How coaching other people made me faster

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I’ve been coached for a long time. It’s made me a much more committed athlete, but beginning to coach other people was a big turning point in getting the most out of my training. When you’re following a plan, the gains materialise slowly. The fitness creeps up, along with a creeping doubt that the plan is working. Or that a different plan might be better. Or that skipping one session won’t hurt your race performance in three months from now.

When I started coaching three years ago, all that changed. I saw every side of the equation. I saw the committed athlete that had done their workout before I’d even got up. Crushed every interval, done their cool down, uploaded their file and got to work before I’d even made a cup of tea. Sobering.

I saw the opposite. I saw one skipped workout turn into extra fatigue when a workout did happen. And the extra recovery needed to get over the sessions that did happen. I saw the slow accumulation of small indisciplines accumulate into missed goals. Poor results and low motivation often followed.

Training is a lonely endeavour. There are february mornings where the crucifying decision between jumping on the trainer and bundling up to ride outside is too much to take. First world problems you say? Try holding that perspective when it’s you that’s getting on the trainer. Seeing your athletes get out and do it gives you no excuse when it’s your turn.

When you’re a coach yourself, you see what work people are willing to do, and the individual variety that skews that dreamy periodisation into what we actually end up doing. The bursts of drive that turn to weeks of staleness. I see now how a couple missed sessions one week could turn into too much riding the next. I see now how those unplanned big weeks of riding turned into a head cold the next week.

This year I coached some amazing people. A rider stretched themselves and their motivation to the limit to achieve a huge dream of top 10 at Collegiate National Championships. An experienced Master’s racer threw all he knew out the window to follow my intensity driven plan – and succeeded in winning the Rocky Mountain Endurance Series. I had a brand new rider aim for a 10 hour Leadville finish, and blow us both away with a time close to 8 hours instead.

All it took was plain old boring consistency. Knowing that consistency is all it takes is a great feeling going into the winter when time abounds, but motivation can wane. Stick with it and it will pay off.

Early Spring in the high country

After almost a month of spring-like weather, the protective snowy blanket covering the hills is slowly lifting. March always gives us a glimpse of the good weather to come, but frequent spring storms ensure that it’s another six weeks until things become rideable. Now the weather is predictable; the Front Range is already in early summer, with the thunderstorms that go with it, but higher up, the flowers are yet to bloom, and the trees are devoid of leaves.

Continue reading Early Spring in the high country

Running out of time

There is a undercurrent of panic among my Mountain Biking friends. The clouds descended last week, covering Boulder in a film of dew, coating the trees in an erie layer of humidity. The temperature dropped and the wind blew in the smell of fresh, wintery air. It barely dipped into trousers weather, but the change from oppressive heat was felt. It was a signal.

Continue reading Running out of time

Road riding on Exmoor – a biased review

Which way? There's almost always more than one way to connect each village. The options spread the few visitors out even further, leaving you with endless roads to yourself

The Exmoor coast is the most primitive shoreline left in England. The huge cliffs have protected 35 miles of coastline from development, and the result is one of the most one unique landscapes in the UK. The cliffs role inland onto huge flat-topped hills. The relentless atlantic storms and long winters have scoured the vegetation from the tops of the moorland, leaving hardy plants and wildlife. The wooded valleys cutting between these hills are a contrast – part of the huge variety of terrain you’ll see if you cross Exmoor by bike.

Countisbury Hill is famous in the UK as one of the hardest climbs. The first mile is at 25% gradient

The Tour of Britain has visited Exmoor on every iteration since it’s rebirth, and it’s easy to see why. The roads cutting straight up and down the hills create 25% gradients that are impossible to ride easily. With all elevation starting from absolute zero – sea level – and rising to 1600 feet, the climbs are bigger than they appear on the map, and some of the most challenging in the UK.

Towards the top of Dunkery Beacon. Most climbs on Exmoor are devoid of switchbacks; instead, small roads wind directly up the barren faces of the hills
Towards the top of Dunkery Beacon. Most climbs on Exmoor are devoid of switchbacks; instead, small roads wind directly up the barren faces of the hills

As soon as you travel off the top of the moor, the trees grow taller, plant species become more numerous, and the weather a little gentler. The weather is fast-moving and unpredictable on Exmoor. The storms moved rapidly off the atlantic and over the coast, dropping heavy rain any time of the year. The wooded valleys are the protection from the elements, and it’s not uncommon to have different weather at the bottom of the hill from at the top.

