Friday, 26 June 2015

In which I write another interminable post about cycling

I'd like to introduce you all to my current instrument of torture. Don't worry. It's not going to be that sort of post. Here it is:

The bit I want you to concentrate upon is the tiny pedal-y thing with 'Shimano' written on it. It's what's known as a 'clipless' pedal. Which seems odd, as the basic idea is that you clip your feet into it, but I'm sure someone far more knowledgeable than me will be along to explain why in a distinctly adenoidal way.

When I got this bike a month ago, it came with the standard plastic flat pedals that we're all used to seeing. A pretty simple concept. You put your feet on them and push down one at a time until you can't. Repeat until you have reached your destination, then stop and have some cake.

But people told me that I needed to go clipless. Physically attaching my feet to the pedals would make things so much more effective. I could pull up with one foot while pushing down with the other. It would make me faster. Hills would flatten. Lengths would shorten. I would become a Cycling God.

First of all I needed to purchase a pair of cycling shoes. These are ridiculous items which fail on almost every level when it comes to assessing the usefulness of footwear. They even have holes pre-drilled in the soles. And they look very, very silly.

You're not meant to point this out, of course.

One of the things I've learned about cycling is that you have to make yourself look silly. But it's an unwritten rule that this shouldn't be brought to anyone's attention. All of a sudden, the scales would fall from everyone's eyes, the artifice would crumble and we'd all be looking at each other, saying: "What were we thinking? Wearing skin-tight manmade fibres, crouching over bikes that weigh the same as a crisp packet, our feet pushing down on tiny metal stumps with disco slippers."

But I digress. So, earlier this week I replaced my pedals and set out to test the whole concept. Beforehand, I sat on the bike, propped up against the open garden gate, and practiced the whole 'clipping-in and clipping-out' thing. Because it's quite handy to be able to put a foot to the floor when you've stopped. I don't know if you've noticed this, but bikes are inherently unstable. The last thing I'd want to do is fall over, isn't it?

I think you can see where this is going.

So I went out. I followed a 25-mile circuit I hadn't done for some time, since I'd been under my doctor's orders to not over-exert myself. It wasn't the length, more the elevation. This route included a road called Rising Lane, named in a completely non-ironic manner by someone several hundred years ago. I was keen to see how I got on.

And it was good, largely. The pedals made a difference. When I came to any junctions it was relatively easy to unclip my left foot and lean over that way. All was good.

I headed back home and was coming through the leafy suburbs of Solihull when I thought I'd pull off the road to stop and have a drink. I'm not one of those flash Harrys who can reach down for their bottle, drink and ride at the same time. Baby steps, and all that.

So I rode onto the pavement and slowed. I unclipped my right foot. I leant left. There was a brief period of time when quite a lot of things happened.

Gravity is a cruel mistress, isn't she? Mind you, paving slabs aren't much more benign.

So I now have a little less skin on my left knee and elbow. And what have we learnt, dear reader?

Cycling. It's a bloody silly pastime.


There is some method behind all of this. As well as being generally beneficial to my well-being (comedy elbow and knee scrage notwithstanding), I'm using my new-found liking for cycling for good. Next month I'm doing the British Heart Foundation's Heart of England Bike Ride with the mighty Team Lard and if you'd like to sponsor us, that'd be peachy.

The link is here. Ta everso.

Monday, 1 June 2015

The story of the shirt - an update

You won't remember this. I wouldn't expect you to do so. But five years ago I made a bit of a promise. And it was all because of a shirt.

I'm not going to expect you to go back and read a five-year old post. But it went like this. For Christmas in 2008 my parents bought me a very nice shirt. What we call a 'going-out' shirt. It was a little on the small side so the plan was for me to take it back to the store and change it. This was derailed somewhat by the sudden death of my father, three days later. The shirt went into the back of the wardrobe and I forgot about it.

In October 2010 I wrote about how I'd stumbled on the shirt again - the last present I ever received from both of my parents - and how I was going to use it as motivation to lose some weight.

