Sunday, 17 January 2010

The End of the Line

Sat here in Auckland airport, amongst the random population of international travellers, denied the sun on my face and a fair wind at my back, its hard to look at the last 15 days with true insight. I had mentioned previously that Epic camp is a means to an end. After all, a 'training camp' is meant to do what it says on the tin.

Thats not quite true.

Arriving in Bluff and soaking in the emotions of the group has brought home the 'other' nature of this Epic camp. This is the 'journey' aspect, the sense of adventure and wanderlust that all cyclists have in some measure. The willingness to trade physical (and mental!) suffering for a chance to travel from one place to another under your own power. Sometimes lots of suffering for only meagre amounts of power! But if the journey and suffering were worthy enough, then the end most definitely justifies the means. Or in other words, if you are going to climb a mountain, make it a big one.

Day 15 started like days 1-14: an early breakfast in lycra, bags packed and ready to roll and furtive glances at the route profile to see what millions of years of geology had in store for us that day. Day 15 was due to be a toughie on paper, 185km, over 2000m of ascending and some long climbs. The flip side was the route wound its way through a national park and we would not be rolling on State highway 1 until the final 20km from Invercargill to Bluff. The scenery was said to be stunning (as visitors to NZ amongst you will know - you quickly run out of superlatives to describe the natural beauty of this country)

And joy of joys, the wind was at our backs - a lovely, steady Nor'easterly, gently helping us over the rolling terrain, pushing us to the end of the island. The terrain is so exposed, a headwind would have been unthinkable. Unbearable.

The pace was also very steady - emotionally as soon as we had read the wind direction, the 'push' had gone out of nearly all of us. It would not be a brutal slog to the finish. To continue the Ironman 'final 10km' analogy - we were well on target, feeling fine and our main competitor (the wind) had just slipped on a sponge at an aid station and cracked a rib.

Of course 185km on a bike doesnt just 'happen' - you need to pedal at some point and during the first 20km I feared my legs were shot and I was heading for what the French call a "jour sans". A beautifully crafted phrase to describe the feeling a rider has when he has a very bad day. The Kiwis also have a phrase for this, although its a rougher sounding "legs like shit".

As it happens, my legs came round to the battle tested 'tired but able to push' feeling which was now the de facto mode of operation for the camp. The ever decreasing km numbers added further iron to my will and soon we were over the magic 100km for the day. A quick lunch stop where everyone assembled marked the final countdown and we rolled into the small town of Bluff as a single group. We had a quick stop whilst a few crazies had a crack at the local climb of Bluff Hill (3km, 18% avg - some sections at 35%), where one unfortunate camper, armed with a bottom gear of only 39-23 pushed too hard on a steep section and wheelied over backwards in a spectacular flail of carbon and lycra. Its not often you see the back of a helmet smashed up!

And then the final, 2km processional roll into Lands end (a car park at the end of the road - literally). Champagne was popped. Handshakes, hugs and backslaps were doled out with enthusiasm and a truly ridiculous amount of photos were taken. All that was left was a little 7km jog around the track at the base of Bluff Hill to complete the camp. No problem, right?


It seems John the organiser had seen on Google earth the track running from the car park at Lands end to a lookout point a few km around the headland, before looping back to the car park via the town. So far, so ordinary. What he had failed to realise was the fact that the trail went up Bluff Hill to the top before dropping into town on the other side. So we ran/walked/scrambled up Bluff Hill. To say the trail was steep would be an understatement. I spent the entire time trying not to be sick and staring at the buttocks of the athlete in front. Not for any other reason than the buttocks were at my head height due to the gradient! To top it off, we then had to run down the steep 35% gradients of the tarmac'd sections on the other side. Total. Quad. Destruction.

Still, its not called Easy camp is it? ;-)

And with that we were in the vans back to Invercargill, the hotel and a massive all you can eat dinner at the local steakhouse. I had many, many beers and my head felt very dizzy. I then slept the sleep of a happy camper.

My thoughts on the trip you ask?

