Go Outside and Play

Maybe I’m showing my age, but I remember a time when kids didn’t play indoors. Ever. Unless it was absolutely pouring outside.

Maybe my parents were odd, but from the age of about ten I can remember just meeting friends from school or others who lived in my street and off we’d go, riding our bikes all over the place with no adult supervision. This carried on for years – meet friends, ride bikes, no adults. So a lot of my youth, and even initially when I had a driver’s license but no car, was spent on a bike with friends. I didn’t do this to stay fit or workout, I did it because it was fun.

And it’s this fun element that is missing from so many people’s training these days. They train and train, sweat and labor and all for…what…? To lift slightly more weight than they did last month? Now I’m not saying don’t strive to progress, after all that is exactly the purpose of training, what I’m asking is what is the point of all this sweaty struggle?

As I’ve gotten older it’s become more and more important to keep as much of my fitness as I can. (Plus, you, know, it’s my job). But how do I know if I’ve kept my fitness or just spent time spinning my wheels in the gym? What’s the litmus test?

The test is to go play. Training is like putting money in the bank. Every day I try to squirrel away a little bit of fitness to use later on. But just like a bank account, if you don’t spend it sooner or later you’ll never really have any fun and you can’t take it with you.

The opposite, of course, is to go nuts every workout and let it all hang out every single session. Spend, spend, spend and then wonder why you’re broke fitness wise, or just plain broken when you’ve over spent your fitness. So you need to tread a fine line, as with real money, on spending versus saving.

Recently I had an opportunity to re-enact my childhood, getting together with a bunch of guys and just riding our bikes for what seemed like forever. The ride was part of the Jodi Lee Foundation‘s fundraising efforts to increase awareness for bowel cancer screening. Considering that 1 in 12 Australians’ will develop this disease during their life (the highest number of any country¬† in the world) and that this number is also three times greater than our annual road toll, this event was worthy as a cause as well as an opportunity to go play.

And what an event it was. With a route that traveled from Canberra to Melbourne, covering almost 1000kms and with 13,500m of climbing it was always going to be a huge week. But this was part of my personal challenge. I’m not a serious cyclist like most of the other guys. In fact, after a four year break off my bike I’ve only been riding again for three months. In contrast my room mate had finished on the podium at the Australian Masters road race only a few years earlier! There were many who had done multiple Iron and Half Iron races as well as those who had raced competitively. In short, I was going to struggle to keep pace with these guys.

Day 1 was easy and came with a warning from one of the main men, Andrew Poole, to make sure to look around and enjoy it all, because the week would be over before we knew it and we’d be back at our desks working away. With a mostly flat day we began our ride. We rode from Canberra to Cooma, roughly 120km, for our first taste of the ride and it was all rather pleasant.

And then there was Day 2.

Featuring the climb from Cooma to Jindabyne, Thredbo and then up through Dead Horse Gap and into Khancoban Day 2 was tough. 176kms long and with up to 3,600m of climbing – with the last 8km climb at an average of 8% – the finish to the day was going to be every bit as brutal as the start and middle. Basically, apart from a small descent out of Thredbo/ Dead Horse Gap the entire day would be spent going up.

In a previous article on Breaking Muscle I wrote about how the final phase of developing SPP for endurance was to go and do some hill training. The problem was that with only a few months and a hectic work schedule I wasn’t getting much hill time leading up to the ride. So as soon as the road went vertical, with no real cycling base, I was spat out the back of the pack and on my own. In fact, things were so bad at my end that at one point on Day 2 the support crew asked me if I needed to take a break in the van! Despite being the slowest by a long way I wasn’t anywhere near the tiredest somehow and while two others hopped in the van for a break or to relieve cramps I slowly carried on getting into each town last.