Well. That went well, didn't it? Almost as well as the promise I made to walk Hadrian's Wall (current status: I bought some maps). Or the one about completing the Three Peaks Challenge (current status: I completed 0.6 of a Peak). I've even made various pledges about writing more often (this is the first post I've made in six weeks; knock yourself out, folks).

But a stopped clock is right twice a day. A promise made can become reality, given enough time. And so it was with the shirt. My mother reached her 80th birthday the other week. Having finally started the long process of losing some lumber, I wore the shirt.

I can't make any claims towards sartorial elegance. Quite frankly, for me clothing performs the dual functions of stopping me getting arrested and giving me somewhere to keep my keys. But, wearing the shirt for the first time, honouring the promise I'd made nearly five years previously, was a bit of a moment.

There is more to do. The carbs are still lurking, ready to make me put the shirt away in the back of the wardrobe again. I'm not going to make any promises this time. I have a bit of a poor track record where that's concerned.

But for the present time, let's celebrate the little victories. And in the meantime, does anyone want to buy some maps of Cumbria?

Monday, 6 April 2015

The Poundland Ironman

I realise it must be a little worrying for some of you. I write about some health issue or other, and then you get nothing but radio silence for over a month.

I mean, for all you know I might have already pitched face-first into my soup, clutching at my chest and whispering some final truths to my dining companions, together with the logon for my internet banking so Katie could cancel the direct debit for the Mens Health magazine subscription.

Of course, in these days of social media we never truly disappear, so most of you will know that I am, in fact, still vaguely upright. I have been prescribed a veritable cornucopia of pills. And I'm here to tell you that those inexpensive blood pressure monitors you can buy in Boots are cheap for a reason.

I religiously logged my BP for a month. As the doctor ordered, I chose different times. Sometimes I monitored in  the morning. Sometimes I monitored in the afternoon. Sometimes I monitored in the...well, you can see where this is going. I was a monitoring fool. But the numbers remained stubbornly high until I went back to the doctor for a follow-up. I'd literally just measured my pressure at home beforehand and marvelled at the numbers which suggested my heart was working away like a fire appliance. So when I asked him to do it at the surgery, there were mixed emotions when the numbers he got from his old-fashioned but clinically calibrated device were significantly lower than the lump of plastic at home that had tormented me for the preceding four weeks.

So I'm back on the bike, having solemnly sworn to She Who Must Be Obeyed that I would avoid hills and other general silliness. This makes me happy as I feel like I'm doing something positive, and my 1,000 mile challenge is back on. I'd quite like to do something impressive, cycle-wise, later this year and getting out there regularly is a step in the right direction. I'm beginning to feel guilt if I don't get on the bike, so emotional self-blackmail is back on the menu.

As you'd expect, I'm not out of the clutches of the medical profession yet. This week I'm back at the hospital again for something called an Ambulatory Blood Pressure Test. Essentially, after a certain amount of prodding and poking, they're going to strap a blood pressure monitor to me, which I'll have to wear for 24 hours. Throughout the day - and, worryingly, the night - this thing will go off at regular intervals so they get a true picture of how my internal plumbing copes over a longer period.

They say I'm not to stay at home, but to go about my normal business as they need to see how I cope with the rigours of everyday life. Of course, given that my everyday life isn't normally interrupted every 30 minutes by beeping and the muffled sound of inflation and deflation, this is by nature a little artificial, but I'll do the best I can.

When it beeps, I'm actually meant to drop what I'm doing, stop what I'm doing, sit down and raise my arm to keep the cuff at heart height. Which, of course, will be nicely unobtrusive and not at all a disturbance. Driving is going to be fun, given that whole pesky 'turning the steering-wheel and changing gear' thing. But the kicker is this - I'm not allowed to speak while the monitor is doing its business. I'm thinking of wearing a sign. I have meetings at work that afternoon. My colleagues aren't used to seeing me go quiet and then hearing the sound of rushing air coming from my person.

Well, not since I ditched the high-carbohydrate diet, anyway.

In a way I've been here before. Several years ago when I had sleep problems, the very same hospital strapped another set of monitoring equipment to me to wear in bed. We came the the conclusion that one of the things likely to stop me sleeping was having medical analysis equipment attached to me. I remarked at the time that I was gussied up like the Poundland Darth Vader; this next week's experience will be somewhat similar, but I'm imposing it on my co-workers too.

