Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Pace comes through again

Last year I wrote extensively about the creation of my cycling-specific prosthetic leg, courtesy of the folks at Pace Rehabilitation near Manchester (see article here: Winning is All About Your Pace). The leg catapulted me from a top-10 rider to a World Champion in less than a year. OK, there might have been a bit more to my rise to the top than just the leg, but without a doubt, it was one of the greatest factors. 

But not one to be content, I went back to Pace after the World Championships in Denmark and challenged them to do even better. If I was going to have to step up my game in the next year, I wanted to make sure my equipment was up to the challenge as well. And, as my next challenge was to be the Track Cycling World Championships, I wanted a leg that could help squeeze every last millisecond of time out of me. On the track, races are won or lost in tenths of a second so it's crucial to make sure you don't give any extra time away if you don't have to.

The project (dubbed 'Mark II') was born out of an encounter that Howard Wooley and I had while presenting at a prosthetics conference in Scotland. Howard is the prothetist at Pace that I have worked with this past year in creating my first cycling leg. At the conference, we met another presenter, Bryce Dyer and immediately the wheels started turning. Bryce is a Senior Lecturer in Product Design at the School of Design, Engineering and Computing at Bournemouth University. His primary interest is with the development and use of technology within elite level sport. As an avid cyclist himself, he had a keen understanding of the forces and aerodynamic issues surrounding the design of a cycling prosthetic.

Bryce was (correctly) convinced that while the first leg Pace created was superb, we could still take the design much further and maximise power transfer, aerodynamic efficiency and reduce the weight. He agreed to consult on the project and lend his expertise in the design process. I had a rough idea of how the leg should look (and have to admit that much of what I wanted came from an examination of Jody Cundy's leg), but it was going to be up to Bryce and Howard to bring it to life.

The project took a while to get underway, and with the Track World Championships taking place in early February, we were under the gun to get the design completed and manufactured in time. I would need it a few weeks before the event (as I was travelling to L.A. to prepare and needed some time to try it out and get used to it before competition.) Howard and Pace were going to have to work quickly.

Fortunately, Pace were able to use the socket moulds from the first leg to begin work. This saved a fair bit of time straight away (especially since this part of the leg would stay the same). The time-consuming work would mainly come from developing the lower half of the leg. I had drawn up on paper how I thought this portion should look and Howard and Pace faithfully produced the first prototype based on my drawing – but it was completely wrong. Not that they did anything wrong – but my concept was completely wrong. Sometimes you have to see something in person before you realise it won't work.

Over the next few weeks we began to fine-tune the design and hone in on what would become the final product. After a fair bit of revision, we managed to get the shape right; in particular the cleat placement and transition shape from the top half of the leg to the bottom. This was a sticking point for me as I needed something fairly specific in order for it to feel right when actually riding it. I kept sending it back to the workshop until I finally got something that felt right, and to their credit, the folks at Pace didn't lose patience with me. Howard even came with me to the velodrome to test out the final prototype and make adjustments to it track-side so that we could keep the process moving along as quickly as possible.

The next step was to work on the aerodynamic profile, and this is where Bryce's expertise came into play. If you are at all familiar with cycling and the UCI (the governing body for cycling), you may be familiar with the 3:1 rule. Essentially it states that no part of your bike frame can be more than 3 times deep as it is wide. It doesn't apply to things like wheels but comes into play for most everything else. If you imagine the wing of an airplane and the teardrop shape, especially how wide that teardrop is, you might begin to understand why something flat and wide can be beneficial from an aerodynamic point of view. The 3:1 rule limits the benefit you can get from aero tubing on your bike or bars.

And whilst there is no specific rule on the books saying that this also applies to prosthetics, I didn't want to be the guy that caused the UCI to bring in a rule. So we decided to keep our leg within the confines of the 3:1 rule. However, Bryce was able to come up with a way to keep the leg 3:1 legal, whilst making it as wide and as aero as possible. I'm not going to give away the solution, but it's a solution being used by some bike manufacturers already in developing their frames.

