My last blog post was in October. It was never my intention to leave things so long between updates but it’s probably a fair reflection of how the winter has been and where things are currently at. I’ve had a few attempts at writing this post and I’ve thought hard about whether I should even be publishing this at all, however, I always try to be genuine and believe if you want to show off the good it’s important to also share the bad, to give an honest account, away from Instagram stories and Strava feed. I also believe that being open can help you accept and make sense of a situation, and begin to move forward.
In October I was in training for Frankfurt marathon. I wanted to run a marathon ‘fresh’ to see what I could do and I felt like I wasn't quite finished with racing for the year. The build-up was going well; 120-130km weeks and consistent improvements to my fitness. It did feel a bit of a slog for that time of year, but the prospect of toeing the line and pushing hard for 42kms really drove me on. After a couple of strong weeks I travelled to Chamonix to switch off, catch up with a friend and do some trail running. I've always been a big advocate for mixing up training and swapping some structure for to try something less familiar and far more adventurous, so couldn't really pass on the opportunity.
On my last day in Chamonix I went out for a solo trail run. I was hugely inspired by the landscape and feel of the surroundings and this probably allowed some fatigue to build, unnoticed, and for me to lose focus for a moment. Coming down a descent I took a fall and landed on my knee.
Honestly, this nothing I haven't done before and I was able to keep running and get back even with tired and tight legs. The knee felt okay, I dusted myself off and headed back to Zurich to continue marathon training.
A few days later and my knee was seriously stiff, hard to extend and painful. I figured it was just fatigue from all the miles and so dropped intensity and mileage but kept running. However, a week or so later the knee began to lock up and collapse on runs and I knew something wasn't right. I’d already planned to return to the UK for a few big marathon training weeks at the end of the regular triathlon season, however, this turned into several appointments with my sports therapist and Physio. Opinions were mixed and confusing and I was now trying and failing to run, desperate not to give up on something that meant so much to me. I finally saw a Physio with whom I had worked with many times in the past and the news was quite distressing. Stop running. You need an MRI and possibly surgery. I won't lie, the news hit me pretty hard and I struggled to deal with it and make sense of what it could mean. As gutted as I felt, I knew this setback would be manageable with a plan in place and I started to draw out timelines of how it should all work out.
Back in Switzerland things moved quite fast. An MRI and a series of consultations with a specialist in Zurich. The main concern was a meniscus tear or cartilage damage but, although the MRI did show a very small tear, the doctor did not think this was of much concern and prescribed basic rehab and rest. Skip forward 9 weeks, however, and there was no improvement. My knee would hurt even when cycling and swimming and running was still not possible. There really was no improvement and mentally this was draining. I was willing to accept the injury, but felt it would be much easier to deal with a clear diagnosis and timeline for my recovery.
I decided to head for a second opinion and met with a new Orthopaedic surgeon. Although nothing new was spotted on the MRI or X-rays, we tried a couple of new treatments which seemed to get more mobility into my knee and very slowly I was able to start running. I spent a few weeks building mileage but would still be running with stiffness and pain in the back of my kne. Some days it was okay but some days would be bad and the continually changing symptoms was frustrating. My hope was always that after another 6-12 weeks the knee pain would clear and things could move forward, that I could start to build intensity and work towards a normal season. Unfortunately that didn't quite happen, weeks rolled into months and I'm still not much further forward. Timelines continually redrawn and then pushed right, I finally had to stop making plans.
I'm regularly doing physio and receiving good treatment but the pain doesn't seem to change and adding any intensity to my run training is a long way off. I've struggled to constantly to build mileage and even maintaining fitness with swimming and cycling hasn't been easy as I even sometimes experience pain and discomfort during those activities. We’re now trying another treatment, but if this doesn't work the only option left would be arthroscopic surgery, a fairly un-invasive surgery but nevertheless something I'd rather avoid if possible.
I've gone through various stages of being down and possibly depressed about the injury, sometimes feeling I should give up or let go and then suddenly being objective, accepting the injury and feeling motivated to work hard and build back stronger. I've tried to do other activities to take my mind off regular training but it’s hard to be missing the miles, the key sessions and the winter build I've relied on for so many years. This is my first proper injury and unfortunately seems to be fairly complex and long lasting. Mentally, it’s a daily fight to not let it bring me down and hold me back but the effort it takes to get past this is equally exhausting.