In the bottom of the valley's, it's sometimes impossible to tell what the weather is doing just 1000 feet above
In the bottom of the valley’s, it’s sometimes impossible to tell what the weather is doing just 1000 feet above

The inaccessible coastline was further protected when Exmoor became a national park. Unlike the Wildernesses that make up American national parks, in the UK the national parks are living places filled with farms and industry. The protection comes from stopping development that would ruin what is already there. As such, Exmoor is filled with small villages, each with its own identity. Some of the villages are just a couple of miles apart, separated by open moorland and winding roads. These winding roads have often been replaced by (slightly) larger roads that now carry cars around the park, leaving winding country lanes to the bikes and horses. It takes a lot of local knowledge to successfully piece together a route through the best parts of Exmoor, and it takes a strong pair of legs to carry out the planned ride.

Trentishoe Down is at the western edge of Exmoor, where the unrelenting hills finally subside into the friendlier North Devon countryside
Trentishoe Down is at the western edge of Exmoor, where the unrelenting hills finally subside into the friendlier North Devon countryside

With Weather and fitness on your side, there are endless options for riding, taking in the busier coastal areas, or the quieter high moorland.

Porlock Hill has a warning for cyclists to dismount. It's hilarious for an experienced rider, but casual bike riders will struggle on Exmoor
Porlock Hill has a warning for cyclists to dismount. It’s hilarious for an experienced rider, but casual bike riders will struggle on Exmoor

I’ve been riding and walking on Exmoor for a long time, but it’s only recently that I’ve truly appreciated Exmoor for what it offers to cyclists. The variable weather that can never be predicted is the biggest factor in keeping people from coming to this part of the world – it seems that sunshine is often the determining factor when riders decide where to visit. Hot summers days might be the easiest time to enjoy the riding, but some of the best days are the ones where you’re the only person around for miles, the roads are your own, and the bleak moorland rolls on for days.

The heather, bracken, and gorse bushes are the natural flora of Exmoor. Hardy plants that can survive the harsh winters and bloom in the warm summers
The heather, bracken, and gorse bushes are the natural flora of Exmoor. Hardy plants that can survive the harsh winters and bloom in the warm summers

A few days in Edwards

Looking across the Gore Range from Meadow Mountain above Minturn

Christa and I had a mini “work from home” holiday last week. As Christa’s dad was getting a new spine put in, and therefore was forbidden from doing pretty much everything, we stayed up in Edwards to be house servants for a week. Among the standard cooking, a little bit of cleaning, and plenty of researching the paper I’m about to starting writing (“How to regulate new drugs for the treatment of depression”), I managed to squeeze in a lot of bike riding.

Our week was one too early – the Elk Rut, the annual calving for the herds that live in the White River national forest about the Eagle Valley, meant that most of the trails up into the hills were closed until the 15th of June. After one oblivious ride up Meadow Mountain, to be greeted with a sign at the top stating we couldn’t go any further, I then had to search carefully to find some more singletrack to ride.

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Berry Creek is situated on the north side of the valley, on the other side of the highway from Edwards. From the road, the first roll of hills gives the impression of a dry, sagebrush covered mountain. Riding up the dirt road next to the creek reveals some big old Cottonwoods, and then a couple of switchbacks on the undulating sandy road brings you eye level with the Aspen Groves that extend in the finger like valleys to the top of Red and White Mountain another 1000 feet above.

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Whoever built the dirt roads heading towards the top of the hill, didn’t do so with mountain bikes in mind. The impatient straight lines of dirt cutting tangentally to the contour lines suggest that these roads were built when mules did the heavy lifting. Now, they strain at the muscles of the Mountain Biker, in an unrelenting couple of miles straight up. The toil is worth it, though. As you put your lungs back in their slots, the view south opens up in front of you. Now, Arrowhead ski area can be seen carved out of the trees. The wide runs turning green as mud season ends and the wild flowers begin. The distance is framed by the New York Mountains, a short chain in the Holy Cross Wilderness that forms a barrier to the Eagle Valley from the South.

