Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Medical Profession doesn't get (old) athletes

Not in my experience, anyway.

Three years ago I did an early-season 8K running race. I knew the course (The Spring Run-Off in High Park) and had run it a number of times. I wasn't really trained up for it, it was just a way to jump-start duathlon training (back before I figured out that the bike was the part I actually liked). Of course, my plan to just go out and jog it went out the window pretty quickly, and I went way too hard, but I wasn't really suffering.

With about a km to go I'm wondering about how I'm going to deal with the long uphill finish, and I look at my heart rate and it says 230 bpm. Now, I have a somewhat high max heart rate for a guy my age (around 200 bpm), but that was fucking crazy. Either the HRM was screwed up or I was about to become one of those middle-aged guys who mysteriously drops dead on the finishing line. ("Yeah, it was so weird, he seemed healthy.") I immediately slowed down (but not totally, I didn't want to completely wreck my time), but I'm still around 220 bpm when I cross the finish line & stop my timer. But I sat down and in 2 or 3 minutes it was back down to a less frightening 130. And I feel fine. So WTF is going on? Have I got some weird tachycardia? Is this dangerous? And more importantly, what in hell are my HR training zones supposed to be?

Not the heart of an Olympian, apparently.
So I alert my my doctor, who thankfully is not keen on having his otherwise healthy patients stroke out on him, and he sent me to a cardiologist to get checked out. Unfortunately the cardiologist turned out to be a Scottish lady in her sixties who was about 5'1" and clearly knew her way around a haggis.

What's more, she seemed to harbor some bizarre, deeply-rooted animosity towards recreational athletes. When I explained why I was there (to figure out if I have some genuine, life-threatening problem; and if not, what are the implications if any for training) she said to me, "Why would you want to do that?"
"Well, because I want to get faster and do better in races," I replied.
She looked at me like I was some kind of simpleton and said,
"You're not 18, you know; and you're not going to make the Olympics."  I suppose she was so used to focusing on just keeping people with bad hearts alive that she couldn't conceive of somebody with a good one wanting to optimize it. Like I was being greedy, or something.

"Get off ice, bra. And the couch."
And maybe she's right, maybe I shouldn't be bothering her unless I'm willing to spend my whole life doing the sort of shit that's guaranteed to line me up for a slew of interesting cardiovascular dysfunctions that she can treat and bill for. Like, y'know, smoking on the couch all day with bags of Doritos and litre bottles of Coke, watching reruns of Dog The Bounty Hunter.

Or maybe she just didn't know. Doctors hate that. Certainly she didn't tell me anything useful at all. But if that was the case, say so, refer me to someone who does know and don't waste my time.

And as a side note: while you're at it, maybe try not to bring your own issues to the office.

Anyway, in the end that experience is what led me to becoming a cardiovascular lab rat, which was what it took to actually get a confirmation, from a sports-focussed research cardiologist, that I was fine, and didn't have to worry about my heart blowing up in the middle of a tough climb.

But it seems to me that the medical establishment has lagged way behind a large societal shift from people staying walking-the-dog active to accepting the idea of people being seriously athletic much later into their lives. (Holy crap you should have seen the unbelievable folks in the 65+ division of last-year's Grey County UCI World Amateurs qualifier. Why medical science isn't all over these people is a mystery to me.)

For a profession that thrives on heroic measures to keep people alive (if not healthy), you'd think the implications of of all that would be a bit more intriguing.
Apparently not.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Calabogie Boogie: OCUP #2 2016

The usual first OCUP of 2016, Good Friday, was iced by freak weather

and I was OK with that; I did a recon on the course the week before, and that damn cowpath out of the Ancaster Fair Grounds looked like, well, a damned cowpath. Potholes and ruts in the crappy pavement, and only one very narrow strip of "asphalt" left in the first sharp corner. It looked like a recipe for a lot of mangled carbon fiber and associated body parts, some of which could well be mine.

So it didn't break my heart that Calabogie turned out to be the first race of the season. I had never done it before, but had heard it was fun. 800 kilometres of driving to get there & back, but worth it. And it was indeed a great day and a great race.

