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A Cloudy Outlook

Oscar Foulkes July 14, 2024 Uncategorized No comments

Low expectations are a good starting point. This is kind of the default setting for Stoics, which strikes me as being a generally good life strategy.

I wonder if Stoics suffer from hypertension.

One of the variables that I have needed to address is alcohol, seeing as it was flagged by my GP. So, no wine from Sunday to Wednesday. While I didn’t experience any physical withdrawal, I was certainly triggered when seeing characters sipping glasses of red wine on whatever series I was watching.

From a BP perspective, the week was marked by a higher degree of consistency than previous. However, it was also the highest series of readings since I started this exercise. This was not what I was expecting. I really need to work harder at being a better Stoic.

Disappointed by this outcome, I joined the household in red wine from Thursday to Saturday (although obviously not in a solid multi-day binge!). I’ll give it another go this week. By “it” I mean abstinence.

Seeing as I didn’t get a result from sobriety (if anything, the opposite), I decided to go full metal jacket, by withdrawing coffee from Thursday. This also happened without any physical effects (i.e. no head ache etc).

What made the transition super easy is that I switched coffee for a cocoa drink (two heaped tablespoons mixed with a bit of hot water and a teaspoon of honey, topped with steamed milk from the coffee machine). I can’t say I’ve even craved coffee in this time.

There was no apparent drop in my blood pressure, although it did not increase post-cocoa as it does immediately post-coffee.

These days, no human activity is complete without AI, so I asked both ChatGPT and Perplexity if increased blood pressure could result from withdrawal of either alcohol or coffee. Apparently it is possible.

On the subject of AI, these answers strike me as being a little like the output of astrologers. They all toss such a large range of options into their answers that it’s possible to latch onto any part of it as a confirmation of something one wanted to believe was true.

Exercise was heavily rain affected. I forced myself out for just one interval session on Wednesday afternoon. I wonder if I can apply the Duckworth Lewis method to my week’s cycling?

I donated blood for the first time this week, partly as an experiment to see what it would do to my blood pressure (nothing, it turns out). Other than getting the admin done, as a first time donor, the whole experience was actually very pleasant. I’ll be back.

I have been given a list of natural supplements that could have an impact. One of these is Q10, which is presumably not the spray oil for dealing with squeaky hinges. If it comes down to a choice between a single pill prescribed by my GP, or a handful of capsules comprising lecithin, garlic, krill oil and Q10, I think I may lean in the direction of the single pill.

At the moment it’s looking very much like lifestyle adjustment isn’t the cure.

The Week in Numbers

BP: 151/86
Bike: nil

BP: 153/94

BP: 151/94

BP: 156/94
Bike: 4 x 4 mins at 90% of max HR

BP: 154/98
Bike: nil

BP: 159/92

BP: 155/89
Bike: nil

A Cacao Situation

Oscar Foulkes July 7, 2024 Blood Pressure Interventions No comments

Cacao vs cocoa tripped up my Wordle journey somewhere along the line. The latter, more obvious version, generally springs to mind first. I’m hoping that the former, denoting the natural powder derived from the unprocessed beans, will be a useful addition to my natural anti-hypertension remedies.

At this point I’m unable to draw any conclusions as to the therapeutic benefits of a daily 25g dose of cacao. What I can trumpet is the mood enhancing benefits of having a massive dose of ‘chocolate’ in the morning. Just the flavour is enough for the feel-good factor.

The specific elements that make the difference are the flavonols in unprocessed cacao. These are lost, to an increasing degree, the more the beans are alkalised, or ‘dutched’. This process makes the flavour more gentle, as well as making the cocoa more suitable for use in baking. However, it is possible to buy non-alkalised cacao.

Several studies have been done on the therapeutic benefits of chocolate. In summary, white chocolate is of no benefit and dark chocolate is better than milk.

I decided to go straight to source (i.e. cacao) by mixing roughly 25g with a little hot water, then adding a teaspoon or more of honey, completing the mixture with two tablespoons of plain yoghurt. This is an admittedly full-on hit of intense chocolate, but dark is my preference, so this a very happy space for me.

The specific therapeutic impact on high blood pressure is the resulting increase in nitric oxide.

In a few weeks time, if/when coffee is removed from my diet, this could be turned into an effective hot drink substitute, using milk instead of yoghurt.

My summary of the past week would have to be something along the lines of “I just don’t know”. Due to various factors, I was not able to fit in any intervals this week, but the cycling I did do had a good dose of high effort, not to mention volume.

The highest BP readings of the week were recorded after a night of nine hours’ sleep, which is unheard of for me. Perhaps I was suffering the effects of a long drive the day before, along with general fatigue.

