Archive for December, 2010

The future belongs to Africa

December 28, 2010

A few months ago I speculated on whether or not some non-African runners might make an impact in the big city marathons in the near future. I focussed on Dathan Ritzenhein as he prepared for the New York marathon, and Ryan Hall who was aiming for a US record in Chicago.

A year earlier, Ritzenhein had joined a group of selected athletes in the well-funded Nike Oregon project.  The athletes live in a house in Portland, Oregon, where the bedrooms and living room have a controlled atmosphere that makes it possible to live high (that is in an atmosphere with oxygen content similar to an altitude of 12,000 feet), yet train low (near sea level), under the guidance of Alberto Salazar.  In order to adjust training load according to body physiology, various high technology devices are used to monitor heart rate variability (based on fairly sound science) and brain omega waves, which as far as I am aware is at best based on speculative science, and is perhaps as mind-boggling as the Cryosauna Space Cabin, in which temperatures of -170 degrees C are employed to hasten muscle recovery.  In my post on 4th September, I expressed some concern that Salazar had attempted to change Ritz’ running style, encouraging him to land on the mid or forefoot, despite his well know susceptibility to metatarsal stress fractures.  So far, the outcome has been disappointing.  Dathan achieved 8th place in New York, in a time of 2:12:33.

Ryan Hall was training with Terrence Mahon at Mammoth Lakes at an altitude of 7800 feet.  I was concerned by the approach to training that led to what he described as a brutal training run of 12 miles climbing from 7,000 to 10,000 feet over Tioga pass, a week before his tune–up in the Philly Rock and Roll half marathon.  He ran poorly in Philadelphia, and subsequently withdrew from Chicago.  Around the same time he also announced that he was leaving Terrence Mahon’s training group.

Meanwhile, in 2010 Kenyans and Ethiopians were again dominant.  The winners of the five World Marathon Majors were:

Berlin, Patrick Makau (Kenya, born 1985) 2:05:08

London, Tsegaye Kebede (Ethiopia, born 1987) 2:05:19

Boston, Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot (Kenya, born 1988)  2:05:52,

Chicago, Samuel Wanjiru (Kenya, born 1986) 2:06:24

New York, Gebre Gebremariam  (Ethiopia, born 1984) 2:08:14

The fastest marathon of the year was the Rotterdam Marathon, won by Patrick Makau in 2:04:48.  It is noteworthy that the oldest of the winners of the 5 Majors, Gebre Gebremariam, was born in 1984. All are younger than Ritzenhein and Hall, both of whom were born in 1982.  All the signs indicate that the Africans will continue to dominate marathon running for the foreseeable future.

In their review of the highlights of long distance running in 2010, IAAF statisticians A Lennart Julin and Mirko Jalava reported that 59 of the athletes in world top 100 marathon runners were Kenyan while 28 were from Ethiopia.  Of the top 18, 10 were from Kenya and 8 from Ethiopia.

Whatever the role of genes or high altitude training, a major factor must simply be the power of cultural expectation.  Just as Bannister’s 4 minute mile opened a floodgate, a floodgate has been opened in Kenya and Ethiopia.  Aspiring young Kenyans and Ethiopians know that times faster than 2:10:00 are not only possible but to be expected of themselves and their compatriots.  Conversely, perhaps the high tech of the Nike Oregon Project has created a barrier in the minds of US marathoners that appears as insurmountable as the 4 minute mile once did.

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Atrophy of fast-twitch aerobic muscle fibres

December 18, 2010

In last week’s Keyworth Turkey Trot half marathon I failed to achieve my optimistic target time of 105:30 though I was not surprised, as my paces in training, especially during interval sessions, suggested that 110 minutes would have been a more reasonable target. It was a hilly course and it was the hills that were my undoing. I mostly maintained a pace around 4:40 to 4:50 min/Km on the level sections and the down-slopes, but sometimes slowed to paces even slower than 7 min/Km on the more substantial hill climbs.  As it turned out I was quite evenly matched overall with a young woman named Emily, but there was a marked difference in our strengths and weaknesses. As described in my race report last Sunday, I simply could not match her pace on the uphill stretches.

Although my aerobic capacity is still below where it was a year ago, my lack of speed in training and my inability to sustain a reasonable pace on the hills during the race  points to the major problem being inadequate strength of my type 2a aerobic fast twitch fibres.  This is not unexpected.  Since February I had been dogged by inflammatory arthritis and its aftermath.   The inflammation had affected several joints, especially my left knee.  This was the first time in the fifty years during which I have suffered these episodes of arthritis that my left knee has borne the full brunt of the attack.  In the past, my right knee has suffered more, and as a result, my right leg has been weaker than my left for many years, despite the fact that I am right-footed.

