This gun’s for hire, even if we’re just dining in the dark

Hmm, looks like a perfect day for a ride

Last week ended with a gentle run with my wife on Sunday – cold enjoyable. Monday was a Bank Holiday, a joy for most people but one of the (very few) drawbacks of being retired, no big deal for me and I ended up doing domestic stuff of little note.

It’s frustrating because I’d like to be out on the bike or running but I’m trying to get the legs sorted, and that seems to mean putting rest and stretching above pretty much everything else. Neither the knees or the Achilles’ were particularly happy after cycling on Saturday and running on Sunday but I’m still really not sure that this ‘being sensible’ lark is going to catch on.

I was off personal trainer duty on Tuesday as my wife ran with a friend. She then went to London – I resisted a visit to the gym as Thursday now promised a ride with 4 of the 5 friends who accompany me to the alps each year. Only Phil (who lives and works in Germany) was missing … no commitment some people (but as he was actually in Provence climbing Ventoux I think he’s forgiven).

Riding with friends

Early in the week, Thursday’s weather looked OK but as the day neared, the forecast deteriorated to fairly continual light rain. We set off at 9 planning to head south so Dave could pick up some more of his ‘British Cycle Quest’ clues (it’s a sort of treasure hunt for bikes without any treasure) with 402 sites to be visited around the whole of the UK. Anyone thinking of picking up the Ramsbury clue look away now ……… the plaques on the wall of the village hall are for ‘Best Kept Village’ competitions.

The forecast was reasonable accurate and the light rain was fairly intermittent – except for the deluge that hit us soon after we started. It was fairly cold too – no more than 10℃ (50℉) until the very end.

We stopped at a cafe for coffee but I then had to dip out a bit early as we had friends coming for supper and staying the night.

In fact, I see I rode only about 8km less than they did with only 40m less climbing. I was surprised that they didn’t go past me later on – which would have been a bit of an irony as I’d left early to get home quicker. I now find that I didn’t valiantly hold them off – it turns out that they had a second food stop (very Hobbit-like). In the end I rode 50 miles with 2762 feet of climbing (80km, 842m) – very enjoyable company but a bit cold and wet.

Of course, the idea that I’d held off the chasing pack is a nonsense – especially as the day proved to me that I’m trailing in a poor last in terms of bike-fitness. There’s a lot of work to be done if I don’t want to be tail-end Charlie in the alps.

Dining in the dark

We had an excellent evening with our friends who left on Friday morning to go to a funeral. We then left to go to a (different) funeral too – then straight off to London to the restaurant Dans Le Noir (‘In the Dark’) where we had an evening meal … in the dark! Not just dark – total blackout, the literal ‘can’t see your hand in front of your face’ blackness. It was an experience given to us by our sons for Christmas.

Whatever the theory, it was a very fine evening and a real experience. The restaurant staff are visually impaired or totally blind so to get a small taste of their world was fascinating by itself, but the food was also good and up in the bar afterwards we were treated to an introduction to sign language by a charming deaf lady.

After the meal you can also find out exactly what you’ve eaten, either by looking down the front of your shirt (actually we were splash-free) or from the menu you are then given. My taste buds are not too bad as I identified the pork belly, the savoy cabbage, the fennel, carrot, potato etc although I thought the quince was apple sauce and I couldn’t be sure that the venison wasn’t a good beef steak of some description.

A strangely challenging experience, but one we were very pleased to have had.

More London running

On Saturday morning I celebrated (nothing in particular) by having a run to Hammersmith and down the Thames Path – about 5 miles (8km) at a reasonable pace and thoroughly enjoyable.

One strange thing – around home in Oxfordshire just about every runner I pass when out running says hello. In London, they nearly all deliberately avoid even eye contact. Is that a London thing, or just a city thing?

I’ve started saying hello to everyone I pass – I might start a trend or get arrested as a wierdo.

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The ‘secret’ of success? (Not my secret, probably not my success)

My guess is that they have all put in the training

I’m the first to admit that this is not the place to find earth-shattering news or insights – until now. After extensive research I can reveal ……. that challenges go better if you’ve put in the training.

