Sunday, 23 October 2016

Burnout and recovery on a 200 km DIY Audax

I've not been well over the last week or so. I think it's been a combination of factors which have built up. Work has been chaos of late, everyone aiming for a big deadline at the end of September. Things never calmed down after though, with long hours and time away from home again in October. Even the Monday after the BB200, which was planned to be an easy workday, had me on site until six, in the office til 8:30 pm and not home until 9. The whole week after the BB200 was stressful, long days and I was exhausted. There was no light at the end of the tunnel workwise, and there still isn't. I should have booked a couple of days off in restrospect, not so much for the physical recovery, but to deal with the mental side of coming down after an event which has been the focus of riding for a few months or so. Especially when I am still carrying pretty major disappointment in how I handled the time-trial nature of the event. I think I was sent over the edge by a trip to the Forest of Dean the following weekend, which compounded the frustration at my inability to race without massive anxiety, and I found myself getting stressed and tight chested just being in the environment, even though I had absolutely no plans to race whatsoever. Stupid, of course. Sat here typing this, my logical brain understands that it has become programmed behaviour and that I just need to find the right approach to deal with it. However, emotional inner chimp brain shouts and screams an awful lot louder..... "failure, failure when you do race, failure when you don't and to top it off, failure even when you are stood watching others". I might be vegan, but quite often I want to shoot the little bastard chimp right between the eyes.

So after a week of some pretty dark dark places in my head, exhausted, aching joints and dizziness, and realising I probably had a bit of cold compounding the nervous burnout, I had to rethink plans for this weekend. it was the one chance I had to complete a hilly 200 and keep the RRTY and AAARTY going for October. I really didn't want to just let the RRTY go, even knowing it was a risk to ride after feeling so ill. Chronic fatigue is not something to be messed with. However, with just two months to go until the end, it would be such a shame to call it quits, especially after getting through earlier in the year with a broken arm thanks to the help of the amazing Steve Abraham. Maybe, I could let the AAARTY slip if I had to, and there may be, if I am well, a chance to squeeze in a little 50 km hilly loop before the 31st October. 

Plans were redrawn, a flattish 200 km (1900 meters elevation compared to my normal 3200 - 3700 meters) on a bike loaded with a Jetboil, and a massive amount of food. I made promises to myself: I would make sure I didn't get out of breath, I would stop every 50 kms to drink tea and eat proper food and I would take my time. The worst case would be a DNF and getting collected by Steve, and that wouldn't be so bad, at least I would have tried. The weather looked stable. It should be a lovely easy tour of the flatter bits of the Cotswolds and North Worcestershire. I knew it was a risk, but figured I know my body well enough to make sensible decisions. 

In the end, it was a really pleasant trip. Pleasant verging on sedate I guess. I am not used to this kind of audax trundle and it felt very relaxed. 

The 8 am skies were misty and it was with a proper autumn chill in the air. For once in my life I hadn't brought too much extra clothing and I pondered whether I would suffer later in the day, what with my plans to run the clock to full-value.

Mostly though, I didn't really think about anything much for long. Just happy to be on tiny lanes with the muted morning colours whizzing by.

With my definite plans to stop and eat properly every 50 kms, I didn't use the top tube bag for the normal eat-whilst-moving junk (I rarely stop properly on a 200, and mostly eat on the move), but instead it held the little camera. It was always available to whip out and take photos on the fly. Above is Mythe Bridge, a real audax landmark if you regularly ride Mr Blacksheep's events from Tewkesbury.

Tewkesbury also has a fantastic tarmac cycle route, traffic free and with only a handful of dog walkers at that time in the morning.

I had the embarrassment of overtaking a tractor on the flat somewhere East of Tewkesbury, only to immediately come to a gradual climb, for which I had neither the head or heart to smash and hold my position in front. The driver was not impressed to overtake me on the hill so the next time I caught him, I followed lazily until he turned off to the ploughing competition being held that morning. Oh, the joys of rural life!

I do love this little road bike. The bar bag held the Jetboil and I found the rattle and clonking of it nicely reassuring, and a reminder that I was out to tour, not get round by pounding pedals. I am just grateful that, even when I am unwell, I am fit enough to be able to comfortably tour a 200 km loop in a day.

Beautiful rose hips really showing their colour against the grey skies.

I was feeling alright at the first tea stop, although pleased I had made a deal with myself in advance to ensure I did actually stop. It felt like proper TLC for the world-weary to sit and drink Earl Grey on a beautiful historic stone bridge.

I took more pictures as I rolled through the scenery, guessing what secrets walled gardens hid. Topiary? Rows of neat veggies? Mulched beds put to sleep for the winter? A massive pump track with BMX doubles and a start ramp? Who knows.

There were a lot of roadworks, endless trenches, lorries, workmen, traffic lights with poor sensors and diversions, but luckily the few closures I saw were passable to cyclists. I don't mind waiting at red lights, it resets my rhythm and let's me look around properly for a while.

Churches blurred in large number. How strange now to think, at one time, these buildings would have been the absolute centre of the community, with the vast majority of people attending every week, week on week, their marriages, christenings, funerals all contained in their small villages. Was the enforced community spirit of that time an improvement, or was it just a cover for people living unfulfilled difficult lives in marriages which made them unhappy, with husbands that beat them, with diseases of which no-one talked and which were incurable? We romanticise the past, but I am not sure it was any better.

This is what happens when I am left without climbs to focus the mind, I often fall into pondering the universe instead. Still, the sun started to break through the mists, which lightened my thoughts and warmed my soul.