The pain in my left knee that had still been lingering in October had diminished further throughout the six weeks of training in preparation for the Turkey Trot.  During the race itself, there was no hint of discomfort in my knee, and there have been only a few very minor twinges since.  So today I decided it was probably safe to attempt the hopping test that I have used in the past to assess leg strength.  In this test, I measure the distance covered in a series of 5 hops on one leg.

In mid-December 2009, six weeks into the systematic training program that I had embarked upon at the beginning of November that year, the distance covered in 5 hops on my left leg was 9.71 metres, while I  covered 9.24 metres in 5 hops on my right leg.  The difference between left and right leg of almost half a metre on that occasion was typical of the difference seem in previous measurements.  Today I managed 7.39 metres in five hops on the left, and 7.44 metres on the right.   Thus there has been a deterioration of 24% on the left.  The one consolation is that my two legs are now approximately equal.

The results of today’s test provide a graphic illustration of why I was unable to match Emily on the uphill stretches in the Turkey Trot, and also why my performance in interval session has been so poor.  For many months, the arthritis had made it almost impossible for me to exert much force with my legs, especially my left leg, and my type 2A fibres had atrophied.   In a younger person, I suspect that the 6 weeks of training in preparation for the Turkey Trot would have reversed most of that atrophy, but I am afraid that for a person in his mid-sixties, a more focussed program of strength recovery is required.

So as was the case at this time last year, I will embark upon a program designed to build both type 2A strength and also to improve my aerobic fitness.

Keyworth Turkey Trot

December 12, 2010

The weather gods smiled benevolently on today’s Keyworth Turkey Trot half marathon.  After a few week of icy weather, the thaw set in on Friday, and by yesterday almost all the ice was gone from the roads.  As we lined up, the starter warned us to be wary of ice on the road as we approached the 11 mile marker, but as the 800 or so runners streamed through the streets of Keyworth and then out into the delightful rolling countryside of the Wolds that straddle the Nottinghamshire-Leicestershire border, the sun shone pale but encouragingly, through a gap in the scattered fluffy cumulonimbus clouds   There were some patches of snow on the roadside verges, and the puddles of melt-water  that had re-frozen overnight were still frozen solid, but the road surface was fine.  I was wearing a long-sleeved cotton top and light-weight gloves – the first time in my life that I have raced in gloves, and I wondered whether or not I would regret that decision.

On account of the various problems that have beset me this year, my preparations had been brief, consisting of six week in which I had run an average of 37Km per week.  My six long runs had gone well, but my attempts at speed work had been rather dismal.  I was confident that I could achieve a time of 110 minutes, but had decided to aim for 105:30 (5 min/Km) despite that fact that my paces in training suggested I would have trouble maintaining 5 min/Km for the entire half-marathon, especially on a challenging hilly course.

The first 2 ½ miles were predominantly downhill and runners streamed past me.  By the two mile marker I was far back in a long ribbon of humanity that stretched across the Wolds, passing sheep grazing sedately in the fields.  I had covered the first two miles in 15:43 (4:54 min/Km) which I considered was near perfect pacing for my optimistic 105:30 target.  There would be many hills ahead, and I knew I needed to establish a small reserve of time on the downhill stretches.

About half a mile later, as we approached the beginning of the hilly section which the race organizers describe as the most challenging section of the course, runners were still passing me, but I claimed my first ‘scalp’: a young woman with a pony tail and a bright pink lightweight top.  However as we began the first serious ascent, the young woman with the pony tail loped past me with an easy gait.  On that ascent my pace slowed to around 6:40 /Km, but I was not far short of the anaerobic zone and my legs were reluctant to go any faster.  I decided it was best to husband my resources for later.  On the next major ascent my pace slowed even more seriously and at times I was barely achieving a pace of 7:40 /Km.  When the road levelled out I was able to increase to around 4:50 pace again.   By this stage the pink top with the ponytail was visible about 350 m ahead of me.  Because the bright pink was an easily discernible target, I decide that catching up would be a worthwhile goal and set about narrowing the gap.  The next two miles were mainly downhill and by the 5 mile marker, shortly after passing through the village of Wysall, I drew level with my quarry.  My time at 5 miles was 41:22.  I was about 80 seconds behind my target time, but the most challenging part of the course was now behind us.