One of the week’s discoveries is that the fatigue that results from over-training can increase blood pressure. Clearly a balance needs to be maintained!

This week’s plan is to do just one session of intervals, with a couple of zone 2 rides when weather permits. Cacao remains on the programme, and wine will be removed. If all the wagging fingers are correct, I’ll see changes within a week, or so.

In the absence of any decrease in my blood pressure this week, I’m looking for anything that can denote a step forward. The daily cacao regime I started has to count as an entirely guilt-free way of having chocolate. I’ll take my wins wherever I can get them!

The Week in Numbers

BP: 156/88
Bike: 2:31 on tar, mostly zone 2 with 35% in zone 3

BP: 145/89

BP: 142/86

BP: 143/91

BP: 149/93
Bike: 2:07 on tar and gravel, mostly zone 2, with about 40% shared between zones 3 and 4.

BP: 148/86

BP: 148/86
Bike: 2:32 on tar and trail, roughly half in zone 2, balance shared between zones 3 & 4

Correlation or causation?

Oscar Foulkes June 29, 2024 Blood Pressure Interventions No comments

The second week of my experiment kicked off with two mornings of lowish blood pressure readings, contributing to an early observation that there appears to be some correlation with high intensity exercise on previous days. Of course, satisfying the requirements for causation will take more investigation.

Regardless of the causality, it was nevertheless a little comforting to see numbers within spitting distance of what’s regarded as being ‘normal’.

In the context of several successive days of the systolic pressure having been under 140, Tuesday’s 153 was somewhat alarming, but I had additional information to parse:
– I had lamb chops for dinner on Monday night, having had fish on the previous three days.
– I had a stressful interaction just before going to bed.
– My sleep was interrupted and almost certainly affected by this.

Having had the leftover lamb chops for dinner the following night, I can probably rule them out as a causative factor. It’s hard to control for stress, so it was useful to have an identifiable instance to work with. At this point I’m agnostic about the role of ambient stress, but if it’s resulting in poor sleep quality, then I’ll certainly be paying more attention to how that can be managed.

Seeing as exercise is central to this phase of my experiment, I should dip into some basics. Since late 2023, most of my cycling has been in zone 2, of which Dr Iñigo San Millán is the most visible proponent. At this level of effort it is still possible (just) to speak in complete sentences, so it’s a relatively easy pace to maintain. The thesis is that this level of exercise builds mitochondria, which burns fat, and on multiple levels is also supportive of high performance. Watch this interview for more detail.

Before heading out for my ride on Sunday, I happened to watch this interview with another cycling coach, Olav Aleksander Bu. While not dismissing zone 2, he calls for greater nuance. He makes the point that one of the great benefits of zone 2 training is that it’s hard to mess up. On other hand, training at higher intensities requires more careful management to ensure it isn’t overdone. If an athlete is going to change the training mid-session, it should be to decrease – not increase – the load.

This is relevant to the state I found myself in on Sunday morning. I could feel that I was fatigued, so my intention was to have a chilled ride on the Missing Link trail. That went out of the window when I joined up with stronger riders as I started the trail (in other words, I broke his rule about upscaling effort mid-session). I managed to hang onto them until slightly beyond halfway, but then I blew. I’d put in so much effort – especially on the back of the week’s higher than usual workload – that my Garmin displayed a recovery time of 43 hours! Usually, this would under 24 hours.

This is why my Tuesday ride was at such a low level of effort. I felt that I needed to treat it as an easy recovery day. Normal service resumed on Thursday, with an interval session. These sessions involve four by four minute efforts, each at 90% of maximum heart rate.

As my schedule has worked out this week, by the end of Monday I would have ridden every day for five consecutive days. It will be interesting to see where this takes me.

The question I’m trying to answer is if there are identifiable lifestyle factors that have a predictable impact on my blood pressure. The ideal outcome is to find the ones that reduce it. At worst, to find the ones to absolutely avoid at all times.

The Week in Numbers

BP: 135/78
Bike: 1:53 on trail, mostly zone 3 & 4

BP: 137/85

BP: 153/86
Bike: 1:10, mostly in zone 1

BP: 143/95

BP: 153/90
Bike: 4 x 4 minutes at 90% of max HR, plus warm-up and cool-down

BP: 136/84
Bike: 00:53, equally split between zones 2 & 3

BP: 144/83
Bike: 2:00 on trail, roughly half in zone 2, balance shared between zones 3 & 4

Riding for my life

Oscar Foulkes June 22, 2024 Tags: , Blood Pressure Interventions No comments

Good health is not something to be taken for granted.

