Monday, September 10, 2012

A bit more pressure please

Today was always going to be an important day for me. I'd been hanging out for it for out about three weeks: my appointment with the cardiologist. In some respects it felt like an appointment with destiny. But deep inside me I felt the old ticker was fine - there were no real signs or symptoms that anything was wrong, and I after all I put it through it would seem weird that it would go postal on me all of a sudden.

So let me backtrack. My last post outlines the position I am in. So since this last update there have been a few (non-)developments. My GP continued to be stumped (his words).

First I was sent for a contrasted dye CT scan. I suppose this was to fully check out my lungs and put to bed the nagging possibility that the blood tests had failed to pick up any clots, and look for anything the normal X-ray did not pick up. I went through the X-ray tube four times, once with my blood pumped full of whatever it was (probably iodine) that would make it show up. As soon as the chemicals entered my blood I could feel a rather hot surge through the upper body, and left me with a metallic taste in my mouth. This all showed that my lungs and arteries were in good shape: no sign of any collapse, clots, or anything else that could be causing the problem.

Next I was sent for some Spirometry tests to test lung functions. I got through these with flying colours, with my initial breath expiration at 122% of normal for my age, weight and height. The other readings were just above or below the normal line. On the basis of this, and the CT scan the doctor ruled out asthma. I am not persuaded this is an accurate diagnostic method. These can be good for ruling asthma "in", but the high chances of false negatives means asthma should not be ruled out. I believe I need to tested again with methacholine and excerise challenges. And if the symptoms show, as I expect under exercise at least, then I need to see if a bronchodilator results in a reversal. Of course it's difficult to tell the doctor what he should do, but I feel that in the absence of any other diagnosis I can push for it.

Anyway, back to today. First I had a normal at-rest ECG. As it was my third one in the last few weeks I expected it to be normal, as it was. Then I underwent an echo cardiogram, which is basically an ultrasound of the heart, not too different from the ultrasound that pregnant woman have. I know many of you might want to know if I have a male or female heart, but honestly, I wasn't going to ask, and the cardiolist didn't offer an opinion. Dr R. has a great manner. She comes across as very precise, and kept me well informed throughout the process. This gave me a lot of confidence in her. And besides she is a ceroc dancer of old. She told me she met her husband at ceroc, and once they were married they stopped going. I digress, but that was an important fact!

My heart showed no scarring or any other signs of damage. One little problem was obvious however, and even I could see that once she explained to me what to look for. The valve pumping into the main upper chamber (this is the one that does most of the work for athletes) was a bit leaky. In otherwords not all the blood in the lower chamber was making it through the valve - a small percentage was squirting back. Now from what I understand this is nothing to worry about. It is quite common, and at that level of malfunctioning it is not worth worrying about it. I need to get it checked every five years, just to be safe. I imagine this would be slightly inefficient from an athletic performance perspective - well I have to blame something for being such a slow coach!

Once Dr R. was happy the heart was in good shape she had no issues with stress testing me on the treadmill. She ordered her technician to wire me up again, and put me on the Accelerator programme. I had just told her my whole story, and once she heard about full distance triathlon and what was involved she told him to crank it up. No point in putting me on the granny programme she said.

So I started out at walking pace on a slight incline. The ECG and heart rate ran continously and I eyed out the resus kit next the the treadmill. My blood pressure was taken every two minutes, but I had to keep going. My maximum heart rate was determined using the arbitary age method as being 170. I knew though I could go a bit higher than that as I can normally race for about 20 minutes at 170. They eventually had me running at 10kph on a 22% incline, and that was enough to take my heart rate to 175 at which point I didn't have the stomach for it anymore and asked to stop. I could have pushed through to 180, but I felt that was far enough - if something was going to show it would have shown by then. She had wanted me to go as hard as I could so that I would have confidence to race again.

So through it all my ECGs were absolutely normal. At 175 beats per minute I did throw a few uneven heartbeats. But that is quite normal under that level of stress, and I am used feeling it, so nothing to worry about there.

