Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Ugly... but quite fast

Handsome, no? I like to play for the cameras, as might have been clear from the Standard article. Bit more Joker than James Bond this time though...

Competed in the Hard as Snails 10k last Saturday, an event to raise money for the Surrey Wildlife Trust. Very beautiful run on the North Downs, past St Martha's Chapel. A nice reminder that you don't have to go very far out of London to get a bit of semi-wilderness, and some great views. And best part was I pulled off a top 10 finish, completing the course in under 42 minutes, which given the size of the hills was a really good result. Given that I'd done over 100 miles on the bike, plus short run and swim the day before, it was a good boost to the confidence - speed and endurance both seem to be getting positive effect.

Good thing too, with only 6 weeks to go!

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Not just a bloody-minded endurance goon...

...turns out people think I've got a brain as well!

Have just found out I've won the Ashridge Sustainable Innovation Award - an essay contest open to MBA students from all around the world. Can't quite believe, but as a result I'm off to Sweden in November to receive my prize from Maud Oloffson, the Swedish Vice Prime-Minister... just run a quick check and it looks like it will be possible to make the trip overland, although it might take a few days. It's really interesting for me, looking back at this essay now, as I wrote it back in May. There's a few ideas in there that have formed a little more in the intervening period though - there's some version of the Phoenix Economy recognised in there, for example.

Nice moment when I heard the news though - I was halfway through a 100 mile ride, and standing on a bridge in Henley on Thames, when I picked up the voicemail. Nearly dropped my bike in the river!

Exec summary:
In two very different parts of the world today, two very different innovation programmes are under way in the same industry. In America, President Obama is struggling to convince Detroit that 0.5% of the cars on the road in 2015 should be plug-in hybrids; in Bangladesh, Muhammad Yunus has got Volkswagen biting his arm off to deliver a widely affordable, pollution-free vehicle whose engine can be removed to act as a domestic generator. So what’s going on?

There are three lessons we can learn by comparing and contrasting these two innovation programmes, and looking for further examples from across the world.

First of all, we must learn to start from scratch, which is coming easier to Bangladesh than the USA. Economic cycles happen for a reason; because our thinking needs to evolve to deal better with the context. Some technologies and institutions need to fail for the new to come through. The British (and Bangladeshi) energy industry is starting to show the truth of this as well.

Secondly, we must put financial value in its proper place, as a servant to the generation of real value. True innovation has never, and will never come from an obsession with financial value; indeed, the spreading trend for Gillette Innovation in the developed world shows this to be the case.

Finally, we must learn to distinguish needs from wants, and focus our energy on satisfying these. The work of Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef is extremely helpful in this, and help us understand that there remains a huge innovation gap in the ‘developed’ world.

If we follow these three rules, all innovation will naturally follow to deliver a low carbon economy; if we do not, a true low carbon economy is an impossibility. And it is the responsibility of business to lead us there.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Tarahumara Indians, barefoot running, and modern madness

Just back from holiday/training camp, and wanted to share a book recommendation. I've been reading Chris McDougall's 'Born to Run', and it's incredible.

Basically, it's the story of the founding of perhaps the greatest running race in the world, which for the last couple of years has pitted the best ultra-marathon runners in the modern world against the best of a tribe of indigenous Mexicans called the Tarahumara, who live in the Copper Canyons near the border with Texas. As the story develops, you learn everything from the Running Man theory of evolution, which suggests - with a convincing case - that humans uniquely evolved as endurance runners; through to the story of the founding of Vibram Five Fingers, the shoe of choice of the barefoot running community.

This is the point where I've got particularly stuck... I fairly readily dismissed barefoot running when it was first suggested to me, having been happy to accept the conventional wisdom that running shoes should be bought to compensate for and support the individual gait. However, on reading this book, I'm convinced otherwise. Quoting everyone from Bill Bowerman to US Olympic coaches to Harvard scientists, McDougall brings together an apparently bullet-proof case that running barefoot (or as close to as is safe on hot/dirty/broken-glass-ridden ground) is better for us, quicker, and more enjoyable. The fact that Nike released (somewhat paradoxically) a shoe designed specifically for this purpose in 2006 suggests that even they accept there might be something in it. Article here from Wired.