DHFlyers at Calabogie
Gregoire, Dan & RB: practicing podium faces
Having never ridden the course before, I went in taking the first few laps to get a feel for the course; and also to see what the pace was going to be like (fast but manageable) and how my legs felt (OK, a bit stiff). I'm never sure what kind of shape I'm in going into the first race, but I had seen some nice gains at The Cycling Gym recently (+30 watts in my latest 20 min TT test), so I hoped it would translate into being able to stay with the pack all the way. I just wanted that +00:00 after my name.

The one thing that has really been driven home by my limited racing experience is you have to take whatever space opens up, and if you aren't moving up in the peloton, you're moving back. And from what I had seen in previous results and seen in various YT videos (thanks, Seb Zdyb!), it was pretty clear to me that (in M3 anyway) breakaways don't work and it comes down to a bunch sprint. Though it was fun to see Dan D take a couple of flyers to see who was paying attention. (That's where the team name comes from, in case anybody was wondering.) It was great to have DHF teammates in the race, for a change. It really added to the fun to see the Dan and Gregoire up in the mix.

No plan survives contact with the enemy
So my plan going it was to surf the peloton as much as possible, and keep myself somewhere around 15-20 deep in the pack for as long as possible, and see how I held up. The only data I looked at the whole race was my HR and total distance, which helped me keep track of which lap we were in. (There were a few guys who missed the surge at the end because they didn't realize we were on the last lap). The HR was crucial for effort management, and I was able to keep myself just below OBLA (onset of blood lactate accumulation, or lactate threshold, or whatever you want to call that point where suddenly you breathe a lot harder and things hurt a lot more) and pretty much keep it there until the last lap when things ratcheted up. (One of the big benefits of working with The Cycling Gym is I now have a pretty good grasp on my numbers.) The real challenge for me is trying to develop some kind of race sense, and understand what's going on around me better. That's most likely a lifetime project, but every race seems to make a little more sense to me. In any case, I'll never be able to count on strength; to have any success I'm going to to develop some Fausto Coppi-esque treachery*.

The first few laps were about gauging the effort (can I maintain this? what if it cranks up?); the next few were about learning where I could get free speed and manage the effort to stay in it, and taking a few runs up the sides. And suddenly there were two laps left and I have gas in the tank; hey! I can take a run at this! It was actually kind of shocking. A bump in the final turn threw me off my pedal stroke for a beat or two and might have cost me a couple of places, but I wasn't happy with my sprint anyway. Felt like there was no real kick in it. Then I looked at my Strava data. Looking at my max speed (51 kph) and cadence (111 rpm) and the way my power dives down as I spin out, I realized that I didn't get down to my 11 or 12 cog. Checking my gear calculator app and most likely I was actually on my 14. Brain cramp. So better sprint technique would certainly have helped. (And maybe another gel 20 minutes earlier to help with the brain sugar.)

Danger: Squirrelzawinski
The sketchy squirrels of Spring
A few other notes: there was def a bit of bumping (especially in the final run in) and a certain amount of sketchiness; I got run into the grass at one point, and somehow I always seemed to find myself behind this one Kurzawinski guy who I was certain was going to cause a massive pileup – dude was like a giant black-and-white lycra squirrel on a bike; getting away from him was half the reason I stayed near the front. (He shall remain number & nameless, but if you were there you probably know who I'm talking about.) As ever, there was plenty of commentary in the peloton on the the inability of some riders to hold a line. (Quite probably directed at me.) Anyway, makes me want to get us out in the race team rides and do some contact drills, soon.

The point after
Bottom line: without question my best race ever. My only regret: 21st is one spot out of the OCUP points... that's all I want... just one lousy OCUP point... in my life... and I can retire happily.

Still: feels like progress.

Video by Sebastian Zdyb. He finished 6th. His race videos are awesome.
(I make a brief cameo at 1:15:00.)
Great view of the finish, including Steve Hart's come-from-behind 2nd place.

* "Age and treachery will overcome youth and skill." – Fausto Coppi

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Grey County Road Race, May 24th 2015: Suffer Score Festival

This year's Grey County Road Race was a UCI amateur championship qualifier

...which was kinda cool, because it felt like a real pro race. And Collingwood is a beautiful area, so it's a great course. Actually there were a lot of great things about this race. First, it was an age-group race, which meant that my 50-54 cohort actually got to start at a civilized hour (1:30 pm) as opposed to the usual 8:30 AM for OCUP M3 races. That was downright luxurious.