This week I was starting to feel a bit more positive, the knee wasn't much better but I'd been able to do some good skiing, build some fitness and had a warm weather camp with work to look forward too. A chance to build some bike fitness and strength in the sun felt like the reset I had been looking for.
Then another setback. I woke up on Thursday incredibly sick, high fever and weak. After avoiding if for three years I had finally caught Covid, and at quite possibly the worst time. So I have spent the last few days in bed, seriously cold then hot, weak, dehydrated and generally feeling pretty terrible. It's hit me pretty hard in a way I did not expect and the physical and mental toll has been particularly draining.
I have always prided myself on being incredible resilient and able to deal with most situations but I truly am running out of patience and hope for this year. I had some big goals and ambitions building on from the success of last season, but right now I feel incredibly far away from these and with no idea of the timeline moving forward. It’s difficult when other people ask what races I'm doing and how training is going when it feels so far from where it should be. It can be hard not to compare yourself to others, what they are doing and how fit and fast everyone seems to be already this year. And as much as I know these comparisons are wrong it’s hard to always remember that especially in the world we now live.
I truly am unsure what this year will bring, if anything. I’ve been very fortunate in the last few years to be extremely consistent and done quite well but it does not make this setback any easier. I chose not to really write or speak much about this before now, almost because of my lack of acceptance of the situation. I truly am not looking for sympathy or excuses. I'm hoping in some way by writing this and putting it down it helps me process it all, take stock of where I am and where to go from here.
I'd love nothing more than to be churning out 20 hour weeks back to back and feeling like my fitness is building. I'd love to be completely pain free in my knee and I'd also love to be fully healthy. I don't have timelines or many answers and it has felt like one thing after another. I will continue to show up, push on and do what I can but this year will certainly not look like years before.
I think many who read this will understand and know how this feels, others may say it’s just sport or racing its part of the package. It's hard to explain the deep feelings that come with this, the feeling of not being able to push how you want or be at the level you should. The sport and training for me is part and parcel of my life and lifestyle it's simply not something I can just switch off from or let go. Overcoming setbacks is part of being a coach, an athlete, a person, but sometimes all you want is a bit of a break and some positive momentum forwards.
So there we are, in the trenches of what life can throw at you trying to dig my way out with what feels like a small spade and endless falling dirt.
Numbers matter. There is no denying in sport at any level an abundance of numbers are critically important. Time, distance, speed, position, minutes, seconds, hours I could go on. Numbers are crucial to see improvements, strengths, weaknesses and results. I used to row and in the eight boat names were not used I was simply "8" for a good few years. I was just a piece of the puzzle that made the boat go faster, a number a part of a wider collective. But is there a point where we need to look beyond the numbers? Where the numbers don't matter as much or we become too attached to them.
I have coached for a long time now and been an athlete even longer, since I started both numbers were crucial and big part of my beliefs and philosophies. I have always been a believer in high volume, stacking up the hours and km's and get deep satisfaction by looking at them at the end of a big week or block. For me if the numbers are adding up I'm getting fitter, progressing and things are moving forwards, which is true to an extent. Generally speaking the higher the numbers in and around training the better things are going.
But I have found and know that focusing even obsessing on the numbers can be problematic, that things can become irrational to hit that next target or arbitrary goal. Like many others in lockdown training, hitting goals and volume became my focus. It was something I could control in a world of uncertainty, a process that kept me going and moving forward. But as the weeks and months went on and I tried to push for higher and higher numbers the obsession and possibly motivation changed. I felt I HAD to hit 100km run weeks, I HAD to do big 200km rides even when deep down I didn't feel up for it and there would be moments of darkness pushing for these goals. I would feel satisfied with a big week, looking at the numbers, the data and proud of myself. But the next day when it "started again" I'd be back to square zero, starting at the bottom and feel a slight emptiness that needed filling again.
This process lasted months on end and I would say is something that at times I still feel to this day. However I have found much more balance and stability in the process and how to control and manage this better.
For example leading up to an ironman I know the work needs done, I know the hours need stacked up and volume accumulated, I look at the bigger picture of the block I am in and how long this will last. If I feel it's becoming too much or overwhelming I'll take a step back, a few days or a week where I get back to just enjoying the miles and not looking at the numbers. I'll change my focus to help re focus and keep the training healthy. I would say even by doing this for a week or so I still hit my targets and what I'm aiming for I just feel the pressure is off and I'm more grounded in the larger picture.