There is nothing like an adverse diagnosis to prove that we have no real control over what happens inside our bodies. Beyond the obvious blocked nose or scratchy throat, we furthermore have little sense of what is happening out of sight. While some of us may – at times – have finer attunement to stuff not being entirely right, ultimately, we just don’t know.

This was probably the thing that shook me most about my cancer diagnosis in 2006. The sole physical manifestation was that my voice got progressively hoarser, until I could barely speak. The old saying about keeping friends close and enemies closer seemed perverse under these circumstances. Rogue cells – my enemies – were sitting in my throat, side by side with the friendly cells that comprise my vocal cords.

My laryngeal cancer was made tangible in the form of diminished speech. In the case of the high blood pressure – or hypertension – bombshell that dropped last week, I had zero warning. In all other respects, I feel great. I’m above average fitness, I’m not overweight, I don’t smoke, and I eat very little sugar.

Also, my blood pressure had always been in normal ranges.

Except that I’m approaching 58. When I look in the mirror, I can see the effects of ageing; internally, there must also be changes taking place.

The clearly defined course of action would be to go straight onto whatever meds the doctor prescribes. After all, there are hundreds of millions of people worldwide who are benefiting every day from taking blood pressure medication. However, I’m not feeling ready to sign up to taking regular medication for the rest of my life.

Instead, I’ve resolved to give myself a few months to go through a process of trying to unpick this thing, to see if there are non-pharmaceutical changes or interventions that can make a difference.

As signals of intentions go, this is not nearly as emotive as HD Thoreau describing why he went to Walden. However, I may, like Thoreau, “live deliberately” as I learn how – or if – my body can be hacked.

My first step was to purchase a blood pressure monitor. I now take my blood pressure every morning upon waking (before coffee). There are a variety of actions I’ll be taking over coming months, with the hope that some of them will have an impact on my blood pressure.

I’m beginning with a three-week block (at least) of high intensity intervals twice per week. This course of action is informed by published studies of benefits being experienced by hypertensive individuals being put onto this type of training regime. It’s likely that these people were at a lower fitness level than I am, so I may see less dramatic changes.

The other thinking behind this addition is that most of my cycling over the past six to eight months has been in zone 2, so my weekly dose of high intensity has substantially diminished.

After the first three HIIT sessions this week, I’m having happy flashbacks to training for Cape Epic. It feels good for my body to repeatedly be taken into zone 4 for sustained periods.

Having watched me undertake three Cape Epics in successive years, my friends sometimes ask if I’m training for something. My answer has generally been that I’m just riding for general well-being. On the assumption that this is going to have some benefit, I could now – somewhat melodramatically – say that I am training for my life.

If nothing else, I’ll end up with improved VO2 Max, which has its own effects on lifespan.

Let the experiment begin…

The Week in Numbers

BP: 143/90
Bike: 3 x 3 minutes at 90% of max HR, plus warm-up and cool-down

BP: 149/97

BP: 138/94
Bike: 4 x 4 minutes at 90% of max HR, plus warm-up and cool-down

BP: 135/87

BP: 138/94
Bike: 4 x 4 minutes at 90% of max HR, plus warm-up and cool-down

BP: 141/89

BP: 135/86
Bike: 100 minutes of zone 2

Going on Tour

Oscar Foulkes June 29, 2023 Uncategorized No comments

As a young adult in the mid-80s, I caught the tail end of racehorse breeders more-or-less taking over the Victoria Hotel for the National Yearling Sale. I did hear many stories, though, of the late-night shenanigans that went on in the decades prior. There is a sense of Nationals fulfilling the role of a tour, in the sports context, especially back in the day when the majority of the sale would have been supplied by breeders from remote parts of the Karoo. Perhaps the romance of the tour is part of what still draws breeders to Gosforth Park.

I could invite suggestions of who the main instigators of the rowdy behaviour may have been, but you know, what goes on tour, stays on tour.

On the subject of tours, a couple of years ago I inadvertently came into the possession of the tour diary of the Hamiltons Rugby Club Dynamiters old crocs tours. Spotting the familiar face of Marsh Shirtliff, I immediately got it back into safe hands. I suspect, though, that for all the anecdotes and pictures in the book, the most entertaining (or damning) stayed on tour. The Dynamiters tours are still going strong; this week they won the 11-a-side tournament in Phuket, with another racing personality, Wayne Mealing, in the team. By all accounts, these tours are legendary.

I had a little tour of my own this week. With us having just two weanlings on the Cape Racing Mixed Sale, I elected to pop them in the horsebox and transport them myself. The drive into Cape Town, on Wednesday, was somewhat eventful, but less so than if we’d got caught in Thursday’s mudslides.