But this is where the second issue showed up. My blood pressure at rest is pretty much in the middle of the normal range. However once I started to exercise it is supposed to increase. At Stage 3 for example (stage 7 is maxed out), my blood pressure was still quite low at 157/83 although my heart rate was already at 117. And at stage 7 with the heart rate at 170 plus, the BP was 173/75. And this could very much explain why I am not getting the air that I need - there is simply not enough pressure to get the blood flowing through fast enough to oxygenate themselves.

Now once I stopped my blood pressure was supposed to decline back to normal. The first reading was down, but 2 minutes later it rocketed up to 215/84 - what it should have been when I was at maximum heart rate.

But Dr R. could not say for certain that this was abnormal for me. She did say the low BP could well be a result of my fitness. And the delayed effect did fit well with what I knew from my interval training. If I am planning say 10 intervals I will pace myself accordingly, but after the second or third one I feel exhausted and am only just making my target times, but by the fourth and fifth one I seem to hit my straps and suddenly my times drop. So despite a well structed warm up, I need to get to peak heart rate several times before the efficiencies kick in. And maybe that is all that happened today.

The other possibility is that the low BP is an autonomic response from a viral infection. Autonomic is basically an involuntary nervous system response, but as to how this could be influenced by a viral infection is beyond my ken. Nevertheless this gives me something to monitor. I can "wire" myself to my electronic BP monitor (I've had one for years, I'm a health geek) while I am on the windtrainer and measure what is happening. The breathing symptoms are most obvious under low stress, so this makes it easy to measure. I need to see if the phenomenon is reproducable, and if it changes over time. If it is a viral response it should be improving with rest.

I do think things are not as bad now as they were 4 weeks ago, but that may be because I have got used to the symptoms, and I know how to manage them. Added to this is the fact that I am not nearly as worried that I might die soon. I know this sounds a bit melodramatic, but it is how I was feeling some of the time.

Dr R. is keen that I have the extended asthma tests I mentioned earlier, and is happy that I can start training after a break provided I take it really easy to begin with.

So all in all it's a good result so far. I may not be much closer to a diagnosis, but I certainly have ruled out a lot of really bad things. And that has to be good. Obviously I still have to take things easy, avoid stress and build a good recovery for myself until I have a clearer picture of the situation.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The air that I breathe

This post is somewhat personal - more than I would normally talk about publicly. But I don't have the energy to explain my situation to those who need, or want, to know. And it describes a new journey for me. A journey not planned. A journey not wanted. And this blog is about my journeys.

On my flight back from Japan, after Challenge Roth in Germany, I had difficulty breathing. Not so bad that I was struggling for breath, but enough to keep me from sleeping or even relaxing. It was a bit worrying at the time, but no sooner had I landed, the problem went away. There were no issues on the short domestic flight home, and I put it down to bad air in the plane, even if no one else seemed to be battling.

Only on reflection did I recall that after I "hit the wall" on the run at Roth, that I was having a slight breathing difficulty on the long walk in. But anything can, and usually does, happen in a full distance triathlon - so something like that was hardly worth writing home about. It was the same kind of feeling I later had on the plane.

In the following two weeks I was fine, and managed a couple of short swims and runs as I eased back into training. I felt fine. I had had a bad cold just prior to flying out, and was loaded with antibiotics in the week before race day. I had been in a slightly weakened state when I raced but definitely not sick anymore. I finished, although somewhat slower than I hoped, and appeared to recover at my usual pace.

Then two weeks after my return I ventured out on the bike for what I expected to be an easy 90 minute ride. As I was idling along the flats by the river, some 5 minutes from home, I realised I was breathing hard, a bit like I had been on the plane. I checked my pulse and it was pretty low, and there were no other signs of exertion. Somewhat mystified I continued my ride for a while, but then concerned that something more serious than simple fatigue was going on, I cut it short and headed for home. And since then, now about two weeks, I have continually had this same difficulty in breathing. It usually gets worse with any mild exertion or mild stress, even say dealing with traffic at a roundabout, and seems to improve when I rest.