Yes, I know it’s horribly obvious but it’s easy to overlook the obvious in favour of the fashionable or easy – assuming that more expensive kit or other ‘tricks’ will do the job.

Thinking about my White Horse Challenge performances it dawned on me (I’m quick like this) that my best result was in April 2017 when I’d already started training for my ‘everest’ in the July. By the time of the WHC, I’d ridden about 800km in the previous four months, including many reps of the hill to the local White Horse at Uffington.

That led to a time of 5:05 for the WHC – less than 2% off breaking the 5 hour target. In contrast, this year’s attempt was off the back of just 20 miles of riding and 6 hours on the turbo in nearly 4 months. Of course, the marathon training helped (and the marathon itself went OK thanks to the training) but it didn’t replace lost riding – no great surprise this year’s WHC didn’t go as well.

That’s got to be a bit encouraging so – if fit and healthy – I’m going to give it a real go next year to see if I can break the 5 hour barrier. Either I’ll break the barrier, or accept that I can’t, and move on.

The plan will be to ride at least 1600km (1000 miles) to include at least 40 reps up to the Uffington White Horse and lots on intervals, before the WHC in late April 2020. Longer rides and hills on the road and intensity on the turbo? Although that doesn’t sound much, with skiing and the (almost) guarantee of bad weather in January and February, I think that’s a real challenge in itself …. but will it be enough?

Perhaps a trip to the mediterranean in March or early April might help – we’ve talked about it in the past in order to do some running and cycling in better weather, but 2020 might be the year to do it. What else …….. new wheels and other bike upgrades are always tempting but real progress must be through ‘me upgrades’. In the past I’ve tried to rely on minor improvements to scrape through but perhaps I need a more radical approach to raise my level significantly.

Then, if I’m in any fit state (with the ATs in particular) I’ll return to marathon training to have a go at a sub 4 hour run in Autumn 2020, aged 65. I’ll base this on the training plan I used for Rotterdam last month but increase the mileage and do hill and interval sessions in addition. In between, I’ll have the usual week in the alps in July but I’d also like to find a way of fitting in a trip to Ventoux to try the bicinglette and I’m struggling to see how that fits in.

This year, it’s now back to the cycling to train, first, for the week of cycling in the alps in July. The aim is to perform better than I have in the last two years which suffered from doing the ‘everest’ in 2017 and riding out there last year. There is no overt competition (of course) but when you ride up big hills with friends each day, you know where you stand in the pecking order!

Then it’s the club sportive in late July (I’ll ride it unless needed for admin duties) followed by the Prudential Ride London 100 miler in early August. If I carry off the alps OK, those should pretty much take care of themselves.

Subject to the injuries, I’ll carry on running later in the summer and try to get to a few Park Runs with an aim of getting below 25 minutes – I have no idea if that will be possible. I’ll also carry on with the gym and the rowing machine – I’d like to get under 8 minutes for 2000m but whether that is achievable is another a mystery.

I appreciate that no one should be very interested in all this – I set it out merely to cement my commitment. Well, that’s the commitment, now for the doing …

Back in the swing (of something) and club ride sweeping

Up on the Ridgeway looking down over the plain between the North Wessex Downs and the Cotswolds

I think the decision to curtail last Sunday’s sportive was a good one judging by the knees and ATs on Monday. They had a rest while mowing on Tuesday and then a gentle run (4.5km – 2.8miles) with my wife early on Wednesday before I headed down to Bournemouth for more mowing and the eternal decluttering.

This time I took a bike to leave down there (a Gary Fisher Advance mountain bike – perfectly OK but not the great man’s finest work!) and am looking forward to using it over the summer.

Gym on Thursday with Ian. I did the 2000m on the rowing machine in 9 minutes 13 seconds – but I don’t suppose that means much as I’m not sure what machine it is. It was set to ‘7’ on the resistance (simply because that’s what it was already on and it means I have some adjustment either way if I discover that I need it).