More beautiful autumn colours on another barely-driven, barely maintained, lane. Little hidden gems of peace in the middle of the midland hubbub.

A new bridge

The old bridge

A strange route over an unused crossing, quite fascinating to see. It's one of the things I love about audax, covering vast distances and seeing parts of the country you would never see otherwise. I doubt I will ever visit this place again, but I am so glad I got to see it before my time is up.

By the 100 km mark it was time for another stop, but first I needed to find water. Determined not to spend any money, especially on water, I started looking for potential refill sites and saw a sign for some kind of event.  What an event it was, the beginnings of a weekend reenactment with lance-carrying knights and women in full medieval dress. The volunteers were happy for me to fill up from a standpipe and I left most enraptured by the efforts people go to following the thing that they love.

Before stopping, I crossed a few areas of sweeping hedgeless landscape. A reminder of the Fens, with big skies making me decidedly small and unimportant, in a good way.

One day I shall see the epic vastness of America. But for now, this will have to do.

Trundling along and happy to be overtaken by streamlined roadies in lycra, a banana in one pocket and a CO2 inflator in the other. I was just grateful to be out.

The sun properly showed his face at lunchtime, warming the tarmac, and my bare arms as I rolled up coat-sleeves.

For the second stop, I had hoped for a nice little village bench beneath an autumnal tree, and sure enough found one.

Thank you villagers, for a nice place to sit. I was warmed to the core by the sun as I ate ginger marmalade and peanut butter sandwiches, drank more Earl Grey, watching leaves fall and missing every single one of them with the camera.

I didn't mind, it was just nice to see the orange leaves against the blue. If only every day could be so beautiful....but then, it would become the norm and we would become nonchalant to it.

Autumn never fails to take me back to some of the good times of my childhood. Fond memories of kicking around leaves, collecting acorns, chestnuts, beechnuts. Art classes trying to replicate the beauty of it all. Such a transient season, but that's what makes it so special.

Even the ladybirds were autumn coloured

The blue skies stayed for a while and I was grateful for the warmth. Past the halfway turn I began to ache and fever, but the sun kept the chills at bay.

A small cycle route turned out to be a mini-off road adventure, livening up the tedium of a tarmac B road considerably.

I liked it. I'm not sure all road riders would.

There were loads of selfies taken, although barely any made it past the 'not looking like death warmed up' vanity filter.

Another bridge. These little pieces of engineering to which we pay little heed, yet imagine, for a minute, a world without them.

It felt like autumn was increasing every minute of the day, leaves turning as I drifted past, watching them fall and trying to guess the wind direction from their path.

Fields of winter cabbage, or maybe spring greens, so dark compared to the fading verges.

A world without bridges, it would mean a lot of wet feet for a start....

Luckily this ford had a tiny ancient footbridge, and a perfectly placed picnic table to watch the cars splash through, meet a gorgeous puppy, and boil up my final cup of tea.

A really ancient feeling bridge

Protected from the wonders of modern technology, aka unruly floating cars, by nothing more than a bit of rope.

After the final stop, the last part of the journey was beneath threatening black skies

Luckily the rain held off and I stayed dry, as the late afternoon set in and the mists gradually began to build again.

For half an hour I played the 'do I stop and put lights on yet' game until I realised how stupid this was, it wasn't like I had hours of riding left to do, there was no need to preserve batteries and the extra energy pushing an engaged dynamo hub was minuscule compared to carrying around a day's worth of food and a stove on the bike.

I thought I knew all the lanes within 20 miles of home, but I found yet another, barely surfaced, hidden track. Another place I have never been before.

Those moody skies weighed heavy over the orchards of Clive's Fruit Farm, as my legs weighed heavy on the pedals. I had been in denial for 190 kms, but I knew I had one almighty climb coming up, and I knew I was going to suffer. The cold feverish feeling was worsening and I was definitely not well.

I reassured myself I had a granny gear and I just had to spin steadily up and over the ridgeline as the hills came into view.

Until I realised which way google had routed me. That will teach me for not checking over the GPX files. Old Wyche Road. A tough climb on a good day, but on a partially loaded bike when feeling unwell, it was too much to ask. I was briefly tempted to claim 'I couldn't go up the Old Wyche Road as it's one way', and ride the easy route up the steady gradient of the main road, but I knew in my heart that would be a lie. I knew, if I wasn't ill, I would have grunted my way up there, contraflow. I knew I had drawn up the mandatory DIY route so there was only one thing to do, ride as much as possible and push when my legs gave in. Any other option would be cheating. My head gave out much sooner than the legs, and it was a few minutes of walking to reach the top.

For once I couldn't have cared less about a failure on a climb. I was just grateful. Grateful to be at the top knowing it was all downhill to home. Grateful to have got through the October 200 and to know I have 5 weeks to recover before I need to be thinking about another 200 for the November RRTY, and grateful that, even on a day when I am really unwell, I can still comfortably trundle around a 200, have three significant stops, and be home before dark.

The whole day was topped off when I passed through the Wyche Cutting to be greeted by the most magnificent sunset over Herefordshire. I stopped, sat and stared, knowing I had 3+ hours in hand to make the last 2 miles downhill to home. There was no rush. Time to cool off my overheating forhead in the northerly breeze, time to take photos of sunlit dandelion clocks and time to chat to a local lady about our overwhelming fortune to live in such a beautiful location.

Once home, I felt full of a virus and exhausted, but mentally back to my normal self, in a good place and ready to wait out the recovery. It can take as long as it needs.