Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Music to get me pedalling again

Well, things are coming together for the race. My injured leg is hurting less (but still hurting - under ice at this very moment), my food is going to be there in time for me to pick it up, and the bike's all packed for flying. Without using drops, I'm going to have to carry about 8kg of food beyond what I'd originally planned, but at least the bike will get lighter as I go along!

My bike loading has had to change to accommodate the extra food. I only wanted a front rack, but now I've had to put a rear on. This involved bending and cutting the mounting kit to fit those funny offset chainstays. With that done, I've now got my thermarest wrapped around my sleeping bag and my down jacket out back with the extra food panniers. The thermarest looks untidy, but it seems secure. As on the training camp, bungie nets are holding stuff onto the tops of the racks i.e. the sleeping bag and down jacket. The one new trick is to fix one side of them with cable ties so that I don't loose the nets in the snow.

And I've finalised my iPod playlist. I don't plan to use it all the time, but if I need a mental lift it's only a few grams. Here's the playlist...

Aesop Rock Labor Days
Aesop Rock None Shall Pass
Asian Dub Foundation Facts And Fictions
At The Gates Terminal Spirit Disease
Bad Religion New Maps of Hell
Bad Religion The Process Of Belief
Converge No Heroes
DJ Shadow Endtroducing....
Give Up the Ghost Year One
Heartless Bastards All This Time
Heartless Bastards The Mountain
Ignite Our Darkest Days
Integrity To Die for
Joe Pug Nation of Heat EP
John Coltrane A Love Supreme Deluxe Edition [Disc 1]
Josh Ritter Golden Age Of Radio
Massive Attack Mezzanine
Massive Attack Protection
Mayhem De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas
Minor Threat Out of Step
Mogwai The Hawk Is Howling
The Pogues If I Should Fall From Grace With God
Propagandhi Less Talk, More Rock
Propagandhi Potemkin City Limits
Propagandhi Today's Empires, Tomorow's Ashes
Shai Hulud Hearts Once Nourished With Hope And Compassion
Shai Hulud Misanthropy Pure
Shai Hulud A Profound Hatred of Man
Shai Hulud That Within Blood Ill-Tempered
Sick Of It All Life On The Ropes
Steve Earle El Corazón
Supersuckers Devil's Food
Zombie Apocalypse This Is A Spark Of Life

Monday, February 23, 2009

Finnish Winter Swimming Champs

It was a couple of weeks ago now, but back on February 7, I went out to Imatra for the Finnish Winter Swimming Championships. It was a completely ridiculous distance to travel in order to swim two 25m races but I'd always wanted to go to Finland and their competition was the inspiration for Tooting to start the UK champs. It was really another trip lead by Emily's swimming, but one that I could get into and one that gave me the chance for a cheeky snow ride too.

The venue was at the leisure centre in Imatra where a pontoon had been put into the river before it froze. The "pool" was then the 25m inside the pontoon which had been kept clear of ice by constantly agitating the water. During the competition, however, there was a man going around with a net. Normally, you might expect him to be fishing out leaves. Actually, he was taking out small lumps of ice. Icicles hung off the lane ropes, and the steps (insulated with pipe lagging) were encrusted - crunching under your hands as you got in or out. And to add the icing (ho-ho) to the whole thing, just outside the bounds of the pontoon were some guys ice-fishing with their little holes and little chairs.

There was a great atmosphere from the start. Even though we went straight to the pool and missed the opening ceremony, there were plenty of other people on the grandstand. It was a long wait until we got our turn to swim, but it was fun to be in such a supportive crowd and we did get the chance to witness a Swimtrek cap-wearing, thong-sporting nut-case.