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And finally, after the work, and the view, comes the reward. Slotted neatly between the uniform trunks of symmetrical Aspen trees, a trail dives down into the valley. The leaf litter forming the bed of the trail belies the seasons; few people have taken this path since the snow disappeared just a month ago. The ride is prolonged by imagination alone. Loosing vertical feet so many times faster than they were gained means your brain strives to find each detail in the trees and the tall grass rubbing against your tyres.

It’s over really quickly. Back into the sagebrush hills that will take you back to the valley below. The proximity of amazing trails is, I think, pretty unknown. I don’t know whether the Edwards locals will be very happy that I’m shouting about their trails. Everyone likes their local secrets. But Edwards has some great short rides that complement the excellent trails further down the valley in Eagle, and the high country that will open up at the snow melt allows it to do so.

Thank you, Elk, for keeping the high country to yourself and making me search a little harder the gems on my (temporary) doorstep.

Ride like you eat: a protest against calories.

Cherry Blossom on the CU campus

It’s a mystical thing, that little calorie. It’s the unit of measurement of adventure. Life runs on it. Each pedal stroke and foot strike is calorie driven. The places I go happen because of the calories I consume. But it’s still a mystery to most. Maybe it’s best that way.

I overheard a conversation about calories that got me thinking. “It’s easy to count calories. They’re written on the side of food”

No, they’re not. Calories are written on packaging, and packaging means that you’re buying something that might not be food. The vegetables I buy don’t have calories printed on them. As I cut into a fresh loaf of bread, splinters of crust flying away from the knife, no calories are present. The brown paper that wraps my bacon before it hits the cast iron pan does not have units of measurement on the side. It’s a good thing. Food should not be quantified, segmented, compartmentalised into no more than a number value. Food isn’t a measurable thing.

To reduce a meal to it’s energy demands is like riding and bike and only telling someone how far you rode. What about everything else? Who did you say hello to? What colour were the leaves overhanging the shady road? Was the water flowing high in the river? The melt of spring finally bolstering the run-off? Food is unique and ‘one-time’. Each meal to be enjoyed just once, and every reproduction an experience in itself. Each pedal stroke up Flagstaff, the climb i’ve ridden countless times, is separate and unique and unconnected from the last. Every apple I bite into is new; never to happen again.

Calories mean little. It means as much as the miles ticking by on a bike ride. An interesting but useless measure of something achieved. A successful reduction of a beautiful thing to a simple, boring, number. A number ready to be filed away, analysed and compared.

Make sure your meals aren’t compared and analysed. Make sure they’re social, interesting, and above all seasonal. Let your food guide you through each month. Ensure the scenery is ever changing – invite new friends, new ingredients, new paths to a familiar place.

Calories and Miles don’t make stories. Characters and Mountains do.

The Green Season

Bikes. Bikes. Bikes. That’s what I talk about all the time. When I went back and read a couple of my older posts, I found another enduring theme: Weather and the Seasons.

The Betasso Preserve Trails are in great condition

Growing up in Combe Martin, weather was the talk of the town. It changed often. More than anything else in the village’s thousand year plus history. The houses standing on the north devon coast have battled North Atlantic storms day in, day out for centuries. The people walking down the long village street have used the same storms as verbal fodder for just as long. Throwing tidbits of chat back and forth with neighbours about the approaching rain, the view to Wales, and how well the tomatoes are growing in the garden.

Apple blossom / singletrack

Moving to Boulder was not much different. The town – a modern invention planted on top of the foothills for only a couple hundred years – is bisected by the creek. A literal measuring stick of the seasons flowing through the city. As the threat of snow is gently fading, the thunderstorms of spring have brought the water level up in anticipation of the snow melt to follow. Another couple of weeks and the icy flow will challenge its banks on its way out to the plains. As the water has risen, the riparian foliage has transitioned from dry cold brown, to fresh yellowish sprouts, and now on to deep and healthy green on every surface. The trees followed suit shortly after. The empty boughs budding with greenery, yet to reveal their particular brand of blossom. The Apple trees came first. Pure white petals against the green background. Now it’s time for the cherry blossom to follow suit. Bursting pink, with tulips and crocuses to compete against.

