Friday, 2 December 2011

My challenge

I haven't been able to update my blog very much as my injury has prevented me from taking part in almost any sort of physical activity. I think my injury is challenging every bit of patience I've got. I am very frustrated in having been set back for over 2 months.

I am getting weekly physiotherapy sessions, but improvements are slow. Due to the nature of the problem, musco-skeletal inflammation, time is the best cure and I can't do much to help or speed up the process.

I've had to make provisions at work as well, since sitting down at a desk was not allowing my hip flexors any respite. I now have a swanky saddle chair.

I've sat down with my physiotherapist (who insists I don't do anything involving running, jumping or stepping) and discovered that of the 30 Olympic disciplines I could only do: swimming (freestyle only), table tennis, sailing (as a passenger - it does not count!), shooting and archery in my present injured state.

I mentioned the Paraolympic options and he said: "No, you are injured, not disabled". Which is an interesting thought. I guess it's implicitly belittling of me to think that an injury and a disability are the same thing. Quite often you might be disabled because of an injury (say a spinal injury), but disabled people are just as fit as able bodied people. Particularly athletes. Thus I've been rebuffed by my physiotherapist into treating the Paraolympic sports with respect, and will attempt them only once my body is back to fitness.

Given the options available, I decided to undertake archery as my next challenge. It's a perfect sport as it doesn't involve any bending, or moving at all. In fact stillness is of the essence. There is nothing easy about it, mind you. Each sport has its own set of skills and difficulties, all fairly hard to master.

I signed up for a 5 weeks Beginners Archery Course with Cambridge University Bowmen, running through Michaelmas term. Read my next blog post to find out how I got on...

Monday, 7 November 2011

Gold Challange Olympic Stadium Event

Being injured is no fun at all. There is the niggling pain that never leaves you alone, there is the frustration of not being allowed to do much ("some swimming" said the physio "but nothing that could be considered training"), then there is the boredom of having long weekends with nothing exiting happening.

One of the reasons I was enjoying my Gold Challenge was that it gave me the chance to get out more, do new and exiting things, meet friendly and interesting people and just generally be active. Recovering from an injury is hard work, it's depressingly slow and terribly demotivating, my heart goes out to all those athletes who injure themselves close to big events. It's gut wrenching.

But lately the lovely people behind Gold Challenge have come up with something to cheer me up to no end. I was invited to a media call to publicise the launch of a new Gold Challenge initiative at the Olympic Park!
On the windy top of a temporary media centre overlooking the Olympic stadium, I was among a small group of Gold Challenge participants promoting the latest Gold Challenge opportunity: called The Gold Challenge Olympic Stadium Event, it’s the chance of a lifetime to run 100m in the Olympic Stadium watched by friends, family and a cheering crowd of 20,000. The event will take place next year on April 1st, as part of the Olympic Stadium Testing Series and legacy programmes.

Just sign up for the Gold Challenge and raise loads of money for your chosen charity to be in for a chance to run on the 100m track next April.

Lord Coe and Sally Gunnell kindly joined in on the photo call and helped launch the initiative. It was great to meet briefly such inspiring people. Lord Coe remarked that taking part in sports and raising money for charity is a fitting way to show how the Games inspire us all.


The actual photoshoot took place inside the Olympic Park, so I had a chance to have a peek at the massive operation behind getting the Olympic Park up and ready for next year Olympics. The buildings look absolutely amazing, from start to finish they look awe-inspiring, especially the velodrome (affectionately known as “the pringle”) and the aquatics centre. Everything is coming along at breathtaking speed, and despite the park being mostly at building site stage, you can start to see what the final product will be like.

And seeing it like this, with all the building equipment, the cables, the trucks, the cranes, the portakabins and the workmen in fluorescent jackets really brings home what a massive undertaking it's been, and such a great job  LOCOG and Olympic Delivery Authority have done to organise and deliver everything on time, with remarkable aplomb and typical British organisation. Small things can speak volumes, and what really impressed me was the focus on organisation and health and safety, with over 10,000 workers on the site and over 2 years of building and engineering, there hasn’t been a single building accident (something that has marred previous Olympics).

I have total faith that the Olympic Park will be delivered beautifully, smack on schedule, ready to amaze the world!

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

A reflection

On Tuesday, my reaction at the physio at being told what was wrong with my back ("What's that?" I said "I never head of that muscle") sounded a bit familiar to me.

Later I realised where I heard it before, reading a blog about a kid being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes: "When I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at 8 years old, I didn't know anything about it. Who ever heard of insulin? A pancreas? What's that?".

In type 1 diabetes the pancreas (and specifically the beta cells located in the unpronounceable islets of Langerhans) stops producing insulin, the essential hormone that regulates glucose metabolism. Patients with type 1 diabetes depend on external insulin (most commonly injected subcutaneously) for their survival.

Being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes is therefore a pretty dramatic affair. Often children (the disease is most commonly diagnosed in childhood, although it can develop at any age) and their families have to go through a tremendous learning experience, grappling with human physiology, carb counting, insulin treatment and dosing, blood glucose monitoring, and a whole new daily language to cope with the demands of diabetes. Diabetes is a full-time affair: it affects every aspect of your life.