Without much cycling fitness the only way I could accomplish this was to eat and eat a lot. Day 2 saw me go through 2 cans of V, 1 can of Coke, a chocolate bar, 6 gels, 4 muesli bars and a steak sandwich as well as litres of water and Gatorade. My calorie consumption is roughly 30cals/ km so on a roughly 180km day I knew I could eat pretty much whatever I wanted and I’d still need more!

One of the downsides to the gels is that most have caffeine these days. I worked out that between the V, Coke and gels that I had the equivalent of a dozen cups of coffee that day to keep me going. That’s probably how I managed to get through the final climb of the day fifth as others again needed a rest or a break. After having been at the tail end all day and worrying about holding people up it was nice to finish something in the front group.The day was topped off with a tasty Chicken Parmigiana, chips and ice cream to top off my fuel tank for the next day!

You’d think after finishing strong on Day 2 that Day 3 would have been a breeze. Not so. I was so wasted after the previous day’s effort that I spent the whole day again at the back of the group. Leaving Khancoban at 8am for the 172km to Beechworth I was so spent already I was worried I’d cause a crash and rode right at the back of the pack all day instead of getting in the middle and saving energy by drafting. At lunch that day I was so ruined that I couldn’t even talk. While everyone else talked I was in my own little hole trying desperately to hold my shit together and get as much food into me as I could. I just kept stuffing my face, pouring water and Gatorade down and smashing gels in the hope it would get me through. While waiting to leave I may have passed out asleep just lying on the ground for a few minutes too.

The second half of the day saw us finish with a quick stop for media and donations then finish with two, 3km climbs over the last 20km. The climb out of the town towards Beechworth was awful. Immediately I was out the back again, and on my own just slugging away. At times when I am right on my limit all I do is focus on my breathing. Everything else melts away and all I do is find my rhythm, breathe and push through. I have to say, I was right on my limit, the closest I have been to total systems failure for a very long time. While I’d been saved all day by Peter Grant (PG) keeping in my ear and encouraging me I was on my own now. So it was with a welcome relief that as I stomped on the pedals and breathed out the thought popped nto my head that my girlfriend, Shannon, wouldn’t quit and so I wouldn’t either.

Every single turn of the cranks as I breathed in I’d say “Shannon wouldn’t” then on the next turn “QUIT” as I breathed out. Every single breath in, every single breath out, every single turn of the cranks for 3kms she rode with me. And lucky for that too because I was nearly done.

But then something great happened. The road flattened, and maybe even had little dips in it, I can’ remember much other than all of a sudden I was flying. On the flat my strength came back like Superman under the yellow sun. All of a sudden the gels, caffeine and everything else I’d dumped in my body worked for me and I was away. Ultra endurance athletes have a saying – it never always gets worse. And that’s lucky, because the way I had been feeling, if it had gotten worse I may have slit my wrists. But now, with some flat, I was away and quickly not just felt better but started passing people I’d been left behind by. There was about 10kms of flat and undulating road here and by the time I reached the last climb I was so over joyed at the feeling of speed and strength I’d gained back that I didn’t mind slowly working my way up the last hill into town.

Day 4 was a welcome relief. A nearly entirely flat day from Beechworth into Mansfield. With the wind mostly behind us, pleasant weather and a great group of guys, it was a welcome and much needed relief. By the time we got into town that afternoon spirits were high and I even could crack a joke or two now I’d climbed out of my hole of despair. With an easier day on the cards I switched my bottles from carbohydrate to BCAAs and plain water and concentrated on eating more solid fuel – bananas and muesli bars, with only one or two gels for the whole day – and no caffeine.

The next day we rode Mt. Buller – only 1600m of climbing and a relatively short day at 96km total. With the knowledge that I would probably spend a lot of time on my own today I teamed up with another rider, Stephen Tilley, who was about the same pace as me rather than both of us end up riding for over an hour on our own we just set a comfortable pace and got on with it, while up front my room mate tried to chase down Alberto Contador look alike Paul Grant (brother of PG) for the King of the Mountain title.