One of the things that happens on tour is the special types of bonds that are formed when one spends that much time in proximity with the team. Of the two weanlings, one was sold (well done on your bargain purchase, Nigel Riley), while the Rafeef colt didn’t make his reserve and came home with us after the sale. OK, so he’s a horse and we didn’t drink a lake of beer together (and there was no fines meeting), but I definitely have the same sense of getting to really know his personality while on tour.

This guy took all this newness in his stride, bestriding the turf at Kenilworth as if he’d just won the Cape Flying Championship. He walked up and down as many times as he was asked, displaying his athleticism with a feline stalk. Throughout this, he remained as low-key as a churchgoing kid from a small town, while taking in everything going on around him.

For all the talking I did about his prospects on the Premier Sale in January, to be followed by an illustrious career on the racecourse, perhaps the most impressive thing about him was the way he took everything in his stride. In the stormy gloom of the late afternoon, when it the time came for us to go home, he walked up the horsebox ramp as if he’s an old hack that gets taken to shows every weekend.

A huge part of this colt’s behaviour is thanks to Kholiwe and Staci, the star grooms who took care of our weanlings. I am so impressed with their horsemanship, especially considering that both of them are new to this.

While the conclusion one could draw is that having women on tour leads to better behaviour, some may say that the whole point of a tour is NOT to be on best behaviour. As they say, “No great story started with someone eating a salad.”

On the other hand, if you call lucerne alfalfa, does it qualify as a salad?

Chasing Dreams

Oscar Foulkes October 4, 2022 Uncategorized No comments
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There are a several inherent problems in making movies about horse racing. The first of these is that it’s hard to simultaneously capture both the euphoric highs of winning, and the reality of the day-to-day. Also, when it comes to anticipated outcomes, Hollywood is much better at keeping the tension going when there’s a knife/gun-wielding invader with evil intent wandering around a dark building, than in a dramatised horse race.

It’s not a successful genre. I’d rather watch the grainy footage on YouTube of Secretariat’s record-setting romp in the Belmont Stakes, than the movie that was made. In fairness, having said all of this, I should go back and re-watch Phar Lap, Sea Biscuit and Secretariat.

This is a long way of getting to the point that Chasing the Win does a great job of showing you what it’s really like to be connected with racehorses. The official summary goes like this:

“Chasing the Win is a feature length documentary film that follows the meteoric rise of a rookie trainer, a long time owner, and their beloved racehorse after an unprecedented victory thrusts them into the global spotlight of horse racing. Success and fame are followed by the hard hitting reality of what it means to survive in the Sport of Kings.”

The driving force behind the excitement of being connected with racehorses is that success is not guaranteed, no matter how much money you spend. Owning a bigger yacht or faster car is a linearly predictable application of cash. Certain highly professional, well-funded outfits often outperform the averages, but success is never guaranteed.

In some cases, the biggest successes are the products of projects that were started decades ago. A case in point is Kirsten Rausing’s 2022 Arc winner, Alpinista. Rausing bought her fourth dam (that’s great-great-grandam) in 1985, channeling childhood learnings from her grandfather.

Competing for the same prizes are people of lesser means, who are driven by the same dreams. It happens more often than you’d think that the horse owned/trained/bred by the ‘small guy’ beats the one representing the elite. I should mention that the Irish loom large in all of this, with their affinity for horses.

Back to Chasing the Win, with its cast of Irishmen, led by the Sheehy brothers from County Kinsale, who have owned horses in the US for many decades, trying to find champions on a shoestring budget. Their horse Kinsale King has not shown any form as a young racehorse, and they turn him over to another Irishman, the struggling small-time trainer Carl O’Callaghan, who sorts out his issues and gets him winning.

The documentary opens with Kinsale King’s famous win the Dubai Golden Shaheen against the world’s top sprinters, following the horse and his people to the world’s top race meetings.

As someone who has owned shares of racehorses for many years, I can vouch for the authenticity of the story. A 1200m race may last just 70 seconds, but there are many hours of preparation and anticipation that go into it.

During the time that our horse Sergeant Hardy was racing, I had equivalent aspirations. He began his career as the underdog, with serious breathing issues, and nevertheless proved himself to be the best sprinter of his crop in South Africa. If African Horse Sickness travel restrictions weren’t an issue, I’d have actively pursued an invitation to the international race meetings in Hong Kong and elsewhere.

The film’s co-director is the owner’s daughter, Laura Sheehy, which may account for the authenticity of the behind-the-scenes stories.

I watched Chasing the Win on YouTube (here’s a link to other options).