Unlike Tooting, the pre-race preparation was indoors. For some reason, it's always really hot in Finnish buildings. Far warmer than I'd keep my house in an English winter (16C for me). So, as I waited, I couldn't bear to have my coat on and was even sweating a bit. Maybe some of that was anticipation. I'm not that great a swimmer and a terrible sprinter at any sport, but I can't avoid feeling competitive. I was nervously trying to remind myself to go fast, not just the loping pace I normally do things at. Knowing that you're about to get into the cold does always bring a lump to the stomach, but it just as surely brings a buzz afterwards.

The race itself was breaststroke. The Finns have traditionally used head-up breaststroke for cold water because putting your head under takes your breath away. And with head-up you can wear silly hats. But, this time they experimented with normal breaststroke. Until a masters session a couple of weeks ago, I hadn't done breaststroke since I was a kid so it wasn't an ideal choice. Into the water I went, though, eyeing the others for clues about when to do what as the instruction were in Finnish. Once everyone's shoulders were under, we were off. Seconds later, we were out again. It was a fleeting series of images: brown tinged water, another swimmer out of the corner of my eye, my breath bursting a bit, no real time to feel conventionally cold. At least I'd remembered to try to go fast.

Impressively, and stylishly in her flowery hat, Emily took first place in the international category. Sadly, I couldn't see the race as it was only minutes after mine.

The evenings are one of the main reasons to go cold water swimming. Everyone parties and has a good time. It was organised fun here though. A few dancers and entertainers before the band started; then there was the Finnish approach to dancing. Everything in a Waltz style, whatever the music. I'm not the greatest or most enthusiastic dancer, but it was a weird sight and a weird dance-floor to share. At some point during the night, we met the other member of our relay team. It was thong-man, Nigel.

The relay was very much more of the same, except this time with team spirit. So the racing was more fun, the swimming experience was pretty much the same, and I had the surprise sight of a steward taking my clothes away thinking they should be at the other end for a team-mate. Fortunately, I stopped them!

After the swimming, we headed up to Ruka - where the Finns go for skiing and I was hoping to ride my bike a bit. Having carried it with me this far, I was going to make sure it saw some snow action. I set off for their snowmobile trails with high hopes. The first section was on snow-covered roads which whizzed by until I saw the distinctive "two skis and a caterpillar" track that I was looking for. Checking behind, I swung off the road and onto the trail.

It started with a little 2ft hump, and stopped immediately after. As I came down the hump, my front wheel sank way down into the snow, pitching me over the bars. Arms outstretched, I flew and landed face down with both arms sunk up to the shoulders. Huh - I wasn't expecting that. I had noticed that the snow was too powdery for snowballs but I had hoped the trail would pack down. I was dead wrong. Every time I tried to ride, my rear wheel just dug a little hole. Even pushing, my feet would occasionally go straight through the tracks and up to my thighs. The "ride" was a 5 hour push. Objectives were made though: it was nice and remote, the trail mix went down well, and I got back exactly on time with a little water and a little food left. For scenery, though, Alaska's better :)

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Stumbling towards the start line

One week until the Iditarod and things aren't looking as organised as they were a while ago...

First my seatpost bolt snaps on a training ride so I have to go home and swap seatposts before carrying on. At least I managed to do that and fight the gremlins saying "Go home now, eat cake now." I went back out and earned the eventual cake. No luck in sourcing a new bolt, though... how hard can it be?!

Then the effect of knackered shoes gets to my feet again. The soles are so worn out and flexy that the pedals stick through into my feet and roll them outwards. Some sort of suspected tendon pain makes it hard to walk and impossible to run (even across the road).

Having got sick of having the scrape ten tons of sticky mud off my bike after every ride I decided to have a road-heavy week. I set off for some big commutes: 30 miles each way with panniers stuffed to the gills. 10 minutes into my ride home, my freewheel dies, taking me from singlespeed to no speed. I swap it round to fixed (a harder ratio) and carry on home. It was quite nice doing two 60 mile days sandwiching two 30 mile days with nice (ish) weather and no mud. But by the end of all that my shins are seriously painful. I can't point my toes out or up and it really hurts to walk.