They are lucky, lucky people.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

I'm fine, honest

There comes a point in every person's life when the march of time begins to stamp quite firmly on your toes. When you start needing more regular maintenance, a little more attention from the specialists. When you begin to be more than just a nodding acquaintance to the receptionist at your doctor.

Quite frankly, the fact that it's happening for me now is a mixture of disappointment and amazement. Disappointment that as I face my 45th birthday next month my inevitable descent into decrepitude is underway. Amazement that it didn't happen sooner, given the poor choices I made over the last few decades.

But I'm fine, honest.

I say that because there's a chance someone who reads this will know my mother. And while she's busy enough lighting a candle for my immortal soul every week, quite frankly she doesn't need the additional hassle of worrying about my body too. She'd need extra matches. I've told her much of what follows anyway, but if worrying were an Olympic discipline she'd win gold, silver and bronze, so let's keep this between ourselves, shall we?

It all started when I had my semi-regular medical check about a month or so ago. The typical run of tests, proddings and samples. (They actually gave me the choice of not having 'the-usual-test-they-give-to-men-of-my-age-involving-a-thumb' and I declined. You'd at least need to buy me dinner before I'd let that happen.)

I was in relatively good shape - well, for me - at that point. I'd lost about 25 pounds in the previous few months, had started up regular exercise and wasn't eating so much beige food. Most of the numbers from my tests were ok, or at last heading in the right direction. There was one problem. My blood pressure was high, and no matter how often they tested, it remained stubbornly elevated.

They sent me on my way and told me to make an appointment with my GP, who would prescribe me something to bring it down. Of course, later that day I did what every person does nowadays, and googled the potential impact of hypertension.

That was a silly thing to do, and certainly didn't do my blood pressure any favours. I made the appointment.

I'm no medical expert, but by all accounts, a resting blood pressure reading of 230/170 is a Bad Thing, so my GP tells me. So now I'm a diagnosed hypertensive. God knows what it was like when I was carrying two stone in extra weight last year, when I was doing sponsored bike rides (ironically, for the British Heart Foundation) and hauling my sorry arse around the lanes of Birmingham and Solihull, going red in the face and breathing like a bronchial locomotive. Best not to think about it, eh?

My instructions are this: just keep taking the pills, and avoid strenuous exercise. So I'm off the bike for the moment. But I'm fine, honest.

That was until the chest pains.

It turns out that when you present yourself at your GP again, complaining about chest pains, it's a cause for some concern. Especially if you're male, middle-aged, overweight, with high blood pressure and a family history of heart problems. Lots of boxes were ticked that day, I can tell you. I ended up going to A&E (ER for our American readers). There was no real drama at this point, apart from the looks emanating from She Who Must Be Obeyed when I told her I'd had the chest pains for a week or so. My telling her that it therefore "probably wasn't a heart attack" did not go down too well.

At the reception to A&E, there's a sign that essentially says: "If you have chest pains, come to the window IMMEDIATELY", however this is England so I queued. On explaining my symptoms, I was given a bright orange card and gently told to make my way through the door on the left.

This was how I ended up in the Resuscitation Room. I understand now; if they'd made a fuss at the front desk, rung alarm bells, shouted the word "STAT!", or, for that matter, mentioned the words "Resuscitation Room," chances are that wouldn't have helped matters.What with me being an unknown quantity, cardiac-wise.

Over the next seven hours I had more proddings and pokings. Three ECGs, two blood tests, a chest x-ray and cup of NHS tea. I'm not sure that the tea was the best part of the experience, but needs must.

The analysis showed that I wasn't, in fact, having a heart attack. Which was nice. It was probably a muscle strain in the chest wall. But I am off to see my GP again next week, to see what we can do about my blood pressure, which still shows numbers previously only seen by NASA.

It's ironic, though, isn't it? I'd hoped I'd turned things around. I'd found a form of exercise that I didn't actually hate, I'd begun to think about what I put in my mouth (behave yourselves) and consider how nice it would be to have a long, undramatic retirement in 20-odd years instead of another pie. Because the last thing I wanted was to be part of the healthcare system, other than shelling out a chunk of money in National Insurance every month so it can look after other, more needy cases.