The road again turned upwards and the young lady with the ponytail pulled ahead again.  My legs simply couldn’t match hers on the ascents. We were still heading predominantly south and I was aware of that there was absolutely no movement of air past my face.  I was starting to feel a little too hot.  I also noticed that the young woman had removed her bright pink top and draped it around her waist. However I was not really worried about over-heating as I knew that the absence of air movement as we ran south meant that as soon as we turned back to the north, just after the halfway mark, we would have a gentle but chilly breeze on our faces.  I reached halfway in 54:00, still 75 seconds behind my target schedule.  I was feeling reasonable strong but I was aware that I had little in reserve and I wondered whether or not I had the capacity to achieve a negative split.  It would depend on the hills ahead of me.

The young woman with the ponytail pulled further ahead as we continued to climb but when we began the long descent towards the village of Widmerpool, I once again started to narrow the gap.  I was again maintaining a pace of around 4:45 /Km and at 9 miles I overtook the young woman.  For a short distance, I was amused to note the shadow of her swirling ponytail on the ground just ahead of me, as we ran with the low-angled sun behind us.  But then I lost sight of the swirling shadow as I forged ahead.  At the third drink station, I took the proffered open cup, and as I attempted to consume the icy water in small sips to avoid the risk of stomach cramp, I managed to douse both my gloves.  With sodden gloves and a fresh stream of arctic air in my face, it was clear I no longer had any need to worry about overheating.

Beyond Widmerpool the road began a long slow ascent that was to continue for 2 miles.  Near the summit, I was aware of footsteps approaching from behind, and again the shadow of a swirling ponytail appeared on the ground just ahead of me.  Yet again the young lady came up beside me but this time she did not pass me.  It was clear that we were well matched and it appeared likely we would have a tightly fought duel to the finish.   She appeared to be running well, but I wasn’t going to give in without a good fight.  Over the next few minor downs and ups, I would take the lead on the down-slopes and she would close the gap again on the ups.

As we approached the outskirts of Keyworth, with a little over a mile to run, she was at my shoulder.  Then at the 12 mile marker a group of enthusiastic spectators who were clearly her friends called out: ‘Take him now, Emily’ and cheered as she surged past me to open up a 3 metre gap.  Over the next few hundred metres I whittled away that gap.  I was now on the edge of the anaerobic zone, and with about 1200 metres to go, on a slight down-slope, I decided to make my move.  I accelerated to a pace which my Polar monitor subsequently revealed was around 3:50 per Km.  I was now seriously anaerobic and wondering how long I could hold this pace.   I knew there were still two small hills ahead, and my adversary was definitely stronger on the hills.  Whatever the cost, now was the time to establish a clear lead.

The first of the final two ascents started at about 800m from the finish.   Just as I began to ascend, I felt a twinge of cramp in my left hamstring.  I decided that the only thing to do was to adopt a high cadence with short stride, using my hip flexors to lift my knee high in mid-swing, thereby applying a dynamic stretch to the cramping hamstring.  Dynamic stretching of a cramping muscle is a bit risky, but this was not the time to stop and stretch the complaining muscle carefully.  I managed to get my cadence above 200 steps per minute but my stride length was frustratingly short.  I almost felt as if I was running on the spot.  My pace slowed to 5:30 per Km, but mercifully, the cramp resolved.   Beyond the hill top I accelerated down the small dip before once again struggling on the short final ascent.  At this stage I was still passing many runners, though just as I reached the top of the rise a younger man went past me and I could not catch him in the final sprint to the finishing chute.  However I was pleased that I had overtaken a substantial number of runners in that final 1200m surge.  Emily reached the finish around 35 seconds behind me.

My finishing time was 108:45, so despite the finishing surge, I had dropped an additional 45 seconds behind scheduled pace in the second half – mostly on the long ascent after leaving Widmerpool.  However I am pleased with my performance.  I had known before I started that 105:30 would be a demanding target.   Neither my legs not my aerobic capacity were up to the demands of the hills.  But the really great thing is that neither my knee nor the protruding heads of my metatarsals, which have been a problem for much of this year, caused any problem at all today.  So now I can settle into the task of slowly building my fitness.   Then, next year, after I have retired from work, I hope to have the time to begin to train seriously.