For most parents the first few months after diagnoses are filled with emotional highs and low. From the initial relief of discovering what is making their kid sick (giving a name to the foe and discovering that it's a relatively common and well understood condition and that, crucially, it is treatable offers some comfort) to the inevitable anger and sadness at the realisation that diabetes is here to stay. They can not do anything to make their child better. It's heartbreaking.

There is no cure for diabetes. Unlike my psoas, the pancreas does not get better. Diabetes is a chronic condition, and as patients like to remind us "insulin is not a cure, just a treatment".

I think it's a pretty tough thing to take in if you are 8 years old. A lifetime with diabetes.

But it doesn't have to be this way.

Please donate generously to Diabetes UK, the charity organises local support groups for those important few months following a diagnosis, helping families meet other people who have been through a similar situation.

And of course, it supports research into a cure.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Update on my injury

I've realised I've been quiet on my blog for a couple of weeks now. Sadly my injury is preventing me from doing any sports at the moment. That bad, uh? Not really, just that my body needs time to recover and doing anything might actually further my problems. And so, unable to write about the excitement of a volleyball match is or the challenges of a teakwondo side kick, I am going to further elaborate on my injury and what I learnt about it since it happened.

Contrary to popular belief (mine) it's not rowing's fault. It never was, not even back in 2005 in Oxford. There is nothing wrong with my technique or posture. And it's not even caused by over training (my second best guess).

It's an inflammation of a muscle I never knew about, and can't even pronounce it right (the psoas major, pronounced "so-az"), brought about by a chronic postural problem of my spine.

This picture is an MRI scan of my lumbar region, taken in 2006. What it shows, a part from a fairly healthy spine (no hernias, no cracks, no bulging disks), is a pretty sharp bend in my lower spine.

In medical terms the "arch" or inward bend of the lumbar spine is called lordosis. However an excess "arch" or hyper-lordosis can cause lower back pain. My physio thinks that this is the source of my problem. The extra curve in the spine causes my pelvis to tilt forward. This postural problem (quite common it turns out) has profound effect on the muscles of the core.

The idea is that postural deficiencies lead to not using certain muscles correctly which eventually causes other muscles to overcompensate, particularly during exercise. In the end some muscles become lengthened and weak and other muscles short and stiff. Hence the pain.

Here's a list of things that typically lead to anterior pelvic tilt (or characteristics of anterior pelvic tilt; it's difficult to say what causes what):

  • Lengthened (weak) hamstrings
  • Lengthened (weak) abdominals
  • Lengthened (weak) glutes
  • Shortened (tight) erector spinae
  • Shortened (tight) hip flexors
At the moment the muscle causing the greatest grief is the Psoas major (one of the hip flexors). It's a muscle of the deep hip flexor, attached to the lumbar spine of the lower back and to the top of the femur (thigh bone). It's pretty tight and probably very inflamed. The problem came out during rowing, as rowing is performed sited, and sitting (and a modern sedentary lifestyle) is a major culprit in shortening the hip flexors and tightening the psaos. Each stroke I took flexed and tired my poor psoas more, no wonder that in the end it gave up.

The physiotherapist is working on correcting these issues. At the moment we are releasing and massaging the overtired muscles, the psoas, the gluteus medius and many muscles around the spine which are tender or tight, while trying to tilt the pelvis in its correct alignment. It is not fun at all, it hurts really bad. I am finding sitting excruciating. I've been ordered total abstinence to all activities that involve the bending of the hips, like rowing and cycling, and even yoga, discouraged from contact sports as I might not be able to sustain stress, and persuaded not to run (even though in itself running is not painful, the impact from each step strains the core muscles). I am left with swimming (front crawl only) and stretching (certain stretches being extremely beneficial).

The good news is that nothing is broken, overtired muscles is something one can easily recover from. The bad news is that recovery might take a while, nothing as long as I feared (I've been reassured for instance that I will be fit enough for my half marathon in November), but certainly long enough for me to be bored of watching TV laying on the sofa on a Saturday afternoon while I could be out doing something fun and exiting.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011


On Monday night, while training on the indoor rower at the gym, I injured myself. I was doing a fast interval piece, 5x500mt, and at the end of the third interval I felt a sharp pain in my back, as if someone hit me with a bat, and my legs gave way.
The pain took my breath away, and I knew it was bad news. I eventually got back on the erg and finished the piece. A bit pointless, perhaps, but I thought I might as well finish it since there is a real possibility of not being able to row for months.

You see, I've had this injury before when I rowed at Oxford. Back injuries are relatively common among rowers, and often arise from poor posture or poor technique. In my case it was probably a consequence of over-training and over-straining. I was devastated, I got injured (and consequently dropped from the boat) a few weeks before my crew won the Headship in the intra-collegiate bump races. I was so close to winning blades (highest college accolade) and instead I had to make do with years of back pain, frustration and disappointed. The injury got many years to heal and because of the pain I stopped taking part in sports. I haven’t been in a rowing shell since.

