Monday, 3 July 2017

The Engadine bike giro; It is what it is.

Patience is not my strong side. I want everything achieved preferably yesterday. Not that I am not willing to work hard for something, I certainly am, but the process with set backs and slow improvements I can find very frustrating.

My Australian MTB friend Sarah Riley has been a huge inspiration for me. The way she has come back from a massive injury almost loosing her left leg through an open spiral fracture in her femur has been one to follow. Step by step she has taken everything in her stride, thriving on the small improvements and rationalising small set backs with a healthy attitude. "It is what it is" she smiled after we all came back disappointed with our individual performances after the first stage of the Engadine Bike Giro.

The lovely Sarah Riley in action
When Sarah messaged me she would come and join me and my good friend and Sandy Wallace team mate Naomi to race a 3 day stage race in Switzerland my heart skipped a beat.
It had been 2 years since Sarah and I met in the Dolomites racing the MTB Marathon World Champs and we had become closer ever since. We kept an eye on each other through injury and disappointments and had been supporting each other where we could. It was one of those rare connections which withstood the distance between us and lack of direct physical contact with her living in Australia and me in Scotland.When she greeted me and Naomi at the chalet in Silvaplana it was as if I had seen her the day before.
Not having to travel alone made it so much more fun!

Leading into the race I had been starting to feel stronger and stronger with my back handling most things I threw at it. Except running. After I stubbornly disobeyed physio Dave and took my legs out for a little treat on the trails without the bike, I suffered. Enough to give me a bit of a scare and sticking to the plan of no running. Physical pain however, I found easier to deal with than my struggle with fatigue. I could ride through pain, it had almost become second nature with the injuries I have had. But having no energy got me down. It made me feel weak and I had to resist the desire to fight it. Coach Rab got me to start measuring my HRV again, a way to measure parasympathetic fatigue and prevent overtraining. "You will always do every thing I ask you to" "and a little more" he said "I have to hold you back"

Out of experience I knew that a 4 day trip with 3 days of racing whilst working till the last minute was going to be a big ask of my body. I never recovered well from travelling. And I had not incorporated the high altitude we were racing at in the mix. When I saw the race on the calendar I really wanted to do it, a problem I have been struggling with. I wanted to have the energy to be able to do it all regardless of my busy lifestyle. So off I went anyway hoping for the best.

A delayed flight, 2am arrival in Milan, a 2 hour wait for our rental car and the stress of loosing my passport in the process did not help the situation. In between bike racing there were phone calls to the Dutch Embassy, a trip to the police for a lost passport declaration and the never ending trouble explaining why a Dutch citizen born in Italy is living in the UK. On top of all this the weather was atrocious with snow forecasted on the higher mountains, single digit temperatures and thunderstorms. My enthusiasm to race dropped with the temperatures.  

race route
It was so lovely to hang out with Naomi, Sarah and to get to know Sarah's husband Murray that I tried to stay positive and not give my lack of energy or the bad weather forecast much time. It will be fine I thought, a good night sleep will fix it.But waking up dizzy on Friday morning with an HRV in the red zone (meaning rest) was what happened. That afternoon we had to race an 17km TT with close to a 1000m of climbing going above 2500m. My worst nightmare even when I felt fighting fit. All I could do was do my best and doing my best is what I did, with a completely empty tank and a terrible result.

                                                          My HRV telling me to rest
All three of us struggled with the hill TT but as with most mountain bike races, stories of cool downhills, impossible climbs, near death experiences and crazy competition were told at the end of it and our bad form made this no exception. My highlight of the day was cycling down the ramp at the start with my name being yelled (albeit it a made up version of pronunciation) I had never done  this before,  and I felt like a true pro! What a buzz!!

shooting of the ramp was super cool

I was really worried though, it had taken me such a long time to overcome my parasympathetic fatigue syndrome that I feared returning back on that slippery slope downhill. At the same time I felt I needed this experience in my lead up to the Himalaya  stage race in October. Sarah and Murray comforted me saying I was most likely suffering from the high altitude. My resting heart rate was about 20 beats per minute higher than normal and my energy levels were at an all time low. It has to be ok I thought.