Well, its been an amazing experience. Obviously. I hope my ramblings over the past 15 days have conveyed that. Only time will give me the distance and space to appreciate what we did and how lucky I am to have done it.

For now I will reflect on a job well done, a cracking 15 days and a springboard to get very fit for Ironman Lanzarote in May.

POTD is a self shot of Lands end at Bluff. The end of the road and the end of this Blog. Thank you ALL for reading and sharing the journey and the training camp with me.

New Zealand - Done

They say a picture speaks a thousand words.

I'll blog my post camp thoughts tomorrow - right now its beer o'clock.

Friday, 15 January 2010

The Good, the Bad, the Rooted.

One day left. I can't quite believe we are here, just outside Balclutha (look it up) resting up, drinking beers, getting massages and talking the usual gibberish 31 tired people tend to spout. Its great. In Kiwi speak - we are all 'rooted'.

Of course the mood is upbeat however - how could it not be? 14 days in the bag, ~2100km of riding, 26,000m of swimming and 106km of running has got me to within 190km of Bluff and the end of sitting on a saddle for 6hrs a day! we go out with a bang though, the route profile looks very tough with about 2800m of climbing. I can see a few campers looking at my compact gearing with green eyes of envy! The route winds down the coast from Balclutha to Invercargill (no highway 1 riding! hurrah!) so the views should be spectacular. The forecast(s) are for sunshine, 20deg and easterlies (which is perfect as we are essentially tracking east for the majority of the ride)

Everyone is running on fumes and adrenalin. That we are so close disguises how tired people are - you can tell with the lulls in talking, the aimless staring at the walls, the effortless sprint to the ice cream station contrasting with the heavy leg dragging stumble at all other times. My mantra is No_Sudden_Movements. Mainly for fear of tearing something completely off if i jolt anything. We all look like an OAP group at dinner and breakfast (except for the ice cream sprint of course).

Still no complete blowups though - the difficulty and lack of 'competitive' elements to this camp are the main reasons for people staying on an even keel with each other. This is simply too long and too hard not to feel part of a team. Everyone has suffered together and their is a large element of mutual respect flowing both ways. We all admire guys like Clas and Molina for their talents and Steve Lord for his toughness, but I get the sense that the pros and rock stars also are impressed that many of the slower athletes have stood up to be counted, worked hard for the camp minumums and ridden as hard as they dared to.

Some peoples thoughts are now focused on their upcoming races, or smashing their training partners in the local chaingangs, or eating their bodyweight in pizza (i'll leave you to decide which of these is mine!) - as much as this is a trip of a lifetime, a massive challenge and an amazing adventure, its still 'just' a training camp. A means to an end. My race at Lanzarote in May is now weighing on my mind - how do I get the best from these 14 days and move forwards from here? Its something I will corner some people about in the next 24hrs.

Today you ask?

Today was good. And bad.

Good was a lovely first 30km along the stunning Otago coastline. Bad was snapping a spoke in my rear wheel at 30.1kms.

Good was riding on a wonky wheel, smashing it at 400W with a breakaway up the KOM designated climb, feeling fantastic about dropping the group and coming in second over the top. Bad was realising we had attacked on the wrong hill, the KOM was the next hill along :-(

Good was getting to a bike shop in Dunedin, getting a new spoke fixed at Cycle Surgery (for free - thanks guys) and wandering around marvelling at all the street names transplanted from Edinburgh. Bad was getting lost leaving the city, losing the group and riding the final 80km with no lunch.

Good was the 87kph i recorded on the descent of a monster hill at about 150kms (Reid/Wilson - I am a bike rider reborn - i can go downhill AND uphill fast now ;-). Bad was the gust of wind that hit me mid-corner, almost threatening to make me a new, permanent addition to the landscape.

Good was the massage when I arrived at the motel.
Bad was the massage when I arrived at the motel (ouch!).

No swimming or running due to complete lack of interest (and I dont need to - did I mention that already :-)

If this camp was an Ironman race, I have just stepped over the breach into the final 10km. As most of you know (or may find out some time) its an excrutiating mix of giddiness at having so little left to do and despair at having so long left to run and being in such pain already. You know in your heart you will finish, but you know there is much work left to do, and the race course WILL have its pound of flesh from you.