From the internet, it seems that the resistance (‘the damper setting’) is finessed by a ‘Performance Monitor’ which means that effort is measured regardless of the damper setting. All very clever but I must admit to a little nervousness when I realise that the rowing machine is cleverer than I am.

I’ll leave it on 7 for now as greater resistance, apparently, is more suitable for those of us lacking in fast twitch muscle fibres, even though it can exhaust muscles before the full cardio benefit is achieved.

I read that 8 minutes for 2000m for someone with no experience on a rowing machine is pretty good – but I doubt that was for an over-60 year old – either that or I’m just not ‘pretty good’. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter as I’m only competing with myself to measure progress, not talent (which I anticipate will be sadly lacking). Next time I’ll do the rowing before I start on the weights.

The afternoon was spent following the first stage of the Tour of Yorkshire bike race on TV – Yorkshire showing its true colours by raining pretty much throughout the stage, but with the locals still rising magnificently to the challenge.

With the rest and a lot of of stretching, I was happy to do my turn today as lead/host/sweep for the club’s Saturday ‘red’ ride. It was a cool morning (5℃ which is 41℉) at outset thanks to a fresh northerly breeze but at 75km (47 miles) it looked like a reasonable outing for the decrepit body.

Although I demonstrated my usual wimpish tendencies by wearing about twice as many clothes as anyone else, it was a good ride. I took the role of sweep and rode at the back with three others – but we picked up two more (who had been with the faster group) at the roadside when one (with tubeless tyres) had a puncture that wouldn’t seal. Messy old business fitting a tube into a tubeless set-up but between us we managed it and everyone completed the ride safely.

Proper club ride sweeping! It’s odd how fulfilling it is to do that job when you can actually add something to the enjoyment of the ride for others – either by roadside rescue or by helping pull folks round by taking the lead into the wind.

The group has recently started to incorporate a coffee shop stop (we used to just stop at the roadside for snacks we brought with us – generally referred to as the ‘banana break’) and that was welcome on a day that never really warmed up.

Quite a slow ride with 870m (2850 feet) of climbing but one of those rides that you’re pleased you did, even though you might have been unsure about it at outset.

Failing to prepare …

Uffington White Horse in the distance – and this is as close I got to it in this year’s WHC

How (not) to prepare for a 90 mile sportive: first, make it only your third ride outside in nearly five months (✓); second, go to a wedding reception the evening before (✓); third, have a dodgy knee and ATs (✓). OK, ready to go.

The White Horse Challenge took place today (Sunday) – I think it was my 8th entry and 7th participation. It’s a really good local sportive – it’s about 90 miles (just under 150km) with climbing said to be about 1400m (c, 4600 feet) although my Garmin has typically measured it at about 25% more than that in climbing.

It takes in 4 White Horses in the area (chalk figures cut in the hillside) and is limited to about 600 entrants. The first time I rode it I took a bit over 6 hours – one of my big aims is to get under 5 hours but my best so far is 5:05.

This year was, clearly, not going to be very special for me. The Achilles Tendons are not right and my left knee is still dodgy after the marathon. More importantly, I’ve done just 20 miles on the bike and 6 hours on the turbo since the first week of January. I hoped that the cardio vascular benefits of the running might help but the muscle action is rather different so I went into it with very low expectations.

The day itself was dry but very cool and with a stiff breeze. It was probably a good year not to be in great cycling shape – I’d have hated to waste good form on a day with such difficult conditions.

I never felt perfectly comfortable on the bike – running does not help toughen the backside or strengthen the neck and shoulder muscles. Worse, although they both use the same leg muscles, they certainly use them differently.

I got past 80km (50miles) in a time that suggested I’d do something under 5:30 but at the top of one of the bigger hills the knee and ATs made it very clear that they didn’t think another 70km was a good idea. For once good sense prevailed and I decided to bail out – although the route I took back only saved me 30km (c. 20 miles) and took in another hill with a 17% gradient.

So, I did a total of 113km (70miles) 1250m of climbing (4100feet) in under 4:30, with a surprising 77 Strava achievements.

More importantly, my congratulations to everyone who completed the challenge.