It is hard to describe what happens. In some respects it's like when I am lying in bed my breathing is like I am walking briskly, and when I am walking it feels the same as when I am jogging. But that is not a completely accurate description. Normally exercise makes me breath harder, but then I do not have the sensation that I am not getting enough air - my breathing just increases naturally and I do get enough air. Now, it's like I keep finding myself out of breath and I have to work to gain the oxygen I need. The closest I can come to it is for those who have tried altitude simulation training, where you breath through a tube attached to air filters and scrubbers. You have to suck on the tube and work quite hard to get enough air at the simulated altitudes. What I have feels similar, although perhaps not quite as difficult as breathing a 10,000 feet simulation.

The upshot is that it leaves me a little tired, and quite worried. The fatigue, and the worry come and go, pretty much in line with the breathing.

So after a few days I booked an appointment for the following week with my GP. However when I awoke on the Saturday morning, I was not a happy camper, and was at this stage feeling somewhat afraid of my circumstances. Put simply my mortality was much more obvious than it usually is. So despite my disinclination to sit in the weekend queue with dozens of sick people I headed for the clinic.

Not wanting to announce my shortness of breath which I knew would push me to the front of the queue, I patiently (OK, bad pun, I know) waited an hour and a half to be seen. However when they did see me, they began to mobilise reasonably quickly - and this scared me even more. Before long they had taken blood and rushed it under urgency to the lab, done an ECG, listened, prodded and poked at various places around my body. I was then allowed home until the blood test results came back a few hours later. Fortunately it seemed, I was not exhibiting any signs of the normal dangerous things associated with shortness of breath, in particular a recent or pending heart attack, or pulmonary embolism (a blot clot in an artery near the lung). The latter can follow DVT (deep vein thrombosis), which as an aging endurance athlete who had just been on a long haul flight was an obvious concern. Because long distance athletes have lower pulse rates the blood tends to pool in the legs on long flights more easily, making them more vulnerable than average.

I was back at the doctors on the Monday, and again on Thursday. Another ECG, a chest X-ray and more listening, and prodding has revealed nothing. The problem however, has not abated. For sure, it improves or worsens over time, but it is with me all the time now. My GP's advice is to go home and report back if there are any changes, and I have a list of things that I have to particularly watch out for. He understands that I am pretty much in tune with my body and am well aware of changes in things like blood pressure, oxygen saturation, pulse rate, temperature and so on. These things I tend to monitor fairly regularly as it is.

So this leaves me with the possibility that I am under some sort of stress which is causing this. While I am very much open to this possibility I find it hard to understand. For starters I live a good and happy life. To be sure it is not stress free, but things pretty much work for me. I don't work too hard, and I spend a lot of time following, and fulfilling my dreams. And then, I have no other signs that this is a stress response; my heart rate throughout has been rock solid at its relatively slow resting pace in the fifties or low sixties, and my blood pressure is on the low side but within the normal range. There is no sweating, and no feeling of any kind of fear, apart from the fact that I am finding the whole thing somewhat disconcerting. And the first "attack" after the airplane episode was when I was idling my bike on the track alongside the river doing what I like doing best - definitely not seeming like a stress situation.

Small mental or physical stressors can set me off. But sometimes they do not. And on other occasions it seems to get worse without cause. We had a real downpour at midday yesterday and water was pouring into the house. OK, it was only a few litres, but that is quite a bit water getting splashed over your bed, carpets and more significantly into the structure of the house. Normally I would find this quite stressful given my distaste for wooden houses that can rot, but this event had no effect on my breathing at all. Then later in the day I had to go to the Postshop to exchange some left over Euros I had lying around. And this little non-event left me quite breathless. I know I find dealing with people hard - I am the consumate introvert, I don't do that people interaction thing much - but this was a ridiculous response.

So in short, I don't know what this is all about. I have a growing strategy in my head on how to approach this. I am a computer programmer. I can write code quickly and easily, but I spend most of my working life debugging situations: either programming code, or end user descriptions. Defining problems is what I do. Now I will just have to do it in a different situation. I have a lot of confidence in my GP, but his "go home" answer to me is inadequate, so I think he is going to get to know me rather better in the next few weeks.