The final piece of the puzzle was the weight issue. In the first leg we made, the inside of it (under the carbon fibre) was a foam shell. The hard foam shell is light, but still adds weight. For Mark II we were looking to eliminate any extra weight that we could, so Pace came up with a way to make it completely hollow. The outer carbon fibre shell was still as strong as the first leg, and despite it containing more material (due to the increased bladed shape), Mark II came in significantly lighter. Pace worked tirelessly to finish the project in time and with just days to spare before I had to leave for L.A., I collected the final leg and headed off to the track in Manchester for it's maiden voyage.

I don't know if it was the excitement of trying something new, or that I was nearing peak fitness before the World's, but the first runs I made with the new leg were extremely promising. By my calculations, I was nearly a half a second faster PER LAP than I was with the previous leg. Some riders train their who lives to gain that sort of an advantage. I got it in one foul swoop. I would still need to spend some time with the leg to get fully comfortable with it, but I could tell straight way that it was going to be a winner. 

And the rest, as they say, is history. In L.A. I won the individual pursuit by 6 seconds in the final. Over 12 laps – that equates to half a second a lap. Coincidence? Perhaps. But as I said at the start: I didn't want to leave anything to chance.

Since the Track World's ended I have gone back to training on the road for road racing and time trialling. I still use Mark I on a daily basis, but have been so pleased with Mark II that am now using it on race days. (And I no longer call it Mark II but have lovingly named it 'Zeus'.) It's not a practical for walking around in so tend to keep it for 'special' occasions. And in preparation for what will hopefully be a gold-medal winning performance, the folks at Pace decided to bling it up a bit. It was recently given the midas touch and painted in gold. The first attempt wasn't quite perfect, so we will be refining the paint job in coming weeks, but you can see that now, more than ever, it stands out from the crowd. A bit like the folks that helped create it.

So, my heartfelt thanks goes out to Howard and the whole team at Pace that worked hard to get it done to my satisfaction and on time, and to Bryce for his input in making it as aero as possible. I'm not sure if there will ever be a Mark III for me, but if, as they say, "third time's a charm", then I feel sorry for my competition if it even comes to be!

Friday, 20 April 2012

Who inspires the inspirational?

Recently I found myself sat in a ballroom listening to a so-called motivational speaker. He had been bought in to try and inspire myself and the rest of the gathered athletes in the room with his tales of how he had overcome adversity, and conquered physical feats thought by many to be impossible. Unfortunately, I found him to be more patronising and self-congratulatory than motivational, but it got me to thinking about what exactly DOES inspire me.

I've said it before - I don't think of myself as an inspiration (see my blog: "I am not an inspiration.") But for the sake of this post, let's just assume that other people still find me to be an inspiration, whether it's because of my physical limitations or just because what I have achieved through hard work. If that's the case and I'm an inspiration to others, where do I look for inspiration? Who or what drives me on and what sorts of things do I find inspirational?

Last weekend I went over to Ireland to join the rest of the Irish Paralympic hopefuls (from all sports) for one of the few remaining Renault Paralympic Preparation camps. We spend a few days together training with our own squads and mixing with the others athletes, getting to know each other better so that when we are thrown together for a month at the end of the summer to compete in London, we won't all be complete strangers. It's a good team-building exercise and packed full of useful info on what to expect and how to handles the stresses of competing in the Paralympics.

A good part of these camps involves various activities designed to bring athletes from the different sports together. There is a natural tendency to gravitate towards the people you know rather than meet new people. In past camps many of us normally sit with our own squads during meals, presentations, etc. You don't interact with other people as much as you should. As we draw closer to the Games, these camps have a greater focus on integrating the athletes. We sit with different people for meals, participate in more group activities and try to get to know each other better.

I admit, in the past I have been one of those people that didn't venture outside my comfort zone very often and stayed close to the teammates I knew. The wide variety of disabilities and unfamiliar faces at these camps can be a little daunting and sometimes it's easier to stay inside your safe zone. But I genuinely want to get to know these people and have embraced the ethos of these camps in recent times. And it's been eye-opening.