All I was good for was taking pictures

Full with doubts I stood on the start line for stage 2, 78km with 2500m of ascend. 10 minutes  after starting I knew I had absolutely nothing. I could not breathe, and had no power. The following 10 minutes I had an internal debate with myself deciding what to do. This was going to be a tough day in the saddle, the easiest option was to pull out and find my bed and sleep. Oh sleeeeeeep. I thought. What a nice thought, I could fall asleep right here, right now on the bike. Zzzzzzz. No, I decided. I am going to do this. Riding as slow as I possibly could I thought and I did. Taking pictures along the way, petting baby horses on the trails and making new friends with fellow battlers. I struggled the whole 78km with my heart and lungs simply not playing the game.
The views were spectacular however and I tried to take in the whole experience. The top descent was absolute bliss and I tried to enjoy every minute of it. Naomi, bless her, waited patiently for me at the finish line. Back at the chalet we were all a bit disillusioned with how bad we were performing. "It is what it is" said the always positive Sarah.
At this point I really doubted if I should start day 3 and felt really down about it. Rab and I tried to decide what the best thing to do was. "If you think you can have a fair to good race, ride" he said but I knew I had neither in me. I ate as much as I could and went to bed early.
the downhill's were bliss
Day 3 came along and my HRV was at an all time low. I was not the only one who felt uninspired "not sure what the point is" mumbled Murray when we were awaiting the dreaded start. "Look at you guys" laughed Sarah.
"I really don't know if I should do this" I said to Naomi. "Let's ride together" she answered. "See it as a day out" "we can drop out at the first feed zone if we don't feel well" And a plan was made. The full stage was 62km with 2000m of ascend. We escaped out of the elite line up and joined the back of the pack, which in Switzerland means "just as fast as the elite" 

Image may contain: mountain, outdoor and nature

Before the start I was greeted by my good friend Alex who I had met through the whole Xterra family network of people. This really put a smile on my face, "what a lovely thing to do" I thought setting off on another 6 hour struggle. Reinforcing the feeling of gratitude I felt towards the friends I had made through sharing a passion for living a similar lifestyle. Alex and his girlfriend travelled to the 25km feed zone to see me there and on days you are struggling little gestures like this go a long way. "Lets ride the whole distance" I said to Naomi

I could not thank Naomi enough for staying with me during the final stage. Again I had nothing in the tank and as a true friend and team mate she selflesly stuck with me until the very end. She waited for me 500m from the finish line so we could ride over it together "you did not have to wait for me " I smiled at her knowing she would have bombed down the final crazy rocky gnarly single track descent. Whilst I managed to twist my handle bars around my frame missing a corner in an attempt to imitate Rachel Atherton. "who puts such a nasty technical trail in the final 3km of a 3 day stage race" I angrily mumbled to myself.

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, sky, outdoor and nature
"This was the plan we made wasn't it? Start together, finish together" Naomi smiled back at me.

Although this was a performance to forget about straight away, the satisfaction of beating my body with my head was huge. Sarah and Murray both had very good races on the final day and we all managed to turn a negative race experience into a positive one. "So good we all managed to turn it around on the final day" Sarah smiled.
The fatigue I felt was still concerning me, not quite understanding why my body had let me down so much when it had been so promising the last few months. "It's the altitude" Sarah kept reinforcing.

After three days of racing over brutal courses at high altitude I woke up the freshest I had felt since I arrived in St Moritz. I measured my HRV which was back in the green zone and my resting heart rate was back to where it belonged. I was puzzled. "I am ready to race" I laughed, I feel great!! "Told you, it took me 4 days to get used to the altitude" said Sarah. Not sure what had happened but I was relieved I managed to bounce back again. I felt re-energised (said no one ever after a stage race in the Alps)
Having Naomi by my side from beginning to end of this trip was a great support. Something which will stick for a long time to come. On the way back to the airport in Milan, we made a little detour to the embassy to pick up an emergency passport and travelled to Varese where I was born. It was hard to explain what it meant for a gypsy like me to share that with a friend. I had not been back here for years. We drove through the little streets where I grew up, past all the familiar sights all the way to the street where we used to live. It was truly a special experience sharing this all with Naomi.

Sharing a trip down memory lane with Naomi in Varese

What a crazy three days in the Alps it had been with the most loveliest people I could have wished for to share these brutal days of racing. Whilst I was sitting on the plane writing this blog and turning my jacket inside out in search for my ear phones, I felt something in the sleeve pocket. And there it was my shiny red passport!

Bike racing, it is never all about the bike. A huge thanks to all involved who made this another experience to remember, Sandy Wallace Cycling for sorting out my bike and ashmei for providing me perfect warm kit to race in.

"I am not afraid to fail; to get lost, to dream, to be myself, to find. I am not afraid to live" Killian Jornet

Monday, 29 May 2017

The Selkirk MTB Marathon and Glentress 7; in search of answers.

