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...

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Cambridge parkrun, Event #83

Cambridge results for event #83. Your time was 27:51

Congratulations on completing your 3rd parkrun and your 3rd at Cambridge today. You finished in 158th place and were the 36th lady out of a field of 246 parkrunners and you came 6th in your age category SW30-34.
Your PB at Cambridge remains 27:27.  Your best time this year remains 00:27:27. 
You achieved an age-graded score of 53.26%.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Waterpolo: take two

One week on from my first session, and on Wednesday night I am back in the pool for another go at waterpolo. I have to admit, I was less than enthusiastic: having found my first taste of this sport totally exhausting. But for the sake of my Gold Challenge, I bravely put on my waterpolo hat and I dived right in.
Unexpectedly I find that I am already much improved. In the first half of the session, which focuses primarily on swimming drills, I find that I am struggling less. The huge challenge of swimming with my head out of the water, while trying to keep the ball between my arms, seems to come easier, even though my speed leaves much to be desired. In one particular drill (arms do front crawling, legs do frog-kick) I seem to have found my niche, and I quickly adopt the style for the rest of the session.

The focus of the session was learning to defend the ball. While in possession, you swim into the man marking you while keeping the ball on the surface of the water at arms length and away from your opponent. This is a contact sport, you are allowed to lean, push and grab hold (underwater) of the men marking you. In fact, the captain explained to me that I should use the opponent as a floating device! Likewise the man trying to get the ball off you is allowed to hold, block or pull you underwater while you are holding the ball. So the trick is to quickly let go of the ball, tricking the opponent into fouling you. It's a sport of quick reactions!

In waterpolo standing on the bottom of the pool (if shallow) or using the sides to float is not allowed. Thus for most part of the session, I was using my legs furiously either to tread water, propel myself forward, or trying to leap out of the water for a shot. This is really hard work! At some stage, practising the sort of rapid change of direction that's required and it's totally new to me, I had the worst cramp imaginable in my left calf.

I was going to call it quits for the night, clearly exhausted, but at this stage the captain wanted us to practice game strategies, thus I was required to make the numbers up. We practice strategies for when there is a man up. Compared to the week before, when I struggled not to drown, I actually enjoyed myself a little. It helped matters dramatically that I managed to score a goal by deploying a cunning and totally unexpected (for my level of skill) feint. I was however too knackered to keep tally of the score, so in the end I couldn't tell if my team won or lost.

Each session last an hour an a half, so technically I've undertaken the three hours of coached activity required to complete a sport. However I am not done with waterpolo yet, I think I might well come back for some more, once I've duly recovered. The guys in the team have been extremely friendly and patient with me (even after some pretty shocking passing). I feel that the quick bursts of activity geratly improve my general swimming stamina, and a hotly contested game is hundreds time more fun than an hour long swimming session just looking at tiles, length after length.

Oh, and the water polo caps are so dashing. Kidding...

Sunday, 4 September 2011


Many of the Olympic disciplines are sports that I wouldn't normally be brave enough to consider. Taekwondo is certainly one of these, who would have ever thought I'd be doing martial arts in my life?

I mean, we all watched Karate Kid in the 80s, but martial arts with their blend of combat, acrobatic and eastern philosophy are certainly an acquired taste and not something one picks up casually on a Sunday afternoon.

Yet, when I showed up at my gym to enquire about the Sunday afternoon Taekwondo class, the Master (senior instructor) was rather encouraging. A part from obtaining membership of BTCB and getting some insurance, I could come along to the Sunday lessons freely, regardless of my ability.

Today I had my first lesson. It was nothing like I expected, and far more enjoyable and less daunting than I feared. In many ways it seemed like a yoga class plus punches and high kicks. The discipline focuses a lot on control, agility, balance, stamina, flexibility and speed. As an absolute beginner I start with a white belt, and my first aim is to learn the basic techniques. Today I learnt a few basic stances, blocks and kicks. The practice constituted mostly on the repetition of patterns, sets of prescribed formal sequences of movements. No actual combat was involved (I suspect this is only expected of the higher belts).