Green green grass in Boulder Canyon

I love the green season. The green season in England is an enduring but changing scope of colours washed across the hills. The green season of Colorado is a fleeting parade of colour that quickly and drastically changes the entire county. The barren hills are briefly covered with life, bursting and competing for the meagre flow of water that will dry up as summer hits. It needs to be celebrated and embraced. The thunderstorms that dance across the flatirons should be welcomed for the life they bring.

Only Pansies don't ride in the rain

Prescott, Arizona.

I collected up most of my friends and went to the Whiskey 50 last weekend. Prescott, Arizona is located half-way between Phoenix and Flagstaff, tucked into the northern edge of the Bradshaw Mountains. A high desert outcrop of hills covered in Conifers and scrub oak trees. They stick out from the Sonoran Desert, a strange bump on the cactus riddled plains of Arizona. As you drive north from the disgusting sprawl of Phoenix, you’re released into a huge valley, with the chain of mountains running along the western edge. You wind between towering Cardón cacti, climbing from the desert floor to 5500 feet, 1600 metres.

Prescott was the territorial capital of Arizona in the 1870’s. The huge town hall in the middle of the square is a reminder to its grand origins. It’s now home to a mix of bars and restaurants in the compact downtown, a big old theatre, and huge desert-style houses spreading out in the foothills in every direction.

The view from our house above Prescott

We’d rented a big house in the hills to fit our 12 friends into. We wound our way up the driveway in the dark on Thursday night, wondering where on earth we were going. To wake on Friday to the expansive views was exactly the introduction to the weekend I needed. The wind whistled gently against the gargantuan conifers, the warm sun filled me with energy to ride.

Friday was a packed day. In the morning we checked in with team sponsor Carborocket, who was one of the first companies to get set up at the expo. Brad from Carborocket looked after us really well; handing out recovery drink after the crit, and giving us ice cold water after the main event. I wanted to ride as much trail as possible on Friday – I wanted to remember the ins and outs of the course. My memory had shortened every aspect of the course. I had to go back and put the details in place. We rode for two hours in the morning, arriving at the Elks theatre in time for the riders meeting at lunch.

The fat tire 'crit' around downtown Prescott. Thumb Butte in the background

Friday afternoon was the “Fat Tyre Crit”. A spectacle for the locals, something for the amatuer racers to watch. A 50 mile race doesn’t lend itself well to spectating, so this is the organisers way of making Mountain Biking a little more accessible. We started in the town square, riding a two-minute loop up a steep hill, then careening back down to do it again. For 30 minutes. I metered my efforts from the gun, choosing to avoid the chaos of the lead group, and settle into a nice rhythm. It paid off, as I moved through the field, never getting out the saddle, never digging into those precious reserves. It’s great to race around with so many people cheering you on. It makes me feel like my extravagant past-time of bike racing is actually worth something.

Bike prep before the big show on Sunday

Saturday morning. I’d prepared for some bad weather. I’m pretty certain that Bryan spends all of his free time browsing the NOAA weather website; he’d told me to expect rain, and I’d packed accordingly. I wasn’t expecting the weather we woke up to, though. As we surfaced inside our warm mountain house, the driving rain was pushed down the valley by a vicious wind. The town below was obscured by clouds, and rather than warming as the day progressed, the rain turned white. Through hail, sleet and finally an inch of snow, we waited inside, knowing the mass participation amateur race was supposed to be going on. To give you an idea of what it was like for them, read Kate Ginsbach’s report of her trials in the forest.

The snow came and went within hours. A bad dream for anyone trying to race on Saturday
The irony of snow in the desert; by 2pm the sun was out. The temperature had climbed from -2*c to 15*c. The wind was still high, but it had wiped the snow right off the ground, leaving behind dry, tacky dirt. This is the kind of things mountain bikers get excited about – good dirt. Hero dirt. Grippy and smooth and sculpted by the rain. We headed out to ride for a little bit in the afternoon. Spin the aches and hydrogen ions out of the legs from the criterium the day before. We found a piece of singletrack at our front door, and proceeded to ride a couple of laps up and down until we were forced to pull ourselves away, to save the energy for the big deal tomorrow.