It has been a bit of a funny few months, I have had a lot of moments questioning what I was doing. Having signed up for quite a few races this season whilst still not being half the athlete I once was. I have questioned what the point of it all was multiple times . I might never be able to be that athlete again. Why did I even want to try. Were all the disappointments and dealing with a broken back in the last couple of years not enough to let it all go?

The first two races on my calendar were not exactly races I was thrilled about doing. The first one being the Selkirk MTB marathon, a notoriously tough course. I raced the shorter distance back in 2014 struggling with the amount of mud having mainly raced on dry trails in Australia before. Although I set the fastest female time in the 50km, it was not a great experience! Two weeks after Selkirk I planned to race Glentress 7. A 7 hour lap based race on technical single trail. I had only raced a couple of lap based races before and I found them mentally a whole different ball game.  Glentress 7 last year was the race which absolutely broke me in so many ways. Nothing about the course suited me, constantly changing with short sharp climbs and technical descending on off-camber rooty, rocky narrow single track, my biggest MTB nemesis! The technical feature "the pot hole" was the only part of the course with a "chicken route" and was ironically the only technical part of the course I felt I owned!! Last year my negative mind set got the better of me and I could not ignore the severe sciatica radiating down my leg. I pulled out after 4 and half hours of racing after I got taken out by a male rider crashing into me coming from behind thinking "never again".
A muddy affair racing Selkirk in 2014
Two races, two previously bad experiences at the start of my season after a serious injury. Why did I do this to myself? And that question lingered in my head whilst standing on the start line of the Selkirk Marathon. But coach Rab seemed confident, "there is no pressure from me" he said "it is just to get you racing again" (my last MTB race being a good 12 months ago) I roped my physio Dave into racing Selkirk with me. Together with my Sandy Wallace team mate Naomi, the plan was to have a good fun day on the bike and not chase any records.
Pursuing elitism broke me on so many levels but I did race for my country amongst worlds best at the MTB World Champs
My legs felt as fresh as they had ever felt at the start of a race and I struggled keeping my heart rate at tempo heart rate which was the pace Rab and I agreed on. It felt almost to easy and I really struggled getting into a racy mind set, struggling to focus. It was a beautiful day though and having Dave to ride with and settle my nerves was really great. I did not feel particularly confident on the descents and rode a bit like a clown on the technical sections but I had my climbing legs on and was going for well under 6 hours (which was what I wanted to ride it in) until I flatted in the final 10kms. I spent about 20min having an absolute melt down, trying to get my tyre off the rim trying to fix it! Thank god Dave was there to help me out or I would probably be still somewhere in between Innerleithen and Selkirk yelling at my bike!

It ended up being a solid ride and although I did not feel like I raced particularly well, it was a positive experience and I felt I could build from here. The two weeks in between Selkirk and Glentress I was struggling a bit physically. I needed the ok from physio Dave to race and I was still really struggling with fatigue. A problem I had been fighting against since 2014. I found this extremely frustrating and my initial instinct was to push through it and train harder. But luckily I had a smart coach in Rab from Dirtschool who religiously went through my heart rate data with a fine comb every week and ordered me to take it easier.

