Monday, November 15, 2010

The View from my Bicycle [COLUMN]

Reality Check - by Nick van der Leek

Over the weekend in Clearwater Florida an incredible finale to an incredible story played out. Local Port Elizabethan, Alec Riddle, who competed in the 45-50 age group at the Ironman World Champs fought off a 4th place finisher to sprint his way to a podium finish. It's an amazing achievement in itself, even more so given Riddle broke his collarbone as recently as late September [less than 2 months ago].

Even during the race itself Riddle had to deal with some of the 'unfairness' that is part and parcel of sport, and let's face it, life. He'd worked hard on the bike leg to gap his rivals, and was sitting in 3rd or 4th on the road at halfway, when, to his horror, he saw a huge peloton of 30-35 age groupers dragging around a dozen 50-somethings with them. To Riddle's credit, when this train of riders sailed by, he did not join 'the cheaters'. He showed the character and the stamina to reel them in on the run, and despite a complaining calf muscle, eventually grabbed third.

All happily ever after you might think? Well, in the last few hours, post race, and doing nothing in particular, Riddle said on facebook he felt a 'snap' in his shoulder, and it seems the constant tension on that shoulder has finally worn through/overwhelmed the bone. Let's hope it hasn't shattered.

So, of course, it is one thing to 'hang tough' and perform against all odds, to allow sheer determination to trump adversity. Sometimes, it is even tougher, and requires even more discipline to 'suck it up' and accept defeat. Because it goes against the grain, it seems contrary to the apparent truism that effort is always good, and not doing is giving up [or defeat or failure]. Sometimes though, the best course of action is to retire, albeit temporarily. Always easy to say in hindsight.

I have my own experience to share, not nearly as dramatic as Riddle's, but certainly very real. I took part in a short little triathlon today, a half standard - that's 750 metres swim, 20km cycle and 5km run. I was being a little impatient and reckless myself; I've been treating two fairly serious muscle and tendon injuries in my glutes, hamstrings and a muscle known as the piriformus.

The piriformus as I understand it, is a hip flexor, which works to both stabilise and move the leg forward. The sciatic nerve is at play between these muscles, and mine has been plaguing me without end. If you're about to take a step forward, that's the muscle that activates first.  Put another way, if you're driving and changing the clutch, the piriformus is what helps you in that initial lifting of your leg. 

One of the reasons this muscle has been taking strain is due to excessive amounts of sitting.  So it's really muscles in the spine that have translated through these upper leg muscles. I'm effectively sitting on my muscles all the time, and they don't like it.  I was surprised that treatment involved the physio driving her fist into the side of my abdomen to break the spasm in the spinal muscles.  Very painful!  She also warned me that a failure to treat it properly could result in a hip fracture.  It's difficult to conjure up anything worse.

These muscles are a bugger to stretch because they are buried so deep inside other muscles and tissues.  But the best treatment of course isn't symptomatic, but source.  And the source of the injury is really fourfold:

1) too much sitting
2) being overweight
3) not training consistently
3) initiating training too quickly

The difficulty of course is, being injured, how do you fast track weight loss except by exercising [and not worsening the injury].  And exercise, by implication, means less sitting.  Well, I suppose one could take long walks.

In today's triathlon I literally felt like I was swimming with a boa constrictor choking the air out of my lungs.  It's a terrible sensation, much like drowning.  I suppose it is my wetsuit sitting much tighter around a fatter me.  The cycle was good; after 20 kilometres I didn't lose my position to anyone.  And fortunately during the run - which included some walking - I didn't experience any pain, although I could feel my glutes saying 'hello'.  And most important, after the race I'm not limping.

But the reality check for me is realising how far away I am from who I think I am.  It beggars belief that earlier this year I did a half Ironman in East London and another one near Melbourne. Today's race also covered part of the route of the 2005 Ironman I did.  In those days I weighed almost 10 kilograms lighter, and cycling 10 times further and at a faster average was well within my capability. Even the distances in the half Ironman events are more than 4 times the distances I did today, and yet in many respects today felt harder.  When you have the breath literally squeezed out of you, that's suffering.  It's amazing how things can change in just a few months.  It's amazing that I allowed this regression to take place in the first place, but if I think about it, 2010 has been one of the most stressful and downright scary years in my life, if not the scariest and most stressful yet.

For me the reality check is to arrest this physical malaise as soon as possible. It's time to turn things around, would you say?  To lose weight, and so, ward off the perpetuation of what is potentially a serious injury in the making.  The other reality check is that time spent in front of this computer is literally bad for my health.  Physically, spiritually, mentally.  To address this imbalance - exercise.  It's not an option, it can't just be a good intention - it has to be a priority.  It has to be essential to living a balanced and happier life.  It has to be the most important thing I can do every single day.

Mariette Hattingh, another multi-sport athlete from PE [and SA duathlon champ] is an inspiration to me.  She's in her mid fourties and in excellent shape.  How can you look like she does and not have a tremendous sense of well being that permeates each and every day.

A reality check is good, if you respond in the appropriate manner.  Not react, mind you.  Respond.  It's a measured behaviour, a disciplined action given a particular change in paradigm. The trick is to do it at the right level.  Light enough to avoid injury, but heavy enough to see real results.  And from there, build momentum.  This is true as much in sport as it is in life.  Good luck with your journey. 

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