musings about cycling

After two years of riding an entry-level Giant TCR 6500 aluminium bike, I decided I was finally ready to upgrade to a carbon bike. After two weeks’ of research (i.e. talking to fellow cyclists, reading bike reviews online, perusing bikes on websites and in stores), I settled on getting a Canyon Ultimate with Shimano Ultegra Di2, but Canyon’s website rejected my credit card payment. I suspect paying for a bike with an Australian credit card while requesting delivery to China had something to do with it.

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Introducing Goldilocks to the Beijing countryside

Feeling dejected, I decided to go check out physical bike stores in my neighbourhood to see if there were any good deals around. The Cannondale store was closed so I wandered into Giant. I’ve been to this store many times in the past to get bike supplies so I’m quite familiar with the sales staff, who were happy to let me try several of their bikes that were on sale. That’s when I spotted the sizably discounted TCR Advanced 0 in my size. I took it for a spin in the store (perfect fit), took pictures of both the black and the silver versions and sent them to my cycling buddies for their (to-buy-or-not-to-buy) opinions. Two days later, I went back, bought the silver version and nicknamed it ‘Goldilocks’ after reading an online review of the bike.

So far, I’ve done almost 400 km on Goldilocks both on flats and hills, during which I picked up a bunch of new PRs on a raft of segments, dragged her through some muddy terrain and fallen off her once after skidding on some large gravel. She has been a real joy to ride, and I’m looking forward to riding many miles in the future and becoming the cyclist she deserves.

 

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Memories of good times with my first road bike (from left to right: Powerman duathlon, Sanfo Triathlon 2017, Beijing International Triathlon 2016)

I’ve discovered an interesting phenomenon ever since people’s seen me with Goldilocks, especially guys who know a little about bikes. It’s almost like because I own a fancy bike (as they call it), I must be a serious or half-decent cyclist. Beginners have been quizzing me about all things bike and cycling whenever they see me. The joke is, in the cycling club I ride with in Beijing, I’m considered either an advanced beginner or a sub-intermediate rider, depending on which end of the spectrum you’re looking at. I take so long to warm up at the start of a ride, I usually spend half of the ride trying to catch up or keep up with the group. I’m generally not the fastest and sometimes can be the slowest. I always wish I can go faster, push out more watts, increase my cadence, and not be so afraid of descents. I can change a tube if I have a flat, do some simple maintenance on my bike, and recognise when something is beyond me and requires the expertise of a good bike mechanic (like setting up my speed and cadence sensors on Goldilocks).

 

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This is what happened when I installed the speed and cadence sensors on Goldilocks *blush*

 

So I don’t always feel comfortable about dishing out advice to budding cyclists when they ask about which bike to buy, how much to spend, how to ride/climb faster, dealing with lactic acid, so on and so forth. I generally reassure newbies they will go faster, feel more confident and grow stronger, and their butts and thighs will hurt less the more miles they ride, and encourage them to go on long rides with other cyclists for safety reasons. They generally don’t like it when I say this, because it’s not a quick fix. But anything that’s worthwhile in life takes time and effort to master.

 

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How my cycling obsession began

What cycling means to me has evolved over the last four years. It started as a cheap mode of transportation and exercise, and later taught me about exceeding my limits, building confidence and overcoming obstacles. I’ve learnt much about cycling, bikes and the ancillaries (Strava and Zwift, among others) from experienced cyclists, and built close friendships with people I’ve met in the cycling community. Last but not least, cycling has taught me many lessons about life itself — the ups and the downs, the good and the bad, the fast and the slow.

 

Fellow cyclists, what does cycling mean to you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

The North Face Ultra Trail Challenge – my first ultra

 

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the start of an unforgettable experience

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I toed the start line for the 50-km race at The North Face Ultra Trail Challenge on Easter Sunday. For a month before the race, I stressed out about running in the dark, staying awake during the race, whether doing the race will actually aggravate my shin splints and whether or not I should run with sticks. It didn’t help that I’d been suffering from allergies brought on by torrents of Beijing’s willow catnips and dust and I was on a daily diet of antihistamines, which kept me in a groggy state most of the time, despite sleeping 8-9 hours every night. My long outdoor training runs were cut short by fits of coughing and sniffles.

