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Cape Epic

Epic Training: Week Five

Oscar Foulkes October 10, 2016 Cape Epic No comments
There could be a life lesson in this. You may think that I’m talking about the mental aspect, in which riders “force heart and nerve and sinew” over the Cape Epic course. No, what I have in mind is the training, which on its own is a massive commitment, or so it seemed to me when I heard about other people doing it.

I print out every week’s training schedule, which gets posted on the fridge. Yes, I’m a digital creature, who lives in the cloud, as it were, but somehow it’s important that every week’s structure takes a physical form. I did the same thing with the schedule for my 33 radiotherapy treatments, except that then I crossed off each session as it was completed.

Having a plan, especially one in printed form, takes away negotiation. It simply becomes something that has to be done, regardless of the weather or how I feel. Being given this value – or, put differently, me having accepted the path – helps me to just do it.

During Monday’s conditioning session I managed to just about deadlift my body weight, which is big progress for me (for perspective, the guys who train at the same time as me weigh the same, but deadlift 100kg).

Tuesday’s ride was a warm-up, followed by three eight-minute climbs in a big gear, and then a cool-down. Thursday’s ride was billed as an easy spin, which it may have been by comparison, but there’s no such thing as a totally easy ride on the City side of Table Mountain. On Saturday, I did a warm-up followed by six repeats of heart rate in zone four for five minutes. These had ten-minute gaps to allow decent recovery. This was on the same route as Tuesday’s climbs.

Sunday’s ride was just two hours on the mountain, with high cadence, but keeping heart rate below zone four.

As usual, the more interesting stuff happened off the bike. On Wednesday night, I was invited to join the Val de Vie management team at the Cape Epic route launch. My connection to Val de Vie is that we are responsible for the hospitality (i.e. restaurant, bar and ballroom) on the estate, which now also includes the adjacent Pearl Valley. I was sitting next to Ryk Neethling, who professed to be getting chills (of awe and excitement) when watching the preview video. Mountain biking may be a different discipline to swimming, but training remains training. He told me about the long distance swimming he did, in which he swam 20km every day for eight years. He started talking about the importance of breathing, when we were interrupted by the next part of the programme. I’ve arranged to get the detail on the breathing, which is one of my top concerns at the moment. Swimmers spend a lot of time facedown in the water; I have no doubt they’d know something about breathing properly.

While on the subject of breathing, during the week we discovered that a racehorse I own a small share of has a paralysed arytenoid cartilage. This causes one vocal chord to block the airway, and requires tie-back surgery. Without this procedure he’ll never reach his full potential (which appears to be significant). Coincidentally, I have an interest in another racehorse – Sergeant Hardy – that also has a paralysis, but is apparently not affected by it (or he is such a superlative athlete that even with the disability he is still superior to many). Breathing appears to be a theme at the moment.

What we’ve learnt about Sergeant Hardy is that he needs to be extremely fit (you can read about him here and here). There’s no such thing as him going into a race slightly underdone. In my case, breathing only becomes an issue at elevated heart rate. In other words, the fitter and stronger I am, the less of an issue my breathing will be.

Process is an uninterrupted sequence of directed actions (much like a training programme).

There is magic in process.

Impaired breathing appears to not have affected Sergeant Hardy, now a winner of four of his five starts.

Epic Training: Week Four

Oscar Foulkes October 3, 2016 Cape Epic No comments
In our family, “assume the position” can mean only one thing – me on the couch on a Sunday afternoon, reading the FT Weekend on iPad, with the strong likelihood of a nap somewhere along the line. I can occasionally get coaxed into doing the week’s supermarket run. However, there was no possibility of this yesterday, as I was busy with ‘recovery’, having ridden a 60+km race in Elgin earlier in the day.

I can put a tick next to Week Four on the programme, and would regard it as a generally positive step towards March 2017.

For the first ride of the week I deviated from the easy recovery ride I was supposed to do, because I had the opportunity of test riding the Santa Cruz Tallboy 3cc. I also made the ride a bit longer than the intended hour, because I wanted to have a go at the Rhodes Memorial single track.

I started the ride by going up the loose, rocky single track between the Herzlia sportsfields and the Deer Park parking area. You have to get the line just right, or you end up spinning out and having to walk the rest of the way. For starters, the Tallboy climbs like a boss, consuming far less energy than propelling my existing GT Zaskar. Plus – and this is an important factor – I felt as if I could point it at just about any line, without any concerns about not making it.

