6 days – One Week From Now.

Hannah's timetable for race day, which starts at 3am - wake up
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This time next week I will have been racing for 11 hours, if things are going well, I’ll probably only have most of a marathon to do, another 3 hours or so.

I’m one week from competition day, and honestly, I’m fine with that.

If you’d spoken to me 6 weeks, or 8 weeks ago, my smile would have become brittle and I would have have wished I didn’t have to think about it, to try and answer your questions about how training is going without saying that training was terrifying because every time I did it it built into my day another moment where I thought ‘this is hard now, and this isn’t half as much as what I’ll attempt on the 26th’.

If you asked me 6 weeks, or 8 weeks ago, how I was feeling about it, the smile would have left my eyes and my mind would have ushered the flickers of thought swiftly away while I muttered something about ‘you know, it’s just a thing I have to do’, far enough in the future.

But right now, I’m one week from competition day, and honestly, I’m fine with that. Something has shifted. It’s close now, and I’m not going to pretend that my heart doesn’t swoop sometimes when I think of it. But also I feel OK. One big reason why is that 3 weeks ago I wrote a race strategy. I read through all of the race briefing, and I planned the week, the day before, the morning of the race, the race itself.

Suddenly it’s not 3.8km + 184km + 42km. It’s around 28 half hour segments. It’s a swim, and yes I’ve never started in a throng of 1250 people before, but I’ll be better than around 800 of them. I do swimming, I’m not scared of breathing in a bit of water, I’m a swimmer, I’ll find room, and I’ll find a rhythm, and by then I’ll be turning around the buoy, then I’ll be back in, climbing out of the water, fighting a little against the dizziness, then I’ll be in the change tent putting on my helmet.

It’s a ride, sure, a long one, but I know I can do 170km in 7 hours in the high 35kmph+ winds of Lincolnshire, and I’ll have 8.5 hours before the cutoff. It’ll just be a case of turning the pedals. That’s it. Watch the scenery, check in with my cadence, my pace, try and hit 26kmph average, eat half an energy bar or a gel every 25 minutes, drink, get new bottles at the feed stations. Find out if when it comes to it I’m able to wee on the bike (coach and internet says this is What People Do.). Just turn the pedals. Soon I’ll be repeating the first loop for the final time, soon I’ll have Holme Pierrepoint on my Garmin map. Soon I’ll be handing my bike to a marshall and walking (albeit unsteadily, in spds on shaky legs) back to the change tent. I’ll pick up the T2 bag with my number on it. The helmet will come off. Visor on, shorts, run top, trainers.

And then into the run. Before the past couple of weeks I could always see myself to that bit. I felt, 6 months ago, that push come to shove I could get through the swim and to the end of the ride no problem. But then, run a marathon? 26.2 miles? 42km?

Except it’s not 42km. It’s just 8 and a bit 5kms. I run 5kms all the time. Every long ride I’ve done I’ve run 5km afterwards. By the end of 5km it’s just starting to feel good. By the end of 5km I usually want to run another 5km just to be in the rhythm of it. So really it’s 6 and a bit 5km. And really, the last bit – 2km, something really awful would have to happen to stop me limping to the end of it. So it’s just 6 x 5km. And I have a plan for each of them. I’m going to walk through aid stations – around 500m – 1km, depending how I’m feeling. That’s about choosing when to walk, rather than your body forcing you. I’m going to think about cadence, and efficiency. I’m going to spend one half hour trying to remember all of the songs that I actually know the words of (Bugsy Malone is depressingly over-represented), another half hour will be spent counting, turning the world around me into algebra. Then there’s a daydreaming half hour. One small half hour where I get to dream about saving the world and falling madly in love and starting the revolution. Another half hour is the half hour of breathing. Measuring breath to step, and listening carefully to all the sounds around me. The last two 5kms are going to be hard. There’s nothing to help that. But it’s only one hour of my life. And saving severe illness or injury, an hour worth spending on being able to say “I finished”.

Oh and the finish line. Which even now I daren’t imagine fully. Like the beginning of a relationship when you daren’t daydream too far into everything perfect it could be in case you break your own heart before they have chance to. But the finish line. Which has my mum, and my brother, somewhere. Waiting to hold me up.

I am afraid when I think of the day before. I am afraid of trying to get to sleep. Of a fretful few hours, of waking at 3am. Of the 3 hours before, checking my gear, getting to the centre, checking my tyre pressure, putting on my wetsuit, crossing the start line, wading into the water. That is terrifying. The bit just before is genuinely horrible. Nothing’s going to stop that. But then it just becomes something to do. Something I’m doing, for 28 half hours. Something I have trained for, and because I trust my coach (what a luxury to have someone else to trust outside myself!) I know it’s something my body is in the best position for. So, it’s just some time I have, to settle down with my mind, and deal with this moment, the one I’m in, just this, for 28 half hours. Or so.

And finally, I’m beginning to see past a week today, to a week tomorrow. I don’t really think I believed that time existed. But it does, I have a day to get home and then a week in Camden People’s Theatre finishing this show (come see it!). Working out what the story of it is, having gone through The Outlaw.

I’m beginning to think about the things I will miss.

I’ll miss my body, this one, this slightly firmer, 6kg lighter, strong fucking thing I’ve cultivated. It feels hard and exciting.

I’ll miss the training, I’ll miss days where my job was to turn pedals for 6 hours in the countryside of South East England, the grit and the sweat and the pollen and the pollution thick on my skin.

I’ll miss having a coach. I can’t afford him normally (the show budget paid for him since February), I love so much having sessions set for me, have someone see the wood for the trees, finally returning to swim workouts that give me new-old ways to train like I remember from my club days, always, always pushing harder.

But I’ll be rewarded with sleep, and time, friends, and loved ones. With the pride of my coach, and my mum, and my brother. With a new part to my story. With guilty pleasures, with 30 years of my life lived, and hopefully, an achievement that to me stands next to my PhD as ‘things I have decided that matter’. In lieu of house ownership, a car, marriage, a Career Path, a measurement I have decided is important to me. A milestone of my own.