POTD is from the archives - taken just after sunrise in Kaikoura during my morning run. This type of scenery has weight to it - it simple takes your breath away. I hope the photo can do it some justice

Thursday, 14 January 2010

The Final Push

And now we enter the final chapter in this journey. The final push to Bluff. Two days, 397km and two very sore, very tired legs. My body has got into a groove and there has been no change in how my legs feel when cycling. No matter how tired or 'dead' i think they might be, they always seem to be able to push. Its always the head that gives up first. Its always the head that lets the wheel go, its always the head that lets the group slip away up the climbs. The legs are simply following orders.

Todays ride was a good case in point. 150km from Geraldine to Waianakarua, mostly along state highway 1. I have to admit that so far the South island has not shown its 'pretty' side. This is mostyl to do with the fact that we are cycling along Highway 1 for 70% of the route (purely a logistical matter - the alternative 'scenic'route to Bluff down the west coast would add another 2-3 days to the trip as its more mountainous). Its not much fun as the traffic is pretty heavy, trucks and vans zipping along at high speed as you cycle in a 4ft wide shoulder made of heavy chipseal.

So today the choice for the head was sit in with a fast group for some surging pack riding at high speed or chunter along at medium pace for a long time. Well as you can imagine I decided to hang with a fast group, and fast it was. David Craig has us zipping along bug eyed at 40kph for long stretches - the bunch riding was typically surging and required 80watts at some points and 380watts at others. It wasn't relaxing at all, very tiring and the nature of the scenery didnt exactly inspire me. It was fast however and we made good time to the first aid station. I dropped back after lunch after having a nasty hayfever attack and nearly sneezing myself into the fast lane. After lunch I jumped on the CraigExpress again for the short 30km into Oamaru, where i promised myself an end to the pain and suffering with a solo coffee and a gentle spin home for the final 20km.

However, we finally turned off the highway and onto a back road hugging the epic South island coastline. Suddenly it was beautiful, picturesque, postcard quality New Zealand again. Epic vistas, crashing surf and scenery very reminiscent of East Lothian. All transgressions forgiven NZ - you have stolen my heart all over again.

As you can imagine we were all content to roll along slowly, drinking in the view. All thoughts of hammering it were gone and we sauntered the final 30km into our accomodation happy to have finally seen some of what the South island is famous for. Throughly worth the 120km of hammerfest misery on the highway i reckon.

In other good news I have now completed all my swim and run minimums for camp completion. I now dont have to swim or run any more this camp. We have a 7km on the final day that i will run (it is pretty ceremonial as it loops around the Bluff headpoint). I put my 26km to bed this morning with a 4.3km swim set which included the classic Epic camp favourite event: the 400IM.

As you can imagine the sight of 25 tired, freestyle only triathletes knocking out 300m of 'the other strokes' was a hilarious way to start the day. Quote of the morning goes to Scott Molina, remarking on one athletes impressively vigorous start to the 'fly leg - "I know this guy, he goes from swimmer to turtle in 15seconds flat" Sure enough, after 1 length his 'fly turned from "Phelps at Beijing" into "drowning moth". I didnt do too badly coming in at 7.21 - not bad considering I drank half the pool during the backstroke leg. Steven Lord won with a 5.51 (!).

So onto the final chapter, once more unto the breach dear friends and all that. We are so near the Bluff, yet so far away. Again tonight I pray for tailwinds and light weather. My legs will do the job, I just hope my head issues the right orders.

POTD is the beautiful Otago coastline - the final hour of todays ride.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Kiwi Toothpaste

So. Tired.

The rest day feels like weeks ago and my mind and body are close to cracking. The only relief from the grind is the knowledge that we are only 3 days away from Bluff. I want to stop, rest, recover and recuperate but I will not stop until its done. I almost fell asleep in a cafe during the ride today. There was a fire and it was warm and I could have so easily curled up and slept till February. 3 days. Count 'em.