With the ok from Dave I stood at the start line of Glentress 7 with a rock in my stomach. I knew I was tired having had a couple of busy weeks at work. My legs had not adequately recovered from the Selkirk Marathon and the volume I had done in between. I had a thousand excuses in my head. "time to suit up and face my demons" I thought. The plan was to ride consistent laps for 7 hours, again at tempo pace, not race pace. "You are still in your base training phase" were Rab's words. I personally wanted to really ride my own race mentally, focus on myself, block everything out. Not worry about anything else but the task ahead of me.
race focus
I started at the back of the field which meant it took a while before I was riding at my own pace. Legs felt a little smashed for the first two laps but strangely they recovered during the race. The first 3 laps felt like a drag but I managed to focus a lot better than I did at Selkirk and did my thing, lap after lap after lap. Completely out of my comfort zone on the descents but taking it back a notch so I was riding in control. 
My loyal support crew
My aim was to do 6 laps and if I could do 7 I would be happy. On my 7th lap I felt I really could do no more and on the way down I got taken out by male rider not really increasing my enthusiasm to make it 8."Not again" I thought when I was down on the ground untangling mountain bikes. As I trembled back on the bike the lovely Lynne Davies passed me yelling "we have 10 min to make it down for cut off time" We had been playing cat and mouse all day and at this stage I really wanted to finish on the same amount of laps as the leaders knowing that with 7 laps I should be close. I followed her down and off we went onto lap 8, I had not much left, not to say nothing left. I struggled to concentrate almost crashing every corner. I kept on seeing Lynne's distinct orange helmet in the far distance whilst I was trying to keep her in my reach. When we made it to the top of the course, the heavens broke loose and thunder and lightening surrounded us. The course had turned into a slippery slope downhill matching my MTB skills! I lost Lynne on the descend and was relieved to be led around the last part of the technical trails back on fire road out of safety issues. I was super happy to finally cross the finish line, with all the things I wanted to tick off, ticked off.
Not having any idea where I placed all day Michael was excited to tell me I just got beaten for 2nd and the top 5 were racing minutes from each other most of the day!! I did not think this would be possible so early in the season and I owed a big thank you to coach Rab and physio Dave.
Glentress 7 answered the questions I needed answering. In the last couple of years I got caught up in the whole elitism of the sport, making it a competition with anyone and everyone who was willing to take me on. How strange it may sound, it has never been about the competition for me, it has never been about placing and podiums. I actually did not like a competitive environment. What I loved about racing and what it did for me was the ability to be pushing my own limits. Every time I raced, try to dig that little deeper. Get everything I have out of myself physically and mentally and try to better that the next time. 6 laps at Glentress Seven would have made me happy, riding the 7th lap I felt like I could not go any more, a crash made me think that is enough for me and call it a day even if I would make the cut off time. Yet I went on to do an 8th lap, pushing my absolute limits for that day and surprising myself what I had left in me. For me that is what its all about, for me its those athletes who keep on pushing whatever the circumstances whom I am inspired by and why I love sport so much. When the odds get beaten and the impossible becomes possible.

In a society where stability gets the most rewards, I always find myself on unsteady ground searching for the next new challenge. The question "will you ever be happy" has been asked me many times. But what if this is my happiness? My journey in life, searching for the next pursuit. Following my passion and always wanting to push that little further to keep on expanding my limits. Searching for my own path and no body else's.
A great quote by the man who climbed Mt Everest in record time last week short after another legend Swiss speed climber Ueli Steck lost his life in the same mountain range doing what he loved doing.

"We can't be sure we'll find it,
but we're going in search of happiness"
Failing is not trying. Failing is not enjoying
every step along the way. Failing is not feeling.
There will be punches, there will be pain and goals
far from met, but in no way can we fail if we make
our own path, even if it doesn't reach the top."
Killian Jornet

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

The Grandraid Nisramont; Unlimited horse power and donkey Dan's big day out

 If you would have told me 3 months ago that I would podium at the renowned to be tough Scott adventure race the Grand Raid Nisramont, in the Belgium Ardennes, I would have probably laughed it off. I don’t really like people who act surprised when they podium insinuating they have not trained for it and are naturally just super talented. At the pointy end of any achievement a lot of hard work is required. In my opinion it just does not happen “out of the blue”.

Karin and I signed up for this race barely knowing each other yet there was an immediate unspoken trust.  A 4km kayak, 28km mountain bike, 7km trail run, 18km mountain bike and 5km run/bike over very hilly terrain was waiting for us. On paper we weren't a great match for this race. Karin had been concentrating on qualifying for the trail running world championships having done minimal bike training. I had been concentrating solely on the bike after having only just returned to training still recovering from a back injury. On top of that Karin had 55km’s of trail running in her legs from the week before where she qualified for the trail running world championships finishing 2nd Dutch female and 8th female overall. That she felt a little tired was an understatement. Neither of us had been in a kayak for over  2 years. It was a recipe for disaster, yet we managed to climb on that last podium spot.
Karin not only winning the extreme Evergreen triathlon in 2016  but also the first woman to complete the course
The whole weekend ended up being magic. It started on Saturday when we supported Kim Mulder in her battle to qualify for the trail running world championships 3 months after she had survived kidney failure during a race spending a month in hospital. We caught her at a negative stage wanting to DNF but with a little encouragement she changed her attitude and turned it around with an impressive 3rd female overall making up over 2minutes on the second girl in the last 6km's finishing only a minute behind her. “I told myself to get over it” she laughed . A ticket to the world champs for Kim when she could barely stand upright 3 months prior to this event.
Kim already a proven champion
Kim had already a proven track record, she just had to trust herself that she could do it again albeit on a not so ideal race prep. Not much different from Karin and I leading into the Grand Raid, although we both had a lot of rest during the winter months and minimal training leading into the event. We both had done the mileage over the years even if it had been a while “You have to trust you have the endurance from all the years you have already trained” said my coach Rab to me when he explained he was not going to bombard me with a lot of volume in my training program. Quality not Quantity.
Karin not as well prepared as she usually would be
 “Even if I have to cut the mountain bike leg short, I don’t care” said Karin the day before the race. "it does not matter if we do not finish, we can still do the run and the 2nd part of the mountain bike leg and have a great day of training."  "I am technically really bad on the mountain bike and don’t want to jeopardise my trail running world championships by breaking something ” she continued. I realised that this race came at a very bad timing for her but that she was doing it for me, and equally I had jumped on the plane to Brussels purely not to disappoint her as I was not sure how good this race would be for my back. “Let’s just finish it regardless” I said “ it really does not matter if we come last, we don't have to be fast, just for the fun of it”  And a pact was made.