When I started on Gold Challenge I secretly relished having a chance to get back into rowing: make right what I still consider a cruel and unfair blow of fate.

My plan was to train for the British Indoor Rowing Championship (BIRC), set my PB over the Olympic distance and then, eventually, in the summer months join a club and compete in a few regattas. I could do this sport properly, prove myself, get some real satisfaction from a sport that had left me with a bitter taste in my mouth.

It was all going so well. I was following a detailed 5 session a week plan, I’ve rowed 600,000 meters since November, my splits (times) were coming down, there were only 3 sessions left before my quarterly 2k test, where I was expecting to come close to my university PB. And then 6 months to BIRC, where I’d be bound to smash through it.

So close, yet so far. Once more my back came unraveled, once more my hopes were dashed. In that split second on Monday evening, when I couldn’t hold back the moan of pain and agony rising from my broken flesh, I knew it was, again, all over. It will be months before I can row again, I will be lucky if I can run, walk, swim or do any sport at all.

I want to stay positive. But this evening, as I was crouching outside my yoga class, with my back seizing in agonizing cramps, I really did wonder how many of my 30 sports I won’t be fit enough to complete.

For the time being, I have to put my plans on hold while I visit my GP and a sport therapist. This evening’s waterpolo missed, tomorrow evening’s running session cancelled, Teakwondo at the weekend put on hold.

Wish me luck, overcoming this might be my hardest challenge yet.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Stingers Volleyball Club

On Tuesday evening I was back to Stowmarket for my second volleyball session. During the volleyball season (Sept to May) the club meets at the gymnasium of a local school for an indoor session on Tuesday evenings. I found the indoor session more congenial, more like I remember the sport from my school days.

The two hour sesson comprised drills and practice of the fundamentals, followed by a 6v6 game.

I really enjoyed dusting off my fundamentals. Practising hitting the ball at the net was particularly good fun. I also enjoyed working on my serve, even though I am not mastering the overhead variety (mostly due to a lack of power).

The game at the end was fiercely contested, I know I scored a few points off my serve, and did quite well under the net. I must have made a good impression, since the coach is rather keen on me coming back and joining the squad to play in the local tournamnets.

I am quite flattered by the invitation, however the prospect of getting more involved is a bit daunting, on one hand I have lots of more sports to try out for my challenge on the other hand I really do enjoy volleyball and wouldn't mind doing it regularly. Yet Stowmarket is 40 miles away and I am sure I could find a more local club to play for.

I think I might be giving it a shot for one term, see how it goes, play in a few matches and see.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Cherry Hinton 10k fun race

My weekend has been full of running. After yesterday's parkrun, I engaged today in a new challenge: my first 10k race. I hadn't yet attempted this distance, having spent most of the summer running 5k races, but in preparation for my half-marathon in November, I must start on longer distances.

The village where I live, Cherry Hinton, now a suburb of Cambridge, has embarked on a week-long celebration of its community spirit. The 25th Cherry Hinton Festival started today with a village fun run, organised by a local triathlon club named "the Spartans" (inspired by the film "300", it transpired). The event comprised of a choice of a 5k, a 10k or a family relay event.

I bravely entered the 10k, not sure if I would master the distance, never having run so far or so long before.

The course, circling the village, was a 5 km loop on pavements, repeated twice for the 10k race. Basking in a gloriously luminous sunny Sunday morning, we were earnestly off at 10am. For once, I actually enjoyed my run. Perhaps I took it easy, concerned about the distance, but the first loop felt an awful lot better than my usual 5k pieces. And in the end, I managed to complete the 10k in under an hour. My watched clocked a respectable 58:45, which considering I had to stop at the railway crossing to let a train by, wasn't bad at all.

I also got my first race medal! None of previous races came with a nice keepsake, I giddied like a child on Christmas morning.

 And the actual medal:

However I have absolutely no idea where I came in at, as -rather oddly- at post-race presentation there was only a unisex category! "What about the women's race?" I asked, after the prizes were given out to the top three overall (and thus male) runners. "There is no women's race" came the replay "this is a Spartan race!", meaning presumably that women were expected to take part in races alongside their male counterparts like they did in ancient Sparta.

It took me a while to realise why this alleged "parity" bothered me: women in ancient Sparta enjoyed more freedom and rights than anywhere else in the classical world (and for many centuries afterwards too). Yet, women and men -plainly- are not the same. Pitted against each other, it is rather obvious who comes out on top. In a race against men, no matter how hard I tried, all I could be is a weak man. I am not interested in being a weak man, I want to be a strong woman. Hence the need for gender-separate races, hence the need to celebrate the achievements of our great sportswomen, on their own terms.

True equality, in sport just like in life, passes through a celebration of our diversity, not a narrowing of every individual to the measuring stick of the alpha male. And the same argument applies for the Paralympics. And of course, in ancient Sparta there would have been no Paralympics. So, no, I am not a Spartan...