The more unusual aspects of the lesson were:
  • exercising barefoot and in my pjs (lacking a proper uniform, my pjs were the closest thing I had resembling a do-bok)
  • learning Korean: Taekwondo is a Korean martial art, Korean language commands are often used and Korean numerals were used to count repetitions
  • there was an awful lot of bowing and shouting, both expressions of Easter philosophy underpinning the sport
I think I am no where near breaking bricks with my elbows, but at first impression I found Teakwondo to be an entirely enjoyable sport, one well worth learning, even starting at 32 years of age.

You are never too old to learn something new.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Cambridge Team Aquathlon

Towards the end of the racing season, my triathlon club organises a fun team race. Aimed mostly at juniors and novices, the aquathlon (swimming+running) event is meant to offer a first taster of multi sport competition. Each team is composed of 4 members: a junior, a novice, a senior and any of the above. The novice category was further split between swimmers and runners, for those favouring one or the other discipline. I entered as a novice runner, thus doing the shorter swim (100m) and longer run (2400m). I was rather concerned about my swimming, but, it turns out, I should have been more concerned about my running.

Despite struggling to swim front crawl continuously in training, I managed quite well in the pool, coming out third in my wave, I think. Transition was an unexpectedly messy affair. I struggled putting on my shoes on my wet feet. I fumbled for what seemed an ice-age to tie my laces. I pulled a t-shirt with my race number over my head, only for the number to be wipe off by the water seeping through my swimming costume. A couple of people managed to overtake me during transition.

Running just after the swim felt quite nice: being wet and having my muscle warm brought its own advantages, however just about everyone in the wave was faster than me! I eventually got lapped even by the successive wave (which, to be fair, consisted of senior triathletes)!

Being a feel-good entry level event, there were prizes for just about everyone at presentation. So I managed to get a certificate for my efforts: 3rd in the female novice runner category (however I do strongly suspect that there were only three of us...).

I came home with a few considerations:
  • my swimming has greatly improved
  • I still run waaaaaay too slowly
  • I need to invest in some talcum powder and elasticated shoe-laces for transition
  • lots more training is desperately needed!

Friday, 2 September 2011

In the news

Earlier in the weeks my Gold Challenge was in the local news.

The lovely people at the Gold Challenge office got in touch with the Cambridge News and told them about my challenge. A friendly journalist then got in touch and interviewed me. A photographer came over last Saturday and took a few pictures of me while running and cycling around.

Couple of days later this lovely piece came out on the paper:

Living the Olympics

I didn't see the actual printed article in the paper, but it got noticed in the office, at my gym and even at the triathlon club. I was pleased that it generated such positive interest: people came along and asked me more about my challenge and my progress.

I am not particularly shy, but I've been strangely reserved about my challenge. The article gave me motivation and confidence to spread the word more, which is the only way I can achieve my fund rising targets. So, thanks a lot to CambridgeNews and Gold Challenge for organising this. 

Hopefully it will interest other people in taking on the Gold Challenge too.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Kevin Henry 5k Series - Haverhill

Tonight saw the concluding 5k of the Kevin Henry Series. I've been participating in these races to help my Triathlon club win the title, everyone's performance counts towards the overall title, no matter how slow or poorly positioned.

Obviously not everyone in the club is as slow as I am, in fact the club hosts a number of truly impressive athletes. And so, thanks to a series of sterling performances from the top athletes and the well-meaning effort of struggling beginners such as myself, the club took the overall title, as well as the overall men's and the best lady awards.

The last race took place in Haverhill tonight, I have no idea what my time was (having lost my stop watched) but it would be nice to have finished on a high and with a PB.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Water polo

On Wednesday evening I do a Yoga class in my local gym. Though not an Olympic discipline, or a sport for that matter, I find that yoga has helped improving many aspects of my fitness, my flexibility and my strength in ways beneficial to all the other disciplines I am trying for my Gold Challenge. As yoga goes, it's a pretty intense class. Afterwards, feeling a bit worn, I headed to the pool for a swim down session.