I hope, I hope, I hope.

40 Days – in the rehearsal room.

an image from Alexendar Kelly's instagram feed of the plan for one of the making days. A red post it says 'run' and a blue one 'science?'
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This is a guest blog post from Alexander Kelly of Third Angel – my friend and collaborator on Equations for a Moving Body, here he is talking about his role in the process, and summing up the main work that went on in Stockton, and what’s to come.

Last Thursday we presented the latest work-in-progress of Equations For A Moving Body at the brilliant ARC in Stockton. That’s the last time we’ll show a version of the show before Hannah does the full distance triathlon next month.

One of the really interesting things for me about this process is how the temporal nature of it changes – each time we work on it we’re in a different place in time in relation to the event that the show is (partly) about. Back in February we were a long way off. It still felt almost hypothetical (to me at least). Hannah got her training schedule from her coach during that fortnight at Northern Stage, so the Outlaw was still something Hannah was going to train to do. One of my favourite pieces of material from that stage in the process was Hannah talking about imagining crossing the line. I don’t see my self crawling, she would say, when I picture it, I am running over the line.

For this fortnight at ARC, the Outlaw Triathlon is something that Hannah is training to do. On a practical level it impacts on our making time more (though of course the training is making, in this instance). She trains each morning and we talk and research and make the show in the afternoons and evenings.

Thematically though, it shifts our relationship with the science, and the research, and the narrative. If Hannah gets injured now (check Instagram for the latest knee damage) it could affect her final performance. We’re at the last stage where a serious injury is recoverable from. Early on in the process my assumption was that Hannah will complete the triathlon. As I find out more about the science of endurance sport, more about the world of triathlon (I’ve just read Chrissie Wellington’s A Life Without Limits – which I really liked), the more I discover about what else can go wrong – other than not being fit enough. Put bluntly (look away Han!), it is not a given that Hannah will cross the finish line. So, whilst this probably sounds obvious, we don’t yet know how the narrative we are telling will finish.

**

On Thursday night the show ran at 95 minutes – and this still wasn’t quite all of the material we have tried out or thought about. If this were the ‘finished’ piece that would clearly be too long, but in this context we have the luxury (thank you ARC) of trying out more than we need. One question we were looking at was how much science the show needs, how much is interesting to us, how much (and what) is interesting to the audience… This latter is an ongoing question. One of the exciting things about this project for me is that it has already demonstrated real potential to attract people who would only rarely go to the theatre; an audience who will come along because it is exloring their interests and experiences (swimming, cycling, running, endurance sport in general…), who won’t care whether we’re calling it spoken word, story telling, contemporary theatre. This is exciting, but it also means we will have different levels of expertise in the audience – which will mean different levels of interest and understanding in the science we’re exploring. Writing this now, I realise that my instinct remains: we can’t pre-empt what the audience will think of the show, how they will respond to the material, what will be the ‘right’ amount of science for each of them. We make a show that says what Hannah wants it to say, so it just needs to have the right ‘amount’ of science for her.

**

So where has all this material come from? On our previous collaboration A Conversation With My Father, the form of the piece was already set when I came on board; my job was to help Hannah expand on the 25 minutes she already had – to attach building blocks of material to the existing core of the show.

With Equations For A Moving Body, the project was less established, formally. We had talked about the ideas behind the piece, and a couple of proposals and project descriptions had been written for funding applications, which established a territory of exploration. Hannah had also done a try-out of some  related ideas at HATCH in Leicester, which I had seen, so we had an idea of how we would use a computer (screen).

At the start of our two weeks at Northern Stage in February, I set Hannah a warm up exercise. We set the space up with our regular tools: a table, couple of chairs, laptop, projector and screen. We had asked almost arbitrarily for a couple of lighting states (and then Kev and the team at Northern Stage had made Stage 2 look beautiful).

On the table I laid out a series of 24 prompts or questions, written on index cards, face down. These prompts were all born out of our discussions so far, so Hannah was clearly ‘able’ to answer them, but she was to respond in the moment as she turned each card. This is a mode of being ‘put on the spot’ but within a territory you are informed about and comfortable in, that we have used in the making of a number of Third Angel projects. I find it can help performers not worry about whether or not what they’re doing is “any good”, and just get some material and ideas out into the process.

I thought this would fill a couple of hours on the afternoon of the first day, and give us something to talk about on day two. It took a week. A performed live research process that discovered the rules of the space, of the piece. Hannah instinctively started using the internet live, explaining what she was doing, sometimes, just quickly sourcing a reference at others.

On one level the show is formally similar to A Conversation With…: there’s a screen, a projector, some video material, a table and a couple of chairs and Hannah tells a story. But the way these ingredients are used feels quite distinct, to me. Hannah’s relationship to the screen, to us, is different.

Over that first residency we mapped out a territory: what we knew, what we wanted to explore further, what we couldn’t yet know. Then we very deliberately used the work in progress showings as research tools, inviting in sports clubs, setting the space as much like a discussion group as a theatre. Over the two showings, five full distance triathlon finishers came and spoke to us afterwards. We were encouraged by the depth of feeling and interest people had in the work, the generosity of their responses.

**

When we gathered at ARC for this phase of the process, my instinct was to pick up and ‘finish off’ the index cards game. It felt more like a warm up this time, getting ourselves back into the making. Checking where we were. It threw up a few details to weave in, rather than new material. Because we already had a feeling of where we needed to go, of what the show needed: to get in to the science.

But Hannah is not expert in this, yet, so the cards mechanism doesn’t work – interest isn’t the same as expertise, being put on the spot isn’t helpful. If we’re going to explain this stuff to an audience, Hannah can’t just repeat text, she has to really understand it. She has to understand more than she explains in the show. I feel that we should be in a position where Hannah could stop the show and take questions on the science – and be able to answer them.