Post race smiles
Generally Karin would leave nothing left to the unknown going into an event, which made her so successful having won some big races already. When I arrived at Brussels airport and she was awaiting me at the airport in Antwerp it was quite clear this was not an A-race for her!!!
Very poorly prepared we rushed our way to the start entering the water with one minute left to go. It was the only stressful moment of the whole race!! The gun went off and a madness of thrashing paddles and crashing boats developed in front of us. “hang off the back” said Karin who had done the race a few times before “we don’t want to get hit from all sides by other boats” It was a glorious day and the colourfulness of the kayaks, paddles and people in front of us painted a beautiful picture.  SportEvents always attracted a very strong field and it was easy to see why. Everything was superbly organised and the volunteers all did a brilliant job. Extremely happy with ourselves we beat quite a few boats out of the water and jumped on the bikes having survived the kayak leg.  "Not last!!" we smiled at each other. We settled into a nice and relaxed pace on the bikes, on hind sight may be a little too relaxed but may be that is why we managed to finish as strong as we did. Karin being a little nervous on the technical descents yelled at me “Are we riding is??!!” heading down a steep and rough section “YES” I yelled back at her without giving her any option.
Karin having great bike skills from years on the road bike
Her bike handling skills were second to none, all she needed was a bit of confidence to ride downhill with purpose. I tried to pick up the pace a little on the descends to push Karin on a bit but at the same time tried not to  physically or mentally break her. As the race went on she became faster and faster riding like a true mountain biker and we had a blast. It was no surprise the girl could climb like a goat and we were making up a lot of ground the further we got in the race. Suddenly we could see a female team in front of us “let’s try and catch them” Karin said. What happened with "we are racing pure for fun??!! "
Whilst Karin strength was running, mine was the mountain bike and we managed to support each other on our weaker legs
As we rolled in transition onto the run we found out we were the 3rd women's team “oh no” I thought to myself, “now we are really racing!!” but Karin stayed cool "just keep doing what we are doing" she said and being the better runner she dropped slightly behind me so I could set the pace. I could not have had a more supportive team mate and there was no negative moment in the whole 5 hours of racing. It had been months since I had been able to push myself running and it was such an awesome feeling. We kept racing smart and in the final stages of the second mountain bike leg we passed the 2nd women's team with a flat tyre; which meant we were now in second place!! All I could think was not to crash, not to go crazy, ride in control to not puncture or break a chain. The last leg was a mixed mountainbike/run leg where one had to ride and the other run. Since I was not really allowed to run I stayed on the bike whilst Karin run her little heart out to keep us in 2nd place. What a feeling!! We could not quite believe we finished as 2nd women team in our wave!! There was a short but anxious wait to find out if we could hold our podium position with more women teams finishing in the 2nd wave. We were absolutely over the moon when it was confirmed we managed to place 3rd women’s team! What a day!!

All smiles all weekend
We could argue that this was a complete out of the blue performance for us, and who knows what we could have achieved if we had been physically and mentally better prepared going into the race. Although the result did feel totally unexpected, both Karin and I had a good few years of training and racing at high level in us and although we might not have been in good shape on the day, our relaxed happy attitude, well-paced race, and the amount of experience in our bodies lifted us up onto the podium. Sometimes all you need is a little trust that it will all work out and the rest will follow!!
                                                           "Hold the vision, trust the process"