Magic in Process

Oscar Foulkes September 11, 2022 Uncategorized No comments

I get all kinds of responses from people who hear me speak for the first time. I don’t blame them – before I open my mouth, I’m never entirely certain exactly what sound will come out. Usually, people think I have laryngitis. Once, a Woolies cashier openly laughed at me, and I often have call centre employees call me Ma’am.

I would have thought that the name Oscar is a big enough clue as to my gender, but hey, who knows these days?

At several points since 2006 I haven’t been able to do anything other than whisper, so I take this as a win. Being saved from phone calls is also a win, but it can be extremely frustrating to ring someone’s doorbell, and for them not to be able to hear me over the intercom. Joining in on dinner table conversations was generally impossible, and I went through periods of actively avoiding parties or restaurants. Even now, I often prefer to remain quiet.

I was once on my way to have a meeting with someone called Luke. At the entrance, the security guard asked me whom I was there to see. I don’t think he saw the humour of my Darth Vader-ish voice telling him I was there to see Luke (“I am your father, Luke”).

From about 2003 or 2004, my voice got progressively more hoarse, until I lost it entirely, in 2006. The cause of this was found to be cancerous growths on my vocal chords, and since then I’ve had six surgeries, as well as a six-week course of radiation. Vocal chords are extremely sensitive bits of equipment; while these treatments have left me without cancer, I have extensive scarring. Hence the voice.

There was a time that I referred to myself as the Boardroom Whisperer. My brother called me Il Voce (the voice).

Before this started, I had already started reading the Harry Potter series to my daughter. The growing hoarseness was progressive, but I just kept going, complete with made-up voices for all the main characters. Believe me, you’d rather listen to the Stephen Fry reading Harry Potter, but we’d already started, and even though she was perfectly capable of reading The Deathly Hallows herself, we had to finish it the way we’d started. The main problem was that the final book was more than three times as long as the first!

Books are a process. They have a defined structure, complete with start and end points. Words make up sentences. Sentences make paragraphs. Paragraphs make pages. Pages make chapters, and chapters make books. One step follows from another. Small bits cumulatively make something big. This also works in reverse for people writing books. Even writing just 500 words a day can be life changing for an aspirant author.

The point of this is that all of us who loved the Harry Potter books got completely drawn into the world of supernatural powers. I’m here to tell you that every one of us has superpowers, and they don’t require the use of spells, or finding horcruxes.

There is magic in process. Let me give you an example.

By the end of 2015, my surgeon had decided that he couldn’t keep cutting away at my vocal chords. He prescribed a six-week course of radiation, which resulted in the worst pain I’ve ever experienced. I lived on soup and morphine for something like two months in the first quarter of 2016. At the end of it I’d lost nearly 15% of my body weight, and it’s not as if I ever had much in reserve.

I already had an entry for the 2017 Cape Epic, which was almost exactly 12 months after I finished radiotherapy. I was a keen mountain biker, so it just seemed like a simple process of starting to ride again, and the rest would fall into place.

After my first few rides, I realised that this wasn’t going according to plan. In fact, I felt so bad on the bike that if I didn’t have the objective of getting fit for Epic I might have stopped right there. I could barely cycle around the block, and even the tiniest bit of exertion had me sounding like Darth Vader because I could barely breathe.

I went to the Sports Science Institute for a proper training programme. I stuck the programme onto the fridge, just as I had done with the schedule for my 33 radiotherapy appointments, and I followed the instructions to the letter.

13 weeks later, I completed the four-day Imana Wild Ride, along the coast from Morgan Bay to Umngazi, which is one of the most awe-inspiring bits of landscape in South Africa. I can highly recommend the experience!

Training continued from August until March, and then we rode the 2017 Cape Epic. It’s one of the toughest mountain biking stage races in the world. Over the course of eight days we covered nearly 700km, climbing 15000m. My body had got stronger, but I still made a lot of noise when breathing. I can’t tell you how many times fellow riders offered me asthma pumps, or how many times they rode ahead to let my partner know that I might be in trouble.

That we reached the finish line is a testament to the power of following a structured training programme – in other words, the Magic of Process.

After finishing Epic, I discovered that I’d trained for – and ridden – the event on something like 50% of my breathing capacity. It’s not quite the same as breathing through a straw, but it gives you an idea of the effect. Sometimes it’s better not to know things like this, because I might not even have attempted it if I’d known about this limitation.

I need to tell you a bit about my riding partner, Piet Viljoen. We met as a result of a blog I posted in February 2016, entitled Will You Be My Epic Valentine? At that point, I could barely whisper, I certainly wasn’t strong enough to exercise, and I still had nearly a month of treatment left. Piet, on the other hand, was about to run the Two Oceans Ultra, was in training for a full Iron Man, and would go on to do a bunch of extreme endurance events in 2017.