My disabilities are fairly simple and straightforward. Nerve damage and an artificial leg. I have had these problems for the majority of my life and they are "stable" conditions – meaning they won't get worse and can't be treated. I have learned to adapt my life and am comfortable with any limitations these conditions present.

At the camp I had the opportunity to chat with a competitor from another sport that had a progressive and degenerative disease. This person shall remain nameless, as will the specifics of their disease. Suffices to say that as they get older, the outlook does not. Couple this with the fact that they have already beaten the odds and remained in fairly good condition for the amount of time that they have had the disease, and that it is likely to get bad for them (to the point of complete debilitation or even death) in the coming years, it's easy to see how they might not have the most positive outlook on life.

And yet... the complete opposite is the truth. This person is happy, upbeat and a fierce competitor. Imagine how easy it would be to be down if you knew your days were numbered and knowing that your remaining days will probably be painful and you may suffer from complete incapacitation? It's one thing to have a mild disability that you will be stuck with for the rest of your life – but that won't cause you too much trouble. It's another thing to have a disease that you know will kill you far before your time. Tick tock, tick tock. It would weigh heavily on me.

To see this person making the absolute most of their life and beating the odds, with the burning desire to succeed at the highest levels of their sport was inspirational TO ME. The challenges of riding a bike with an artificial leg pales in comparison in my opinion. I was humbled to speak with them and get an insight into the life. And this... is what the camps are all about.

Another significant portion of the Irish Paralympic team are boccia players. You'll have to pardon my ignorance here, but I'm assuming that all the players suffer from Cerebral Palsy is varying degrees. Most are wheelchair bound and their ability to speak can be severely impaired. As such, a lot of them struggle to communicate and 'speak' with extremely slurred speech, often almost monosyllabically. Again – in my ignorance, there is also an assumption that because of their poor motor skills, and poor speech abilities, that they are also intellectually challenged. This couldn't be further from the truth. Their legs and mouths may not work very well, but their brains are perfectly fine.

But you see, because their outward appearance made me uncomfortable, and because I made assumptions about their intelligence, I have been uncomfortable being around them in the past. I struggle to understand some of my fully communicative teammates at times, so you can imagine how trying to understand someone with slurred speech might make me feel. Because of this, I have missed out on getting to know some of these great people.

At the latest camp I got over my fears and made a point to be talk with some of these athletes. Again – it's eye-opening to see the challenges they face int heir daily life and yet how positive and upbeat they are. I am like a lot of the general public – I just see the packaging and don't bother looking deeper. I see the disability and not the person. But slowly but surely this is changing for me and I hope these Games in London will help further change perceptions of the public.

These are the people that inspire me. Their success is harder to come by than mine as their obstacles are greater to overcome. And yet, inside they are just like you can me. They just want to do well at their chosen sports and to be respected for it. And I'm sure they also do it because they love it!

Even the Paralympics Ireland staff that work tirelessly behind the scenes, making these camps and indeed my London experience possible, always working for the greater good of the athletes and never thinking of themselves – these people make me want to perform to the best of my abilities. In many ways I feel like I can't let them down. Sure, for many of them it's a job, but not all of them and certainly the passion they bring to their duties go far beyond what any paycheque can reward them with. They are the true believers. They are the ones that will celebrate just as vigorously as any athlete who makes their way onto a podium in London. Their passion rubs off on us all and makes us work harder. They make us believe in ourselves and that anything is possible if we keep working at it. They do it quietly most of the time with a kind word or reassuring smile – much more inspirational to me than most of these so-called motivational speakers.

Lastly, on the way home from the camp, as I was checking my bike in at the ferry terminal, the gentleman at the desk saw my Paralympics Ireland shirt and asked me about it. I explained that I was preparing to compete in London and that I had been away with the rest of the team. He offered to take my bike through for me, saying he 'was proud to help a Paralympic hopeful." He shook my hand several times, wished me well and said "we're all behind you". It's not often I see this sort of public appreciation for what we do and to hear directly from a complete stranger that they were behind us. There was something incredibly uplifting and motivational about that. And so... you, the general public, that quietly or opening show your support for us (and not just those of you directly related to an athlete or member of the team): you inspire me. You make me want to succeed on your behalf. 