The second great thing was the fact that the over-50s only has to race 86 kms instead of the 130 and 160 km races for the younger divisions. That was quite manageable.

Fanboy detour here
"One day I hope to race Bingham."
The third great thing is that my start wave include Steve Bauer, who was getting back into Masters racing and was looking to nail down a qualifier spot for the world amateur championships in Denmark this year (which he did handily, of course). Sure, he finished 25 minutes ahead of me or something, but I was in the same race as Steve Bauer. Like, easily the best Canadian cyclist of his (my) generation, and arguably the best Canadian cyclist ever. The guy rode with Lemond and Hinault for La Vie Claire, wore the yellow jersey for 5 days with Seven Eleven.
How cool is that? 

Back to the race
Having done a version of this race last year, I had a reasonable idea of what to expect, and it was also helpful to know that the soul-crushing Scenic Caves Road hill climb was not a part of it this time.

As ever, my goal was to stay in the peloton as long as possible; concentrate on moving up and not fading back; and to try be more aware of what was going on around me. Which was working pretty well for the first 15 kms or so. I was comfortably in the middle of the pack until, running up to a climb on Pretty River Road, I got an agonizing chain drop. I frantically spun the chainring trying to get it re-engaged as I ground to a near stop and the peloton flowed by me like a school of mackerel. I got the chain back on the ring just as the last few riders passed me, and though the group was maybe 30 or 40 metres ahead of me, I couldn't claw my way back on. It was looking like another Grey County Time Trial. However, one thing I've come to realize over the last few races is that it's worth hanging on, because eventually the race starts shedding other riders and before long you can end up in some sort of grupetto that can work together to make the end result a little less ignominious for all concerned.

RB + M Scher: Enjoying the aftermath
So I dropped my arms over the bar, put my head down and got on with it. At first I caught up with one or two other riders, and eventually this became a group of about 6 or 7 of us for the last 20 kms or so. I had noticed that I was doing well punching over the shorter hills, dropping a few guys and catching others. At the same time, as we came in to the last 5 or 6 kms, I was starting to feel some cramping and was a bit worried about stalling out on the rather steep uphill finish.

Anyway, about a kilometre from the finish I somehow ended up in the front of a group of five guys. Tactically, completely stupid. As far as I can make out, the combination of exhaustion, low blood sugar to the brain, and the prospect of it all being over really soon made believe that I could drop them on the last climbs. Of course, if I had just looked back for a second I would have seen that they were all happily sitting on my wheel, and they all blew by me on the final climb. Well, "blew by" is an overstatement – everybody was pretty shaky by then; but the bottom line was I was left unable to close about a 5 or 10 metre gap coming up the steep last hill into the finish. Which kinda sucked because it cost me 4 places in the standings. In the end I finished 35th of 46 in my age group.

The race was fun, but Strava says I should be dead
I'm not sure what to do with the Strava data. First, my Powertap crapped out about 2/3 of the way through, which was annoying at the time and skewed my overall average. Oh well. But what was interesting was the HR data. My average HR for the whole race was 175; max was 196. According the Strava that was 1:52 in Zone 4 (175-194) for an Extreme Suffer Score of 231.

I'm not sure if this was really good, really bad, or just a demonstration of the outside limits of my capabilities. I know from my work with the Cycling Gym that for me to stay out of the red (under lactate threshold, or OBLA, or however you want to define it) I need to stay below 163 BPM. If I were fitter, I would get the same results with a much lower average HR. More results on less work, basically. I think it means that I'm badly undertrained but with a considerable capacity for over-extending myself. And I wonder if I didn't actually do myself some damage, because my training thinned out a bit after that race; the last month has been pretty low mileage, and I'm only just feeling like I'm getting back on track.