Sunset over the Bradshaw Mountains in the Sonoran Desert

A house of professional cyclists eats a lot of food. It’s difficult to plan for three days of meals – it gets expensive to go to the supermarket everyday without having huge amounts of left overs. We tried our best to avoid waste, but it happened anyway. We were really lucky that Deidre’s Mum Lorraine came down to help us. She just quietly got along doing all the things no-one else wanted to. Such a stress reliever.

My race report from the Whiskey is here. Read it at your own peril. I’m yet to master the art of writing about races without including all the details. Everything went so smoothly on Sunday that I don’t even know what to write about. Perfect temperature to race in, no stress or hassle at any point, and coming home with a cheque for $500. We piled into the minivan after the race. Every position I tried to hold was uncomfortable. I drifted into a dazed sleep as we cruised back toward Phoenix. I’m so happy I wasn’t driving home. These interludes of racing squeezed into normal life are surreal. I was sitting in the office on Monday morning surrounded by colleagues who have no idea what my weekends entail. It’s kind of nice to have that alter ego.

Moab in Bloom

The mountains parted, letting us escape their grasp as we drove west. The finger like cliffs of the western slope releasing us into the reddened desert beyond. The wintry clouds hung over the book cliffs. We ignored them. We were Moab bound. The junction off of I-70 towards Moab is indistinct. Don’t expect any services on the drive towards Cisco Landing, a once-upon-a-time town, now left alone by the highway which was built as a teasing 10 miles to the North.

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Utah state highway 128 drops towards the Colorado river, a view of the La Sal mountains hanging above. They’re snowy; covered in low clouds. We wind down to the river, crossing Dewey Bridge and then following the river thirty miles southwest.

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We arrive in Moab in the between season. The weird time when the red dusty hills are soaked in their once a year bath. The greenery is subtle and sparse. Sitting in gaps on the canyon walls. The cactus are in bloom, but you can’t tell that from a distance. You must get up close and personal.  Smell the scent of rain on the rocks. Christa and I had come here to ride bikes, drink beer and remove ourselves from society for a couple of days. We started the adventure by riding down the river towards Moab, the riparian vegetation a huge a contrast from the desert above.

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The moody clouds somehow made the hills seem friendlier – the wide open sky was now boxed in close to the canyons. It muffled the sounds of the jeeps in the distance. We could hear water flowing in the slots. The washes and creeks were flowing.

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We rode to the top of the Amasa Back trail – a rough jeep road climbing a mesa above the Colorado river. As you climb away from the river, the walls of the canyons climb around you, the echo of the walls making the space seem almost cosy. It was in this little cavity of Utah that the cacti were really singing.

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And then we reached the top, where we took the necessary photo hanging over the edge, looking down into Jackson’s hole, with the meandering Colorado river below, and the Potash mines on the other side, a manicured incursion on the floor of the desert.

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We relaxed at our campsite in the evening. Utah is known for its dearth of beer. Mormon derision of alcohol in general means that for a long time the only alcohol allowed was 3.2% or less ABV. I don’t know exactly what has changed, but now you can find some rare gems of good local beer. We picked up some Uinta brewing beer, made in Salt Lake City. It was fitting.
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Day two of our short incursion into Abbey country. We awoke under rainy skies – the clouds finally heavy enough to drop their weight down to the ground below. We made egg and avocado sandwiches, a couple of pots of coffee, then set off to ride some trails. Slickrock trail is high above Moab up on a lumpy Mesa of sandstone. The trail meanders around the rocks, climbing ridiculously steeply up and down between sandy washes. The porous rock gives you great grip, even in the wet. We tested that theory to the maximum.
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As we were sat, huddled underneath a sparsely branched juniper bush, with hail lashing down upon us from all sides, I realised that Christa must really like me. I couldn’t think of any other explanation as to why she would choose to be sitting under tree with me, on a mountain bike ride, in the hail. These are the things that make memories.