Thursday, 16 March 2017

7 months and still counting

As we get further into the new year I witness fellow athletes starting their early racing season and some of them having big events already under their belt whilst I have only recently entered my base training phase. I have had to be very patient this winter and most of the time I have felt I was taking one step forward and 3 steps back. Close to tears I have entered my physio's treatment room week after week wondering if I ever would feel like half the athlete I was ever, again. He said to be patience as I  persistently carried out the exercises prescribed, trying to stay positive. The Swiss ball had definitely taken the boredom out of doing core work and to the entertainment of my dog Fynn I managed to fall of it frequently. He saw this as an opportunity to lick me back to shape! Reluctantly I had to cut my running down from running every day (40-50kms week), to running two, three times a week, (45 min) max as slow as I possibly could.
longing to run fast again
If I wanted to ride long with friends it meant I had to make sure I had a rest week at either end of the ride with no intensity allowed. It was certainly a challenge for my ego, as my friends sprinted off to chase strava segments and beat each other up the hill, I had to let them go and watch them disappear into small dots on the horizon. A steep learning curve in being patient.
Although I could not train over winter, adventures were never far away

Last week I walked into my physio's treatment room with the least amount of pain I have experienced for a long time. When Dave tested my nerve function and spine flexibility I got excited. There was a big improvement!! The pain was now very localised revealing a small musculoskeletal problem in my high hamstring but I could deal with that. Running was still a big cause of pain but on the bike I could now ride at a pace which would not cause me much discomfort. For the first time in a long 6 months I felt like I was finally getting somewhere and with the OK from Dave I was ready to enter the next and first phase of structured training, being allowed to do some tempo sets. Finally!
Ashmei team mate Owain and I after a social run
I have never been the most patient person, which is probably an understatement, I want everything achieved and  preferably yesterday. I like to work hard and am someone who needs to constantly be working on something to see that progress. Sitting back and watching it unfold is just not in my nature. I want to live, not just exist. Needless to say I don't do injury very well and I have always pushed myself through injuries and sickness never giving my body time to heal, trying to squeeze every little amount of energy out of it all year around. Until it broke.
Riding with the pure purpose of enjoyment

I think most of us athletes want to train hard over the winter, the off season is the time where we don't have to worry about tapering and recovering around races. The time to improve, time to put in the mileage. I certainly had that approach, believing volume was key in my development as an athelete and trained long hours week in week out- in crazy winter weather conditions. I did not care if I was tired or sore, I would battle on even if the legs were barely coping. Quantity was huge, quality not so much. This year had been very different for me, partly because I was forced to stop due to injury and partly because I started to learn more about what worked and did not work for me as an athlete. I read blogs written by international coaches particularly articles written by triathlete coach Brett Sutton who holds the believe that many athletes over-train in the off season. Needing 12 weeks to get race fit and only 8-9 weeks staying at peak race fitness, athletes are left more mentally and physically fatigued at a time it actually starts counting if they have put in the long hours over the winter months.
I trained endless hours during the winter months

I started talking to other people who burned the candle on both sides like I did and realised I was definitely not alone in my stupidity! I decided that since I was not allowed any volume or intensity it was a good time to book in a skills course on the MTB. Crazy to think that in the 4 years of racing at a descent level, I only ever had done one skills course ever before!
I teamed up with Rab Wardell from Dirtschool where we spent an afternoon on the trails of Glentress and with a few simple tips and bike handling exercises, he changed my riding significantly. Instead of gunning it down hoping for the best on the downhills, I was now much more in control -picking good lines and riding with purpose. We spoke a lot about training volume and the temptation to overdo it. This helped me in the decision that he would be the perfect coaching match to keep me in line.
Practicing what I learned from Rab!

I  also decided to get a proper bike fit which I felt was really important to minimize the stress put on my back and to keep my nerves happy. Through Rab I was put in touch with James McCallum and Morgan Floyd from Whatisyourmeta and booked in for a bike fit and a full performance and injury prevention screening. This involved lots of little strength tests of different muscle groups which really showed where my injury had affected the strength in my left leg. Encouragingly it also confirmed I was on the path of recovery. I was given lots of little tips to improve my position on the bike all with the aim of attaining maximal power output with minimal physical strain. Money well spent- and I wish I had done this a long time ago. But better late than never!!
simply enjoying the trails with friends