I’m sad not to have finished the ride but think I made the right call. On a hard day for cycling, I had little to gain and potentially a lot to lose (or, more accurately, to damage). The current aim is to get the legs right – I’d hoped that cycling was a free hit with no real leg strain, but it appears that’s only true up to a point.

With so little cycle training, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised or disappointed – and there’s always next year. If the September/October 2020 marathon comes off, perhaps the early part of the year could be dedicated to a sub 5 hour White Horse Challenge …..

Back to real life – will the gym be a tonic?

With the running on a back burner for a bit it looks like the gym and the bike for the next couple of months – not much of a hardship

I had a gentle run with my wife on Sunday morning – about 2.8m (4.6km), in glorious sunshine, and with her muscle strain improving. In the afternoon we went to London and had supper with our sons. It was a really nice family occasion and, extra good news, both sons are, in principle, up for the Berlin Marathon in 2020.

Alex, who ran Rotterdam marathon with me two weeks ago, is now off to Peru for a month – brilliant for him and I’m 100% behind the trip, but I’ll still be worried until his return.

We stayed over for the night and I couldn’t resist getting out in the morning, even though I know that the master plan is to go easy on the running to let the knee and Achilles tendons recover. I ran about 4miles (6.4km) down the Thames Path and back through Hammersmith – delightful.

I need to cut down on my running as I doubt that I have any more marathons to enter for a year, perhaps 18 months. At the same time I’d like to avoid having to start from too low a level when I come to pick up distance running again. Accordingly, I was wondering what running is necessary to just maintain fitness, without risking burning out with over-training. It looks like the answer could be something like 20-25 miles a week at normal intensity, with a longest run of about 12 miles.

That’s a bit more than I wanted the answer to be – but I think it’s purely academic as anything close to that isn’t going to get my knee and ATs better. Having taken liberties with the ATs during the marathon training, I owe it to them to sort them out – even though it may take a few months from what I read.

I’ll try running just twice a week (and only short distances) for a while to see if everything heals – if the ATs recover, restarting running from a low fitness base will be a small price to pay.

Tuesday was spent on the de-cluttering in Oxfordshire and Wednesday I went down to Bournemouth to mow and, surprise, surprise, de-clutter. The garage there is full of overflow rubbish from here. How have we accumulated so much stuff? In fact, I think I know the answer to that – I’ve simply been bad at throwing it out over the course of many years.

Back to the gym on Thursday with Ian, my usual gym companion, for a very good session. Protecting the tendons, the knee and the shoulder takes a bit of imagination but I think I could get into rowing (on the machine, not the water) which, happily, doesn’t trouble the shoulder at all. I’ll look at some stuff on technique (I am currently a technique-free zone) and then set a 2000m time next week and see how much I can lower it over the coming months.

The next challenge is the White Horse Challenge on Sunday. I think I’ve written it off as a proper attempt to set a good time as I’ve only ridden outside twice this year which is not perfect training for 90 miles on the bike at any sort of speed. Truth be told, I’m a bit nervous for my backside with that distance and so little toughening up.

… and now for something completely different – one man went to mow

I once mowed it all with a 14″ personally-propelled mower. I might run marathons and cycle up mountains but that mowing came closest to killing me.

I doubt that it is a good idea to start a blog post with an apology – so I’m sorry twice, once for starting with the apology and once for the slightly random topic and content.

If anyone reads this stuff, I guess it’s because of a shared love of challenges, exercise, running marathons or cycling long distances and up big hills. I expect the number of folks who read it because of a love of the intricacies of mowing lawns can be counted on the fingers of no hands, but perhaps I’m allowed one whimsical aberration every now and again.

In keeping with convention, I mow what is laughingly called ‘the best lawn’ in stripes. However, when it comes to mowing any larger area with the ride-on mower, I believe that the best way to do it is to start in the middle and mow in ever-increasing circles. It is much more efficient than mowing in stripes as it minimises the amount of going over the same bits twice and eliminates much of the stop/start, forward/reverse that is necessary the end of each stripe.