Thaw at last and the race is on

December 11, 2010

The thaw finally arrived yesterday.  Today has been a clear blue-sky day with the temperature a few degrees above freezing.  Only a few stretches of ice remain on the riverside path.  The Keyworth Turkey Trot half marathon is tomorrow, and the race website reports that the roads are now clear.  So the race is on.  At the moment the temperature has fallen below freezing again. The Met Office is forecasting a northerly breeze with temperatures a little lower than today, for tomorrow.  So it will be cool, but not too cold for running.

In light of my troubled year, largely dominated by the episode of acute arthritis in February, and lingering  knee problems that persisted until October, I will be relying on a seven week training program that has gone reasonably well despite starting from a very low base level of fitness, though the interval sessions have been disappointing. The icy conditions in the last two weeks have confounded my plan to make the final adjustment of my target pace in light of the pace I could maintain in a tempo run.   So I have reviewed the overall program to allow me to make some estimate of target pace.

Balancing training and work

The major goal of the program was to avoid injury or illness while training regularly.  Because I have an interesting but demanding job that entails working long hours, it was essential to coordinate my training load with work stress.  My plan was largely shaped by the fact that end of my working week is usually more stressful than the beginning.   I therefore planned that I would do my most demanding session on Saturday, together with a low intensity but moderate volume session on Sunday and a moderate or high intensity session on Wednesday.   On the other days I would do either ran easy recovery run or an elliptical cross training session.    The volume and structure has borne some resemblance to the Furman program, but in light of my fragile base, I made no attempt to achieve the intensities recommended by Furman.

The seven week program has included:

  • 6 Long runs ranging from 16 to 26 Km in length (mostly in low aerobic zone but including several progressive runs in which I gradually increased pace from low aerobic to upper aerobic zone).
  • 6 moderate or high intensity running sessions (2 intervals sessions, 2 fartlek sessions, 1 long hill repeat session and 1 tempo run in the snow).
  • 7 low aerobic runs.
  • 24 sessions on the elliptical cross trainer

I ran an average of 37 Km per week with peak of 45 Km per week.

The total time spent training, including the elliptical sessions, was 42 hours.  Over half of the training (25 hours) was in the low aerobic zone, at HR<120 (i.e. below the first ventilatory threshold).

Monitoring stress

I recorded my Heart Rate Variability during a two minute period of standing quietly, each morning, to monitor my stress levels.  Decreasingly levels of high frequency variability indicate stress.  The quantity that I measure in the natural log of a quantity known as RMSSD, which provides a suitable measure of high frequency variability.  A clear pattern emerged, as shown in figure 1.    Following the most demaning session HRV decreased and continued to decrease until Tuesday, suggesting that my body was taking about two days to recover from the exertion of the weekend.  Then it increased on Wednesday and still remained high on Thursday morning despite the moderately intense (but usually short) session on Wednesday.  However by Friday morning it had plummeted to the lowest value for the week.  This almost certainly reflected the combined effect of the moderately intense mid-week training and work stress in the latter half of the week.  However, usually by Saturday morning, following a good night of sleep on Friday, it was back to near its maximum for the week.

HRV and Training Effort for each day of the week, averaged across the entire program

Figure 1 also shows the weekly pattern of training effort.  I estimate training effort by adjusting the number of minutes spent training to allow for intensity.  For example, time spent near lactate threshold is multiplied by a factor of four relative to very low intensity running and time in the anaerobic zone is multiplied by a factor of five.    The figure confirms that HRV falls for about two days after effortful training, while the combination of effortful training and work stress produces the most dramatic drop.

I was prepared to decrease the training effort if the HRV record demonstrated that I was not recovering adequately by Saturday morning.  There were two Saturdays on which a relatively poor HRV record raised the possibility that I should take things easily.  On both of those days I set out on my long run cautiously, prepared to curtail the session if necessary,  but on each occasion I felt good once I had warmed up thoroughly, so I completed the planned long run.

Figure 2 shows the HRV data over the seven week period, averaged across the days within each week.  It is noteworthy that there has been a fairly consistent upward trend, indicating increased fitness.  An increasing trend over time can only be interpreted as an increase in fitness if the average training load remains approximately constant, as an increase in load would be expected to increase stress and therefore produce a decrease in HRV while a decrease in training load will have the opposite effect.  The anomalously high value in week three reflects the fact that I decreased the intensity of training markedly that week at a time when I was increasing total volume.