My training, and racing is therefore on hold, perhaps indefinitely pending further developments or solutions to this problem. With a little luck this bogey will vanish as mysteriously as it arrived. So my shot at the World Triathlon Champs in Auckland in October is looking rather unlikely. Despite my big efforts to get there, I am not too concerned about that. More significant for me is my January date in Wanaka. It's the one race in the year I don't want to miss, for if I do, I will lose one of the memberships I am most proud of - belonging to the small club comprising the original survivors of Challenge Wanaka. And the fact that I am one of only two people to own the entire set of southern hemisphere Challenge Medals is a big incentive too. But that is still nearly six months away. I figure things will have changed substantially by then, one way or another.

However, if I have to quit racing now, I will be philosophical. I have had a great 25 years of racing, spread over more than 30 years, with 19 ironman distance finishes and a dozen other similarly long events under my belt. And I've raced on foreign shores in the black singlet at age group level. I did my first triathlon in 1982, and was doing other endurance events long before that. I've always known the time will come when I will stop, but I rather suspected it would be a decision based around simply having had enough. I've kind of dreamed of "downing tools" mid race and saying "That's it, I'm done now".

But as for the rest of my life, I have much living to do, and damn it, I need the air that I breathe!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Challenge Roth 2012 race report

Writing a race report is kind of therapeutic: you get to deal emotionally with the good and bad bits of the race. I actually write much of it in my head while on the bike. It helps me get through those long hours. Most, if not all of what I write in my head never finds it's way into written words, and sometimes a report never gets penned at all. And when it does, you will find I ramble on. But then this is for me, it's my record of the event. I'll let you read it if you like. So, here is my race report for Challenge Roth 2012, the biggest, and funnest full distance triathlon in the world. It's more than a race, it's a festival, a party even.

Build up
My build up to the race could hardly have been worse, although I don't want to tempt fate. Mostly, my training went reasonably well, for winter that is. I count my weeks backwards from race day, and only start thinking of real training for an event at about week 8 (i.e. 8 weeks out). Weeks 5 and 4 are the critical ones for me, and I didn't get much done at that time mainly due to really cold June weather. But the weeks before and after that were good. But then I did absolutely nothing for the last two weeks, firstly due to a surfing escapade which I enjoyed but was a bad idea. Hey, you only live once.  More critically 10 days out I developed a bad cold, and started on antibiotics 8 days before my race. Yes, I know antibiotics don't fix a cold, but it's the secondary infection that actually lays me low, and what I needed to get on top of.

I knew I was taking a bit of risk flying in 4 days before the race, but I had a carefully planned flight schedule to minimise the jet lag. However when I booked my tickets I hadn't factored in that I might be sick. Because my eventual decision to race in Roth was a very late one, I had not booked any accommodation, so staying in Nurnberg was my only option. I was lead to believe the great German public transport system would work for me. It did not. I don't dispute that its a great public transport system - it's brilliant. But it didn't fit in around the race organisation schedule, particularly in light of the fact that the start and T1 (transition 1) are some 10km away from the finish, and that they choose to hold the race briefing at 6pm the night before the race - a very unsatisfactory time given my location and reliance on public transport.

The upshot of this was that on the afternoon before the race I had to ride my bike 15km, walk 4km, and hitchhike the rest. I arrived back at my accommodation some 6 hours after I left, at 8pm, exhausted and hungry. Now my normal pre race schedule involves lying down from about noon the day before the race. Add to this the fact that I was still jet lagged and getting over a cold. My legs ached when I climbed stairs - my key indicator that I needed rest. A full distance triathlon the next day was definitely not my preferred list of things to do.

And on race day I had to wake up at 4.30am, more than 3 hours before my start. In Wanaka and Taupo I normally only wake up 90 minutes before my start, and I get to bed a lot earlier. Again this was due to the logistics around my accommodation and transport options.

Race morning started with a taxi ride, and a traffic jam. However the traffic was moving and I got to the start without too much stress. It was only when I arrived at the start and saw nearly 4000 bikes racked in the paddock, and the associated hustle and bustle did I begin to feel more comfortable. This is what I had come to do, not hassle with trains, taxis, baggage, foreign languages, antibiotics and so on.

Fortunately Syko Simpson was there, his bike racked near mine, and chatting to him during the two hour wait calmed the nerves. Roth starts in "waves" of about 300 athletes every 5 minutes. I was in the second to last wave 70 minutes after the professionals had set off.