After a day of ice and rest, I set off for my last big ride before the race. It should be about 9 hours and the sun is shining. Trail conditions were still pretty sticky, but the descents had some grip so there was chance to let fly a bit. Four hours into that, the shin pain is back so I plan to cut that ride short. Then I'm nearly home and the freehub on my xc bike jams, going from singlespeed to fixed. Fixed off road might be fun, but not when any failure to keep up with the pedals will further mash the internals of an expensive hub so I limp home and and end the ride on a low.

And of course, I get home to find that my drop bags for the race haven't made it to Alaska. They were supposed to take 5 days so they're 13 days overdue. Which may mean I have to carry all my food with no drops. Crap.

At this point, there's no stopping me but I just wish the little branches and brambles pulling back my progress towards McGrath would give me a break. I'll just have to keep reading books about people who've done harder things and overcome bigger obstacles. It's just a bike race so I just need to turn the pedals or trudge my feet for a few days. Injuries or lack of food aren't necessarily the end of that. Look at the scenery, have a laugh.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

More help for the race... Goodridge

Another lovely company has been nice enough to help me out with training for and riding the Iditarod... Goodridge! They make steel braided brake hoses and brake pads. Since brake pads are one of my biggest training costs and Goodridge are my first choice brand that's great news. I had already specced their hoses for the Pugsley to avoid cracking at low temperatures or worrying about crash damage causing a leak so I was very glad that they were willing to help.

Hooray for them!

Wednesday, February 04, 2009


To quote Bill Merchant, nutrition on the Iditarod trail is about "Fat, fat, and more fat". A reasonable estimate of expenditure on the trail is 8000 calories per day (an adult male's recommended intake is 2500 per day in normal conditions), so high fat and calorie dense foods are needed. Roughly speaking: fat is 9 calories per gram, protein and carbs are 4, and alcohol is 7.

This makes for a weird food shopping experience and a new stat-counting measure. I've never been that much of a weight weenie on my bikes, but I have definitely become a calorie-per-gram weenie for food. It makes a huge difference. 8000 calories in raw potatoes is 10 kg. Even if you could carry and cook that many potatoes, you wouldn't want to eat them. 8000 calories in butter is 1.1 kg. A lot easier to carry but also not a lot of fun to eat. For a "short" trip like the Iditarod race, fibre is just indigestible extra weight. Nutrients aren't a problem because you won't be gone long enough to suffer a shortage. The key things are: calories-per-gram, easy preparation, and palatability. Low weight is an obvious advantage. Anything that needs to be cooked over a flame will use up lots of fuel so "just add water" is better. And it doesn't matter what food you've got if you can't bring yourself to keep shoving it down every day.

At least these were my thoughts... I don't really have the experience to know how well my food plans will work out. I am setting myself back by sticking to vegetarianism. There will be food at checkpoints, but Alaskans are into meat (with good calorie density reasons) so I will have to assume I can only eat what I bring. Bearing all of this in mind, I started experimenting and creating a spreadsheet...

Powdered Milk4.9
M & Ms4.8
Torq recovery3.5
Dried Apricots1.7
Chocolate coffee beans5
Powdered Butter6.92
Pumpkin seeds5.9
Pine Kernels7

With this information I could plan my meals and get to 8000 calories in 1.6 kg. Hopefully I'll be able to eat all this, here's the menu...

  • Breakfast: Muesli with dried milk
  • Daytime: Cashew nuts with M & Ms, Almonds with dried apricots (chopped up for when they freeze), Torq recovery drink (that stuff isn't super energy dense, but it really helps me recover while training), chocolate coffee beans (yeah, I'm having caffeine on this one)
  • Dinner: Couscous with lots of dehydrated butter, pumpkin seeds, and pine nuts

And there it all is in bags. Using freezer bags means I can cook and eat the couscous straight from the bag. It also means relatively minimal waste packaging on the trail. Making up all the bags certainly did show how much waste there is in food packaging though. My recycling bag was jammed full of cardboard, and the main big was overflowing with plastic by the end.