Piet is a value investor, but even a ‘reversion to mean’ model would have had difficulty forecasting the extent of my recovery. In my darkest days, I was the equivalent of buying into African Bank while it was in curatorship, or purchasing Greek bonds under threat of default. We couldn’t sensibly cycle together until the end of 2016, and yet Piet didn’t waver. His level of commitment puts his immediate “yes” on the level of “I do”. I have spent many hours looking at the back of Piet’s RECM cycling kit, with the strapline: “Follow your conviction.” Even if I’ve been the one doing the following, I can tell you that the conviction part is real.

And this was on the back of a brief coffee meeting with someone who until that point had been a complete stranger. It says a lot for the power of making a choice … and sticking to it.

I can tell you that it makes a HUGE difference to share a challenge with someone who has the kind of values, energy and commitment that support your objectives.

Far from the 2017 experience scaring us off, we repeated Cape Epic in 2018 and 2019.

There’s a little bit of synchronicity to my Epic story, in that a racehorse I co-owned with my mother, Sergeant Hardy, was at point the country’s top-rated sprinter despite having impaired breathing. Our Cape Epic team name was Hoarse Power (with an ‘a’), and we rode the first one in pink kit that was inspired by my mother’s racing colours.

There are a number of other learnings from the experience of riding Epic, or indeed any other endurance event. The simplest, and most obvious, is that as long as you keep turning the cranks you will get to the finish. What I’ve also learnt is that pain is not permanent. While you’re working your way up the mountain, it may feel as if the pain will never end, but before you know it you’ll find yourself having fun on the descents.

This is a phenomenon I’ve experienced in all kinds of real-life situations. Those feelings of difficulty pass. Whether it’s the “are we there yet?” of long journeys, or troubled times, they all pass.

A few months ago, I even found myself applying ‘Epic Mind’ during particularly unpleasant root canal treatment.

Attitude is a big contributor to how we deal with the stresses and difficulties that we encounter. Do we turn molehills into mountains, or the other way around?

I can’t point to empirical evidence, but I believe that one of the things that has helped me is that since the age of 17 I have meditated for 20 minutes twice a day. That’s well over 8000 hours of being in a deep state of relaxation. The daily benefits are release of stress, greater clarity of thinking, and better sleep, and I believe that the effects are cumulative. Whether this has helped me to be more resilient, I don’t know, but I couldn’t imagine living my life without it.

Every moment we’re alive, we’re being invited to answer the question, “What action are you going to take next?” The most obvious benefit of taking part in a series of directed actions – or what one could call a process – is that we are more likely to move closer to our objective.

The second benefit is that it’s very hard for us to feel that we’re victims when we keep taking conscious actions. There are times we may feel that we have no power, but the one thing that no-one can take away from us is the choice of how to respond. Even if all other power has been removed from us, we still have control over that choice.

A structured sequence of actions may seem like an extremely boring way of doing things, but it has a knack of delivering results … almost as if by magic.

What I like about having them listed on a sheet of paper on my fridge is that there’s no negotiation. Especially when it comes to training, if there isn’t a programme or plan, one can easily create all kinds of reasons to justify why one shouldn’t get onto the bike.

I like that the programme’s daily steps are binary. Either one has done what’s required, or one hasn’t. The power of those daily steps is cumulative. Each increment brings one closer to the objective.

By making each step manageable, we get positive feedback on a daily basis, which reinforces commitment to the process. People who work in the field of motivation recommend having a mental picture of oneself as the complete article. So, if I visualise myself as a Cape Epic finisher it’s easier to follow the actions that will get me there.

But this thing isn’t just about visualisation, or working my way through lists posted on the fridge. There has to be an element of selfishness to the way I allocate my time every week to make sure that I do the training that is required. Plus, if I have to be on the bike early on a Sunday morning I’m not exactly up for a big night of partying on a Saturday. In this respect, I’ve been extremely fortunate to have the buy-in and support of my entire family.

The other key person in the process is my coach, Erica Green. She may not be pedalling the bike, but she is as invested as each of her athletes.

The point is that we’re better off with a network of support around us.

While planning this talk, I’ve had the thought that it might have greater impact if the person standing here were an Olympian, or had national colours. However, that could create a disconnect because of the athlete’s superior capabilities. It could make the achievements seem out of reach.

I’m just a regular person. I didn’t start this with superior physical abilities.

Apart from the proper preparation, the one thing that all endurance activities share is the endurance part. Basically, no matter how tough the going gets, one needs to have the mental power to keep going. Mind over matter is a ‘thing’.