In better news, last night I managed to finally meet Bevan Eyles (from IMtalk) - a very nice guy and we had a good chat about Epic, Tri, life etc etc. For those who want to know, he is exactly like he sounds on IMtalk - bubbly, chatty and very personable. Bryan Rhodes also stopped by for a chat with the crew. We talked about his recent injury and racing career. Again, as is so common in this part of the world, a very friendly, down to earth guy.

This morning started with an 18km hilly trail run around the Sumner area of Christchurch. Stunning views and amazing scenery took some of the sting out of a very hard run. Lots of steep (walking/scrambling steep) uphills and technical downhills led to a real quad workout. As a guide the quickest Clas Bjorling has ever run this in training is 1hr 30min (Clas owns the IMNZ run record - 2.42ish, so is a pretty good runner!)

Needless to say it took us a lot longer than that. 1hr 55min for 18km is a long, arduous way to start the day. Breakfast and then on the road for a 151km ride to Geraldine. The day started with clear skies and a slight breeze. However the forecast(s) warned of a strong southern front. The Southerlies would be making a re-appearance. And apparently they would be bringing their relatives "Driving rains" as well.

Sure enough 30mins into the ride, the skys turned black, the temp dropped by 10degrees and for the next 5hrs we were all transported to Belgium for a flat farmland ride in head/side winds and driving rain. The farmland roads kicked up a slurry of dirt, soil, cr*p and dust that caked our legs and bikes. In Flanders they call this mixture "Belgian toothpaste". It gets everywhere.

The entire ride was a grind and at no point did nothing ache - the group mainly stuck together which led to a lot of surging and yo-yoing of pace and power - a very damaging way to ride as the spikes in power take it out of the legs. The weather and featureless scenery added to the general feeling of woe in the group.

All in all a tough day on the bike, and one that everyone is glad to be done with. For those who ran this morning as well, the general feeling is "shattered". There is something about running long that beats me up. Mind you, before coming to Epic camp, if someone had told me to run for 2hours and then ride 95miles I would have told them where to go. That we can do exactly that after 11 days of 7hrs training per day speaks volumes about Epic camp itself and the mindset it forces you into.

All i want to do now is sleep.

Tomorrow starts with a big swim (for me at least - i have to do the final 5km to get camp completion as tomorrow is likely to be the last swimming pool we visit) including the traditional swimming events held at every Epic camp: 400IM, 200m kick and 50m freestyle.
We then saddle up for another 150km to Oamaru.

No more running until Sunday for me - this is a very. good. thing.

POTD today is from the beautiful Godley bay - part of the trail run

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Good VIbrations

This will be quick as i have little battery left.

At any point during the day conversation in the camp will always turn to the state of our respective undercarriages. Cycling 100 miles a day for two weeks can cause some serious damage without daily lashings of chamois cream and good hygiene principles (dont sit around in your bike shorts for hours after the ride).

Add in the state of the Kiwi roads and you have some athletes in severe discomfort. Ah yes, the famed Kiwi roads. I promised you my thoughts on the topic, so here they are. They suck. I would like to ask the guy in charge of roads here what exactly where they thinking in leaving so many roads half finished? I mean, lets be honest, its not like they dont know how to build a normal smooth tarmac road. Many of the main urban areas and bridge areas in the country are surrounded by smooth tarmac that shows no signs of overuse or wear and tear. So why not the other thousands of km's of roads?

You learn to spot the nature of the next strip of road by judging how the light reflects off it. A shiny surface denotes smooth riding and a chance to relax. A dull or uneven reflection and you start tensing automatically to protect yourself against the onslaught. Its fatiguing mentally and physically, not to mention slowing you down by at least 3-4kph compared to smooth tarmac.

One plus point however is the lack of potholes, dents, random strips of dug up road and general road debris that you find on any average british street. It makes group riding much easier.

Today started with a 10km run, warmed up with a 180km ride to Christchurch and ended with another 10km run. I can 'feel' the camp ending. I can literally taste it. 4 days left.

