I am what I eat

 

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I finished the Beijing Sportive duathlon (50k ride and 5k run) but it was tough.

A recent bout of illness forced me to take a critical look at my dietary habits in the last couple of months.

For the last two weeks, I had swollen tonsils and runny nose. I took a myriad of Chinese herbal medicine to treat colds for a week, but the symptoms didn’t subside. I cut out red meat, caffeine, dairy and gluten for a couple of days, just to see if the symptoms were caused by inflammation. My sore throat and runny nose subsided but was replaced by swollen gums and an outbreak of acne on my forehead. After spending most of the day slumped over my desk drifting in and out of sleep and suffering a headache, I went to my trusted Chinese massage therapist and asked for ‘guasha’, a Chinese treatment that involves scraping the back of my neck, shoulder blades, spine and other parts of my back with something resembling the edge of a spoon to release the ‘fire’ (i.e. the cause of my discomfort) in my body. The treatment usually left dark scrape marks on my back that would dissipate after three or four days. My mother used to administer this treatment to me when I experienced similar symptoms as a child, and I’d feel immediate relief afterwards. This was how I came to know about ‘guasha’ in the first place.

This time, I felt relief about three to four hours later. My swollen gums subsided enough so it didn’t hurt when I chewed. After a good night’s sleep, I felt brand new.

After suffering from this ailment on and off almost all my life, I’ve narrowed the causes down to these usual suspects:

  • air-conditioning (but it’s impossible to function in Beijing summer without it)
  • untreated heat stroke (I was quite sunburnt during the trail run in Lingshan)
  • lack of sleep
  • poor diet

 

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Oily Chinese food is unfortunately not the best recovery food.

If there’s anything I’ve not been pleased about this year, it’s how I’ve let my diet slide. I can’t remember when exactly I began drinking more coffee and alcohol, and eating more sweets and junk food. It started after I stopped recording what I ate in MyFitnessPal because the app stopped working for some reason in Feb. After not recording what I ate for a couple of weeks, I stopped doing it altogether. I figured I exercise regularly enough to burn whatever food I ate and the calorie calculations were not accurate anyway. In the process, I also stopped paying attention to the quality of food I was putting into my body, ordering more and more take-out (the cheaper the better!) instead of cooking.

It took a couple of weeks of feeling very unwell to make me realise my error. I eliminated caffeine, dairy, gluten and meat from my diet for two days in a desperate bid to detox. After just one day, my body felt lighter and my head was clearer. I kept this up for the next two to three days, not so much to detox but more because I physically felt better.

I’ve since re-introduced caffeine and white meat into my diet, but at a lesser amount than before. It helps that the Starbucks in my office building closed earlier this month, making it harder for me to get my afternoon shot of caffeine. I consciously drink more water and green tea when I’m at work, and have cut down on soda and take-out. I haven’t resumed my food journaling probably due to lack of motivation. I can feel my body responding positively to these changes, especially when I’m exercising. I no longer feel sluggish or easily tired when I run. Now I just need the discipline to keep this up for the next couple of months as I train for my first half Ironman race.

My very first cycling race: Beijing Sportive 200 Liuhong Rd race

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One of the participants racing on his city bike

On Saturday 7 May, I took part in my very first cycling race, the Beijing Sportive 200 – Liuhong Road.  I wanted to do the last Sportive race in Pinggu last year but couldn’t get a spot. It turned out that Beijing Sportive races are super popular here and registration spots are gone within a day or two after registration opens. I only managed to sign up this year because Serk secured 30 spots for its members.

I took part in the short course race, which was 118 km with an elevation of 1000 m, with seven others from Serk. The other 20+ cyclists (including two women) from Serk did the long course, which was 186 km with an elevation of 2000 m, in three teams.

My Saturday started at 4:30 am when my alarm went off. I heated up my breakfast of oats, raisins and cashews, packed my bag, changed into my cycling gear and headed to Serk HQ. Bikes were loaded onto vans and we set off for the starting point of the race. Heeding my coaches’ advice, I ate my breakfast at 6 am in the van, two hours before the start of the race.