Still. It was a great event to be a part of. And watching the podium ceremonies I especially loved seeing the 65+ guys, whose winning times were a damn sight better than mine. That's my long-term goal: to be one of those gnarly old leathery guys who keep on racing and can still come out and kick your ass.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Niagara Classic: OCUP #4, May 17th

I'm beginning to appreciate the value of a little experience

Not that I have much. But familiarity – returning to a race I've done before –  makes a huge difference. Just knowing where everything is (parking, registration, washrooms...) really takes a lot of the stress out of the equation.

The same can be said of knowing the course. You you what you're in for. Or up against, which in the case of Niagara is the famous Effingham Hill, a poisonously steep, short climb that pretty much ruins an otherwise pleasant ride out in the country. The M3 circuit was 5 laps, which meant five climbs of this delight. I managed only two circuits last year before I called it quits. This time I came in better prepared, and determined to at least finish the bastard.

Bottom right corner of the course: Effingham, you bastard.
Other valuable local knowledge was the that the "neutral" start was not particularly neutral, and that the field basically bombed off the line before hitting the left-hand turn that quickly runs up against the first Effingham climb. So I knew to be as far forward as I could get at the start, and to hammer hard to stay in the pack on that climb – two things I fatally failed to do last time.

So I stayed in the pack for the first two laps, but after the second climb started to slip back and lost contact. I had a few other guys with me but they were young E4s and they didn't seem to know what a rotating paceline was, and the middle of a race was not exactly where you want to run a seminar. So it ended up being awkward random pulls, which was too bad because we might have been able to get back on – for a lap or two the pack was tantalizingly in sight –  if they had known how to get it together. Anyway.

The numbers refusing to lie, as usual
The Strava data is very instructive here: every lap and every climb I got slower and slower. Looking at some of the top finishers' data the main difference was consistency. Some guys hit the same numbers for that climb every time. Mine went from a respectable 1:39 on the first round to a grinding 2:27 by the last. Lap one, the fastest (20:19 at 36.4 kph), was at 170 watts and average HR 160 bpm: perfect, right below threshold. Last lap: 168 watts, 179 bpm, 24:52 and 29.7 kph. Slower, and way deep in the red. The domino effect of not staying with the pack is the real killer.

In the end: 42nd place out of 57, 1:56:22, 15:24 off the winning time.

Solutions? Strategies?
Two things really:
1) get my fitness up so that I can hit more of my max wattage with less of my max heart rate. It's something we were working on pretty specifically at the Cycling Gym. It means training carefully to stay up near, but not over, my lactate threshold (or however you want to call being in the red) for extended periods.
2) improve my climbing. One thing I realized afterwards is I had become biased against standing up to climb, and had sat and ground it out every time when actually it would have helped on the very steepest parts to stand for a bit; if for no other reason than to change up which muscles were being taxed. I've since started to mix that in more on hills and it definitely helps, and there's a bit of a psychological boost to it as well.
3) Both of which are contributing factors in the need to stay with the pack. Every race I'm doing less and less shit-out-the-back time trialling, but I still haven't got all the way to the end of an OCUP race actually in the pack. 

Put those three things together and maybe then I can actually start racing.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

K-W Classic: A Classic Mistake

Now listed among the Top 10 Dumb Things I've Ever Done

is driving away to a race with my bike safely on the roof rack, and my front wheel sitting on the curb where I left it as I was loading up. Which is why I missed this year's OCUP #6, The K-W Classic*.

I have no idea why the light bulb suddenly goes on an hour after the fact and says: "Hey – did you put your front wheel in the car?",  or why it goes on 30 kms from the race, rather than 30 metres from the house. Doubtless neurological science is working on that tricky conundrum as we speak.
The painful irony is, I know I'm pretty foggy at 5 am, and my whole pre-race (or early club ride) routine is designed to get me on the road or on the bike properly geared up without having to be particularly sharp (or even fully awake) – i.e., all my stuff is laid out or pre-packed, with a pre-race checklist to minimize the need for any actual thinking.

Sure. Good luck with that.
That said, there's no prophylactic measure to prevent momentary distractions and/or stupidity.