After our restful, easy 100km day on Buller, and with some bonus filming thrown in for more resting, the second last day to Healesville was not so stressful mentally for me. At only 146kms it would have been my longest ever ride only a few days earlier, but now it was a mere glance at the distance, a shrug and away we went. While mostly flat, the final 60kms or so was ridden quite hard as we tried to outrun some storm clouds. With the final descent of the day on beautiful, not very steep downhill roads with some excellent camber, the pace into town was high. So high that when I checked my rear tire the next day I discovered I’d pretty much worn half of it down to the bead! How that didn’t result in a massive blow out at high speeds I’ll never know. So that was replaced on the morning of the last day for safety.

And that just left the final 70kms or so from Healesville to Melbourne. Somehow this still seemed to involve the steepest hills on the map and we still did 1300m of climbing on the final day. But we rolled into VISY Park to a crowd of waiting family, friends and media. A great trip finished.

There’s something odd about big challenges like this. Apart from the fatigue, the question over whether your body will hold out, there’s always something more, something intangible that really makes the entire thing worthwhile. Being able to be involved in such a worthy cause, from fund raising to the ride itself to raise awareness, has been fantastic. Personal Training in the 21st Century is a selfish and egocentric job, full of self-promotion and hype. To meet and be surrounded with twenty men who took the time to help raise $150,000 and ride 1000kms is a rarity and I’m pleased to have met them and proud to have ridden alongside or behind them. On a personal note, having spent most of Day 2 dead last it was very rewarding to have stuck with it, ground my way through the whole day and finished near the front at the end of a very challenging day. I’m not good at being last, so this was a great lesson for me to endure.

But more than anything, I’m already missing the road, the ride and the laughs. I’ve learned a lot – like how water, BCAAs and food is better for me to survive off long term than short term carbohydrates and caffeine. Although I’ve also learned firsthand exactly how powerful caffeine can be and why it’s a banned substance! Some of the guys on the ride tried a supplement so laced with it that it’s actually been banned by WADA. You could tell on the day who’d taken it either because they wouldn’t stop talking or they’d just have this fixed, unblinking stare for 100kms.

I discovered that a solid strength training base can help you hide your inadequacies, although it can’t replace actual event specific training – ever heard the saying, “looks like Tarzan, plays like Jane?” But, it will still help you to safeguard your body against everything else too. I was the only rider who didn’t need massage or therapy for the whole week. On the last day I started to get a little knot in my right calf, but that was it. A few hours with my feet up and compression socks on all night sorted that out. And just to make sure I rode another 100kms after only a day off, just to make sure I was ok.

I’m fairly unremarkable athletically and I’ve long thought that the best weapon I’ve ever had in training was my mind in preparing solid plans. I’ll now add to that that I am stubborn and hate myself just enough to not quit or to continue putting myself into miserable situations on the deeply held belief that I will somehow get through them. I’ not sure it’s a positive trait and I’ve gotten myself into problems in the past biting off more than I can chew. But it seems like riding a bike and I get along quite well. It’s now only four full days after we got back (five if you count the arrival day itself) and I’ve ridden once, and trained with kettlebells twice. My weight has been stable at about 84kg for some time and that’s a good sign as it means that I ate adequately on the trip to fuel myself. I will say that my face is looking skinny, although not the skeletal look that top endurance athletes have. Most of all I’m happy to know I’m fit enough and strong enough to still be able to push my body like this for a week straight and come out the other side and realise that while a challenge it was actually well within my reach.

Plus, I got to go outside and play.

So now the question, is what’s next…?

(PS if you like the blog, or have been affected by cancer, please take the time to go and donate to the Jodi Lee Foundation. This is a 100% charity – we paid for our own food and rooms on the ride – and it’s an incredible cause championed by a terrific group of guys.


One Response to “Go Outside and Play”

  1. Greg Maxwell Says:

    Ultramarathon perhaps??

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