I look forward to getting to know my fellow London-bound teammates better over the coming months. Perhaps it's foolish and bold of me to say it, but I would love to be the flag-bearer for the whole team. But to do so will mean I have to know and be known by everyone. I'm not getting to know them because I want to be selected for the role, but because I want to be able to cheer them all on by name when we start to compete come August 30.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

A winning mentality

One of the questions I get asked a fair amount is: what does it take to be a winner? The short answer is – there is no set formula. It is a perfect storm of circumstances, luck, hard work and genetics that all contribute to putting you on the top step of the podium. But perhaps the biggest muscle you use when powering yourself to a win… is your brain.

We’ve all heard it before: “A winning attitude”. You have to believe you can win. Without this self-belief, you might as well stay home. Similarly, falsely and blindly thinking you can win when all signs indicate otherwise, probably won’t get you very far either. Belief has to be tempered with a grain of realism.

If I were to examine all the elements that have combined to make me a World Champion, my mentality would be up near the top of the list. But what about the other characteristics I mentioned? My father (or so the story goes) was a very good boxer in his youth. On this basis I can deduce that some his genetic material filtered down and I at least have some predisposition to athletic endeavors. They say you can train up a donkey – but you can’t turn it into a racehorse. You have to be born with it.

I’ve also had my fair share of luck (some bad, but a lot of good). You might think losing a leg and having spinal cord damage would count as bad luck, but without these things happening to me I wouldn’t be a Paralympic World Champion. I might have ignored sport altogether or never reached my full potential. And despite me not being one of those ‘everything happens for a reason’ types of people, I do think you have to take opportunities wherever you can find them.

The one thing that virtually all top athletes must do, is to work HARD at it. The harder you work, the easier you make it look. And it’s not just a matter of working harder than the next person, it’s also a case of working smarter. Using your time wisely, planning each step of your training, trusting in your coaches and support staff, whilst still questioning many of the small details. Knowledge is power and the more I know about why I have to do the things that are in my training plan, the greater the chances I will continue to do them. Once I understand the reasons behind my training methods, it becomes easier to put in the hard graft.

Make no mistake – training is indeed hard work. And this is perhaps where a strong mental attitude comes into play the most. When you are suffering, or freezing or hurting on a training ride – it’s your mental toughness that helps you carry on. Your brain has to override your body’s desire to give up and go home. You need to be able to push yourself, day in and day out, so that when it comes time to race and it really matters – you are as prepared as you can be.

In a race no one is going to wait around for you because you’re having a bad day or don’t feel like riding. You have to dig deep for yourself. You have to (sometimes) force yourself to carry on. I have been in races where I was faltering, barely hanging onto the back of the pack, and have told myself to just hang on a little longer. In those cases I managed to ride back into the group and finished with everyone else. I have even gotten some decent finishes out of races like that. But the times you just simply give up and let the group ride away from you are the times that you guarantee yourself a losing day.

When it comes to time-trialing, mental toughness can be even more important. You are out on the road all by yourself, only racing against the clock. You may not see any other riders at all so it can be hard to stay motivated, especially when the pain starts to set in. The ability to suffer and keep pushing on at these times is what helps you win.

I know I’ve had a few conversations with myself in big races when it started to get tough. I remind myself that this is why I do all the training and that I can do it, that I can’t quit and most of all, that if I want to win I can’t be a wimp. That usually gets me to the line just a little bit faster!

In London I know my head will be in the right place. I just hope that puts the rest of me on that top step of the podium.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Making the miles go by

Now that the Track World Championships are over and I have had a short rest, it's back to work for me. Or rather, I have been hard at work training for some time now! I have actually been busy with a lot of things, so haven't made the time for many updates. But as it's chucking it down with rain out there today I've decided to stay indoors and update my blog before hopping on the turbo trainer for a quick session.