So we move to a mechanism of research: returning to the interviews we did with [sports scientists and psychologists] Angela, Phil and Sarah, then reading around the the ideas and theories they talked about; hearing ideas explained by different people really helps. Understanding what science relates to the story we want to tell. We’re still working this out, and some of this aspect of the process inevitably has to wait until we meet again next month.

**

On Sunday 26 July 2015 Hannah will undertake the Nottingham Outlaw full distance Triathlon. On Monday the 27th she’s got a day off. And on Tuesday 28th, we’ll meet at CPT in London, and I’ll ask her to tell me the story of the race.

51 days – storytelling with science workshop

participants work in pairs at the storytelling with science workshops by Hannah Nicklin at ARC Stockton
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I am returned to the rehearsal room! Back with Alex, and this time at the incredibly hospitable ARC in Stockton-on-Tees. An update soon on the process we’ve been taking the show through in these weeks 3 and 4, but first I thought I’d do a short post on a lovely Storytelling with Science workshop I ran (well, it was lovely for me) in the first week of the 2-week residency.

This is how it was pitched:

How do you go about telling stories with science in, or finding the stories at the heart of interesting science? If you want to make work alongside researchers, academics or scientists but don’t where to start, then this session is for you.

Hannah Nicklin, who is currently making Equations for a Falling Body a show about the science and psychology of endurance sport, will run this two hour workshop offering advice and tips on how to research, write, make, and tell stories in and around science.

The workshop will also touch on interview methods, how to read research, how to find stories as compelling as the science, or make science feel like a compelling story; weaving autobiographical theatre making with cutting edge research.

Hannah doesn’t have all the answers, but the question is always the best place to start. Come along to find out more.

And just in case anyone else would like to know where to start, here’s roughly what I took the participants through.

The first bit is always introductions, I think it’s useful to know where I’ve come from, so you can see how I got to this point, and also I love to know why people have chosen to come to a workshop – what they hope they’re going to get out of it – so if it might not be covered you can make time to address it.

Then we started with the PATENTED HANNAH NICKLIN POST IT WALL (not actually patented). One of the main parts of my practice is using post its as a means of mapping your thoughts – allowing more than just linear thought patterns, recognising threads or themes you don’t immediately see, and for allowing rearranging of the thoughts, continuously. I particularly enjoy this process alongside others – as it allows your thought process to be disrupted and opened up. So we started with a post it wall, at one end ‘Science’ and the other ‘Story’. Anything goes, from form and definition, to imagery and content. It can be what ‘science’ makes you think of, what it means to you, and specific instances of it – as well as socio-political impact. Etc. And then ‘story’ – the same. What captures you/has captured you recently, what makes up a story/storytelling? We then looked at the wall, discussed it, I invited people to think about similarities between the two, and to think about how others thought. I then asked everyone to pick their favourite two post its – one from Science and one from Story (obviously this division is arbitrary, but useful in this context). We put them to one side – but loosely that was a means of finding a piece of science that really interested people, and of recognising what about storytelling they love. A means of putting those together is not a bad start.

Next we had a chat, about the scientific method, and how actually it’s not that different from how we make art – revised and tested hypotheses. I talked about my experience and what I’d learned from working in universities at a postgrad level, and from my knowledge of science-related trusts and organisations. About Impact – that universities are expected to demonstrate that they are engaging with non-university communities. About things like UCL’s Arts Entrepreneur in Residence, the Wellcome Trust, about simple ways to approach experts in the field (just look up staff profiles and email someone!) And other means of developing science storytelling – what it means to research something on your own, skills you need, understanding sources (primary, secondary), places you can search for free, what an abstract is, what peer review means, press releases vs actual papers. And the problem of “facts” on THE INTERNET – how untrue things can become true if they are referenced often enough.

We then talked about potential devising/writing exercises around science. Such as:

  • Get a pile of articles and papers, and a friend or co-writer/devisor, read 1 article/paper for 20 minutes and come back and explain it to each other.
  • Do ‘live researching’ as a task – write down some questions and explain as you discover.
  • Interviewing experts (also we talked about how to interview/ask questions – asking them about why they’re interested, what they’re excited about, what you haven’t asked – how is what you’re asking different from just reading their book?)
  • The physical living of the subject matter – can you embed yourself in first hand experience (Ethnography)
  • Reading
  • Autobiographical evaluation
  • Verbatim
  • Attend lectures/practical experiments (be a test subject or attend tests)

I said “Watch, record, question, retell. But think abstractly too – don’t think only about telling the literal story of the science, but telling stories that illuminate the science. Or that look at it from other more abstract points of view – not just ‘how pulsars were discovered’ but ‘let’s make these light waves into sound waves and make music out of them’.

And never ever ever have a character say something like:
“So let me get this straight [proceeds to explain the science for the audience]”
Show don’t tell.

Then we did a quick exercise, in pairs I gave them 5 secondary source science articles – on photosynthesis and solar panels, what rats dream of when they sleep, imaging of Mercury, pulsars, and e-tattoo monitoring in pregnancy. Then I invited them to – in their pairs – pick an article and then come up with 2 radically different ways to explore it, one abstract, one more literal. Find the form to fit the work – is it interactive, is it reactive, is it a storytelling, or a play, a sound work, immersive video, a game, a videogame, etc… Find what interests them the most – remember ‘show don’t tell’ and then work out what the idea is, and their first steps in exploring it – beginning to develop the research and story.

After presenting and discussing those ideas, I then invited the participants to (on their own, now) take their post its from before, and go through the same process – initial ideas, and identifying next steps.

And that was it! I only had 2 hours, which overran a little. It’s possibly a much more relaxed 3 hour workshop! But the folk who came were brilliant, lovely and thorough, and came up with some lovely stuff – a huge patchwork made of many submitted images of earth, to be mapped to the map of Mercury; an installation which maps the path of a dying satellite; an immersive game you play once ‘awake’ and second in a dream state. And more great stuff.

So, thanks to those who came along! And to ARC for having me.