This bit of trail isn’t a Strava segment, but without making any special effort on the uphill Rhodes single track, which is a ‘segment’, I banged out a new PR (personal record). On the climbing/flat/downhill run between the Vredehoek quarry and Rhodes, I was 10% quicker than I’d been the previous weekend.

The implications for riding a bike like this on Epic is that one can either go faster with the same effort, or go at the same speed and save energy. For marginal riders, this bike could make the difference between finishing a stage, or not.

I didn’t attack the downhill single track with any great aggression, so I didn’t do it any faster than on the Zaskar, but I’m certain that the Tallboy is more forgiving.

I’ve never ridden a ‘one-by’ (i.e. just one chain ring in front), so I was interested to see how I would cope on steep climbs. Thanks to the 12th gear, which takes the form of a ring so much larger than the rest of the cluster that it is variously described as “dinner plate” or “frisbee”, I had no difficulties climbing steep sections. Just to make sure, I rode up a climb known on Strava as Motherfucker. Without making any particular effort, I rode it in a time not far off my PR from last year. This is with a 34T in front – the smaller 32T one would use on Epic would make it a lot easier.

Training will build up muscles in my legs, but there’s nothing I can do about having a reduced intake of air. However, the Tallboy reverses many of my body’s deficiencies. If you’ll excuse the expression, it’s like an Iron Lung, except that it’s mostly carbon, of course. There is also the option of adding carbon wheels (at a cost of roughly 25% more), which would make the bike even faster. Mountain biking equipment is a slippery slope. Those slopes, I can report with confidence, are covered in carbon.

Piet was with me at the start of the Apple Blossom MTB. “Try to ride at 15km/h average”, he said, followed by a quick fist bump, and then we were off. He started like a scalded cat – so much so, that he may have been leading the race before the end of the ‘neutral’ zone.

I, on the other hand, went as fast as my noisy air intake would allow, having an internal conversation which reached the conclusion that I absolutely had to have the Tallboy, with carbon wheels nogal. After a while people stopped passing me, and the ride settled into a rhythm. The Oak Valley trails were an absolute treat. So well designed are they, that my clunky-by-comparison Zaskar felt as light as a feather. My spirit was lifted, which was a good thing, because there were some big climbs ahead.

All ended well, with Strava telling me I’d averaged 14.8 km/h. In truth, this was a bit below par for the course, but under the circumstances it was close enough. As far as race position was concerned, I was bang on two-thirds down the field. Had a ridden just a few minutes faster, I would have been in the median position.

It would be wrong to compare with anything other than 2016, so I can happily report that I’m getting stronger.

Even so, knowing that I can give myself an additional boost, just by changing bicycles, is an extremely attractive prospect.

Iron lung

Iron lung

Epic Training: Week Three

Oscar Foulkes September 25, 2016 Cape Epic No comments
This week’s programme kicked off on Tuesday with an easy hour on the mountain. After two solid rides over the weekend, followed by dead lifts and more during Monday’s gym session, it was a relief to have a recovery ride.

Instead of the ride scheduled for Wednesday, I joined the Road2Vasco gang (see pic attached) for a Blockhouse Dash. It’s on Strava as The King’s Blockhouse IPA TT if you want to try it for yourself. The start point is the end of Pinoak Road in Vredehoek, and you climb at an average of 8% for 3.6km. The first part is above 16%, which will come back to bite you if you go out too quickly (as I did).

By the time I reached the Blockhouse my throat was on fire. My throat has given me all kinds of pain experiences, but this was a new one. I clearly shouldn’t be riding in the red zone for 23 minutes at a stretch!

Saturday’s ride was three hours on the mountain, with high cadence, and staying below zone four. The mountain routes around the City Bowl are fine for an hour to perhaps two hours – if you can put up with some steep sections that can easily push heart rate into zone four.

With the Table Mountain National Park in the middle of it, Cape Town makes for unique urban mountain biking. I love the way that people have found ways to link off-road sections, especially since parts of the Constantia green belt may now legally be ridden. So, for my three-hour ride on Saturday, I was able to get from Deer Park to Constantia without riding for more than a few kilometres on tar. There are also some enterprising single-track sections alongside Rhodes Drive.