The evening of the race, I met up S for a pizza dinner, our final carb loading before the race. We then met up with three other acquaintances who were also doing the race at the metro station and took the organiser’s shuttle to the race venue. After an hour or so of prepping, checking and taking a couple of selfies, we took our spot at the start line and began doing warm-up exercises to the loud, pumping pop music and the shouts of the Chinese hosts. The music and warm-up exercises did little to stifle my yawning, and I wondered how I was going to stay awake for the next ten hours of so.

As it turned out, my worries were unfounded. Once Cinderella hour struck and I began shuffling forwards with 1700 other runners, I stopped yawning and was wide awake. It was probably the excitement of doing my first night trail run mixed with the fear of losing my way that fueled my sudden burst of energy.

I faced my first unexpected challenge after running for more than 10 km. I was caught in the middle pack at a narrow uphill climb, and couldn’t continue climbing at my own pace. It was stop-start for at least 30 minutes and I caught a chill when I reached the top of the hill. I suddenly felt a desperate need to use a toilet but was told there wasn’t one for at least another 8 km.  I was on a narrow part of the route and it was impossible to relieve myself in the bushes without being seen by other runners. After taking a painkiller to relieve the cramps, I pushed on for another 3-4 km until I was too much in pain to continue. At this point, the volunteers directed me to the nearby bushes off the designated race route to do whatever I had to do. I’d never felt so relieved (pun intended) as I did at that time.

 

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Beijing’s glittery lights took my breath away

 

After this slightly embarrassing and traumatic episode, I wasn’t sure if I felt up to running the remaining 35 km, yet it was too cold to stay still. So I decided to continue running until the next checkpoint where there’d be sweeper vans then make an assessment if I was physically able to keep going.

I kept plugging on until I got to the 30-km mark, where I bumped into T. I was surprised to see him there as I was convinced he’d be at the front of the pack with the rest of my friends, as he’s a sub-4:00 marathoner. He told me his tank completely ran out when he got to this checkpoint and he’d been resting for the last hour or so. He admitted he hadn’t trained on trails at all and road running fitness was no guarantee of doing well on a trail run with significant elevation (we’d done 1500m out of 2300m). We discussed if we should both call it a day and just get on the next sweeper van, then decided to give it a go until the next checkpoint at the 42-km mark. After we started running, it was obvious T had gotten his steam back, and I told him to go ahead and I’ll try to catch up.

 

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one of the less tricky descents

 

I never managed to catch up with T as my own steam ran out at around 40 km. I’d scrambled and clawed up Haohanpo for about half an hour, then concentrated hard navigating a long and tricky descent. I basically walked the remaining 7 km to the finish line. The finish line never felt so far away in my life. I was famished but couldn’t stomach any food. My hands were swollen from water retention and yet I was still thirsty but there was nothing left in my bladder.

I’m happy to say I completed my first 50-km ultra in 11:32:16. It took me quite a bit longer than I’d anticipated and nothing I was worried about actually happened. But considering the circumstances, I was surprised I even managed to finish the race. An experienced ultra runner (who finished in 7:48) advised me to take the race in chunks of 10 km and not stress about pace. It was her advice that kept playing in my mind when I felt like I couldn’t go on. It reminded me to never underestimate the power our words have on others.

For the first time after I started doing races, I actually swore I’m not doing another ultra for the rest of the year, and have not registered for another ultra to date. Memories of the pain and discomfort of the North Face trail challenge remained with me for two weeks until I fell off my bike on a descent and acquired fresh scrapes, bumps and bruises. That’s fodder for my next post.

 

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it’s scenery like this that keeps me running on the trails

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My first overseas race – Nagoya Women’s Marathon

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Pre-race selfie at Nagoya Dome

After six months of anticipation, I finally boarded the plane to Nagoya on 10 March. I knew I wasn’t fully prepared for this race, having found out a couple of days before that I had a shin splint on my left leg, probably caused by running outside without properly warming up and not doing enough strength training. My physio told me I could still run the marathon but I had to listen to my body and not push too hard, so as not to exacerbate my injury.

I admit my ego was well and truly deflated after hearing this news, and kissed my goals goodbye, knowing I’d be lucky if I completed the marathon without aggravating the problem. It was tough giving up my goal of completing the marathon in under five hours especially after putting in time and effort to train amidst working long hours, trying to get all my work done before I flew to Japan. But experience (mine and others) told me that if I gave my body the time to heal, I’ll have another chance at achieving my goal, but if I didn’t, I might never get the chance.