77 Days – 12 week training programme

an image from a ride from the intensive week - a sunny day, the road winds away into the distance
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77 days to go, under 12 weeks now. I’m so busy with other work fitting around training I mostly don’t have the time to think about doing the Outlaw in July. Lots to do in the meantime so it seems a long way away. But I know I’ll soon be looking at the other end of June and beginning to feel butterflies every other thought. Probably at least once every couple of days I get them at the moment.

I was talking to my coach on the phone, a bit worried about being away for 5 of the next 8 week, and fitting in training, and how hard it was in the tough 20 hour training week I did 2 weeks ago to ride 2 hours and run 1, when the Outlaw is going to be at least 4x that. And he explained that I’ll be rested and psychologically prepared, and that we’d sit down and work out all my availability from now until July, and fit the training and taper around it, that “there are going to be a lot of people less prepared than you”. A ‘taper’ is where you bring training down, after building fitness and endurance, so that you’re really really well rested before the event. That’ll mean no training and generally staying off my feet and eating well for at least 2-3 days before the event. I’m travelling up to Nottingham 2 days early too so I can get used to the bed I’ll be sleeping in, and getting up as early as I’ll need to be up.

Prepared. I like being prepared. It’s the Crystal Palace Triathlon tomorrow – it’s less than 10 minutes from my house, and only a sprint distance, so it shouldn’t take much more than an hour and a half. Last night I wrote out my kit because I was worried I might forget my race belt – a small cheap but vital bit of kit so you can wear your race number easily/properly between disciplines. It’s not a usual bit of kit, so easy to forget. I wrote down what I thought was everything, and then proceeded to have anxiety dreams all night about not being on time or having the right gear to do the event, particularly in the dream I realised I left off ‘sports bra’ on the list. I woke up thinking that.

As if I’d go out having forgotten to put one on.

I like being prepared. Except proper prepared is really ‘having done this before’. Which I won’t have. I can’t really do anything but deal with that.

Anyway, I thought I’d share the general shape of my next few weeks with you.

W/C

Type of training week

Goal

11/5

Moderate week

Maintain fitness levels

18/5

Recovery week

Recovery from previous weeks and prepare for next big weeks

25/5

Big week

Lots of endurance work

Key sessions are 

long ride (5-6hrs), long run 2 1/2 hrs, long swim >4k

1/6

Moderate week

Less training focussing on higher intensity to help you through a busy week

8/6

Recovery week

Recovery from previous weeks and prepare for next big weeks. Also helps you with a busy period of work

15/6

Big week

Lots of endurance work

Key sessions are 

long ride (5-6hrs), long run 2 1/2 hrs, long swim >4k

22/6  

Big week

Lots of endurance work

Key sessions are 

long ride (5-6hrs), long run 2 1/2 hrs, long swim >4k

29/6

Recovery week

Start of Taper. Unload fatigue from previous weeks

6/7

Moderate week

Aim to maintain fitness without adding fatigue. No more really long workouts

Max Ride = 4hrs

Max Run = 2hrs

Max swim = 4k

13/7

Moderate week

Aim to maintain fitness without adding fatigue. No more really long workouts

Max Ride = 3hrs

Max Run = 90 mins

Max swim = 3k

20/7

Race week

Minimal training. Some higher intensity but only to maintain top end.

Key goal is to remove remaining fatigue and mentally prepare for the event

102 Days – Ramp test

crystal palace pool
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Today I did a ‘ramp test’ as part of my regular training. Coach Simon just got back from completing the Marathon Des Sables, and set me this to do today. These are his instructions, and my results. Note that I didn’t ask a friend to time me (I kind of thought that would be super annoying to most friends, who are all at work anyway), but I used my Garmin – which is able to count strokes for me, and time if I hit the ‘interval’ button at the end and beginning of every ramp test length. So there will be a couple where I fumbled a bit, but this is probably roughly right. The Garmin 910xt counts 1 stroke for both your arms, so I doubled them to the normal stroke count which is one per arm.

Below are the instructions I was given, and the results. FYI a tempo trainer is a little yellow thing you put under your hat you can set to beep on different settings – strokes per minute, time per lap etc., allowing you to set pace. One of the features of the device is ‘now comes with changeable battery’. That made me laugh.

50m Stroke Rate Ramp Test

“The Stroke Rate Ramp Test is a series of 50m swims with a short break in between. The stroke rate during each 50m is controlled by the Tempo Trainer and gradually increases. Take whatever rest is necessary between the 50m swims to change the stroke rate on the Tempo Trainer.”

“If you have been using your Tempo Trainer regularly you will be aware of your strokes per minute for steady paced swimming. Start the ramp test about ten strokes per minute below this natural rate and increase it by three strokes per minute for each 50m swim. You can keep going as high as you like but normally 15-25 beats above your natural rate is enough to experience your full stroke spectrum.

“Ask a friend or colleague to time each 50m with a stopwatch, count your strokes taken (counting both arms) and record how that stroke rate felt to you in terms of effort. It’s a good idea to use a scale of 1 to 10 to record your effort level where 1 is no effort at all and 10 is eyeballs out!”

Stroke Rate

Set by Tempo Trainer

Strokes per length 50m Time RPE (1-10) Comments
50 42 53.4 3/10 Had to concentrate to go this steady
53 44 53.8 4/10
56 46 54.8 5/10
59 46 51.8 6/10
62 48 51.0 7/10 This felt like hard work but ok
65 50 50.4 7/10
68 48 47.6 8/10 This felt surprisingly fast
71 48 46.5 8/10
74 50 46.6 8/10 Began to lose the rhythm
77 52 46.7 9/10 I could do it for 25m but not the full 50
80 50 44.8 9/10 I could do it for 25m but not the full 50

“To keep the test as unbiased as possible don’t try and assess the results or analyse things as you go along. Simply perform the set of 50m swims at the given stroke rate and record how each felt.”