Variation in weekly average HRV over the duration of the program

Conclusion

The data indicates that I have grown fitter, though of course the total amount of training has been very modest.   In the interval sessions I have struggled to achieve times any faster than 4:45 during one Km repeats.  In my progressive long runs I have managed to cover the final 5Km in times ranging from 25:10 to 25:50, and in my one tempo run (in snow) I covered 5Km in 25:50.  Overall, this suggests that I would struggle to maintain a pace of 5 min/Km for the entre half marathon distance (to give a finishing time of 105:30).  Furthermore, the course is hilly and is described by the organizers as ‘challenging.’ Thus I can only realistically expect to achieve a time around 110 minutes.

However, I have already achieved my major goal of training regularly for 6-7 weeks without illness or injury.  My knee feels far better now than it did at the beginning of the program.  Therefore, provided I avoid injury tomorrow, I have nothing to lose by pushing myself to them limit of my fitness.  I will therefore start at a pace around 5 min/km and adjust it as necessary according to how I feel.

False thaw

December 5, 2010

The flurry of snow that fell during my run on Friday evening had appeared to herald the end of our week of chilly weather.  By the time I got back to the village, the air temperature was noticeably warmer, and by the following morning the thaw had set in.  As described in my post yesterday, I was left wondering whether or not the minor roads would clear soon enough to allow me to do the final tempo run which I hoped would help me decide on a pace for next week-end’s half-marathon.

Yesterday, the thaw continued through the day, and by late afternoon, much the snow was slush.  As expected, the temperature dropped below freezing overnight, and the dawn was shrouded in fog.  The westerly breeze that had brought the warmer Atlantic air had dropped, leaving a scarcely perceptible north-westerly that once again carried an arctic chill.  When the sun broke through, the sky was bright ice blue and it was clear that the thaw had stalled.  The snow that had started to turn to slush by yesterday evening was once again crisp.

It seems unlikely that conditions will allow an informative tempo run on either the minor roads or along the riverside path in the next few days, so I decided to abandon that plan and instead to do some long hill repeats today.   I took a camera with me, and took a few pictures during the warm up.

River Trent below Clifton

Riverside path

Reed beds below the escarpment

The young oaks and beeches retain their autumn tint

Birches mark the start of the uphill repeats

Instead of the muffled crunch that had accompanied the impact of my shoes with the snow during the delightful evening runs last week, today each footfall produced a snappy crunch.  In a few places the uphill path was icy.  I needed to maintain a cadence of 215-220 steps per minute and a short stride in order to keep upright.  However it was a very satisfying session.

That completes the planned brief campaign to prepare for the half marathon.   On the whole it has gone well.  Most important of all, the knee that has hampered me since the episode of arthritis in February has coped well.  I have achieved my major goal: I have done 6 weeks of systematic training with only a few minor mishaps.  I will do a few short runs at whatever pace the surfaces allows during the coming week.  It is a shame that I did not manage to do the planned final tempo run under favourable conditions.  Over the next day or two I will weigh up the evidence from my training log in order to refine my estimate of pace for the Turkey Trot.  However, at this stage I feel that whatever happens next week-end, it has been a good campaign.

Enchanted and frustrated by snow

December 4, 2010

I have really enjoyed running in the snow after getting home from work several evenings this week.  Apart from the challenge of remaining upright on the icy path from the village to the foot of the escarpment, the running has mostly been easy.  Even though it has been several hours after sunset when I have set out each evening, the low cloud has reflected the light from the village above the escarpment and the also the more distant light from Beeston, a few Km away across the river, so the snow covered path has been easy to see.  It has looked magical, and the muffled crunch of my running shoes in the snow has scarcely disturbed the soothing silence.

However this was the week that I planned one or two tempo runs to help me estimate what pace I might maintain in next week’s Turkey Trot.  After a brief six week program starting from a rather insecure foundation at the end of October, I do not really have much sense of what pace I can hope to sustain for the half-marathon distance.   While my long runs have gone well, my pace during interval sessions has been slow, and I was relying on the tempo runs this week to clarify the situation.

On Wednesday, I decided that I would persist with the plan for a tempo run despite the snow.  However even in the first few minutes of the warm-up, when I would have expected my heart rate to be less than 100, it was already in the mid-aerobic zone, probably due to the stimulation of my airways by the cold air.  When I tried an easy stride-out, my HR went sky high and I stopped to check that I wasn’t in atrial fibrillation.  I was re-assured that the rhythm was quite regular despite being fast.  Another easy stride-out produced the same racing heart beat, and another check confirmed that the rhythm was still regular, so I decided to continue with the planned 5Km tempo session.