With a positive attitude I travelled to Aviemore to tag along Naomi Freireich in the (wo)man of porridge, a MTB orienteering event organised by the awesome Lee Craigee and the women behind the Adventure Syndicate. There were a lot of firsts going into this weekend, I had only met Naomi the week before after an Australian friend of mine tagged me in a blog post she had written. Since we were both in Edinburgh and had the same interests he thought we would make a great match and he was spot on!! After a pot of thee, many adventures were in the making of which the Bowl of Porridge was held the following week. My orienteering skills were next to nothing, and when I mentioned to my colleagues at work what my plans were for the weekend they said their goodbyes not expecting me to re-surface knowing I was capable to getting lost in my own office. It was not only my first race for 2017 but also my first real hard session on the MTB since June last year. All in all I was s little nervous joining Naomi having no idea how it would all pan out. The goal was to have fun and fun we definitely had!! I was surprised to find I had some power in my legs, and with a little endurance in my body it took 40kms to run out of steam (with only another 30kms to go)!! But more than anything my back was cooperating and my sciatic nerve behaved the best it had done for a good 12 months. Lack of fitness I could handle but I was super excited no other physical problems raised their ugly heads! Naomi and I did the worst job in orienteering but the best job in making up lost time by riding as possessed demons through the Aviemore woods completing slightly nutty tasks like climbing a rope tower multiple times and roping our bikes over angry rivers. We had a blast. A great way to celebrate my massive step forward in recovery, riding bikes with great people, lots of smiles on endless trails in the beautiful Cairngorms.
Happy days

 "Your not out of the woods yet" were the words of my physio meaning "don't go crazy" and I only have to go for a little run to know I am not fixed yet. But after having ridden in pain for a good 3 years to finally be able to put a bit of power down on my pedals without anticipating discomfort was such a huge step in the right direction,  the upshot was that it made me feel a little bit like an athlete again.
still dreaming off pain free runs but it will happen!

 I have spent the last 7 months without any structured training or volume, I was probably the least fit I had been in the last 5 years.   And at the same time was also the most excited I had been about getting back into training I in the last 5 years. Every little improvement was noticeable which was an exciting feeling. It felt like I was starting from scratch all over again. And even though part of me worried I would never be as strong as I once was, the other part was excited to see how much difference smart training could make for me. People often say "you will come out of it so much stronger" comforting injured athletes and for the first time I started to actually believe it. Over the last long 7 months I had the opportunity to go back to the basics. Taking racing, competition, power and pacing completely out of the occasion, I had to go back to where I started, go back to what made me fall in love with the sport in the first place.
Rob's big day's out always turned into an epic!
For me it had never been about the chase of the podium, and in the last 7 months I was reminded that I didn't need a race to be happy on my bike, during a run or swim session. What I loved about racing and training was the improvement I found within myself, becoming the best possible athlete I could possibly be. I probably learned more in the last 7 months minimal moving and surrounding myself with sporting souls on crazy adventures, than in the last 4 years training and racing with slightly OCD athletes. Don't get me wrong I am super excited I am allowed to become a little OCD with my training again and Rab will have to keep me in tow because it is a huge part of my driven personality.

 To sum up, if I could give some tips to my younger self on how to approach the winter off season it would be this

1.Work on skills rather than volume in all three sports, focussing on small details will make the biggest improvements
2. Work on core and get strong, as boring it might seem, it does prevent injury
3. Find out weaknesses (in all areas) and turn them into strengths
4. Learn about your equipment and adjust to perfection together with qualified people such as physio's, bike mechanics, coaches (your body is an tool also)
5. Knowledge is power;worse than doing it wrong is not knowing you are doing it wrong.
6. Last but not least, find your passion, go and venture with friends, without objectives, just for the simple joy of being outside with great people, it is what brings the fight back and heals the soul.

Life is made for good friends and great adventures

Photo credit : Charlie Lees

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Home is where the heart is; the art of chasing dreams

When I was 14 years old I made a bet with my father that I would make it to the Olympics as a show jumping rider for the Dutch Olympic Equestrian team. Told by coaches I had what it takes, I had my Olympic dream all worked out, I followed the show jumping closely, studying blood lines of show jumping horses  to find the best of the best and learning to spot a good horse from people in the industry. I figured the only way to be able to afford a talented horse which would take me to the Olympics would be buying it as a foal. I came as far as buying a beautiful grey filly in partnership with my father who was bred from the right family to make it to the highest level. Circumstances I had no control over stood in the way of realising this dream, life happened. For every dream, which turns into a reality, thousands of dreams get crushed, plans demolished, hearts broken, an amazing amount of hard work and determination lost in disappointment. This was one of my big dreams. And as I was told my father sold our filly for big money, my heart broke.