 

 

 

 

122 Days – The Storied Self

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As part of the research for this project I was lucky to have the chance to work with 3 academics at Northumbria University – two sport scientists and a sports psychologist by the name of Dr Sarah Partington.

I asked her a series of questions about the psychology of endurance sport and her area of study, I was particularly interested in the limiting factor of psychology; how studies have shown that it is our psychological and neural processes that limit us much more than our cardio-vascular ones in endurance settings. I highly recommend listening to this Radiolab episode which set me along this thought path. The episode highlights the ‘central governor theory’ – that we have a fail-safe in our brain that can force the body to stop exerting itself, but that does so well before we have actually entered dangerous levels of exertion – that we can push ourselves much further than we think. Do listen to the episode if you have a moment.

This led me to investigate the performance modifying capability of the brain further. I discovered discussion around other ‘centrally acting performance modifiers’ beyond the combination of physiological factors; nutrition and hydration, training and genetics. This diagram here describes several of the types of psychological and circumstantial factors than can affect our physiological performance.

From “Fatigue is a Brain-Derived Emotion that Regulates the Exercise Behavior to Ensure the Protection of Whole Body Homeostasis” published in in Frontiers in Physiology 2012; 3: 82. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3323922/

And so I asked Dr Sarah Partington about the psychology of endurance sport – specifically how – and why – we carry on, psychologically speaking, how how we think, affects us.

Sarah explained that the central governor theory etc., was more linked to physiological studies, but that she could certainly answer from the point of view of her own specialism – the Storied Self. She explained that this was a theory amongst a context of complex behaviours and environments – it was a strong theory, but (ever the academic) wanted to stress it was one among many approaches to the psychology of sport.

She explained that we are creatures of narrative – that as self-aware animals we build our sense of self through storytelling – we communicate our sense of self through stories. We need our story of self to be ratified socially, and we build our identity out of the stories we tell of our past within our social contexts. For an example in sport, you can look to a paper she co-wrote called “Mid-life nuances and negotiations: narrative maps and the social construction of mid-life in sport and physical activity” (2005) and consider the storied self of mid-life athletes:

“The findings revealed a master narrative for mid-life in sport, which is that ‘age is a state of mind’. In addition two further narratives were apparent. One, ‘life begins at forty’ was a counter-narrative, which depicted mid-life as a time of rejuvenation and an opportunity to revisit the experiences of youth. The other was an antithesis narrative, which focused upon acceptance of the ageing process and the notion of ‘growing old gracefully’. Sportsmen and women linked their own stories to these idealised narrative types, but via a process of narrative slippage, created their own personal narratives of sporting mid-life.”
http://www.researchgate.net/publication/248975365 [accessed Mar 24, 2015].”

The day to day grind of training is part of building a narrative of self-who-does-sport. All well and good, but what about in the context of extreme feats of endurance?

I sent Sarah a video, before I spoke to her – it was one I found following that Radiolab episode. Two women, competing for fourth places at the 1997 Ironman world championship.

I asked her “what makes us do that, though? What makes someone put themselves through that, when their body is so clearly screaming ‘stop’.”

Sarah explained to me that when we set goals for ourself, we add to our story. We build them into our storied self. Stories extend into the future as well as build from the past. It might be that you need to be part of that Ironman ‘club’, it might be that you always finish, no matter what. It might be that you do the things you set out to do – these are stories about yourself that are integral to your identity, they build it.

Sarah said to me that not completing those goals – failing to complete your story – it can “shatter your identity”. She used those exact words a few times.

“Shatter”

“Self-determination experts would talk about a sense of autonomy and agency and purpose: engaging in something that you have chosen to do for a purpose that is important to you. The other part of that theory would be about connectedness, maybe connected to a broader you know, social network outside of you or something bigger so I guess for you it would be about feeling like part of that Ironman fraternity […] there’s a social group and a social identity beyond your personal identity. This sort of self-actualisation, it’s very reinforcing. [But] it may backfire. You keep pushing and keep pushing and keep pushing and it becomes very difficult and if you’ve set your heart on these particular goals and that is part of you identity to then not complete the goal could actually shatter your identity. […] It may become autotelic it may have some elements of self-determination in there and it may be linked to an identity and if you aren’t able to maintain this goal or this competence that drives you, it’s really like your identity is going to be shattered. It becomes so important that you can’t fail, you have to keep going no matter what.”

This combines the theory of the stories self with ‘flow’ – which Sarah has also researched (in big wave surfers particularly [2009]). This is a theory of intrinsic pleasure and motivation (that you also hear about in game design, interestingly). Sarah explained that flow, autotelic, intrinsic motivation were all terms used sometimes interchangeably and sometimes to mean distinct things, but that generally all refer to the kind of activity that is its own reward.

“It’s really just when the activity becomes reinforcing in and of itself. So there’s no sort of external reward or anything that is triggering you to do that activity, it’s just the sheer activity itself that […] the easiest term for it to be would be to say that it’s an activity that is reinforcing in and of itself generally hough the joy, the pleasure and enjoyment that it brings from just actually doing the activity without having any external rewards associated with it”

It’s the pleasure of mastery you experience of progressing through levels in a video game, it’s the pleasure of improvement as you feel certain speeds or correct techniques become easier, it’s the feeling of crossing a finish line, or a personal best, or a great run in Spelunky. Intrinsic motivation, Sarah explained, can get you so engaged in activity you can lose awareness of self and environment.

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Finally, we talked about psychological techniques for endurance sport – visualisation was heavily favoured by sport psychologists (it’s a form of telling yourself the story often enough that it becomes a more possible future), and also the difference between elite and amateur athlete’s thoughts when they compete: associative vs dissociative behaviours. Where amateur athletes will tend towards dissociative behaviours – distracting themselves from the pain, listening to music, thinking about other things, external motivations, elite athletes will tend to concentrate their thoughts around performance, associative behaviours – they will understand their pain, concentrate on their technique, pace, previous experience, hitting certain goals and distances within the larger race.