The swim
But before I knew it I was in the water. And I experienced what I call "The Swim Start Effect". What this means, is that once you are in the water nothing else matters. It doesn't matter how good or bad your build up has been, that is all history, you are now racing. "Living in the now" is a concept oft spoken about these days. Well, you don't get more living in the now, than during a triathlon swim. Everything else melts away. It's just you, in the water, in a race, and those pesky goggles that fog up.

I really just cruised the swim. I couldn't see where I was going, so followed whatever feet where in front of me. I used to use $12 goggles and buy a new pair every year or so. This plan worked brilliantly and they never leaked and I could always see where I was going. Then I couldn't source that brand any more, and I switched to expensive $40 goggles, and still buy a new pair every year. Now I can never see out of them when I need to (yes, I do spit in them, but it makes little difference). Go figure. I couldn't read my watch either so had no idea of how far I was through the race. It felt like one of those days where they say you got out of bed on the wrong side. However towards the end of the swim I very grugdingly had to admit to myself I was enjoying swimming in this murky canal on the other side of the world.

The bike
I eventually exited the water some 7 minutes slower than my best time. Now while I had been swimming better than ever in training, I was still pleased with this time, given my circumstances. I nip through transtions pretty quickly these days and was soon on my bike, only to discover that there was rather a fresh breeze blowing. Later I reclassified it from a breeze to a strong wind. And it was doing the old switcheroo. It's a two lap course, and what was headwind on the first lap was tailwind on the second, and vice versa. And while this is one of the fastest courses in the world, the cycle is anything but flat, and it is also quite technical, especially when doing it for the first time. There are some tricky descents. I came across men with red flags. And then hay bales packed around the corners. So I knew I should slow down at these places. Brainy huh? I was doing more braking than I normally like to do on a triathlon course.

The support on the ride was sensational. The first food and drink station was run by the German army. It's hard to describe. It was about 500 m long (probably precisely 500m long). And the boys (and some girls) were resplendent in their uniforms. You were welcomed to the station with soldiers on either side of the road saluting as you rode up. I couldn't help myself I saluted back. Then the attendants were all in a perfect row, about 1.748m apart, right arms held out with Wasser, Iso, Cola (water, isotonic drink and coke), and various items of food.

Many of the intersections were managed by the Polizei, and a superb job they did to, not only managing traffic but directing cyclists as well. It was great to see the race backed by the authorities.

And the fans - well they certainly know how to do it. Some stand by the road. Boring! Others bring their benches, and tables, and they make beer gardens alongside the road, and they sit there in the sun drinking radlers while you sweat your way past. The famous Bier Mile in Eckersmullen is wonderful to see. I wanted to stop and partake, but sadly I was a tad busy.

I've grown up following the Tour de France on TV. Large crowds and cries of Allez Allez Allez are fixed in my head. In this race I got the large crowds but the chant was Hopp Hopp Hopp (Go Go Go). PA systems all along the route kept the music and the chanting coming. I rode up more than one hill to "Moves like Jagger", one of my favorite Ceroc dance songs.

And then there was Solarerberg. Words fail to properly describe what it is like. This is why I came here. A guy like me was never, ever going to ride in a race like the Tour de France. No matter now, I've ridden Solarerberg, and no one can take that away from me. They pressed in 3-4 deep and screamed all the way till I rode over the top. It was amazing, and it will live with me forever.

I got a special surprise just after the start of the second lap. There was a crowd at a certain point on a small hill, and as they do the cyclists tend to bunch up slightly on the hills. As I approached the group, I noticed one of the watching men start running and jockeying for position on the road. Clearly he had singled out a cyclist and wanted to run with him for a while. And then I realised it was me he was aiming to run with. I got an even bigger surprise when I realised who it was. There is a thing called the Challenge Family League. You get points for finishing a Challenge race. There are over 40 thousand people listed in the the league table. I'm quite pleased to be in the top 100 right now. But the fellow who was running with me, and yelling encouragement at the top of his voice is the one who sits at number 1 in the league, Luke Dragstra. I had run a bit with him in Wanaka one year after he injured his ankle and was reduced to a walk, one lap ahead of me. Triathlon is one sport where this happens. The professionals have every respect for age groupers. They know what it takes to get around a course like this, and they know that we are often out there a lot longer they are, that we have much less natural talent, and we get around sometimes on sheer guts and stupidity.