Admittedly, if a hostile power ever decided to bomb rural Oxfordshire, I might have to eat my words as, from a few thousand feet, the rear area of lawn could be mistaken for a target.

Anyway, I am informed – no, reliably informed – that the only correct way to mow a lawn is in stripes. Sadly, I must not have been in school the day that was being taught, but it is an unarguable fact, says my wife.

So, for the second mow of the year I did the big bit of lawn in stripes. It was rather frustrating, took longer and the weeping willow is still intent on sweeping the ear defenders from my head (or, in its bolder moments, sweeping my head from my shoulders).

Did I get any thanks? No, I don’t think she noticed.

I must admit that no bombs fell on rural Oxfordshire today so perhaps she has a point.

Next challenges – mountains, marathons and a cunning plan

Ventoux. One of three ascents in 2015 – could it be one of six in 2020?

Spring has arrived. In fact, perhaps we’ve gone straight into summer. After months of complaining about training in the cold and wind, how long should I wait before complaining about the heat?

Since I turned 60, nearly 4 years ago, I’ve become a bit of a challenge junkie. ‘Old enough to know better’ comes to mind but while I can do these things, I will continue to do just that.

In that time I’ve joined the Club des Cinglés du Mont-Ventoux (ride up Ventoux three times in a day), ‘Everested’ (ride up and down one hill, in one ride, until you climb the height of Everest), ridden 550 miles (880km) out to the alps, solo and unsupported in 84 elapsed hours, and run a marathon (Rotterdam, 7th April 2019).

With the running shoes barely cooled down, I’ve turned my thoughts to ‘what next?’

I’ve got the White Horse Challenge later this month (but I don’t think the elusive sub 5 hours for the c.90 miles is in me this year and I’m lacking a bit of motivation at the moment), I have the yearly trip out to ride in the alps in July and I have a place in the Prudential ‘Ride London’ 100 mile sportive in August. All very good and I’m looking forward to them – but not quite what I need to focus on as a major challenge.

So, here’s the plan:

As marathon running is physically tough and the training is so time consuming, I don’t plan to do another this year but will try to get into the Berlin Marathon in September 2020 and will have a real go at running under 4 hours. As the race in Berlin takes place late in the year, I’ll be 65 by the time that comes round so that would be sort of cool. I think I’ll go for a place in the London marathon too but I’ve never been lucky in the ballot before.

Of course, having failed to run sub 4 at the age of 63, sub 4 at 64 or 65 might be a bit of a stretch but I have a cunning plan for this ………. I will run faster.

OK, not very cunning but if I can do it, I have high hopes that it will work.

I’ll train harder, with speed, interval and hill sessions. The main things that will be key to putting the plan into action are my Achilles tendons which have been sore every morning for about 6 months and prevented the intervals and hills this time around. I need to get them sorted but I hope rest and stretching will do the trick. I’ve rather abused them this year and perhaps need to be a bit kinder to them if they are going to last me into my (even more) old age.

If I can’t get a place for London or Berlin (quite likely), I will go for one of the Abingdon, Bournemouth or Richmond Marathons – they are all in September or October, it should be possible to get in to any of them and they are all very accessible for me. Admittedly, they are all events on a rather different scale to Berlin but, supposedly, all have fairly fast courses.

If the shoulder that I hurt skiing (more tendon issues) mends completely, I will get back in the pool and see if I can improve my swimming enough to take on more than another triathlon. If it holds me back I’ll do a duathlon.

On the bike, I want to have a crack at the Bicinglette (two Cinglés – six times up Ventoux in a day) or the Galerian (four times up, including once by the forest road). The biggest problem with these is that they can only be done in Provence – at least the everesting could be done anywhere. To date, fewer than 256 people have done the bicinglette – and none over 65 so there’s a real challenge. Logistics are my real enemy here, coupled with the fact that, having failed to persuade any of my friends of the wisdom of the everest or the ride out to the alps, my chances of getting any company are slim.

More domestically, there is the Fred Whitton challenge in the Lake District in May next year – it’s now a sportive with 114 miles and 3,900m (12,795feet) of climbing. One to consider perhaps but possibly too much of a challenge?