Soon after setting off on Saturday, my phone rang. As I wasn’t (yet) out of breath I decided to answer, which I could do without stopping, because of the microphone on the Apple earphones.

At the end of the phone call, I expected the music I’d been listening to start playing again. Instead there was an unfamiliar rhythmical sound that I assumed was the intro to old-school Hip-Hop that my son loaded onto my phone. When the ‘intro’ didn’t morph into an actual piece of music I began to think of alternatives. Technically, I don’t know if this is possible, but the only explanation I could come up with is that somehow, via my Fitbit, which is connected to phone via Bluetooth, I was listening to the sound of my own pulse.

Just as I’d reached this deduction I caught up to the rider ahead of me, who asked me if I have asthma. It’s not the first time my laboured breathing has alarmed fellow riders, and it doesn’t get better when I try to explain to them that my lungs are just fine, because I generally produce an unintelligible croak while cycling.

It’s one thing to have my own pulse as soundtrack – it’s another thing altogether for other cyclists to be subjected to the apparent sounds of someone gasping for breath. Don’t worry, I’m fine, and thank you for caring.

Today’s ride should have been a relatively straightforward high cadence spin on the road, but having attended a 21st last night, my body was not entirely shipshape. ‘Nough said. At my age, training requires nocturnal moderation.

On a positive note, Strava tells me that yesterday’s ride was an improvement on the previous week’s ride along a similar route. While I’m a long way off where I was last year, I seem to be getting stronger. Perhaps I should start a new Strava account, so that I’m not tempted to make comparisons with 2015 and earlier!

The Road2Vasco gang at the Blockhouse

The Road2Vasco gang at the Blockhouse

Epic Training: Week 2

Oscar Foulkes September 20, 2016 Cape Epic No comments
There is a simple pattern to my training programme – roughly one-hour rides on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with three-hour-plus rides on Saturdays and Sundays (all rides will increase in length, I’m sure). Mondays and Wednesdays are for gym.

Gym is a private session involving exercises that improve mobility in my hips, as well as a variety of leg-related exercises, such as lunges, squats and dead lifts. Upper body, in the form of push ups (with rotation) and rows, also gets attention. There are two other mountain bikers (both with Epic experience) who train at the same time, so the sessions can involve plenty of banter, which helps to keep the training programme a relatively fun space.

The second week’s midweek sessions were not overly taxing, and the weekend’s two three-hour rides were straightforward. I rode the second one with Piet, which gave us an opportunity to touch base on various Epic-related matters.

Discussion turned to my average speeds on training rides, as recorded on Strava (remember, “if it’s not on Strava, it never happened”). Until Piet brought it up on Sunday, I hadn’t given much thought about that important, single number. My attention has mainly been focused on following Lezandré’s programme. The point of training, of course, is to be able to ride at a faster average speed. On Epic, anything below 15km/h just doesn’t leave enough time for recovery. Ideally, one would ride faster than that; the more time spent chilling after a day’s riding, the better.

I’m currently riding about 30% faster than three months ago, but even at this level, I’m 20% below where I was a year ago. It’s a stark reminder of the side effects of radiotherapy.

I don’t know anything about the generally toxic effects of radiotherapy, but the physical ones are easy to list. I’ve picked up most of the weight lost (mainly as a result of pain-induced change to diet). My throat remains inflamed, which restricts my intake of air as my heart rate goes up.

Swallowing food can be tricky, and this brings me to nutrition, especially while riding. I’m not a big fan of processed foods, which means that I view ‘sport bars’ with circumspection. Plus, their cost does nothing to delight my frugal nature. By comparison, droëwors appears to be much better value. However, it’s not necessarily the easiest thing to eat while gasping for breath. In my case, there’s the added complication of ‘bits’ that can get lodged in my larynx, resulting in much coughing.

On a recent ride, a speck of something went the wrong way, which caused me to cough at an inopportune moment, propelling a piece of droëwors into my respiratory tract. I could vaguely feel its presence, which is where is stayed until I blew my nose in the shower.

My cousin suggested coconut oil as nutrition while riding. It may tick a number of boxes, with ease of swallowing clearly being an important consideration. In an emergency I could also use it as chain lube, which may explain why I have no interest in even trying it. There’s just too much fear factor involved.