Coming back from LA, I was on a bit of a high (naturally), after winning another World Title. But it didn't last long and I very quickly started planning how I was going to replicate the feat in London. Two World Titles is one thing, but I want to add two Paralympic medals to that. And it won't be easy.

Because I spent a lot of the winter preparing for track racing, my road and TT training had suffered. Even though I still trained on the road during this period, the closer I got to the actual competition, the less road riding I did. I was more focused on going fast for 4 minutes than I was on going fast for 10 miles or an hour and a half (typical TT and road race distances/times). And so, to prepare for the season ahead, it's meant going back to basics and building up me endurance again.

I have had to start my training almost from scratch now. While many people out there started this type of training several months ago and are already coming into form, I have to start my base training now. It's frustrating because instead of going fast... I have to go SLOW. I'm racing every week already - but I'm nowhere near as fast as I have been in years gone past at this time of year.

That's because unlike other years when I wanted to be ready to race in April, this year I need to hit my peak in late August. My entire season this year is all about one thing: hitting my absolute peak for the Paralympics in September. It'll be a slow build-up all season long towards achieving that goal. It also means most of my early-season events will suffer.

I've started my base training phase and it's got to be one of the most tedious things you can do in training terms. Long, slow and steady miles on the bike. I'm sometimes doing 4 hours a day at a slow (for me) pace. Always trying to keep the power down. No accelerations, no big bursts of power, no extended hill climbs. Just keeping it steady. When you ride like this, it's hard to stay focussed and motivated. The mind wanders. Time seems to drag on. I know there's a reason for it, but it doesn't make it any easier to do!

Base training is all about... giving you a base of fitness upon which to build on. You need these miles in the legs as the foundation for which everything else is built upon. It helps improve your endurance and makes the harder efforts in the future easier to do. But it doesn't make it easier to race in the early part of the season!

Because of the revised training plan in relation to what I've done in years gone by, I've had to change my expectations. It means that when I race at the weekend, I'm not looking to 'do well' or get good results – I'm using these races as training efforts. The alternative would be to skip the racing altogether and build these harder efforts into my training plan until I'm better prepared to race. But I'm of the opinion that the BEST preparation to do well in races is to just race! Racing (even if you do it poorly) pushes you harder than any training effort can do. You get a kick of adrenaline from racing that just makes you dig deeper than when you're out there on your own. Having someone or something to chase in a race is the ultimate carrot – you just can't fully replicate this in solo training.

So when I'm sitting there on my bike, hour after hour, mile after mile, how do I pass the time? For starters I usually have an earphone in one ear with some music going. I know there are people out there that think listening to music while riding isn't safe, but I can still hear everything that goes on around me. Plus it encourages me to look twice before making 'risky' moves on the bike. But I digress...

Yes – I listen to tunes to help keep me motivated. I also do a LOT of thinking. I think about my next blog entry. I think about getting home and relaxing. I think about race strategies. I think about new equipment. I think about not going too fast/hard and wasting the training session. I think about the route I'm using and how I can change it to keep it interesting. And so on.

I try and plan a route that will take me far enough away from home as to fill up the amount of time I need to ride. So, if I'm on for a 4 hour ride, I try and head a couple of hours away from home before turning back towards my starting point. That way I can't cheat and give up early. I find if you do a loop that keep you close to home, then it's tempting to call it a day early and head inside after 3 hours instead of 4. Going far away from home forces the issue.

I've also taken the opportunity to reconnect with some of my cycling friends. I try and join other people on their rides during the week. Some friends work shifts and have free time during the day to rides, or others have days off mid-week (or might just be in the area for a few days). Whatever the case, I try and mix things up a bit and get out with other people. It's probably the best way to make the hours go by a little quicker! 

But mostly I try and convince myself that all this training, as boring as it may seem, is to serve the greater good. That when I'm standing on the podium in London, it will be a distant memory and it will have all been worth it. I may do poorly in every single race between now and then – all that matters is that I do well in my races from August 31 to September 6. 

And's back to the grind for me. More updates to follow soon and thanks for reading!