I think this is fascinating. It struck me while reading that the case of the running shoe has many parallels in other areas of modern life. Fundamentally, in the attempt to create 'better than nature', what we've done is created something totally unnecessary and in fact counter-productive. With that in mind, have a think about bottled water, or GM crops (which initially boost yields, but by killing soil, deplete those yields over the long term).

I don't have the answers to these bigger problems, and unfortunately I don't have the time before the Ironman to build up the muscles in my feet which have been undermined by years of shoe-wearing. But I know I'll be getting into barefoot from October 5th onwards. I might even get in touch with the Caballo Blanco, and go on one of his trips - his website's pretty impressive these days!

(PS - if I were to have a small complaint with the book, it would be the author's American jock-journo language - there's more tangential melodramatic comparisons in this book than there are bronzed bikini babes in an entire year of Sports Illustrated, if you get my meaning - but you can get past that once he's into his flow... and the man did run the first Copper Canyon Ultra as well, so fair play to him)

Thursday, 6 August 2009

2 months to go

Off to France this afternoon for 10 days, and have after a bit of deliberation decided to leave the bike at home - going to focus on a) running, b) getting back into swimming and c) actually having a bit of a holiday. I'm working on the basis that it's possible to overdo these things... after all, you don't want to end up despising every training session you do, and frankly I'm beginning to get quite bored of my bike!

Overall, at just over a month into the campaign, things are going pretty well. Shoulder injury seems to be coming under control, and hasn't (yet) been replaced by any other injuries, so the body is intact which is the fundamental. The kit is coming together, though not without problems - the Calfee guys are no longer sure if they can hit the deadlines, which could mean I'm faced with not having much opportunity to train on a bike, or perhaps not even have a bike in time; pretty irritating, but there's a couple of other options to be explored. And I've got first press exposure, and am doing pretty well for baseline sponsorship.

The big problem is the bike, though. This is the real headline-maker, and the icon of what has become a key point I'm making - that products made with environmental concerns at their very heart can still be high-performance products. And the bike is the most tangible evidence of that...

Once I get hold of the bike, plan will be to hold some sort of event in central London, together with the rest of the kit. Although, thinking about it now, and bearing in mind an encouraging email from a wetsuit manufacturer, it might be about coming in to work in a wetsuit for a day... that would make quite an impact...

Monday, 3 August 2009


Basically, the fundamental of an Ironman training plan is to make sure I'm covering significant distance in running or cycling pretty much every work day, and then wedge in some swims where possible, before really hitting it hard at the weekend - although thanks to my shoulder injury (getting better, aiming to be back in the water next week), I haven't swum for nearly a month, and that's getting to the point of quite serious frustration.

'Significant distance' means, basically, running 20-22km per day (roughly 12-14 miles), or cycling 60-90km (roughly 35-60 miles). Fitting that in around work hours really isn't that easy, even on logistical terms - it's basically 2-3 hours of training every day. But it's when you then expect yourself to be on reasonably constructive form for the time when you are at work, that you end up in trouble!

As for 'hitting it hard', this weekend that involved a 150km, 7 hour ride in the Dorset hills. Which was really enjoyable, up to a point. That point came about 130km in, at the bottom of the hill in Little Bredy, just before churning my way up to the Hardy monument. Then it suddenly wasn't fun any more. Cyclists call the feeling I had at that moment 'bonking', and it's not nearly as much fun as what most other people mean by that word. Your legs suddenly stop following orders, and go into active denial of the purpose that you're trying to drive them towards. Your lungs are burning, in my case to the extent that I was genuinely struggling for breath. And to top it all off, because you're going up a steep hill, you're basically not even moving. At that moment, a fat man on a slightly hurried waddle to the bus stop could have outpaced me.

Oddly, though, there is something - at least for me - pleasurable in this feeling as well. It's a moment when you really come up against your limits as a physical being, finding the point where there genuinely isn't any more you can do. This is an amazing place to go, and I think a really powerful moment to take into the rest of life.

An old rowing coach of mine, Mark Hall, once told us in a pre-race briefing that we could do ourselves no damage by testing ourselves to what we thought was the limit. When our brains told us to stop, he said, we would be at 60% capacity. When our brains screamed to stop, we would be at 80%. And when we were at 90%, we would pass out anyway. Which would be fine in the long run.

I remember these words from 12 years ago every time I hit the wall on my bike, or on a run... and actually sometimes when I've got too much to do in another part of my life. And I push a bit harder.