For many years, the 140km point on the bike course has been my nemesis. This is usually the point where I realise that "I can't anymore" (sorry, old army joke). It's not a good place to be, because you still have 40km to ride, the saddle has pushed up to your belly button, and your legs don't want to work those pedals no more. Now, while I hadn't gone passed 90km on the bike since January, I felt as strong over the last 40km as I had any other time of the race. I was about 8 minutes slower than my bike PB, again, not a bad result. But I feel as I now have the bike working for me. My set up is good, especially the wheels, tyres and my position on the bike.

The run
Finally I got to the end of the bike. I was tired and behind overall PB time by about 15 minutes, and my running training hadn't gone superbly well but I had had 4 decent runs between 8 and 12 km, and I wasn't injured. So I was going to give it a go. I ran the first 13k in an hour and a half, and this was well on schedule for a best time. But I know very well it doesn't work like that. Somewhere between 13 and 14km I ran in the proverbial wall, and at 14km I felt very much like a beaten man. Quit I would not, and so I settled in for a long painful 28km walk. I realised I was dehydrated, despite having drank more than I usually do, by at least half. I had only had sports drink, with a small amoint of coke, so I was sure this had given me enough salt.

But once you are dehydrated you can't really reverse that situation if you keep running. So over then next couple of hours I kept walking and had plenty of coke, water and chicken soup (thank you organisers, this was a great decision - our long distance tri coures generallydo not have enough salty foods available). I had thought I could easily walk in under the cut off of 15 hours. The cut off is not strongly enforced - its difficult with the wave starts to do so, but I didn't want to finish outside of it. However I was reduced to a less than 5km per hour walk at one stage and at that rate I wasn't going to make it. At his point I crossed Syko going the other way. He did not look too flash, and pulled out soon after.

My rehydration programme eventually worked, and by 30km I was back running and walking, and from 35km I was able to run the rest of the way. Before that however, I witnessed once of the worst things I have seen in triathlon. An attractive young lass had passed me a bit earlier, and I had remembered her cute pigtail plaits bobbing along as gracefully as she was. Sadly though the next time I saw her she was vomiting up an awful bloody mess. It did not look at all good. Luckily, the marshal patrol boat in the canal alongside the running track had noticed her, and was moving in for a closer look. I waved them in, trying to say, that she needed help quite urgently. One of the other runners was already holding her up. A minute later the ambulance was on its way, and I left the scene somewhat shaken.

The crowds were in behind me by now. They loved my pink set up. At first they where calling out "pink pink", but evntually they went with "super super". And some of them just burst out laughing when they saw me. But I made more than one young lass squeal with delight.

The finish
And so I finally made into the town of Roth. By now it was dark, and there a few magical sections along the cobblestones down classic narrow European alleys. And then on into the finish line area with 10,000 screaming fans. And into the arms of the delightful Kathrin, princess royale of triathlon in Europe. And then prince Felix got down on his knees to welcome me home. Alice gave me a hug too, sweaty as I was. I love these people dearly. They deserve so much respect, mainly because they know how to show it. Long live Roth.

Race photos below

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Tomorrow is the big day

I am nearly set for the big race tomorrow, almost, just about, pretty much. There are a few things to sort out.

My cold started to clear midweek, and I am feeling pretty good right now, having spent most of the last few days resting up. The first time at an event in a foreign language country can be a bit daunting. Added to the complications are that the race start and T1 (transition 1) are some 10km or so from T2, the finish, and race HQ. And this itself is 15min walk from the Roth station, which is a 20 minute train ride from Nuremberg. The main issue is race morning - the organisers have put on buses but the last bus from Roth is at 5.40am, fully 2 hours before my start. I would have to get up at about 4am to get that bus only to wait nearly two hours at the start. This is not a good thing, and a bit of a blight on my otherwise good experience so far.

So I have sought alternative plans - and basically a very expensive taxi ride seems to be the best option. The unknown really will be the size of the traffic jam, and this could jeopardise me getting to the start on time. But I'm going to leave about 2 hours before my start, and hope it is enough. This way I can get up at about 5am instead of 4am. And that is a big deal when you are still slightly jetlagged and have a 15 hour 8000 calorie event to face up to. And I don't want to be sitting around at the start for two hours.