Pre-race shenanigans

racebagBy the time I checked into my accommodation in Nagoya, it was already late afternoon, so I decided I’ll go pick up my race bag at Nagoya Dome and check out the expo. Once I got to the Nagoya Dome subway station, I saw volunteers holding up signs in Japanese showing where to go to pick up the race bag. The venue was a mere five-minute walk and as it was still early evening, there was no queue at the pick-up stations. As I didn’t see any expo booths in the race bag pick-up area, I assumed the expo was not open that day and made my way to the nearby Aeon department store to get some dinner. All the sports stores in Aeon were cashing in on the marathon by having huge sales on running gear and I ended up stocking up on race gear before I carb loaded with sushi.

Race day!

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Nagoya was the first time I’ve toed the start line with 20,000 women

I woke up at 4 am on Sunday and tossed and turned trying to get an extra hour of shut-eye. I managed to sleep lightly until the alarm went off at 5:45 am. I ate breakfast as I got dressed and headed to the subway station. Along the way I saw other ladies in running gear and Nagoya race bags and decided to follow their lead. The organisers had requested participants take the metro from the opposite direction on the circle line to avoid congestion and I figured the locals knew best how to do that.

I followed the crowd as they exited the metro station and moved towards the Dome. As the signs were all in Japanese, I had difficulty finding the bag drop area and had to ask for directions at the help desk. The bag drop area turned out to be in the parking lot. After finding my zone and dropping off my bag, I stayed inside the Dome, doing some warm-up exercises and dynamic stretching until the volunteers shoo’d us all to the starting area.

After listening to a bunch of speeches in Japanese and a passionate rendering of the national anthem, the Japanese para-athletes were introduced and sent off to the strains of a live brass band before the elites and the rest of us started running.

This was the most civilised and pleasant marathon experience I’ve ever had. There was no pushing or shoving. The route was almost completely litter-free as the runners threw rubbish into designated bins and volunteers made sure bins were cleared before they overflowed. A volunteer even ran alongside me so I could drop my empty gel packet into the garbage bag he was holding. There were cheering squads and locals handing out drinks and snacks all along the route for the whole 6+ hours, and checking out my fellow runners in Pokemon and Disney costumes kept me entertained.

My favourite part of the race was the route. It comprised of two out-and-back routes, which not only took us past Nagoya’s major sights and landmarks, but also let us run past the elites and other runners. This was the first time I’d witnessed world-class elites in action at close proximity. Needless to say, I was inspired by and in awe of these tiny women calmly speeding away in the opposite direction and cheered them on together with the other runners.

 

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I’ll take men with muscles over suits any day

 

As I’d expected, my left leg started giving me some trouble after 28 km, and I had to take walking breaks from 30 km onwards. When I finished the race and uploaded my stats to Strava, I was surprised to see I’d achieved a 30-km PR even though I didn’t improve on my full marathon time. I was happy that contrary to my expectations, my winter training did pay off after all.

 

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This year’s finisher medal design by Tiffany

Recovery

After finishing the race, I spent the next two days in Ise Shima. I finally had the chance to visit an onsen. The hot water pools were bliss for my sore muscles, but I knew the cold water pool would help me recover quicker, especially my legs.  I only managed to dip my legs in the 16-degrees-Celsius water, fearing I’d get cardiac arrest if my whole body went in. It was such a shock to my system! I felt my leg muscles contract instantaneously and I could only stay in the pool for two minutes each time. I did notice that I was hobbling less the next day and I was walking normally by Wednesday. In the past, I’d need five days to recover from a full marathon. Ice baths, though painful, do work.

I’d enjoyed myself so much running this marathon, I’d started researching the next overseas race to sign up for next year. I’m tempted to run another marathon in Japan, but could be convinced to go elsewhere, and there’s also the question of qualifying. Time to get serious about training.

 

looking back & ahead

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2016 has been an incredible year for me. I only realised what I’ve achieved when I emailed my life coach a much delayed update of my life. I’ve decided to post my email here (rather than repurposing it) since it quite perfectly sums up my 2016.