Snow halts play

I was supposed to be going to Austria for my mum's birthday this week, which would have been a lot of fun. Time to have walks, dinners, drinks... chilled out stuff with no connection to bikes. Unfortunately, a couple of inches of snow intervened. As usual South East England fell to pieces. No flights, buses, or underground in London. No underground? It's under ground!

The positive to take from it has been snow riding straight from my front door and chance to write one or two things here that had been brewing as ideas.

Monday, February 02, 2009

SLSC UK Cold Water Swimming Championships

24 January saw me attending the South London Swimming Club's UK Cold Water Swimming Championships. Now there's a silly idea. Take one gigantic 90x30 metre unheated Lido, and organise a race in January when the water temperature can be as low as 1C then see what happens. What happened was that the water was a relatively balmy 4C; people travelled from the UK, Finland, South Africa, Australia, Germany, Ireland, Canada, and Poland participate; and afterwards we had a barn dance.

Swimming in water that cold isn't at all like swimming in a normal pool. And it isn't like swimming in "normal" cold water - say, the sea at 10C or above. You just can't stay in there for very long - it is no exaggeration to point out that if you did, you would die. But you can stay in there a lot longer than you may think. One advantage of the Lido is that the water doesn't creep up your legs slowly so there's no dipping your toes in. Step one is up to your waist and step two is swimming.

When the water fully hits you, it grabs at your breath. But the weird thing is that your heart doesn't just stop, and you can swim. At first there is something surreal about the normality of swimming in an environment that you have been brought up to think would be unrelenting and impossible. Then as you get more into it, maybe do your first turn, it does begin to feel cold. Actually, it isn't impossible but it is unrelenting. Your brain slows down a bit and your stroke starts to look and feel drunk. Even then, though, there's a warm core inside and the thoughts are random. I felt my toes getting cold. My toes. While heat is being sucked out of every inch, my toes are wanting some nice warm slippers.

And when you get out, your skin is aflame. Bright red and invigorating the burn is actually quite pleasant. The bad part is that your hands and balance don't work so well. So you stagger about and claw at your clothes to get the wet off and the dry on. Even when you do, it's like there are little cold snakes running around under even the biggest jacket. They run and coil and disappear, only to come back again and again for the next 30 minutes or so. Fortunately, the recovery isn't like a longer swim in the sea - a hot shower or bath is OK. It doesn't shock the system so the SLSC's sauna is a handy shortcut to recovery and feeling blissfully relaxed.

Such was my swimming experience when acclimatising for the competition. On the day though, I swam for a mere 30 metres. It was all about supporting Emily as she swam in 30m Freestyle, a relay team with the "Swimtrek Bullets", and then the daddy... 450m endurance.

The relay races brought out the fancy dress. First, there were the Grenadier Guards who were swimming to raise money for soldiers returning from Afghanistan. They were pretty easy to spot in their bearskins which enforced a gentle head-up breaststroke technique. It was an impressive achievement for a group who aren't really cold-water swimmers but relied on toughness and the good cause to get through.

The Swimtrek team's fancy dress had a bit of a stripper theme. With Brad, Simon, and John dressed up as stripper policemen, they gave Emily a mix of the police kit and naughty school-girl. As you can see, she pulled it off and even managed to get the truncheon in behind her swimming hat. They didn't win, but they did look silly and that's the main point.

The final challenge was the endurance race. It's invitational only as the uninitiated would have no chance of finishing 5 lengths, 450 metres of the Lido. It was easy to spot Emily before she started as she waited at the far end of the Lido in my jacket. The challenge was to follow her swimming hat for 5 lengths. After one, I could see her do a brief bit of breaststroke. I wasn't sure what to make of that but, her stroke was strong again when she returned to front crawl. Turn after turn, she kept going and in the end managed a brilliant finish. Nearly 9 minutes in desperately cold water. Impressive stuff.