But I'm in the system now, and on reflection it's the best place for me. Hopefully we'll get past this relatively minor nuisance and I'll be back, holding up traffic and picking up where I left off on that '1,000 miles in a year' thing. I look sadly at the bike and SWMBO tuts disapprovingly. It is, to quote Dylan Thomas, "a bit of a bugger".

But I'm fine, honest.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

A Grand Don't Come For Free

Last year I entered a strange and mysterious secret society. Well, not that strange, I suppose. Or mysterious, come to think of it. On reflection, I guess it's not so secret.

Ok. I entered a society. Sort of.

You may have seen me mention it in one or two of the many postings I made in 2014. I suppose you could have missed it, buried as it was in the near-photographic recollection of everything else that happened to me in the twelve months. But for those of you that weren't paying attention, I became a cyclist.

I know. It surprised me too. I just thought I'd obtained a bike. But no. Without realising it, I had become a member of the Cyclorati.  It turns out that when you walk your new bike out of the shop, the Cycling Gods catch sight of you and put you under their spell, or something. I can't explain it.

I mean, there I was, minding my own business, when I realised I wasn't getting any younger (apart from Benjamin Button, who is?) and my waistline was expanding to equal my age in years. That's never a good thing to realise as you plummet headlong into your mid 40s, is it?

I'd toyed with the idea of regular exercise in the past. Approximately a million years ago I'd been a regular member of a gym. Of course, by 'regular member' I mean I had a direct debit going out of my bank account and some lovely branded towels in the airing cupboard. But after the first few months of going, I'd come to the conclusion that sitting on my sofa with some biscuits was much better for the soul.

More recently, I'd taken up going for long walks in the countryside. But, lovely though the countryside is, it tends not to move too quickly when you're walking through it. I get bored quite easily, you see.

So, inspired by my workmates, many of whom were ardent cyclists, last April I went out and got something called a Giant Escape 3 Hybrid. I was slightly disappointed to realise that 'hybrid' doesn't mean 'it has an electric motor to help you up hills' (although such things do exist), merely that it was a sort of mix between a road bike and a mountain bike. Here it is:


But here's the thing. I actually found that I quite enjoyed riding the thing. After my first purchase of padded shorts, it hurt a lot less. You can't see in this photo, but the saddle is not a seat. Oh dear no, it's a shelf, upon which you may rest your derriere from time to time. But don't expect anything in the way of comfort. My backside is, basically, my suspension.

We were lucky in that 2014's weather was relatively benign and so I ended up going out on it regularly, all the way up to December. And I was out on it once more on the second day of 2015, when the rest of the civilised world still seemed to be sleeping off the port and sausages.

And as I headed out on 2 January, I had a thought. I'm not one for New Year's Resolutions. But it's quite nice to have a target to aim for. And there I was, 2015 stretching out in front of me like a sodding great big 52 week-shaped blank canvassy-thing. So why not set myself a little challenge?

I'm in the position now where I can do 20-mile plus rides relatively easily, although hills are still an issue and I tend to bimble along at an average 10 mph, so I'm not what you call competitive. But why don't I see if I can hit a mileage total for 2015? How about 1,000 miles over the year?

Your serious cyclists will by now be collapsing in laughter. One thousand sounds like a lot, especially if you write it in words, but to your seasoned lycra-jockey it really isn't. Some competitive events - open to amateurs, believe it or not - hit 600 km (360 miles) in a single ride. I'd think twice about driving that distance in a fully-fuelled car, to be honest.

But to hit 1,000 miles, the distance of each ride is less critical. Consistency is the key. I need to get on my bike weekly throughout the year. I need to perhaps get on it more often than that when daylight and weather allow. And I need to satisfy the nerdy statistician in me by keeping records and ticking-off the miles as they pass.

I'm not doing this for any good cause. I don't want to be sponsored (although I might do the odd event in the year). I'm not even certain I'll end up finishing it. But it just seemed to me to be worth an attempt.