This made me think about the feeling of doing the Cotswold 113 last year. The middle distance ‘half ironman’. I did it in a much quicker time that I expected. And I remember… I remember really enjoying it. I remember the feeling of everything just settling, of just being wholly in the moment and concentrating on the very next, thinking about my pedalling, pushing a little harder, holding back so I had enough for the run, counting the laps, watching the distance markers.

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In 122 days when I do the Outlaw, I will not (by British Triathlon guidelines) be allowed to wear headphones. Every triathlon I do is done in only in the company of my own thoughts. Just me, and myself, for 12-16 hours.

There is not another point in my life where I am every quiet with myself like that. Not ever for that amount of time. Not in our world, with the way I live. Never.

All I can hope is that I will be kind to myself.

Before this project, before looking at videos like the one above,  it never occurred to me that I might not finish. It never occurred to me that I might fail. It is a plausible outcome, one I now need to consider because I’m making a show about it – I need to think about all the narrative possibilities. And yet, it just doesn’t come into my head.

I see myself cross the line, and I see my mother there, at the end, like she always is, red cheeked with pride. I see her arms wide, and the feel of the carpet under my feet. I do not crawl across it. Though I suspect if I had to, I would.

I hear her tell me “well done”.

 

 

123 Days – A Pool Swimmer

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A week or so ago I went to the John Charles Centre for Sport in Leeds to take part in The Triathlon Coach swim analysis workshop. It involved a hour’s swim focussed on increasing speed, with each of us taking a couple of minutes to be filmed swimming, before then having a two hour session on technique, analysing our stroke, and suggestions for improvements.

Swimming is my thing. It’s my sport. In every triathlon I’ve done, the water is my home. I’m always so glad that they begin with the discipline I feel the safest with – time to relax, and settle in (when I know a lot of other people are mostly concentrating on not drowning), the opportunity to get used to breathing and the silence of being-alone-with-yourself of triathlon.

I grew up swimming for a club, to a county level. I even did a couple of international meets. I trained in 3 or 4 pools across Lincoln: NK, City, Christ Hospital, and Yarborough. Early mornings and late nights. At Yarborough they had a walk way between the girls and the boys changing areas, where an attendant would take your things in a basket, before lockers were installed there (although as part of the club, you’d just take your bag on poolside). NK was the site of the strongest memory I have of a swim meet – of a 50m backstroke win that felt like I was flying and also not moving. I looked up and suddenly it was over, and I was 5m ahead of everyone else. I gave up swimming not long after I was 12 following a severe break of both my arms. My mum said I used to swim in my sleep when I had the casts on. I joined a drama club with all my new spare time (the routes life finds for us) I didn’t stop being a swimmer. When I worked in a kitchen in the south of France for a year when I was 18 I would wallow in the cool water of the Ardêche Gorge. I learnt to canoe and picked it up at a rate that unnerved my instructor, but to me always just felt like using the paddle as a hand, when I swim my hand is a paddle.

Canoe

When I went to university it was a sports university to do drama (no irony lost) with a beautiful 50m pool, in Wolverhampton the pool was less nice and times restricted but I worked my way up to a swimming fitness I’d lost for a while, with the help of a waterproof mp3 player. Back to Loughborough for a PhD and over those 4 years I watched British Swimming’s training sessions and tried to straighten my stroke out. I built up my distances, but I had no clue how to construct drills and rests and paces for actually progressing my technique. I did remember paddle and pull buoy work though, and kick, so I added some of that on, and was eventually swimming 5k sessions as a mix of crawl, breast, back, pull, kick with no rests. Then I moved to London. Ironmonger Row’s funny 33m pool had me doing complex maths, I used to cycle from Lewisham to Ironmonger Row for an hour’s swim before a 10am start at work. I observed that London lane discipline was worse, and that people here kick harder. Lewisham pool was nice enough – a great resource for the community – but lane times severely limited, and once someone told me that the likes of me shouldn’t be swimming there. Later I thought up the comeback I never said: “I’m in the fast lane, there’s no faster one, though there are several slower, why not avail yourself of one of them”. In Loughborough they actually had a ‘faster’ lane. Slow, medium, fast, faster.

Every Saturday since I moved to London I would cycle from Lewisham to Crystal Palace to swim in the 50m pool there. A pilgrimage.

Crystal Palace pool, image from the www.crystalpalacecampaign.org site

Crystal Palace National Sports Centre is tall, the architecture angular, the sun spills in from 3 sides of windows, set in the heart of Crystal Palace Park. You hear the diving boards ricochet, squash court squeaks, but thankfully they don’t play any music. The pool is old, but graceful with it. One half always set aside for lessons – local clubs, or sometimes synchronised swimmers and an instructor repeatedly tapping the middle steps with a cane for the beat. The lanes for public use are open as long as I’ve ever encountered 7am-7pm most days, 10am-5pm at the weekends. It’s bliss. I can fit swimming into my day rather than my day into swimming. I can get sleep, recover. I can run with a backpack and get 85 minutes around the park in before a 3500m training session. In October I moved to Penge, which is a 5 minute cycle and a 10 minute run from the pool. They have a stock of pull buoys and kickboards so I don’t need to carry those in my backpack. There are a couple of pigeons that fly around in the ceiling sometimes. The water is cool – a proper training temperature – flags for turns, proper lane ropes, 2 minute clocks, even with 6 people in a lane there’s room to feel like you’ve got space.

And this year I got a coach, the last bit, the training sessions, I now have someone setting the drills, the distances, the rests. And I’m getting better. Hitting personal bests.