My friend Jonno Proudfoot, who swam from Mozambique to Madagascar, talks about creating a web of accountability, in which you are so committed to key people and sponsors that giving up is just not an option. This is the power of not just making the choice to tackle a challenge, but also telling family and friends about the decision. Once you’ve added sponsors and a support team, there are a LOT of people that you don’t possibly want to let down.

If you are well enough prepared, and pace yourself properly, you’re unlikely to find yourself in the zone where it’s too hard to keep going. However, even with the best preparation, there are days when the conditions are adverse, and you have to dig deep. When this happens, there are just two things to think about:

  • firstly, by maintaining movement you keep getting closer to the finish … in other words, what is the next action I need to take
  • secondly, giving up is not an option

Sometimes you just have to ‘vasbyt’.

Each of us has different dreams at different times in our lives. Putting together a series of directed actions is the magical process that turns dreams to reality … no wands required!

It was through reading to my kids that I discovered Dr Seuss’ wonderful book, Oh The Places You’ll Go. I highly recommend that you go out and get a copy, but I leave you with the first two paragraphs:

Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself 
any direction you choose.

(This was a talk I presented in 2018, with update reflecting the third Epic, in 2019)

The Elephant Outside the Room

Oscar Foulkes May 1, 2022 Uncategorized No comments
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There’s something a little bit extravagant, if not indulgent, about room service. Firstly, you have to be staying in a hotel of some luxury, because many hotels just don’t offer it. Secondly, someone has to spend the roughly ten minutes ferrying a specially packed tray or trolley to your room.

In my travelling days, I did occasionally make use of room service. A few occasions stand out. A pot of rich hot chocolate on an icy day, at a hotel in Oslo. A Sunday morning flask of coffee at a hotel in Hong Kong while reading the FT Weekend in bed.

There’s a lot to be said for the convenience of food and drink arriving at your door without you having to get properly dressed before going out in search of it.

I can’t recall the location of eating the inevitable club sandwich, that somewhat ridiculous multi-layered standard of room service menus, but I do remember the oral gymnastics required to eat around the skewer without piercing my lips or impaling my gums.

I’m almost certain that none of my room service experiences took place in a room large enough for me to eat a meal ‘properly’, and this seems one of

the dark secrets of the service. Hotel rooms deliver the minimum amount of space in which to sleep, wash, use the toilet and work. This doesn’t strike me as being the ideal space in which to also eat. Or, to sleep in the same confined space in which we’ve just eaten.

You’d think that this simple fact would be the elephant in the room, and you may not be far wrong.

No, the elephant is in the passage.

Having finished your room service meal, you definitely don’t want to sleep with it. So, the trolley gets wheeled outside, or the tray is dumped on the floor. Guests on their way back to their rooms, having dined in more salubrious surrounds, have to walk past the detritus of these meals.

I’m a big fan of leftovers when they’ve been retrieved from a sealed container in the fridge. Messy room service plates with congealed bit of sauce and pasta do the genre no favours.

What is needed, fellow travellers, is a shroud to cover the tray or trolley when it’s in the passage. We don’t need to be confronted with this horror.

It’s not (just) the legs

Oscar Foulkes April 4, 2022 Uncategorized No comments

Earlier this week, while checking on a colicky weanling at 9.30pm, I found myself in the path of a dozen charging baby racehorses. I’ve spent many hours with these guys, so I had no sense of danger. Not, for example, like the times I’ve encountered Cape Cobras, either on foot or while cycling.

In retrospect, it’s obvious that horses will be disorientated when they’re on the opposite side of a torch. And, in the absence of them wearing head torches, how are they supposed to know what’s in their way?

So, they kept coming straight at me.

The first one struck me with its shoulder. As I fell to the ground, I was hit by another. All I can say with certainty is that no hooves were involved (thankfully!).

Weanlings weigh around 200kg. Substantially more than the likes of Eben Etzebeth, Bakkies Botha or Jonah Lomu, and I really wouldn’t want to be shoulder-charged by any of them. Significantly, weanlings run a lot faster even than Makazole Mapimpi.

It hurt a lot.

My major injuries are to right thumb (badly sprained), ribs and chest on left side, and extensive, deep bruising to glutes/hips/pelvis/sacroiliac region. There are no slow motion replays (obvs), but it’s possible that the second weanling to hit me did so from behind. There are reasons why this is a red card offense on the rugby field.

Whatever the injuries, though, it could have been a lot worse.

Six days later, I ventured back on my bike. I had planned to go off-road, but after the first few turns of the cranks, I knew that a recovery spin on the road was all I was capable of.