The weather forecast looks reasonable. There may be a few rain storms, but it should be warm and not too windy.

Friday, July 6, 2012

The high price of food

Not long after arriving in Germany I became quite astounded by the exorbitantly high price of food. In New Zealand I mean. One euro currently buys around NZ$1.55 so the exchange rate is more favourable that it usually is for travelling Kiwis. But still, you could halve the rate and make it $3.00 per euro and food would still be cheaper in Germany than it is in New Zealand. And guess where the biggest difference is? You guessed right, if you thought dairy foods.

My first little shopping trip was to the convenience supermarket, not unlike a New Zealand Four Square. So I was expecting to pay even more, and not everything on the shelf was priced. I noticed some of the prices looked low but wasn't too sure if I understood things correctly. I only had 30 euros on me, and didn't really want to use my credit card. So, I filled up a shopping basket including a six pack of beer, some camembert cheese, 2 pottles of yogurt, 2 litres of water, some fancy bread, 200g of cherries, a litre of orange juice, a dozen eggs, and a couple of other items. I looked in the basket and thought it would be around NZ$45 at the supermarket, and even more at a convenience store. The total came to around 8 euros, or NZ$12. A six pack of beer for less than $3? I mean really, I can hardly home brew it at that price.

But the worst was the dairy products. Fancy cheese at less than $1 when I was expecting to pay $4-6, pottles of yogurt at 20c when I was expecting 5 times that. And the next day, milk for less than a dollar a litre.

Shame on you Fonterra, and you dairy farmers. You can't say it's just business. You need to assume some responsibility for those around you. These same people educate your children, look after you when you are sick, pay taxes to build roads to your farms, but you still think it's OK to rip them off? I bet you complain like mad when the school puts its very modest fees up, or they guy fixing your kitchen appliance charges you more than you think is fair. What do you pay for kiwifruit or apples? You don't see these products at 4 times German prices? You see them at about a half or less. Why does fresh milk cost less than NZ$1 a litre in Germany? Why is cheese more than 4 times more expensive in New Zealand? And butter?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Narita to Nürnberg

It seems to make a big difference to a long haul flight when you get a decent seat. Fussy as I am, I like to have a window seat. This is not to look out as it is too high to see anything most of the time. Rather, it helps me create my own little cocoon. I don't expect extroverts to understand that, but they probably will have lost interest by now and not read this far.

On the first leg to Narita I had a great window seat with heaps of space to the bulkhead in front of me - I couldn't actually reach it with my feet. And no one in the seat next to me. And similarly from Narita to Frankfurt I had a window seat with an empty space next to me. It was slightly more cramped, but I could still hide in my little world, do some work, have a nap, and catch a few movies. And that way the flight is over before you know it.

The little sojourn in Narita was kept really low key in order to fight off my cold. I tried Sushi Go Round - it's quite a craze in Japan where the sushi travels around the restaurant on a kind of conveyor belt, and you pick off what you want. Or you can use the touch pad at your table to send a fresh order to the chef. None of this messy human interaction stuff. It was great sitting there eating real sushi, not the New Zealand version, tasting some fine beer, and listening to crackly Beatles instrumentals coming over the sound system.

The little rest seems to have worked, and while I don't quite have that spring back in my step, I'm almost feeling normal again. And I have three whole days before race day - things are looking up.

Anyway today was quite a long day. Up at 5.30am to get out of the hotel, and catch the shuttle to the airport. I was first in line, just to make sure I got my window seat, as seat booking wasn't available online for this leg. Lufthansa had said they would charge me EU200 for my bike, but they did not. I hope the same happens on the way back.  Then I had to catch the train, which was a bit of a mission with my bike. At some point I had to negotiate about 6 floors worth of escalator as there was no lift to be seen. Trolleys at the airport need to be obtained via a small deposit. And finding the places to pick up or leave said trolley wasn't straightforward. My bike bag only has wheels on one end, and while not heavy it is rather ungainly, especially as I have another big bag to deal with as well, plus a small backpack. But I'm getting quite skilled at it.