On the other hand, I’ll shortly be addressing my fear factor relating to the speed at which I descend. I’m not the slowest, but certain technical downhills sometimes get me off my bike (occasionally involuntarily). The attraction of getting this right is that it will make me faster, without me having to expend any additional effort.

Fortunately, I have just the person to help me with that (expect a call, Daniel Dobinson). Piet and I will be the ones on bicycles, but without our respective support teams, Cape Epic would be a lot harder, not to mention slower.

How NOT to ride a switchback, but what a recovery! Me on Wines2Whales in 2011.

Epic Training: Week 1

Oscar Foulkes September 15, 2016 Cape Epic No comments
The first official week of Cape Epic training was uneventful. None of the four days was particularly taxing; whether it’s because that was Lezandré’s plan, or whether I’m a little fitter than she expected, I don’t know. However, this could well turn out to be a similar experience to first year Maths at UCT. I started all cock-a-hoop, having nailed Calculus in my Matric exams. I treated the lectures as optional, but within weeks it all got serious, and I never managed to catch up.

Whatever Lezandré has allocated for the day, I do. The one element I struggle with, though, is when I have to keep my heart rate below an indicated level. Anything below zone 4 feels as if I’m not doing anything.

In other news, The Partner outed himself on Twitter, so I can henceforth refer to him as Piet (Viljoen). When we had our first meeting over coffee in February, he told me that he likes to do one thing a year that scares him. You may think that he meant something along the lines of ‘challenge’, but you’d be wrong. Piet is on another level when it comes to what he takes on. This man is a machine.

Allow me to illustrate. For any person who is into endurance sports, Cape Epic and Comrades Marathon are bucket list events. Doing just one of them, once in a lifetime, will satisfy most people. In 2017, Piet is doing both Cape Epic and Comrades Marathon. We’re talking about a gap of two months between the two events, a big chunk of which will be taken up by recovery from Epic.

But wait, there’s more, Piet is doing Comrades as part of Unogwaja, which means that he is cycling from Cape Town to Pietermaritzburg (1660km), and then running a very tough 89km. A runner may get some benefit from cycling (and vice versa), but Piet will need to be training for Comrades while simultaneously training for Epic.

I’m in awe of what he’s taken on, and also thankful. You see, by setting a peak even higher than Cape Epic, he’s foreshortened the perspective. In an odd way, he’s made Epic seem less of a stretch.

There will be many hours of pain along the way – and Piet is the one undertaking the main challenge – but I feel fortunate to be sharing part of the 2017 journey with him.

Until then, I have six more months of following instructions from Lezandré.

Lezandré Wolmarans Qualified Biokineticist, BSpSc Hons (US), BA Sport Health & Leisure Sc (NWU) ... and highly accomplished athlete

Lezandré Wolmarans
Qualified Biokineticist, BSpSc Hons (US), BA Sport Health & Leisure Sc (NWU) … and highly accomplished athlete

Epic Training

Oscar Foulkes September 6, 2016 Cape Epic No comments
My Be My Epic Valentine post drew some amused comment, but just one serious interest. The Partner (I’ll call him that until he’s okay with being ‘outed’) more-or-less committed immediately, despite the fact that I could barely whisper, and was on the way to losing nearly 10kg during radiotherapy.

He, on the other hand, was already in training for the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon. This would be followed a few months later by a full Ironman, and for good measure, the Trans-Baviaans MTB. Even if I were at peak fitness, I’d struggle to remain within sight of him.

Thanks to a 13-week training programme from Lezandre at the Sports Science Institute, I was able to get strong and fit enough to complete the Imana Wild Ride. But three- or four-day stage races are known territory for me. The Cape Epic is ‘eight days of courage’.

Having completed Lezandre’s first 13 week programme, this week I started the Epic programme (see alongside). Shit just got real.

I had planned to ride with The Partner on Saturday. I woke up early, to a south-easter that was just about gale force, and a message from The Partner, suggesting that riding in the wind was not an option. Inside, I was cheering. I have been known to ride in winds as strong as this, but I didn’t want to be the one calling off the ride. The plan was adjusted to ride on the road the following day.