We arrived at the starting point at around 6:30 am. We then took turns pumping up our tyres, put on sunscreen, loaded our jerseys with energy bars, gels and other essentials, picked up our race numbers and chips and took pictures. We couldn’t have asked for a more glorious day for the race — sunny, blue, cloudless skies with a mild breeze.

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Serk teams getting ready for battle

The long route racers took off right on 7:15 am. S and I thought we had another hour before our race started so we went for a toilet break. On our way back, we saw a queue had formed behind the starting line. By the time we got to the queue, the race had already started. There was no gunshot, no announcement. All we saw was the dust left behind by the other cyclists who had gone before us. I helped S fix her phone to her handlebar so she could follow the course and fired up my Garmin Edge 510 before I started riding. This was to be the first of a number of annoyances I’d experience over the course of the race.

As my sinuses were still clogged up due to my allergy to willow catkins, I rode at a comfortable pace in the beginning, and didn’t stress about keeping up with S and the other riders. I kept my eye on my watch and made sure I ate at least half a muesli bar every 45 minutes or so, regardless if I was hungry. The uphill climb I dreaded turned out to be almost flat. Before I knew it, I’d reached the halfway mark. I was surprised at how quickly and easily I’d completed half the race. The organisers took a reading of my chip and handed me a banana, a bottle of water and three energy bars. I took the banana and the water but turned down the energy bars, as I didn’t recognise the brand and still had my own bars. After a quick chat with one of the Serk riders doing the short route, I went for a quick toilet break and got back on my bike to finish the race.

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Just one of many scenic spots I rode past on Saturday

Over the course of the race, I’d encountered fellow participants on MTBs and hybrids with baskets in the front or back of their bikes. I only worked out they were doing the Sportive when I saw their participant number stickers on their helmets. While I admired their spirits, I also found them a curious sight, especially as the racers on their super fancy roadbikes whizzed past them at double or triple their speed.

At about the 90-km mark, I witnessed the second thing that annoyed me at this race. A heavy-set cyclist, obviously unable to carry on, hired a local villager who took him and his bike on his motorised cart up the hill. As I rode past the tractor, I felt some sympathy for the cyclist, having had to get on a support van or some other vehicle in the past because I couldn’t carry on. I’d initially thought this guy had given up on finishing the race and was sitting in the tractor all the way to the end. Instead, to my horror and disgust, as I was huffing and puffing up the hill at around the 110-km mark, this guy got off the tractor and continued riding! I was so pissed, I was going to stop and take a picture of the guy just so I could show it to the organisers. That’s when I noticed none of the other cyclists seemed to care and I decided it was more important I finish my own race than to do the organisers’ job for them. Others who’s done the Sportive races in the past had told me stories of similar incidents, but it was quite another thing to actually see it with my own eyes.

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My first cycling race finisher medal

Before I knew it, I rode past the finish line. When I went to hand in my chip and get my time, I was handed a slip of paper with the name ‘Fred’ printed on it and told my time was 4:40. Thankfully, before I pointed out my name wasn’t Fred, the kid told me to write my actual name on the slip of paper and typed it into the computer. By this time, I’d seen enough and was pretty certain whatever time the organisers had me down as finishing the race was probably going to be wrong. When the official times came out on Monday, I was ‘allocated’ another participant number and my official time was 4:57. A few of the other cyclists had the same issues, and some didn’t even have an official record of their time. It’s a good thing almost all of us used either Strava or Garmin to record our rides.

Despite all my misgivings about the race, I’m still super pleased I did it and finished the race half an hour faster than I’d originally anticipated. At the end of the day, it’s about achieving my personal best and experiencing and learning new things in the process. I’d experienced the difference proper fueling at regular intervals made to my riding performance and learnt what my body was capable of even when I’m suffering from allergies and other minor ailments. S finished 50 minutes before me, proof that the extra two to three early-morning weekday 40-km rides with faster cyclists could really do wonders to improve one’s cycling performance. I can see myself sacrificing sleep in the coming weeks to join S on these rides, while training for my next race on 22 May — a half-marathon in the outskirts of Beijing.