Don't worry, though. This blog will not turn itself over to bike-related discussions. I'm exercising so I can live, not the other way around. But, if anything, it gives me a reason to update it.

And for the record, the current statistics are: 15.4/1,000.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Mind the gap

Well. This is a little embarrassing.

Over the last few years, there have been gaps in postings. Sometimes you may have gone a couple of weeks without seeing anything new here. Occasionally you may have seen a month or so go by.

I say "you" in the plural, although that's probably a little ambitious these days. I can count the readership of this blog on the fingers of one thumb.

But the last time I put anything up here was August last year. And 2014 itself was hardly a prolific year for postings, was it, dear reader?

I'm aware that on a regular basis I come back to this blog after such a gap and say things like: "This time it's different"; "I'm going to knuckle down and update this regularly"; "I'm determined not to let this slip again".

Which is all utter nonsense, isn't it? Because by and large, there's always another stonking great big gap lurking around the corner.

So then. 2014. I acted in a couple of plays. I took up cycling and found that I actually quite enjoyed it. I went to Morocco again. I lost two and a half stone in weight (about 35 pounds if you're one of my non-readers from 'Murica).

And yet I did practically no writing. Shocking. Especially given that I had some good source material. In 2010, when I was neither acting, cycling, losing weight nor visiting the mysterious continent, I wrote 109 posts. Last year I did seven. SEVEN!

I'm not going to make any promises, because we've seen where that gets us in the past. Let's just see how 2015 pans out, shall we?

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Pedalling nonsense

It occurs to me that I never really gave an update after my last post, in which I made a frankly shameless attempt to beg for your money for a cycling event.

I mean, I ask you for your cash, tell you I'm off to ride a bike around the West Midlands (well, around a really quite small bit of it) and then...nothing.

For all you know, dear reader, I could have been lying in a ditch somewhere for the last few weeks. I could have been set upon by a band of rabid stoats who are holding me hostage until their demands are met*.

It could happen.

Well, it didn't. I'm here today to tell you that I completed the 18 mile circuit and didn't die. I only had to get off and push once, and that's solely because I mucked up the changing of the gears when a sudden hill appeared. That's my excuse, and I'm sticking to it.

Look. I even have photographic proof:

I was shepherded around the course by two friends, Leanne and Rich, who are much more competent cyclists than me. They wear lycra and have ridiculously light road bikes. I mean, look at them. They're thin and fit. An alien landing on Earth and looking at the three of us wouldn't even think we were all the same species, for God's sake.  They even thought to take off their helmets for this photo. That's the sign of a proper cyclist.

They kept close to me as I bimbled around the circuit, being overtaken by everyone. I think we were passed by an eight-year-old on a Raleigh Chipper at one point. They are serious cyclists and would normally have been off, like wheeled greyhounds, but they stuck to me and made sure I wasn't left alone to die in a pitiful steaming mess by the side of the road.

But here's the thing. I've been cycling now for a few months. I only get to go out maybe twice a week at the moment. And I haven't really logged hundreds of miles yet. But I actually quite enjoy it. Perhaps I've found a form of exercise I can get along with? Walking is too boring - it takes a long time for the scenery to change. If I took up jogging it's a toss-up as to what would fail first, my heart or my knees. But I've found I can get on with cycling.

No-one's forcing me to do 100 miles up a mountain at 25mph. I can go at my own pace, and I seem to be getting used to it. When I first did 10 miles I was indistinguishable from a corpse by the time I finished. But now I'm easily pushing on past that and adding more miles every time.

Here's the real test. It was tipping down with rain this weekend so I didn't get a chance to ride. And I've missed it.

Whoa. This is scary. Whisper it quietly, but I even found myself looking at some road bikes online the other day.

I used to look at middle-aged-men-in-lycra in a slightly bemused way before this started. But I think I'm beginning to see the point. Mind you, winter's coming. A couple of weeks of ice and I'll be saying "Bike? What bike?"

But at least while the sun's out I might be able to make a bit of a difference to the waistline.

*(Independence for Stoatland. All weasels to be kept in harnesses. Severe punishment meted out to anyone who can't tell the difference).


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