My ambitions of being a top show jumper preceded my dreams of becoming a top athlete 
“I am a dreamer through and through and even if all my dreams and aspirations disappear into thin air, the chase is worth the journey” I wrote this after quitting my job and moving back to Europe from Australia in 2013 to chase my dream of becoming a professional athlete. Although I have always had an enormous believe I could turn my dreams into reality and would happily give anything a go, at the same time I have also always suffered from a debilitating anxiety, a fear of failure which would leave me stunned at times it counted the most. People have told me many times again I am hard on myself when I say I failed in achieving my goals since I have competed at elite level and have represented my country at European and World championships as an elite athlete, still in my mind I never managed to reach my full potential. I am someone who dreams big and sometimes these dreams might be unrealistic as I simply do not have the platform to make it all happen and still believe I can without having the support needed. When you look on social media it all looks so easy and amazing the life's of the people who pursue their passion, not portraying the amount of hardship and disappointment which comes hand in hand with trying to follow your dreams.
In the last year, I forced myself to be more realistic and in a way, give up on my dreams, I know in my heart that the move to Edinburgh and the change in direction of my athletic ambitions were the right things to do, but at the same time I found it something very difficult to deal with. Letting go.

I have always gravitated towards people who have a passion, I find it very inspiring, someone who is determined to achieve a goal. People who are prepared to work hard, who see failure as a motivation to try harder rather than to give up. I have found that those people are not necessarily the most talented, fastest or smartest people in the world. But they have an inner strength, people who don’t take no for an answer, even more so, when they get told they can’t do something it will make them more driven to achieve it. I recognise their inspiration and I find their energy addictive. They might have a disease to conquer, a life changing experience they had to adjust to, a dark past they escaped. People who managed to turn something negative into something positive and use their shortcomings as a weapon, turn their weakness into a strength. Those people made me aspire to live my life in a similar way, to not ever give up.
Catching up with Karen after 10 years was just like I had seen her yesterday
A trip to Utah to catch up with my Uni friend and old flatmate Karen meant that for 10 days I was surrounded by people who lived their passions. And who also, openly admitted to the difficulties of their lifestyles. It was refreshing and energizing listening to their stories of struggles and success.“you can have everything you dream of” Karen said to me whilst we were ploughing through the snow on one of our run’s through the mountains.
The hearts content
How could I feel so at home in a place I had never been? I wondered for a moment taking in the amazing scenery. My heart was content.  “believe you can, don’t be so hard on yourself and get your act together” Karen continued. It all seemed so simple. Just make it happen. And as I spend the days skiing pure powder, mountain biking with breath taking views and moving through the mountains in the simplest of forms experiencing pure joy I felt the happiest I had been in a long time and my body responded by feeling the strongest it had been in a long time.
Mountain biking with amazing views over Ogden
I travelled from Utah to Minnesota to catch up with my sister on the way back to Scotland. Seeing her always felt like coming home to me, no matter what had happened in our lives in between. She was my whole entire family and she had always been more than enough for me. Now with 4 little (and not so little) ones of her own between the age of 4-13, it was so nice to live her day to day life as if I we had never been apart. Listening to her husband’s stories about their years living in the Ukraine and my sister giving birth to her 3rd son Joerie in an old, almost ruin like Ukraine hospital, I realised that my sister regardless of how fragile she might appear, with her small thin physique, was one of the strongest people I had ever known and not unlike me, had bulldozed her way through life dealing with whatever was thrown at her with her head held high. The art of chasing dreams; staying true to who you really are.
My sister and family
“You are Nienke Oostra, you are the most beautiful and strongest person in the whole wide world” words my sister said to me from a very young age when we battled through tough times together as children and words she still says to me now. “You need to believe in yourself, dare to be you, find out what you really want and it will happen” she whispered to me in our goodbye hug. “Be happy”
My family
Me and my sister were both born with the ability to purely enjoy the great things in life. The ability to find calm in the sound of beautiful music, to become lost in any form of art, a touching movie or the colours of a captivating painting or most commonly to feel alive when standing on top of a mountain or on an empty beach. It had been our survival mechanism through the darkest of times. Similarly, we were born with passion. born with drive and determination. The ability to laugh, love, and dream in any given situation was our strength.

Some of my dreams had been crushed in the last few years and my heart had been aching. This holiday made me realise it was time to stop beating myself up over it, I was very lucky even with my current injury that I still had my health and my fitness to be able to do the things I loved doing and chase the things I felt passionate about. Time to start making new plans, follow new dreams and work towards what really made me happy. Life was too short and too precious to be wasted on what could have been.

“Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, or worn. It is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace & gratitude.” – Denis Waitley