POTD is self explanatory - the Kiwi chipseal

Monday, 11 January 2010

Wind and Whales

They call them "The Southerlies". In any other country the word would denote a simple wind direction: Nor'wester etc or a dodgy Country N' Western band. In the South island of New Zealand they are more than a mere wind direction. The issue is geographical. Winds from Antarctica blow across the southern ocean, picking up speed and intensity. The first land mass they hit is New Zealand, specifically the South island - more specifically the coastal areas of the South island.

You can tell what is coming.

I did say yesterday that even though todays 129km ride looked inocuous enough - the conditions could cause carnage. They did.

Lets back it up first - an early start this morning 0550 for coffee before a 5min walk to the local pool in Blenheim. I had already decided to do a few bonus points sets with David Craig (the premise is that Scott Molina pens a number of swim sets that you can acrue bonus points for. David and I were targting the 12 x 150fs/100IM - which in English means swim 150m freestyle immeadiately followed by 100m individual medley (fly/back/breast/free) done 12 times in a row without stopping. This would net us a 3km swim and a bonus point. After doing this and struggling with 25 athletes in 3 lanes, David and I nabbed a lane each after the others had finished and did 200m fly - another bonus point. It wasnt pretty, it wasn't efficient but we both got through it.

Breakfast at the motel (my standard breakfast - 4 slices toast with Nutella) was followed by the entire camp rolling out together ready for an early chance at glory - the KOM (KOM is King Of the Mountains - points are awarded for your position at the top of a climb - denoted by the committee). The KOM for today was 5km from the motel. That fact coupled with 25 'rested' athletes looking for glory made for the hardest first 20km of the camp so far - i was stuck over 300W for the first 10 minutes as cyclists shot up the road. Eventually a breakaway group formed and it was left to John Newsom and Scott Molina to pull a group of 10 (including me). Rob Reid - you would be proud - I attacked our group on a small rise before the start of the climb and even though Newsom, Molina and a few others came past I held on for 9th - my best placing by far. It cost me though, my highest HR and avg wattage seen so far this camp. But hey ho - its only 109km left right? How hard can that be?

This is where the aforementioned southerlies came into play - we ground our way down to Kaikoura into a stiff, cold, nasty headwind. To put it into perspective I recorded my highest avg wattage for a ride this camp and my lowest avg speed. Not good. As the road wound its way into a bay, we would get a few moments of relief before the next headland. I dont think anyone had any other thoughts except head down and push. Thank god it wasnt 180km. Oh wait, thats tomorrow :-(

No one had a really good day and everyone seemed to suffer (although some naturally more than others) - unless you were heading North, it wasnt a good day to be cycling the South island.

On a more positive note the scenery was jaw droppingly beautiful - when i managed to put my head up into the wind I caught glimpses of cresting waves crashing against rocks, seal colonies stretched out lazily over the coast, snow capped mountains in the distance and miles and miles of deserted beach. Kaikoura itself is a popular destination for whale watching - I looked (briefly) but saw no whales. Maybe tomorrow.

Alas the day was not over - as i mentioned yesterday, I need to run. So I laced up and ran 5.5km along the coast to a well known seal colony - snapped some pictures (seals are SO cute!) and then ran/shuffled the 5.5km back to the hotel for a massage (more pain) and coffee/cheesecake.

As you can imagine "The Southerlies" are on everyones mind. Will they abate? Will they swing round to a bog standard, helpful and not-nearly-so-importantly-named northerly? The forecasts, like most countries fixated with the weather (UK included) all seem to contradict each other. Some seem to say "relax, its a tailwind - lie in and you'll still be there by lunch" others are more "you'd better leave now if you want to be in Christchurch by tomorrow evening fat boy".

So a simple method from Scotland - "wake up and stick your heed oot the windae - and take a jacket"

180km to Christchurch tomorrow over rolling hills - the South island version of SBH.

first though a 7km run - 3km swim in Kaikouras outdoor pool (wetsuit needed) - and 2km run before breakfast.

Big day - pray for a tailwind!

POTD is another action shot - me leading a small group of Russell and Lee. The expression on our faces says a lot.