I set off along the snow covered path, the peaceful solitude now disturbed not only by the somewhat heavier crunch of my shoes but also by my deep breathing.   My heart rate rapidly rose well into the anaerobic zone, but I felt exhilaration rather than stress.  I had the sensation that I was running fast.  Surprisingly, I had little difficulty holding the pace for 5Km.  But it was a great disappointment when I got home and downloaded the data from my Polar, to find that I had taken 25:50 to cover the 5 Km. In retrospect, there was little point in trying to assess my pace on a snowy path.

Last night, when I arrived home, snow was beginning to fall once again.   I put on my trainers and headed out for a relaxed run.  Again the riverside path was enchanting, with fluffy snowflakes filtering down through the trees.  When I got back to the village, the roadway that had been covered with a treacherous sheet of ice on my departure 40 minutes earlier was now covered in a fresh layer of soft snow.  As I passed the village church I almost expected to hear the sound of carol singing, despite that fact that Christmas is still four weeks away.

For the moment I was happy to take delight in the idyllic quintessential English winter village scene, but my thoughts drifted to the prospects for an informative tempo run on the weekend.  The air temperature actually felt a little warmer, and I was pleased to get my hands out of my gloves.   I suspected that the flurry of snow was the consequence of a warm front pushing moist air from the Atlantic up and over the mass of cooler arctic air that had given us a chilly week.   So it appeared that a thaw was not far away, but it was hard to imagine the snow disappearing before Sunday.

This morning, Saturday, the thaw had indeed arrived.  A wan sun struggled to penetrate the strands of nimbostratus.  The snow still lay heavily on the ground.   Again I set out for an easy run.  The snow was no longer crisp, but neither was it slushy, so I suspect it will be at least 48 hours before it has gone from the minor roads. I will not be surprised it continues to lie on the shaded riverside path for another week.   Perhaps by Monday I will be able to do a short tempo run on the village roads, though it will be important avoid too much unaccustomed stress on my legs in the week of the race.

Within the next day or so I will prepare a summary of my short and mostly sweet campaign to get fit enough to race a half marathon before the year is out.  Meanwhile, today’s postal delivery included an official looking letter that rather amused me.  It was from the Department of Work and Pensions telling me how to claim my old age pension.   The reason for my amusement was the memory of a trivial event as I cycled to work on Thursday morning.

On Thursdays I start the working day at a hospital on the other side of Nottingham and my route takes me across Wilford Bridge.  It is a low, almost flat bridge, formerly parallel to the now missing railway bridge that once carried the Great Central Railway across the Trent on its way to London.  There is a short steep descent of a few feet from the bridge to the riverside roadway on the northern embankment.  Some brickwork constrains the cycle path into a chute that makes an S-wiggle as it descends a few feet to the level of the roadway, apparently designed to prevent cyclists cannoning onto the road at high speed.  However on Thursday the most immediate risk was from the layer of ice covering the S-wiggle.  Mindful of my spectacular tumble a few weeks previously when my rear wheel lost traction on some wet leaves as I descended the ramp off the much higher Clifton Bridge, I slowed cautiously as I approached the S-wiggle.

I could hear the crunch of rapidly approaching cycle tyres in the snow on the bridge deck behind me.  Apart from two short staircases for pedestrians on either side of the chute, there was no other route off the bridge, but I was not going to speed up as I negotiated the treacherous icy wiggle, simply to accommodate the impatience of whoever was behind me.   However I had no reason to worry.  As I proceeded cautiously downwards through the wiggle, two youngsters on mountain bikes flashed past, one on either side, and launched themselves off the top of the two short stairways, like WWII Spitfire pilots on bomber escort duty peeling away to either side of a lumbering Lancaster.   With amazing chutzpah they sailed through the air and landed with a slight bounce on the icy pavement below, before continuing blithely on their way.

Over the next few Km until our ways parted, they proceeded at a pace no faster than mine, and it was clear that their urge to overtake me was not motivated by any desperate need to hurry, but simply by the opportunity for a display of flamboyant athleticism.  I smiled inwardly as I realised that I could not really lay the blame on the limitations of my suburban commuter bicycle with its rigid frame and lightly treaded types in comparison with the sprung forks and chunky tyres of the mountain bikes.   The main reason I was the lumbering Lancaster was simply that I am about five decades older than the two youngsters who had flown past me.  I have been aware of a gradual deterioration in my sense of balance since my mid-fifties and I am afraid that it is probably time to think of growing old gracefully rather than engaging in displays of chutzpah when cycling in the snow.  However I hope I will still be running in the snow with at least a modicum of elan for some years to come.