‘…I’m not sure if I told you but I broke my left forearm in Oct 2015. Since it healed up in Jan, I’ve thrown myself into training and did a sprint and two Olympic distance triathlons, two full marathons (in Beijing and Qingdao), two trail half marathons and one 30km trail run. I’ve been regularly coming in 7/8th place in my age group for triathlons and in the top 30 (women’s ranking) for trail runs.  For someone who’s never thought I’d even do any of these sporting feats, I’m incredibly happy with what I achieved last year, and hope to continue and improve on my performance this year, starting with the Nagoya Women’s Marathon on 12 March….’
I’ve gained so much from doing sports last year, its effects have seeped into other aspects of my life. As a result of regularly exercising 3-4 times a week (as religiously recorded on Strava), my overall sense of well-being has improved immensely. My head is clearer, I suffer from less anxiety and depression and feel genuinely optimistic and cheerful most of the time. I’ve learnt to let go of things that tie me down, focus on the important things and make do with less, and in the process, I’ve learnt to be a better manager of my time and finances and become more creative.
But the most important lesson I learnt in 2016 has to be this…
anything can happen.
And I’d be stupid to think otherwise or take things for granted, especially in light of world events as it stands at the end of 2016.
The world at the start of 2017 is a very different place from anything I’ve seen or heard before. I’ve decided not to make any resolutions for 2017. Instead, I’m going to remind myself to be a little wiser, grow a little stronger, push myself a little harder, go a little further, swim/cycle/run a little faster, learn something new and do a little better everyday. If there’s anything the past has taught me, it’s that I work better with small, attainable short-term goals than grandiose, idealistic long-term ones. At the end of the day, the devil is in the details and the details are worked out every second->minute->hour->day-> week-> month of our lives.
2017, here I come!

 

training through winter

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Bare trees along the road to Tianjin

Now that central heating has been turned on in Beijing, winter has well and truly arrived.

After completing the Beijing International Marathon and going on a two-week holiday in Brisbane, I had zero motivation to return to my racing season training regimen. As the days got shorter, colder and greyer, getting out of bed early in the morning to cycle or run outdoors became a struggle.

The strange thing is, I’ve been plagued by two opposing voices in my head. The rational voice reminds me I’ve worked really hard over most of 2016, did way more races than I’d initially planned to, ended the racing season with an overuse injury and so I should spend winter recuperating. Besides, I broke my left arm this time last year, didn’t ride my road bike throughout winter and my cycling performance didn’t suffer much as a result. Since October, Beijing’s been having more bad AQI days, and this trend looks likely to continue through winter, which means working out in a gym. Though not completely averse to training in a gym (no excuse not to build some much-needed muscles), I just don’t look forward to running on a treadmill as much as running outside.

The less rational voice in my head appeals to my ego and Type A tendencies. It reminds me of my goals to go under 3:30 for Olympic distance triathlon and do my first Ironman 70.3 in May. It reminds me of my goal to get a sub-5:00 result for the Nagoya Women’s Marathon in March. Most importantly, it reminds me of how dramatically my life has changed since I started training to do races and how I felt every time I crossed the finish line.  I’ve been eating better, sleeping sounder, thinking clearer and feeling happier. The weight loss is a bonus though I hardly pay attention to the number on the scales anymore. There’s been days when the last thing I felt like doing was working out indoors, be it the gym, the pool or on the trainer, but I’ve always felt better when I overcame my laziness and did the workouts.  Like my brother said, I’ve become addicted to endorphins.  To which I respond with a wry grin, There are worse things to be addicted to in life.

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All bundled up for our ride around Miyun reservoir

For better or worse, I’ve been giving in to the egotistical voice most of the time for the past two months, completing most of my workouts at the gym and cycling and running outside occasionally when the AQI levels were acceptable and the temperatures were well over sub-zero.

With the early arrival of the first snowfall last week, December and January will probably be very cold and icy. The 21-km trail run I’d signed up to do in Miaofengshan this coming Sunday had to be postponed as the trails were still covered in ice and deemed unsafe by the organisers. Needless to say, I was quite disappointed when I received this sms notification, even though I was expecting it. On the same day, I saw an ad for a full marathon in Qingdao, Shandong province, a little local race limited to 150 participants with a closing time of 8 hours. I was enticed by the idea of running 42 km along the shoreline with views of the sea, without having to worry about bad air or cold weather, and getting out of Beijing for the weekend. Luckily for me, it didn’t take much to persuade my buddies to do the race, so I’ll have some company too!

It’s tough staying motivated to train regularly over the colder months, and it’s frustrating when training plans and races are thwarted by factors outside of our control. But with a little patience, creativity, research and forward planning, I’m hoping I’ll do better than just maintaining my general fitness over the coming winter months.