I find this time of year and the offseason a time where most people will take these moments and blocks. Time to do some "fun" training or where the numbers don't matter and we get back to basics, back to doing what we fancy and see where the ride or run might take us. But I think my reflection here is if you start to go down that path, if you start to get too deep into chasing the numbers, volume, kms possibly take a step back. Look at where you are at, where you are going and check if it's still feeling constructive or you're chasing it for different reasons. Don't get caught up in the small moments of the big picture.
I hope some of the above makes sense, really just enjoy what you're doing, remember why you are doing it and numbers, they are just numbers.
It's close to the end of a long season and always time to step back and look at where it started and where things have finished. I have been coaching now for around seven years but this year by far has been my most challenging and different; a new country, new athletes, new dynamics, different races and different culture. Below I'll try and summarise some thoughts from the year so far, some key learnings and one or two things may be useful for other coaches or athletes.
I started working with a new group of athletes in January and while this may seem like an ideal time I always felt like I was chasing my tail, trying frantically to catch up and learn as much as I could as fast as I could. I was well aware of the upcoming season, the goals and ambitions the athletes had with this and felt an internal pressure to deliver something good. In an ideal world I would have liked to observe for a month or so before getting stuck in, being fully on deck and delivering the programme. That isn't how life works and really from day one the decisions were mine, training up to myself and I was hitting the ground running.
So with this in mind where did I start? Really with the basics, going back to the start and trying to "observe" while of course giving input and structure. I kept training simple, tried to understand and respect what was done before and not completely reinvent the wheel. I quickly built a weekly structure and template that alined with my training beliefs and philosophies and implemented this to see if it would work. I wanted to keep training consistent, my coaching consistent and start to understand the athletes. How they performed over certain sessions, where were they limited or needing work, how did doing x session affect the next day, just real basics. To try and do this while also trying to step back and observe was difficult, athletes want input, change and sometimes instruction. In a way I felt I needed to do this to give this impact and start strong but I was conscious of how much I needed to learn and understand to really make long term progress. I often say coaching has many of the same principles of training and for me this initial stage was trying to see the much bigger picture not just the here and now and the day to day. Focus on the process.
In any coach-athlete relationship building mutual trust is more important than any training or session you try and deliver. The athletes need to trust the coach to make the best decision, training and input and equally the coach must trust the athlete to do what is asked, provide feedback and be honest. Coming from abroad and being "new" I was very conscious of this, athletes knowing very little about you, your background and why you are good enough for the job! There is no secret or shortcut to building trust but I stuck by some basic principles which I believe help the process. Firstly being consistent, I believe the more you are around and on deck coaching, guiding and learning the more the athlete starts to trust you. They can see you are invested, not going away and hopefully there for the long haul. If they feel you are invested in them and their journey trust should naturally build and actually being there shows this. Equally being consistent in your behaviours as a coach, how you act, provide feedback and ask questions. If the athlete feels they know how you work, act and communicate again it becomes easier to trust you and to learn your style. The language barrier has of course thrown different challenges into the fold with communication and trust, I'm fortunate that the athletes speak very good English but I am conscious that things can go misunderstood and I have to think more about how best to feedback.
Over time this year I have learnt with athletes when to lean in and when to lean out. There will be moments an athlete needs more support, information and guidance and times when they need left, to figure things out themselves or just some space. This is a very fine line and difficult with a new group to learn but with time you begin to learn what is best. For me it is about trying to understand the individual infront of you and what they need in that moment, at times I have got this right and other times wrong!
In terms of the real details of training content and structure once again I have taken my time with this. For me it was important to see the athletes race, how they performed and actually put together swim/bike/run not just individually. You can't just suddenly change how the athletes have trained and what they have done, its about respecting what was there before but implementing small changes as you move through the year and sticking to your principles and philosophy. I remember being questioned a lot on how I was training them, how sessions linked up and why I did things a certain way, this is a great challenge to really be confident in what you are doing and show conviction of why you believe it works.
As I sit and write this I reflect on the months and races that have passed and I'm reasonably satisfied with where things have ended up. Once the season starts it always feels like a conveyor belt that you can't step away from, you are bouncing from race to race, week to week and juggling sessions with recovery, travel and learnings. I love working with and coaching a squad and group but really they are all individuals and balancing the group needs with personal needs has its challenges particularly through the season. You can go to a race and some will have a great race some not so much so you need to adjust the week and plans following to lift people up and keep others level. Being a triathlon coach keeps you humble as it is very rare all of your athletes will all perform well the same weekend! Whilst I enjoy the success and results if you get caught up in these you loose sight of the big picture and the process of where you want to go.