There were a few spots where I tackled some singletrack, which brings me to my point in telling this story. The experience was clearly illustrative of how much of the body is involved in this sport that is theoretically based upon power in the legs.

I have previous experience of riding with a sprained wrist (no fun at all). Seeing as all gear changes on a mountain bike involve the right thumb, I was happy to not be on terrain that required frequent gear changes. There is also the small matter of being able to properly grip the handlebars, which does require the full use of both thumbs.

I also felt the lack of power in my glutes when climbing. The largest impact of all, though, was when I needed to engage the flexibility in my hip area to propel myself up little technical bits of trail. It’s a movement I generally do without thinking, but today my body made it abundantly clear that this was not going to be an option.

I have previously described the undertaking of getting up rocky trails as the act of wrestling the bike up the mountainside. Let’s just say that today I couldn’t wrestle a light summer duvet off the bed.

There’s nothing like losing some functionality to be reminded how much of a full-body exercise mountain biking can be!

Emotional Rescue

Oscar Foulkes July 14, 2021 Uncategorized No comments

Events like the Absa Cape Epic have done a great job of positioning the Western Cape as one of the world’s prime mountain biking destinations. We truly are spoilt for choice, with a multitude of trail options within an hour(ish) drive of Cape Town.

For outdoorsy types, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect city than Cape Town. It occupies a long peninsula that has a mountain running down the middle of it. Pick your sea- or land-based activity, and it’s all possible, most of it without much of a drive.

The rest of my family surf, dive, rock climb, walk and run. My activity is mountain biking. Cape Town’s network of trails used to be based upon some of the jeep tracks in the national park, but concerted efforts by persistent people have led to some hiking paths also being opened to mountain bikers.

We share the trails with runners, walkers, and dogs, so courtesy (and bells) are a basic requirement.

So far, so good. Everyone was more-or-less content with what we had. However, doing a loop of the mountain, whether via Noordhoek or Constantia Nek, required a lengthy section on Victoria Road from Camps Bay to Suikerbossie. Seeing as we’re mountain bikers, not roadies, this was not ideal.

Working via ‘someone who knows someone’, Rob Vogel made contact with the owner of the huge tract of quasi-reserve between Camps Bay and Oudekraal. Permission was gained to build a trail, so that we could ride off-road all the way to Llandudno, and so was born The Missing Link.

A bunch of people got involved in fundraising, and Walter Brosius started building. He also built the Belgian Waffle trail on Signal Hill (and others). Sadly, he’s returned to Europe, but the legacy he’s left us, in the form of many kilometres of sublime trails, has earned him the gratitude of Cape Town mountain bikers for many years to come.

Once the Missing Link was completed, it was discovered that the final part of the trail inadvertently traversed SAN Parks land, which turned it into a cul-de-sac for a while. Riding along the same trail both ways is no hardship, because it ‘rides’ differently, but a loop is better.

More money was raised, and Walter continued building. When he left, the team he trained remained, under the guidance of Harry Millar. We now have two return options. About 1.5km into The Missing Link is the Lobotomy DH (it cuts off the front part – geddit?), exiting on Ottowa Road. Another return loop starts beyond the Twelve Apostles Hotel, linking up with Lobotomy.

The entire loop, from Theresa Avenue, to Ottowa, is something like 11km of rugged singletrack overlooking the ocean. The setting is nothing short of magnificent, particularly for late afternoon sundowner rides.

The trail opened during the 2020 Lockdown, when other parts of the mountain were closed. For this reason, as well as the novelty factor, there was a lot of traffic to start. Now it’s a lot less busy, but that may be more a product of the trail having got harder to ride as small rocks have become exposed.

Actual trail building was done, but it was more a case of threading the trail through or around the worst obstacles than imposing a sculpted path onto the topography. It’s pretty close to natural, complete with some rock-strewn sections. All of it is rideable, and there’s nothing I would class as scary (i.e. crazy steep descents or drops). The parts one might call technical are the rocky inclines. These are best ridden in a gear that allows some torque (leading me to label one of my rides on Strava as “Torque, torque. All you do to me is torque, torque”).

The most appropriate song for the trail, though, is Emotional Rescue. While it’s obviously a physical experience riding it – and it’s certainly challenging – it is an experience that feeds my soul. It’s a special kind of rescue, and yes, there are some stones involved.

(There are several Missing Link videos on  YouTube. The one above isn’t the slickest production, but it does a pretty good job of illustrating the terrain and the landscape – and it has footage of a little crash.)

You can use the Table Mountain Bikers Snapscan code to contribute to trail maintenance.