning it into Fir Park without the sand. And that when there’s a perfectly playable public park 400m round the corner. That’s not grumpy, that’s me coming in all fired up and ready to rock n roll.

Now, all that pressure is fine so long as everything is hunky dory, but turning that into something positive is much, much more difficult when outside factors come into play. By that I mean stuff that’s outside my control. In a nutshell, that is my Achilles heel.

I’ll let you into my secret world of stress: I leave the house at 5:30am every working day and I’m out of the house for 13 hours. Three of those hours are spent on the bike burning up 2000 calories, enough to fuel a normal bloke for the whole day. I have learned how my body works and what fuels it. I eat at particular times of the day in small quantities: carbs, protein and Omega 3. One thing is guaranteed to upset the apple cart and I know perfectly well what it is. I will resist it…

LifeCycleForNeuroblastoma is a project that I have given my all for: it is the primary focus of my non-family, non-working time for the next four years: along with my athletes, because I feed off them. They work hard, I work harder. That’s that deal. I don’t ask too much of them because as a coach, it’s my job to get their balance right. But when they work hard, I am inspired.

Here’s an example of athlete inspiration…

Almost 30 years ago, I coached a squad of young middle distance runners in Cumbernauld. In that group was Julie McGiffen. I think I actually asked another of the group, Gail Walker, to get Julie along to the running club because I knew her times were good on the school cross country course. As a coach, all you want is for your athletes to do well, enjoy themselves and stay in the sport for a long time.

Gail’s daughter is the current Scottish indoor U14 800m champion because in the intermediate 25 years after we went our separate ways, Gail did something right: she remained focussed and stayed in the sport.

Julie I re-found through Facebook. Now an active member of Wigan Harriers, Julie has been prominent in cross country since I started following her exploits but last weekend she blew me away: she announced on her Facebook page on Friday night that she was going to do the Bolton Hill Marathon at the weekend. Hint: it starts and finishes in Bolton, it’s hilly (very hilly!!!) and it’s a marathon: er… no, actually it’s two. You run the same course twice, on Saturday and Sunday. The fact that Julie finished first over-40 vet both days is irrelevant… the fact that she chose to subject herself to back to back marathons over extremely difficult terrain in challenging weather is not. It’s called pressure. And it comes from within. I really, really, really respect that.

I feel it, Julie thrives on it and Cat is challenged by it.

It makes us the people that we are.

Under pressure.

No Regrets

One of the recurring themes for me on this epic journey is No Regrets: never come out of a day, a week or a month, thinking “what if I’d done x, y and z”. There’s no place or time on this project for anything other than “get the job done: today really matters”.

In the week, I re-read Into The Groove, the blog piece I wrote before going back to work at New Year. Looking back, that was a period of great trepidation: two weeks off the bike, two weeks of not getting up at the back of five, indeed two weeks of getting up in daylight, and suddenly there I was being thrust back into the deep cold of winter. In all honesty I really didn’t fancy it and I know I didn’t fancy it.

But Into The Groove had a goal: 555 miles to get me to 3,000 LifeCycle miles by the end of January. I’ve come to realise that it’s only by breaking this epic down into small stages that I can manage it. I can’t finish it today, this week, or this month, but I can certainly end it by not being physically and mentally strong enough. Time is not important. The only currency that matters is having the strength to stick in there…

Just like a child who is fighting Neuroblastoma.

So back to that goal of 555 miles. It was just a target, something to aim for to get me through the month till daylight returned at the end of each day…

But let me say this: January was unbelievable. January was fantastic.  I actually hated the third week but when LifeCycle is done and dusted, January 2014 will go down as the month that finally convinced me that this is achievable.

Why?

For 555, read 644. I could not have done one more mile.

Why?

There weren’t any more to do!

Maximum miles every day, into work and out again, soakings by the bucket load and freezings every other day: it honestly didn’t matter. Two, sometimes three pairs of gloves, four under layers, two pairs of socks plus overshoes: a waterproof balaclava… January was the month when I realised that all I have to do to deliver this baby is keep doing what I’m doing. 180 miles in week 1 were followed by 144 miles in week 2. 180 miles in week 3 were followed by another 144 in week 4. 36 miles every working day without missing one. Rota Fridays were never as blissful: Recovery Fridays indeed.

But why do maximum miles matter?

Because a child who is fighting Neuroblastoma can’t afford to miss one treatment either, so I have no right to cop out because it’s a wee bit wet or a wee bit cold. It’s not in the script. Just stick another layer on and get out there…

Deliver.

And have no regrets…

LifeCycling – The Movement

New year is always a good time to look forward with optimism and believe that nice things might happen, even if they ultimately don’t quite turn out the way you’d envisaged. Hope springs eternal when the nights are starting to draw out and you can start to contemplate light at the end of the long dark tunnel that is winter. But something tells me winter isn’t done by a long way and that there’s plenty of time left yet for it to turn round and bite us all on the bum. But I’ve had a quick swatch at Windguru and it isn’t going to be this coming week so that means we might actually make it to the end of January without so much as a flake of angry snow. Joyus maximus!