My Friday swim, followed by a 45’ run, looks like this:

  • WARM UP 1 x 600 m front crawl , 6/10 effort: 300m EZ, 200m Build, 100m hard
    10 x 50m +20s rest – TORPEDO KICK + POLO Notes:Execute a GREAT push off from the wall. Keep your head down with your hands placed on on top of the other tucking the top thumb under the lower hand. Reach as tall and high as you can and if you are flexible then tuck your arms behind your head. After you have pushed off in the streamlined position kick as hard as you can until you run out of breath. When you surface do a head up “Water Polo” style stroke to 25m, then do easy freestyle for the end of the rep (50m)
    10 x 100m single arm drills +20s rest after each 100m. Notes:This drill is perfect for developing rotation, Early catch and balance between L & R arm strokes. To view a video of this drill please click here – 25L/25fs/25R/25fs – on 1 arm drills have 1 arm by side.
    5 x 200m PULL 8/10 effort + 20s rest. Work on cadence and good catch
    COOL DOWN 1 x 300m EZ backstroke

Swimming is all about being symmetrical and efficient. In a world of thickened dynamics (water moves like air does but with more force) the aim is to transfer as much energy into forward momentum as possible. Because you need to turn to breathe you need to carefully balance and counter balance your body in the water – any point of asymmetry and some of your energy propels you sideways, works against you and the water, not with it. Lots of splash means you’re moving air more than water, not enough and you might be too low in the water. Your body should be flat, if it dips, then your feet will drag. Movements should be smooth and aerodynamic. You train by concentrating on different things in each session, rather than trying to get each bit of technique right in one go. Ingrain it, add things in, find out what it feels like to do it right with a paddle that forces your stroke into the right position, then repeat it without. A different session each week will focus on: strength (upper body, and kick), technique, endurance.

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This is me in the lake at Roundhay Park

I was taught to be a pool swimmer: power and sprinting. But I’m training for open water.

Unsurprisingly this is what the workshop stroke analysis showed me. I have a good pool stroke – my body is in a good position, I have a good kick, my elbows are high, but I have developed over-gliding, and am doing a series of things I learnt in the 90s which either aren’t thought to be best practice now, or that aren’t suited to open water swimming: explosive breathing, thumb entry, slow, powerful smooth stroke. I have a slow cadence (stroke rate) and a long stroke. Although I was about the same speed as others in the class, I had the lowest stroke rate – around 50 strokes per minute. Almost good for a pool stroke, but unideal for open water – where you need higher arms, a much faster turnover, where you need to breathe comfortably on both sides to avoid sun glare, waves, wind.

So, take a look at these three videos. The first is me, with my stroke rate of around 50. The second is a famously smooth pool swimmer, Jono Van Hazel, who starts out with a stroke rate of around 65, hitting 1:15 per 100m, and the final is the world’s best open water technique swimmer Jodie Swallow, who has a frankly astonishing ALL DAY stroke rate of around 90 (1:10 per 100m). She can keep that pace up for HOURS. Listen to the commentary there – it’s a swinging uncouth stroke in the air but she has immediate catch (the word for getting a purchase on the water with your hand), and still maintains high elbows (you might hear coaches talking about the importance of high elbows, but they don’t mean above the water, they mean under the water – it means you can use the big muscles of your back to pull on the water) and great technique all the way through.

This is me!

 — Jono Van Hazel (stroke rate of around 65. 1:15 per 100m)

— Jodie Swallow (stroke rate of around 90, 1:10 per 100m)

So, here’s what I need to work on

1) buy a pair of these: http://www.proswimwear.co.uk/finis-freestyler-hand-paddle.html paddles to help correct my entry position – experimenting with an entry point closer to my body, so that I cut down on the glide

2) improve my cadence (increase the stroke rate) – train at a higher cadence, by either straight-up counting strokes, or using something like this: http://www.proswimwear.co.uk/brands/finis/finis-tempo-trainer-pro-yellow.html which will beep for every stroke (and which can be used for pace keeping, you can use it sort of like a bleep test for swimming, knocking it down a second every 100m)

3) continuous breathing – unlearn the way I’ve been breathing for years. Relearn another. One is for sprinting, the other is for long distance efforts.

And keep up the strength and endurance training too.

I love swimming. It’s my home. It’s quiet and strong and every tiny alteration you make to your stroke makes you faster. It’s a field of never-perfect and of personal best. I’m excited to have new things to work on.

134 days – Nutrition

a picture of an empty plate
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I was in Leeds today working with Simon on the details – strength and conditioning (more on that next) and nutrition. Nutrition can make a huge difference to your performance, and importantly, your recovery. Turns out training is as much about rest as it is about work. “And proper rest too, that means sleep, sleeping lots, and cutting out stress on rest days too”.

Phil Hayes at Northumbria University said this to me when I spoke to him about why we train:

“So there’s a really good quote from a guy called David Costill who was an exercise physiologist who was probably the most prominent person through the 1980s. And he did lots of stuff on running and then got into swimming in his later career. And he said ‘The purpose of training is to stimulate growth, growth only occurs with periods of rest and recovery’ …which I really like because it tells you everything about training you have to work hard to get the body to adapt and grow and you also need to have periods where you rest and recover to allow those changes to take place because…if you just work hard all the time eventually everything breaks down. So I like his quote because it gives you all of what the process is. We train to grow and adapt, and the things that grow and adapt are the structures in the body, so within the muscles, the muscle structures change, within the heart the heart structure changes, the blood vessel structure changes, and because of those structural changes we then get a change in the way our body functions”

Work, and recover, fuel and rebuild.

Food is fuel.

It’s also a bunch of other things; it’s a gift, it’s a comfort, it’s family and friends and loved ones, it’s an enemy, it’s a friend, it’s sinful, it’s beautiful, it’s ethical, it’s bad for the environment, it’s harmful, it’s good, it’s bad, it’s super, it’s….

It’s really hard to take control of. The right kind of control. The light touch life-long control. There are times when I’ve been too controlling of food. There are times when I’ve not and that was good for me in some ways but in others I’ve felt like I’ve been wearing a costume of myself for a body. There are allergies and intolerances and ethical choices I have made that means I’m vegetarian, I can’t have milk or cream, and I can’t eat peppers. There are unpredictable things to my lifestyle which mean I often have to eat on the run, or I’m cooking for friends and it’s one of my favourite things to do, to show love in that way.

I can’t separate food from these things. But I do need to find a balance of them.