Then getting on the train was a mission as well. The conductor merely told me my bags were too big, but did not suggest what I should or should not do about it. I don't suppose his English skills were up to it. Fortunately, as usually happens when traveling to races, you cross paths with other kindred spirits, immediately obvious mainly by their bike bike, but generally with that gaunt, hungry look, and if they are men their legs are shaved. So there was a couple, with bike bags in tow, and who spoke neither English nor German, but we exchanged nods and helped each other pull our bikes on to the train. I spent the first hour standing against the door in the carriage entrance. But eventually found a seat where I wrote most of this update.

So finally I arrived in Nürnberg (or Nuremberg as those English insist on calling it), and then had to negotiate another train station. Somehow leaving is usually easier. It was only a short walk to my flat, but I decided to catch a taxi and not fight with the bag for too long. After all it was after midnight Japanese time, and I had been awake for about 20 hours on a diet of not much sleep the last 5 days.

It's warm and sunny, and I'm definitely looking forward to making the short train trip to Roth tomorrow to register and suss out the scene. If you are a long distance triathlete, a visit to Roth has to be kind of a special journey. And this blog is supposed to be about special journeys.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Challenge Roth: the journey begins somewhat shakily

In the course of my life I've lined up for more than 30 endurance races that are of ironman-distance magnitude, but not necessarily swim-bike-run triathlons. These races take up my focus for much of each year. They are my "big thing", and over the years I have invested thousands of hours and dollars, and given up a lot to feed my magnificent obsession. And since I was a kid I've always been prone to being sick, specifically to the common cold. Typically I get 3-4 colds a year and they last around 3 weeks. It's not the virus part of a cold that hammers me - I usually seem to deal with that in a few days - but the secondary bacterial infection sets in, and takes forever to clear. So I've always wondered how I never got sick immediately before a big race, it just seemed that it had to happen at some stage. Because getting sick at the wrong time could result in a rather big loss of all the cost and hard work that has gone into the preparing for the event. Last year before I lined up for Challenge Cairns I was sick for 3 weeks but I shook it with a week to go, so I didn't count that.

But I wonder no more. On Friday, 9 days before Challenge Roth, with the trip still to negotiate I was struck down with a rather bad cold. To be fair both Cairns and Roth are the only times I've trained for an ironman-distance race through winter. But I still think I picked up this bug at dance class on Thursday night. Perhaps I shouldn't have gone. But I wanted to - being away means missing class for 3 weeks, and I didn't want to make it 4 weeks. At class there is a lot of "hand changing" with a lot of people, and hands are a great way to transmit colds. I do my best not to touch my face (but it feels so good, or something). And in case anyone hadn't noticed I'm kinda hooked-on-Ceroc right now.

On Sunday before my flight feeling very sorry for myself, I presented at the local weekend clinic at the doctors. Fortunately I got someone who understood my situation. He said I should have presented sooner, but I am so used to the "take something to ease the symptoms until they go away" and I hate having to face all those sick people in the waiting room. The good doctor decided not to take any chances and loaded me up with my favorite antibiotic and a pile of anti-inflammatories.

So after a few restless nights I boarded the first main leg of my journey from Auckland to Narita on Monday morning. We were delayed an hour while they searched the terminal for a passenger's drugs, medical I presume, and then because they didn't find them, they had to find the respective luggage and remove it from the hold. But it wasn't me, I kept my drugs next to my passport.

I don't yet know if I am going to race, but I'll spend most of the next 24 hours in my hotel room in Narita, before heading for Frankfurt, and hope that by then the antibiotics have kicked in. At least I feel that if I can shake the virus, I wont have to deal with any bacterial infection. I'm feeling much better this morning that I did last night. Ibuprofen seems to be a better decongestant than those you can buy these days - most have been removed from OTC sale because of mis-use in making illegal drugs.

Whether I race or not, this is disappointing. While I am definitely not in the form of my life, my training has gone reasonably well, I'm racing on the fastest course in the world, and for the first time in 3 years I'm not carrying an injury. It would have been a good time to get a personal best, and hopefully something that doesn't start with 13. Nevertheless, whatever happens it's been a very big week - with more than just the thought of the race on my mind.