Anyway, back to this week, and those positive thoughts. You see I wondered, in a rare moment of inspiration, whether LifeCycle is actually more than a bike ride from Stewarton to Glasgow and back. I started to contemplate whether LifeCycle is actually movement of commuting cyclists joined by a common objective: to support research into Neuroblastoma.

Think about it. Why shouldn’t  the LifeCycle JustGiving page be a group site where we all come together in one mass sponsorship deal? I’m perfectly happy to be a solo LifeCyclist but I’m sure there are hundreds, if not thousands of people like me up and down the country who would be proud to think of themselves as LifeCyclists: many riders with a common goal. Maybe I’m being over simplistic but it seems to me like a no brainer: if you already cycle to work, then get your family and friends to chuck some loose change into a pot for you every week. Sure, people are tight, but 3% of something a darned sight better than 3% of nothing. The way big business works, in terms of you scratch my back and I’ll give you some of my PR, I’m sure we could source some must have cycling gear bearing the NCCA logo with the LIFECYCLE banner woven into the fabric.

I think it’s time to get the message out there and seek some support…

Groundhog Day

There’s an old adage in football about taking one game at a time. Well that’s pretty much how it is in LifeCycle during the Bawbag Season. And right now Bawbag’s on heat.

I may have mentioned this in a previous blog but I’ll risk repeating myself by slapping a fiver on Windguru @2/5 to get the forecast right. Last weekend Windguru predicted a family of wee Bawbags in the week just past and it certainly did not disappoint. I’ll be straight up and say that I lost count of the number of times I got drenched (on the outside) but of course that wasn’t the issue: it was the wind.

To be honest you could have thrown Wednesday, Thursday and Friday into a bag and just labelled it Groundhog Day. Hey, the Fenwick Muir can be a desolate and unforgiving place at times. You see the problem isn’t the 3 miles up the hill into the wind from Giffnock to Newton Mearns, that’s just the support act. The fun doesn’t start until you come round the corner past the Malletsheugh, over the motorway and onward into the unlit night sky past J5 of the M77. When it’s blowing from the South, the West or the South West (well, that’ll be 95% of the time then) then the 10 miles from there to Fenwick are the personification of mind over matter. For one, it’s unlit; for two, it’s horribly exposed; for three, if a heavy goods goes past on the adjacent northbound carriageway (I’m on a dedicated bike lane thank goodness) you get the full works.

Yet those ten miles on the homeward leg define the LifeCycle project better than even getting up at 5:15am. Quite simply, they are hellish on days like Groundhog Day. Imagine going downhill and pedalling hard to manage, wait for it… 6 miles an hour. Yup, been there, done that: Wednesday.  Imagine thinking “I’ve been here and felt like this before”. Yup, been there, done that: Thursday. Imagine going (ever so slightly) uphill and having to drop into the wee ring just to maintain forward progress. Yup, been there, done that: Friday. And soaked all three times.

My mind is so focussed on those three days that I can’t fully appreciate how difficult Monday and Tuesday were, except on Tuesday I remember getting in, getting showered and going straight back out to do the fitness work at Joe’s football team. Those boys are lucky because it doesn’t really matter how bad the weather is: if I’m just off the bike in bad weather, they get to work extra hard, just because I know they’ll appreciate it in those conditions. Mind games, eh?

On top of all that, someone will need to remind me which day it was that I left the house in the morning to lashing hailstones and a completely white road. Indeed, it was white all the way to the top of the Mearns when the road eventually turned black (ironically, that’s the complete opposite of Bonus Miles week back in November when the Mearns was the start of the Road To Hell.

So let’s put all this into some kind of perspective. The only thing that’s a problem in the morning is the risk of black ice. And the only thing that’s a problem in the evening is high wind. A southerly gale in the morning just means a world record time going in and pretty much a full tank of fuel on arrival in the office.

It’s the wind that’s the real killer.

The cycle lane on the A77 must be about 8 feet wide with a kerb separating it from the northbound carriageway of the main road. When it’s windy, there are two issues to contend with: big gusts (that are quite capable of throwing you off the bike) and rubbish. The trick on the rubbish front is to remember where you saw it on the way in in the morning, and even if you stopped and cleared it to the side, remember that it might be back out there in your way. Bits of tree are a speciality in that regard, and well worth watching out for, not to mention the odd shopping trolley of course. So the trick when riding home is to ride wide (upwind) to one side (away from the road if possible) and give yourself those 8 feet as contingency. You’d be surprised just how adrenalating (there’s a new word for you) it is just trying to stay upright when you can’t see the wind coming (unlike the rain).

Don’t get me wrong, the rain isn’t particularly pleasant but it’s really not a big issue. Waterproof everything sees to that: you’d be surprised just how covered up and snug you can make yourself when the elements demand it: except for that damned wind.

So at the end of a Bawbag week from hell, I can tell you without fear of contradiction that a maximum 170 miles was by far the most significant benchmark of LifeCycle thus far. I can do this, all of it. I just need to keep telling myself that if I can get through this winter, there are only four more to deal with.

Michael Fish clearly likes a game of poker: well there’s a wee full house for yer, son.