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.