I had forgotten that on Wednesday nights the pool closes early to allow for the water polo club's training session. So I had to cut my swimming session short, but I got the chance to talk and introduce myself to the club. I wasn't intending to undertake water polo just yet, but the club's captain was very friendly and enthusiastic and asked me to try it out and join in the session.

Thinking about it, the same thing happened with the Triathlon club. Then as now, I had no idea what I was getting myself in to. After my first session, I can whole heartedly say that water polo is not a sport for the faint hearted. In fact, so far, it's been the most difficult, demanding and tiring sport I've undertaken.

Having spent months trying to learn how to swim for my triathlon (head in the water, long strides, good symmetrical body swing, steady state tempo and economy in the kicking of the legs) I had to do exactly the opposite for water polo. One swims with the head sticking out, pushing hard with the legs, in short quick bursts, with the ball between the arms while sticking the elbows out trying to keep the adversaries at bay.

I found passing the ball around (with one hand), striking at goal and treading water easier to learn, though the physicality of the sport (where all sorts of underwater kicking, pulling and pushing are allowed) did come as a big shock

After an hour and a half of splashing about, I was totally exhausted. This is a high energy sport: fiercely aggressive, played at breathtaking pace, requiring great amount of full-body movement. Good fun, nevertheless, particularly if you are competitively inclined. It will be a challenge to master.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011


Some sports were always going to be like old friends: you might not have seen them for years, since high school for instance, but the minute you are reunited you get along so well and you remember why you were such good friends in the first place. Volleyball is one such sport. A relatively unpopular sport in the UK, volleyball is a well establish team-sport in Italy, with a lively professional league and international success for the men's team in the 1990s. It is also one of the most popular sports practised at school level, favoured for its non-contact nature, it's focus on agility rather than strength, indoor practice and small field and ground needed.

The sport was also greatly popularised to my generation by two Japanese anime en vogue on Italian television in the 1980s. From its invention in Massachusetts in 1895 as a lesser strenuous sport than basketball, volleyball went on to gain popularity in the first part of the 20th century, especially in Asia. By the the time of its inclusion in the Olympic programme for Tokyo 1964 the sport was hugely popular in Japan. Japan's women team won the inaugural gold against the then dominant USSR in a final televised -unusually for the times- live which captured the imagination of the nation.

The antics of the gold's medal winning team, lead Chikako Urano in 1968 to created a manga, known in the West as "Attack No.1", focusing on a young school girl playing volleyball. The manga, and later the anime spin-off, where hugely popular and helped define the sport-shojo sub-genre. About a decade later, the TV series was bought by fledgeling commercial TV in Italy, dubbed and aired in the late afternoons. Together with a later anime (called "Attacker You!", this time focusing on the quest for gold at the Seul 1988 Olympics), it went on to inspire countless young Italian girls to pick up volleyball, despite the dodgy dubbing, the strange cultural references and the gravity-defying antics of the heroines.

And this is how, in the 1990, while in high school in Italy, I came to play volleyball with great enthusiasm during PE. I came close to playing in a proper team too, but a lack of time prevented it. But since leaving Italy in late 1996, I never had much opportunity to play it, save for the rare sparring of beach volley on some holiday beach. Hence I was very keen on trying my hand at it again as part of my Gold Challenge. The only obstacle was to find a team that would adopt someone very rusty on the fundamentals. For some reason I thought that taking part in team sports as a novice might be a big challenge, but Stowmarket Volleyball Team proved to be splendidly accommodating.

They were very welcoming and quickly refreshed my long forgotten skills, and filled in the vocabulary of the sport (remember I use to play it in Italian!). The session, last of the summer, was played outside on nice soft grass, a welcome changed from the hard indoor courts of my youth. After some rounds of practice on the basics (digs, blocks, sets, serves and spikes) we quickly moved on to play games.

I was amazed by how quickly the moves and techniques came back to me, even though age and a heavier figure meant I was not as good -or elegant- at jumping high as I remembered. Agility and prompt reflexes are the most important skills in order to master volleyball. Being tall and strong is also an advantage. However, being a team sport, strategy and tactics play a very important role. The games we played were totally enjoable, regardless of skill or result. As a sport it doesn't seem to be too complex to get in, and it's good fun and a great entertainment to play with friends.