So today I asked Simon about nutrition. And he explained that it was simple: “the difference between healthy eating and performance eating is just really when you eat, timing intake to training. He has a set of guidelines – not rules – which includes no calorie restriction, no ‘bad’ foods.

Roughly, this is what he recommended

  • Eat every 2-4 hours, around 5 meals a day.
  • Have complete lean protein in every meal (plant based protein is fine!). If you’re training hard you want 1.4-2g of protein for every kg of your body weight. If you weigh 70kg, that’s 100-140g per day.
  • Have veg with every meal. Eat 4:1 veg to fruit throughout the day.
  • Eat healthy fats daily. Eat non-veg simple carbs only after training.
  • Drink water, black coffee, peppermint tea.

and planplan plan plan plan.  Set time aside for it

  1. keep a food diary.
  2. take your measurements
  3. make a weekly food plan
  4. write your shopping list
  5. go shopping, and stick to the list
  6. prepare the food so it will fit into your life
  7. stick to the plan
  8. mark a X on meals you hit O on meals you miss and ? on meals that aren’t to plan. Work out your weekly adherence.
  9. reward yourself with 10% do-what-you-like meals for 90% lean eating
  10. track how your measurements change.

Now I’m not overweight. But I’ve been lighter. Moving to London 2 years ago stripped my lifestyle of a bunch of time and stability which killed my ability to plan and stick to plan. I want to lose weight. Which is a tough thing for a feminist to say – but it’s not about looking, you see. It’s not about being a thing looked at, it’s about building a body for doing. And if you are leaner, you are faster, you have less weight to drag up a hill, or lift off the ground with every running stroke. Power to weight ratio. I want to be faster. I want to be powerful.

So. Here goes. Here’s my plan for next week. Links go to my food blog, in case you’re interested!

Day
Meal 1
Meal 2
Meal 3
Meal 4
Meal 5
Mon
eggs on toast
Nuts
carrot soup and wholemeal bread
carrot and hummus
falafel or hummus wrap
Tue
mushroom cheese omelette with beans
granola + yoghurt
falafel or hummus wrap
carrot and hummus
Moroccan chickpeas with quinoa and avocado
Wed
porridge with berries yoghurt and seeds
avocado and tomato
carrot soup and wholemeal bread
apple and orange
courgette quinoa
Thu
porridge with berries yoghurt and seeds
avocado and tomato
carrot soup and wholemeal bread
Nuts
hazelnut quinoa
Fri
mushroom cheese omelette with beans
granola + yoghurt
falafel or hummus wrap
Nuts
courgette quinoa
Sat
mushroom cheese omelette with beans
granola + yoghurt
Sweet potato and halloumi falafel with salad
carrot and hummus
10% meal
Sun
porridge with berries yoghurt and seeds
Apple and orange
10% Meal
Nuts
hazelnut quinoa

 

134 days – Faith

a print out of some strength and conditioning exercises and materials
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“Training is about faith”

Simon said to me, sitting across a falafel salad in Horsforth.

He had just described to me the ultra run across the Sahara Desert that him and his partner Fiona were doing in 3 week’s time, laden with all of their food, water, and camping gear. It’s a race of between 150 and 156 miles, over 6 days.

I had just asked “do you think I’ll be ready in time?” And that’s when he told me that he had 3 weeks to go until the Marathon de Sables. “If you put a gun to my head tomorrow, I could do it” he said “but there are still bits, still bits of training to do, it’s not complete”.

Simon is a fan of metaphors, he’ll use one and then he’ll explain it. I think it’s a useful way to talk as a coach, because if he talks about the thing visually, and then about why the visual works, mostly what he’s doing is taking time to find the way the idea fits into your head. This time it’s cake.

“It’s like a cake, it’s not ready yet, it’s not done, it doesn’t have the candles, I haven’t iced it, sure it looks like a cake, it’s baked, it’s got the two bits and the filling, but there’s none of the bits that makes it complete.”

Training is like a cake, he tells me – later on when he’s telling me to have a rest day because of my cold, it’s a brick wall (one missed session, one missed brick, it’s ok, it’ll hold) – “if I put a gun to your head tomorrow, you could do it, you could do the Outlaw”.

I tell him it just had never entered my head that I wouldn’t be able to before now

“What changed?”

“Honestly”, I tell him, “I think it was deciding to make a piece of theatre about it. Before now I didn’t have to think about how to tell the story if I – if I failed”.

He echoes a sentiment I tell myself – that it’s about the journey, that’s the story I’m telling, “and that’s what training is, it’s the journey”

Some days I feel like I could do the race tomorrow. Some days I feel like I could at least get to the end of the ride. Some days I feel like the prospect of it is sat on my chest like my little brother did when we fought when we were little except that it’s now and it’s my 28 year old little brother who is 6’7” and can benchpress a whole lotta kg.

Simon tells me it’s about faith. Training is about faith – I might do all of the distance for the Outlaw separately, before attempting it – maybe not the marathon, but certainly the bike and the run, but I won’t put them together before. I won’t know that I can do it, not for certain. It would be foolish to try – training is not about doing the thing but preparing the thing – if I were to try before I could injure myself, exhaust myself leaving myself without enough time to recover and train, I would be trying to do the thing before I was ready; light the candles with only batter to stick them in.

Simon explains how there’s not really any way to train for the Sahara run, not really. That it’s about training and strength and conditioning. It’s about faith. And it’s about being strong, in your mind.

“I think I’m very strong”. I say this, and it feels… I’m used to apologising for that kind of sentiment. It’s a bald thing to say, like an invitation for the world to try and knock me down.

He says that like in real life there are bad days and good days, when I do the Outlaw, there will be moments when it feels like the best thing, and moments when it feels like the worst.

You know I still don’t believe that I might not do it. Some days I don’t know what to do with being that kind of person.

I scrat around for a piece of paper and a pen. I want to write down ‘training is about faith’. “It’s OK,” Simon says, “you’ll remember it”.