I feel this season I have done a good job, at times I have rushed or pushed too fast or in other areas been too slow to pick up pieces. Coaching isn't easy and part of the reason for moving abroad and changing group was to challenge myself, to continue to grow and get out of my comfort zone. I did feel in the UK I was building great momentum but the real question was could I do it somewhere totally new? There is a long way to go out here but the groundwork is starting to be laid and from that we can build.
A few days after the Alpe d’Huez race, my good friend Will and I decided to take on a route we had been looking at for years.
It’s always a fine balance when racing Alpe d’Huez between getting the right amount of rest and recovery around race day but also making the most of the incredible roads and famous climbs. However, with this being my 4th visit to the race and with my biggest target for the year, Ironman Switzerland, now behind me, we decided this trip was going to be more of an adventure.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about my opportunities and objectives in the sport and in life generally and have often reflected on the phrase “If not now, when?” as a way to help me overcome those harder tests and take on new experiences. I’ve also been influenced a lot my friend, John McAvoy, and his constant strive to push outside of his comfort zone and live every day to the fullest.
We set off early on the Saturday morning, 2 days after the race, with 186kms and 5330m of climbing ahead of us. This year we were staying in Alpe d’Huez so would be avoiding the flat start of Bourg d’Osains. Instead we would descend the Pas de la Confession from Huez village before rolling along the valley and tackling all but the final 2km of the Croix de Fer before turning off and passing over the Col du Glandon. We would descend the north side of the Col du Glandon for what would feel like an eternity, ride along the hot valley to Saint Michel de Maurienne where we would refuel before turning south to tackle the 35km route up the Télégraphe and Col du Galibier. From here we would briefly take in the stunning views and blistering cold winds before descending again, via Lac du Chambon, back to Bourg d’Osains before finally climbing the famous 21 virages de l’Alpe d’Huez.
I'm not going to go into detail about the ride and each climb there are plenty of videos, articles and blogs around this route what its like and how it looks! However for me there was something important and special about that day and route.
Honestly in the morning I was scared of what was ahead, you can't really bail once on the route and there is no shortcut, once you're in it its on and you have to keep going. I think their is always comfort on a long day/ride knowing you can turn back or cut it short if needed but here it just isn't an option. You know for sections you will be slowly riding your bike uphill for 3 hours + pushing whatever power you can.
I love and cherish days like this, no one is making you do it, it's not a race and it matters to no one but yourself, yet the pressure, fear and excitement feels like any big race. I have realised I think since Lockdown I need days like this, I need moments like this I suppose to feel "alive" and like I'm getting the most out of myself. Without challenges or big days I feel empty and longing for those feelings again.
The day was brutal, physically and mentally I went to many dark places and genuinely wasn't sure I could finish certain sections. Yet once I was over the top of the Galibier with views of endless mountains, glaciers and roads I felt so privileged and content at what I was doing and where I was. I haven't had the easiest last couple of years for various reasons so to experience and find these feelings is rare and at times it takes something quite extreme. This won't be the same for everyone and I understand we each do the sport and races for different reasons but this is a big part of it for me and something that's taken me a few years to really understand.
At around 19:15pm we were back up in Alpe Dhuez and rolling home some 8 hours 45 later; broken, quiet, empty but equally full of pride, stories and moments that live with you for a long time. Rolling the last 2kms thinking about the hours before, the places we went and were is such a unique feeling to put into words is very difficult but you feel complete.
If I'm honest since coming back from the Alps and the last month I've struggled a bit, I've felt quite flat and without the next "thing". When you do these large days, races or challenges you certainly have a comedown after but I have found it interesting over the last few years that these are the moments and days that make me feel most alive and challenged. I don't see this as a bad thing, they have to be managed and planned but ultimately we all have to find what makes us tick and move forward.
I hope some of what I have written makes sense, it's funny you wake up the next day from something like that ride and feel a slight emptiness, a longing for more and a bigger challenge. So what's next?
In the words of Mary Schmich "“Do one thing every day that scares you...Enjoy your body. Use it every way you can"