All in all, it was a very enjoyable first session, I look forward to going back in two weeks time.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Sky Ride

Doing my Gold Challenge, I am discovering more and more that it's very easy to get involved in sports and exercising. And it doesn't have to be boring slogging away on your own at the gym either. There are lots of initiatives to get involved in your own community, with like-minded individuals, of all abilities, ages, fitness level and motivation. And it's fun too!

My latest discovery, which I came across via Boris Johnson's Twitter account is Sky Ride. This is a national campaign from Sky and British Cycling created to inspire and help everyone, whatever their age or ability, to get on their bikes and have fun.

Cycling is one of my sports in the Gold Challenge, both on its own right and as part of Triathlon. I have never been an enthusiastic cyclist, where I come from on the Alps you need lungs of steel to ride anywhere and I absolutely loath commuting on a bike in Cambridge where I live (despite it being a very bike friendly place, apparently), finding the experience of sharing the road with the morning traffic positively terryfing.

Yet, committed to have a proper go at my challenge, a while back I bought a third-hand Italian (of course!) road bike and set off on newly discovered cycle routes. It's been an absolute revelation. Out, on my own, in the countryside, I was mesmerised by the gently rolling hills, the wind-swept wheat fields, the sun kissed glory of a late summer sunset, the genteel sleepiness of villages and the pastoral hush of country parishes, the unhurried progression of wispy white clouds on the horizon.

But my solitary explorations of England's green and pleasant land brought their own concerns: unfamiliar with country roads I lost count of the number of times I got lost, I managed to have disastrous falls off my bike, helpless mechanical breakdowns in the middle of no-where and frightfully close encounters with fast-travelling cars on busy A roads. I needed to ride with other people for confidence and comfort.

But I am not fast or fit enough to join my fellow triathletes at the club's weekly outing. I needed something more recreational. Which is where Sky Ride came in. Among the activities promoted by the initiative, there are Sky Ride Local rides: fun, friendly and free community bike rides led by a British Cycling trained ride leader to help you get out and explore your local area. There are rides for all abilities and for all tastes: from city rides to countryside strolls. You sign up online, check out the route, show up on the day and away you go, for up to a couple of hours, sharing the ride with a group of people also out to enjoy themselves on their bikes.

I really liked the concept. The closest city to run the scheme is Ipswich, so this morning I set off to join the Sky Ride there, taking in a tour of Suffolk villages. I truly enjoyed cycling in a group. The pace was perhaps a bit slower than my usual, but I certainly enjoyed the chit-chat, and the feel of security and comfort of being led by experienced and friendly guides. I discovered a new corner of countryside without any concerns of getting lost for hours. The weather was benign, the scenery very pleasing, the company delightful. All in all a great success and a great idea. I would whole-heartedly recommend a Sky Ride to anyone. Give it a go!

I just can't imagine any nicer way to spend a couple of hours on a Sunday morning. So, what are you waiting for, where will your bike take you?

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Second Parkrun: 28:35

The only good thing about being pretty unfit is that any amount of exercise is going to improve your fitness. Thus to begin with, you see lots of early improvement in your performance, which does wonders for your motivation. And so, as I try to go from couch potato to half-marathon, I've so far seen my 5k times get faster and faster.

Sadly not today. Compared with the same Parkrun I did two weeks ago, I was more than a minute slower. I must not get discouraged, though, as my aim in Gold Challenge is participation rather than victory, and there could be plenty of reasons for a temporary slow down (environmnetal factors, fatigue, complacency). Who knows. What's important is that I keep at it, keep running, keep training, keep competing.

Next week I am doing the last round of the Kevin Henry 5k Series for my club (we hope to win the overall title). After that I will be concentrating on longer distances, doing a 10k village fun run and potentially a 10mile cross-country run in October. Keep smiling, carry on.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

My VO2 max

Today I took part in an interesting research project at The Physiological Laboratory of the University of Cambridge. Dr Christof Schwiening is investigating the relationship between VO2max, body temperature and sweat production. For those not versed in human physiology, VO2 max it is the maximum amount of oxygen that an individual can take up per minute. It is one measure of the aerobic capacity of the cardiorespiratory system (the heart, lungs and blood vessels), and thus a pretty good indicator of an individual fitness level.

Hence VO2max is often of interest to endurance athletes, as it constitutes a physiological benchmark for one's fitness. Many things can affect VO2max: age, gender, fitness and training, changes in altitude, and action of the ventilatory muscles. Like all things in human physiology, there is probably a strong genetic component, with some lucky individuals being blessed with exceptional physiques (and very high VO2max) while most of us fit in the middle of a normal distribution.

But in most individuals aerobic exercise and training will improve one's VO2max, by triggering changes in the body's muscular, cardiovascular, and neurohumoral systems that lead to improvement in functional capacity and strength: the body becomes more efficient at carrying oxygen. In essence exercise and training will fine tune the amazing machinery that is the human body.

Dr Schwiening's project is concerned with testing the hypothesis that the amount of sweat produced for a given body temperature is a simple function of VO2max.While you exercise the extra energy released by the body slowly increases the internal body temperature. Sweating is the body's own natural cooling system. It is known that men sweat more than women [1], Dr Schwiening thinks that the difference in the two genders can be explained by VO2max alone (typically men enjoy a higher VO2max than us ladies). The idea is that fitter individuals sweat more efficiently: they sweat more at lower body temperature, thus preventing overheating. 

I was asked to perform two sets of exercise tests on a fixed exercise bike. The first was a conventional extrapolated VO2max test in which my oxygen uptake was measured with a spirometer while measuring the corresponding heart rate at fixed incremental stages (from 100bpm to 140bpm). The second test involved having my sweat collected and weighted during a set period of exercise (around 20 minutes at 140bpm) while measuring body temperature with a standard infra-red ear thermometer.

The  VO2max obtained by either method was then compared. And sure enough, the sweat/temperature method was pretty accurate at predicting my (very average) VO2max, only slightly overestimating the value of around 36 ml/kg/min. It was very interesting to see how well sweat production and body temperature correlated: in the first 10 minutes of exercise my body temperature steadily increased by about half a degree, in response my sweat production peaked and eventually the body temperature was restored to normal.
The other half of the experiment, strikingly illustrated the linear relationship between oxygen consumption and effort (as measured by heart rate), the graph was kindly provided by Dr Schwiening.

Hopefully as I get fitter doing my Gold challenge, my VO2max ought to improve, and the line should get steeper. However, slightly off-puttingly, it should also mean that I will sweat more and at lower exercise intensities!

Friday, 19 August 2011

Tennis: completed!

Today, I've completed my very first sport: Tennis. After 6 weeks my beginners course came to its conclusion with a fiercely fought game of doubles, which for its series of breaks and break backs was resembling a famous Wimbledon match.

It's been a lot of fun, and although I don't think I will be getting a wild card to Wimbledon any time soon, I learnt a lot and, most importantly, had a lot of fun trying. I'm very grateful to coach Dave and the other course participants for their precious advice, encouragement and friendly banter.

The coach has signed off my award certificate, I earn 20 points for undertaking 6 or more hours of coached activity and 3 bonus points based on specific skills acquired (sadly the slice still eluded me). I raised some sponsorship money, met a bunch of great ladies I hope to practice some more with, enticed a few colleagues to pick up a racket, and gained a everlasting sympathetic understanding for Andy Murrey's frustrations when misjudging a volley closing in on the net.
Next sport: volleyball!

Thursday, 18 August 2011


Back last November I started going to the swimming pool on doctor orders, as a way to manage the pain I've been getting from a repetitive strain injury in my right hand. The doctor was adamant that it would help: he's suggested it to scores of violinist and concert pianists, he said, and sure enough it worked for me too. Just to show how a little bit of exercise, here and there, not very arduous, can be both pleasurable and positive for your health.

I found swimming nice and relaxing, perhaps too relaxing. I was struggling to make my sessions in the water anything more than a wind-down after work, with a lengthy session in the sauna added on for good measure. Then one evening in March, I accidentally stumbled on the local Triathlon club swimming session. The pool was meant to be closed for non-members, but the club encouraged me to stay and try it out. And, oh my God, it was hard work!! A sea-change from my usually sedated gentle soaks.

Ever since then I've been going to their Monday night swimming sessions. I also joined the Triathlon Club with the view of doing an Olympic distance Triathlon in due time as part of my challenge. As with all the sports, I've soon found out that a lot of training is going to be needed to get me there!

To get up to speed with the rest of the (very athletic) club-members, I needed to improve my stamina and tempo, and a tool I've found very useful is a webpage set up by British Swimming in partnership with British Gas as part of the Big Splash initiative. It's called Swimfit, developed by swimming experts at the ASA, it's a FREE online and pool-side club that provides a gym style work-out programme for the pool. You get 32 expertly crafted pool sessions heaped with loads of extra tips and advice, geared at your level of swimming.

There are different levels catering for a wide range of expertise and motivation, from the casual swimmer to the competitive athlete. The website provides:
  • Free online coaching tools
  • Tailored swim training programmes
  • Plenty of support and advice
  • A series of distance challenges to set your goals and provide motivation
  • A personalised dashboard to track your effort
Once you sign up, you have to option to log your sessions, and I find this to be a great motivator. You can chose a distance challenge, like for instance "swim the length of the Thames" (wopping 215 miles) and keep track of your progress on a map. Here is how I am faring after 2 of the 32 sessions:

A long way to go, it seems...

Saturday, 13 August 2011


Needing tons of practice and copius amounts of motivation for my running challenge (half-marthon in november), I signed up for my local Park run.

Parkrun organise free, weekly, 5km timed runs around the country. They are open to everyone, free, and are safe and easy to take part in. Register online, show up on the day, and you are ready to go. These events take place in pleasant parkland surroundings and people of every ability are encouraged to take part; from those taking their first steps in running to Olympians.

After the event, a cute webpage has a host of statistics to track your progress and your results are emailed to you, you can even get your time sent to you by text.

So I showed up at 9am at Milton Country Park on a rainy Saturday morning, slightly grumpy for an early start. The event is run by very friendly volunteers and the field is a lot less intimidating than my usual 5k league. I run an un-hurried, steady state tempo, overtaking a few slower people (yeah!) and trying to push a little in the last half km.

I was thrilled when my results came through, a couple of hours later:

Cambridge results for event #79. Your time was 27:27
Congratulations on completing your 1st parkrun and your 1st at Cambridge today. You finished in 154th place and were the 31st lady out of a field of 252 parkrunners and you came 8th in your age category SW30-34. 
You achieved an age-graded score of 54.04%

Monday, 8 August 2011

Newmarket 5k results

Results from last Thursday's 5k race came through. Surprisingly it didn't do nearly as bad as I thought it might. 112th out of 118 might not sound like an impressive achievement, but the field was very competitive, made up mostly by experienced club runners who have been doing this for years and posses enviable physiques. While I am a slow, slightly podgy, well-meaning beginner who only started running in April.

Regardless, I am pretty chuffed: this is my PB on the distance! And I am slowly edging towards a running pace of 9 min per mile, which would be a very respectable half-marathon pace if I could keep it up, and a major improvement on the 13 min per mile pace of my very first run all those weeks ago.

Must keep training!

Friday, 5 August 2011


My first challenge is Tennis.Perhaps not a sport usually associated with the Olympics, tennis appeared at the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 but was dropped from the programme after the Paris 1924 Games. It returned 64 years later at Seoul 1988. The Tennis competition at London 2012 will feature five medal events: men’s and women’s Singles, men’s and women’s Doubles, and for the first time since 1924 Mixed Doubles.

I have held a racket in my life, convinced as I am of having poor hand-eye coordination. Furthermore I seldom partook in the national obsession with Wimbledon and its long awaited British Singles winner. In summary, I have a rudimentary knowledge of the game and no practice whatsoever.

With the favourable auspices of the mild English summer, I duly enrolled into a 6 weeks Beginners course at my local gym together with 7 other brave apprentices, most of whom seemed to be far more advanced than me! Dave, the coach, who looks a bit like actor Bryan Brown, helps us along with plenty of encouragement and the occasional sardonic remark.

Today I had my 4th lessons. In the midsts of poorly controlled volleys and misdirected serves, I established unequivocally that Dave, the coach, can do a pretty good impersonation of Tom Jones, while I do a poor impersonation of Rafael Nadal (despite the near homonymity).

So far I have learnt, in no particular order that:
  • the serve is crucial, master that and you are half way there
  • the serve is challenging
  • my serve is deadly, but utterly inaccurate
  • my forehand is good but my backhand is dreadful
  • one must always keep the eyes on the ball
  • preparation is key
  • don't run to the ball, let it come to you
  • "five" can sometimes mean 15, and "love" doesn't mean affection but nought-ing at all

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Kevin Henry 5k Series - Newmarket

For the vast majority of my challenge, I will be learning a completely new sport. Fencing, weightlifting, judo and shooting, for instance. In some other cases I will try my hand at old favourites: rowing, football, volleyball, sports I practised at different levels at school or university. But in some cases, for endurance sports such as long distance running or triathlon, even though I might be a beginner, I will endeavour to enter into a competition/event.

For Athletics (distance) I decided to enter the St Neots Half-Marathon on the 21st of November. Running has never come easy to me. I seem to struggle more than most, I huff, I puff, I seem to progress at a snail pace. I don't think I ever run anything approaching a long distance, in the loosest possible sense of the word "long" and when I went for a trial run, I could barely cover 2 miles. In essence, no one is going to think I'm Paula Radcliff younger sister. Or even the older sister.

I concluded I needed a lot of training. Thus I invested in a pair of proper running shoes for injury prevention, started on a program of weekly runs, and joined a club for some advice and training. 

Since starting my Gold Challenge, I have clocked 95 miles. The club is part of a local league, the Kevin Henry Series, comprising five 5k runs. I missed the first race, but I've taken part in the remaining as a means of race training and preparation for my half-marathon challenge.

Tonight I did the third 5k in the series. It was held at Newmarket, in the world famous Newmarket racecourse. I couldn't help but think that the thoroughbred horses are far better engineered for running than me. The course was flat, but muddy and heavy going (in horse racing parlance) due to a late afternoon downpour. But I gave it my best. I won't know my time for a while, so far my best time in the series has been a not-so-zippy 28:30 on the 14th of July. Next race is on the 1st of September. I need all the help I can get if I am to survive my half-marathon attempt.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

My Gold Challenge and the Olympic legacy

Hello and welcome to my Gold Challenge blog!

In 2012 London will host the greatest sporting event in the world: the Games of the XXX Olympiad.

I feel it is both an honour and a great opportunity to be directly involved into the amazing Olympic spirit.

So, wanting to be part of the Olympic legacy, I decided to take on the Gold Challenge and raise money for Diabetes UK, which is a wonderful charity that helps people with diabetes and supports world-class research into a cure.

My challenge consists in learning or taking part in 30 Olympic and Paralympic Sport.
Sports are completed by:
  1. doing at least three hours of coaching in that sport; or
  2. taking part in a competitive event.
During my challenge I will learn fencing, sailing, taekwando, boxing, canoing, volleyball, shooting, archery, judo, boccia, water polo and many more, while taking part in some endurance events such as a triathlon, half-marathon, swimming, rowing and cycling events.

While I undertake my challenge, I hope to raise awareness about diabetes, and, crucially, the importance of an active lifestyle both as a measure of prevention and management of this debilitating, yet common, condition.

I set up a fundrising page, please help me complete my Gold Challenge and raise £1500 for Diabetes UK, working towards a future without diabetes!

Thanks for your generous support!