And then there's that terrible moment of realization that one is pooched, because:
  • I'm 90 kms from home. No time to go back for it;
  • I had decided not to bring a spare this time (the race is too short to bother trying to get back into it if I flatted, goes my thinking);
  • my M3 race had the first start time of the day, and everybody I know was in later races & wouldn't be there early enough to lend me one;
  • and even if they were, I'd probably not get in a proper warm-up by the time I got that sorted;
  • and oh yeah: my wheel is lying on the sidewalk. In my neighbourhood, even at 5:45 am, it might last two minutes there before somebody scoops it up. Which was the case. So now I'm out one good front wheel.
I always want to learn something from every race. Definitely learned something this time:
Try Not to Be an Idiot, I think, was the lesson for today. And between the entry fee and the cost of (most likely) replacing my wheel (or paying its ransom/reward for return) it's a pricey one.

Live and, uh, learn, I guess. (I hope.)

*"K-W" is Kitchener-Waterloo, a Mennonite community about 130 kms from Toronto.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Race Day Kit Checklist

I can't think at 5 am

Especially if it's 5am on the morning of a race. I'll be too busy being stressed about the race and tired from being up later than I wanted. And The Curse of OCUP Masters 3 Races is that they are almost always the first or second race of the day, and an hour or two away from Toronto, so I have to be up at an ugly hour to get to the start on time.

Stress Removal Device: the Cat5 Case
I've discovered that the only way for me to cope is to remove the requirement for coherent thinking and get all my stuff organized and ready to go the night before. So I created a race-day checklist to simplify that. Even in my groggy morning state I can double-check it to alleviate my paranoia about forgetting something vital.

Crucial to this process is my Cat5 Cyclist Case kit bag. Highly recommended. Perfect for race day, but I actually use mine all the time to keep my gear organized. Very reasonable price, and snappy colours too.

RACE DAY CHECKLIST (download the photo for a printable version or copy & paste this to build your own)

KIT (working from the bottom up and the inside out)Shoes
Chamois cream
Heart rate monitor
Road ID
Contact lenses
Race dots (magnetic number holders. They're brilliant.)

So much better than those damned pins
Water (a couple of big bottles)
Biosteel (drink mix)
Post-race food (like, real food)

Spare tubes
Spare wheels
Hex wrench set
Trainer for warm-up

Printer friendly 4-up checklist.
Shoe covers
knee/leg warmers
Arm warmers
Rain jacket


Course map/technical guide
First aid kit
Gas in the car
UCI License
BIKE! (don't forget the bike!)

Hope this is useful to you. It certainly helps me sleep better.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Six Goals for Racing

The other day, one of my clubmates quoted some hammerhead dick as saying, "There's no point in racing if you don't intend to win."

Sure thing, Lance. You go.

I view bike racing as more like kung fu: no matter how good you are, there's always somebody, somewhere who can totally kick your ass. And the gap between normal amateur-racer humans – including the Hammerhead Dick – and even the lowest rung of professional or world-class riders is actually a giant chasm, so while winning an Cat 5-level amateur race in Ontario is kinda cool, it's also relatively meaningless.
Hammerhead Dickism can lead to this

Personally, I feel I need to approach the thing with a bit more humility. Not that I have much choice. Maybe some day I will be in a position to contend for a win in my M3 division, but that's fairly unlikely. I'm just in it for the fun of it (in which fun gets a broad definition that can include subjecting myself to the pain of exertion at pretty much the outside limit of my physical capabilities for extended periods of time). And what the hell, somebody has to fill out the field.

Here are my Six Goals for any race (in descending order of priority):
  1. Don't die.
  2. Don't crash.
  3. Finish the race.
  4. Don't finish last.
  5. Improve on time or placement if I've done the race before.
  6. Learn something about how to race better.
  7. Have fun. (Actually, so long as I get  to six, seven is guaranteed. )
That said, I do have one big hairy audacious goal* for this racing thing overall:
Just get one lousy OCUP point in M3.
That means a top 15 finish (or maybe top 20 in the races with a bigger field).

That's actually pretty ambitious for somebody with my limited talent, and probably can only happen with the happy convergence of a lot more work by me, and a lottery-load of luck on a particular day. But if I can manage it by the end of Season Five of Racing, I'll be pretty happy. (This is Season Three.)

(* à la Jim Collins, Good to Great)