There is a little backstory to the road ride, because The Partner wanted to ride his new road bike. I should add that he doesn’t own just one or two bikes. In fact, the number goes beyond several. As he puts it, there is a precise mathematical formula for calculating the number of bikes he owns: S – 1, where S stands for the number of bikes that would cause him to be single. Fortunately, for him, S is a big number.

On Sunday, I needed to meet him at the Camps Bay police station at 7.00am. From my house this is a +-25 minute ride. I was delayed leaving, and despite riding in the red zone all the way, I arrived at 7.04 (or maybe 7.05). The Partner rightly waited a few minutes and then carried on. Next time I’ll be more punctual (let’s just say that if I ever decide to join the Swiss Cycling Club I’ll be well prepared).

Yesterday, before I’d even expended one minute in formal Epic training, I received an email from The Partner suggesting that I should ride the Attekwas with him on 21 January. This race is 120km, with 2900m of climbing, from Oudtshoorn to Groot Brak. It’s fantastic preparation for Epic. The only problem is that I need to be in Cape Town that evening. I’ve calculated that if I ride fast, and have someone drive me, I can get just about get back to Cape Town in time.

Over the course of the next six-and-a-half months there will be many other times when I’ll have to juggle commitments to fit Epic training into my schedule. For the vast majority of riders in the Cape Epic – in other words, for everyone other than the pro riders, for whom training is their job – just getting to the start line of the Epic is a major achievement.

However, like the Epic’s ‘eight days of courage’ that are experienced one turn of the crank at a time, my training programe involves one day of Lezandre’s instructions at a time. From my experience of doing the first 13 weeks, it’s amazing how this daily commitment makes training a manageable process.

Throughout all of it there’s a riding partner to keep one motivated (and punctual).


Be my Epic Valentine

Oscar Foulkes February 13, 2016 Cape Epic No comments
I still have the first Valentine’s card I ever received. It was homemade, with the message: “The smog and pollution have nothing to do with it. I get all choked up just thinking of you.” I never found out who sent it to me. Maybe that’s why I’ve kept it for over 35 years.

In 2017, I’m planning to ride (well, start) the Cape Epic. However, I have a small problem, in that all my usual riding buddies just outright laugh in my face when I raise the possibility. I don’t blame them. In the words of Talking Heads: “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around.”

I’ve done numerous two, three and four day stage races, most of which a reasonably fit weekend warrior can do on a last minute call up. Similar to the observation that “one does not simply walk into Mordor”, the Cape Epic is not simply a case of pulling on some lycra, jumping onto a Specialized (whatever its components), and starting to pedal.

The Cape Epic is eight days of pain, covering 800km with 15 000m of climbing. It’s euphemistically billed as “eight days of courage”.

But it’s not just the eight days of riding. There’s a year of preparation, bicycle components that get worn out several times before the race even starts, and a whole lot of money to enter.

Hence their reticence.

So, why do I want to do it? Well, there’s partly a ‘moth to a flame’ element. I’m fascinated, in an admittedly weird way. The Prologue once went past my front gate, and in 2015 took place on routes I ride every week. It’s probably no coincidence that in 2017 I’ll be 50. If only partially sub-consciously, I’m just another MAMIL clinging to a fantasy of virility.

There’s another thing, which is that I’m halfway through a six-week course of radiotherapy to finally nail laryngeal cancer that has resulted in me having five surgeries since 2006. I may not be able to control microscopic rogue cells inside my body, but I can ‘force my heart and nerve and sinew’ to endure what needs to be done to complete a mission. Taking on this test of endurance is physical manifestation of some kind of power. I know it may seem very shallow to list such things, but I need to be honest about my reasons for taking this on.

The bedrock, I suppose, is that I am hardwired for endurance. Despite the inevitable pain, there comes a point at which I get a kick out of overcoming – or, at the least, enduring – the challenge.

But, as I said, I cannot do all this alone. I need a partner.

Will you be my Epic Valentine?

My preference is for someone who will also be 50, although this is not a necessity. You need to know that I am of average ability (in other words, definitely not a racing snake, but also not the last person home each day), and I’m a really crap bike mechanic. Residence in Cape Town is probably necessary, for reasons of training together.

There’s no need to send me a hand drawn card, by the way, just add a comment to this post, and I’ll contact you.

Update: I post a weekly diary of my Epic training, which you can read here.

Photo by Karin Schermbrucker/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

Photo by Karin Schermbrucker/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS