Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Leg lengthening, 0-5mm

I've been to physiotherapy today in Liverpool. I got picked up in a car by East Midlands Ambulance Service by a nice driver who took me to Liverpool. It was very good, I was comfortable in the back. We arrived about 0940. I had my appointment at 10. I showed the physiotherapist the strut that's not behaving properly, seems like the nut is threaded maybe and I've been using pliers to make sure it works. He took one look at it and decided to replace it - I'm still not sure if adjusting this with it threaded matters or not. He put on a temporary strut to keep the tension while the other one was taken off and a new one put on. Then he went and got me clip removers so Rebecca can take the clips out later (the clips from where they cut in to chisel my tibia) and I also asked for and got a big bag of dressings so Rebecca and I can be change them again in about a week from now. It's really great how they trust me so I can just ask for stuff and get on with it myself and with Rebecca's help. That has been a constant throughout my treatment at Preston and here - I really can't speak highly enough of all those NHS professionals that have looked after me.

For actual physiotherapy we did stretches of my knee, my forefoot and my toes. It really makes a difference to the range of movement in my forefoot which has to be maintained so that I can walk properly without an ankle that moves. I must also do the knee stretches to try to stay in the 'honeymoon period' for longest. What is the 'honeymoon period' I hear you ask? Well I asked him about not being sure anything was really happening and them having built this lengthening procedure up as a really tough thing etc. So he explained.

There's always a 'honeymoon period' while the natural stretch in your tissues is used up - it varies for different people, you can check it just by stretching your skin with a finger, but it could easily be 5mm so I'm obviously still in that period now. What happens when the limit is reached is that the soft tissues can no longer keep up with the extension you're making, so then it's like over-stretching a muscle. If you overstretch it for a few seconds and then relax, no problem. If you were to hold the stretch for more than a few minutes, you'll probably feel pain and want to relax. If you hold it for more than an hour, the pain gets worse because you're having to constantly deal with it. Until you relax the stretch. So what's going to happen is that once I get as far as the natural limit of my tissue, it will be like stretching a muscle and never relaxing it. That will be painful. Oh and there's the other stuff I talked about previously about wounds around pin sites. So that's where we're headed - the knee stretches may help increase the length of this period so I'll be keeping on doing them ha ha ;)

Anyway after this enlightening conversation about pain I went for an X-ray and since I can't wait until next Tuesday to see, I asked the radiographer if I could see them. You really can see the gap, it's not my imagination, it might even be 5.25mm ;) Fab! See below, where I have also made some blow ups of the interesting bits!

Here's my photo of the screen in radiography, this is the top view x-ray. Once you orient yourself to
what you're seeing, you can see my fibula, still (and forever) in several pieces, and you can see the gap opening up,
see the blow-up below.

And here on the right is the side view, close up of my knee, you can see the gap opening up.

This is a close up of the side view knee x-ray, you can see the gap and the staples over the wound to the right.

Here you can see the three nails or screws that they put in to hold my ankle together.  One of them is at an angle that I can't really understand, like it went in from the top going downwards, I'll ask about that next week because it doesn't seem to fit with the description before the operation. 

Here's a blow up of the top view x-ray, you can see the staples and underneath the gap opening up in my tibia. It's definitely there, it could even be 5.25mm!

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Operation 16 and What Happens Now

The cut through my tibia was made on November 8th in an operation which lasted around 90 minutes. Everyone was happy and I was feeling pretty strong the day after so I was discharged with, as usual, a big bag of meds and dressings. There was the usual wait for pharmacy to deliver the drugs, but they did in the end and we got home about 7pm. The only visible change is a new dressing where they cut in to get at my bone.

After Op 16. Dressing covering incision to break tibia.

Incision with clips. Pretty? :)

What happens now is 10 days waiting for the bone to begin to knit together, then lengthening starts. So this is tomorrow now, Friday November 18th. I have my instructions and spanner. The break is where the incision is, meaning that the ring near my knee will not move, but everything else on the frame will. One quarter turn on the square nuts four times per day, that's one turn per day, which is 1mm extension. We're going for about 20mm give or take, so 20 days of adjustments to come.

Now, here is the thing: I have been told often that this is tough, the lengthening process. In fact, I was told at physio this week that they once had a patient who was in the SAS and had been on tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, and this process broke him. Here is why: it's not the bone. You can 'grow' your bone 1mm per day no problem, in fact I've done this before in 2012 with the straightening process. It's not the bone, the pins move with the bone, the issue is with the soft tissue, the skin and flesh. Moving the frame down means I will cut open wounds wherever a pin enters my skin below the cut. There are 12 of these sites. Opening up a 20mm wound in each of these locations. And soft tissue doesn't want to stretch at 1mm per day either, wounds notwithstanding. So I think I understand now why this might get tough. Hopefully though I've so little feeling in my lower leg that I won't feel so much as the pins cutting through. It does sound a bit like self-inflicted torture I guess..

On the plus side, the physiotherapist did say I had already been through a lot (true) and that I looked like an excellent coper (also true, I think). Well we will see won't we, whether I'm tougher than the SAS. I'm ready. Lengthening and cutting starts tomorrow then.

Expect regular updates and measurement photos like last time :)

Bonus free spanner to adjust the frame with!

Monday, 7 November 2016

Operation 15/15b/16

Operation 15, to sort out my heel and ankle, and put the frame on and break my tibia, was a complete success. My ankle and heel are now held together by pins and a big nail going up from the sole of my foot (lovely), or something. And the frame is on ahead of the leg-lengthening. BUT, they didn't actually do the break of my tibia, so that is going to happen this week, on Tuesday 8 November. Apparently when I came around after op 15 I was a bit disappointed about this, this being 'plan B' not 'plan A', but they explained to me that it was best for me and for them, they were tired after 6 hours of operating on me, and they want to get this last bit exactly right. So fair enough. Look, I'm never going to complain am I?! They've all been brilliant.

In fact the level of care at Broadgreen Hospital is pretty amazing. Everybody seems to know exactly what they're doing and just gets on with it. It seems like a good place to work. My 5 day visit was really good in that respect. Even the food is nice! It's a new unit, maybe 18 months old, and it shows at least in the sense of organisation - everything is quite close, like the physiotherapy gym is just at the end of the ward, opposite where you go before your operation. 

There's no A&E at the hospital, and I think that helps to give it a calm feel. Anyway, I'll be spending another night there this week which I don't mind at all.

After (left) and before (right) operation 15.

The way of dressing the pin sites is something I've never seen before - you can barely see the pins afterwards. They use syringe drivers to hold the dressing against the pin site (clever!) and then wrap each group of 2 or 3 pins in a bandage which has them ending up looking like garlics you get in the supermarket, or meringues possibly. It's really clever because none of the pin is exposed. It makes me realise how exposed I've had them in the past - I mean, I was showering and then putting a gauze over and cutting a dressing to slot around the pin, meaning only the bit near my skin was covered. This is much better. They also last 10 days dressed like this so when I come to do it myself, much less work and hassle to maintain them! Excellent.

I can't weight-bear on my left leg for 3 months. I should have realised this, but it did come as a slight eyebrow-raise, not a complete surprise. The other times I've been able to touch weight-bear, so this is different, and will be more of a challenge. I'll end up with an even stronger right leg and upper body! But it adds an extra element of nerves, because I really can't afford a mishap now. It's because the ankle and heel fusion has to heal before I can put weight through it. Fair enough. I like a challenge.

I've spent most of this last week since I was discharged readjusting to life on crutches; how to transport a cup of coffee from the kitchen to the living room; how to have a shower (bin bag over leg, bath board); how to find a comfortable position to sit for extended periods with my leg elevated, etc. A lot of moving involves balancing on my right leg, but I'm pretty good at that. Outside I've only been as far as the supermarket, coming back up the hill was OK but a bit tiring. If I go to work on the train it'll be tough at the moment, so I'll probably have to rely on a lift for a while.

Anyway, back to this week, operation 15b or 16 (let's just call it 16) will be a short one to cut my tibia near my knee (on a healthy bit) and then after a week or so for it to settle down, the lengthening process will begin. I should be in for 24 hours this week. The consultant who spoke to me said they weren't going to "just burn through it with a saw" but rather they'll "use chisels to get a nice controlled cut". Lovely. Glad I'll be asleep.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Operation 15

It's been a long time since I blogged about my leg. Unfortunately that doesn't mean it's been all back to normal, it just means there's been nothing significant to write about, but now, well, there is. On Wednesday October 26th I'll have an operation to break it again, this time in Liverpool (at Broadgreen Hospital). About 18 months ago my consultant in Preston referred me to the Specialist Limb Reconstruction Unit there, and I saw them for the first time in July 2015. They were so positive about what a difference another surgery would make that it felt inevitable that I would go through with it, and so, after a bit of a delay, I am doing.

This is elective surgery which means that I've chosen to have it. That makes it quite a lot different in principle from my previous operations, which have really been compulsory to regain any sort of function in my leg. You may, or may not, remember that my last operation in 2012 was necessary because my leg healed up with a 17 degree bend in my tibia (shin). That absolutely had to be corrected for me to be able to weight bear again. You'll remember I was in external fixation for 6 months to straighten it out and wait for it to heal up. While that operation allowed me to walk unaided again (as well as bike, etc.) it didn't correct either the length of my left leg, which is 2.5cm shorter than it used to be and than my right leg, and it also didn't correct the angle of my ankle or the relative positions of my knee, ankle and heel. You can kind of see the problem from the photo Rebecca took of me recently from behind after I'd been biking. I'm lop-sided and my foot doesn't hit the ground properly.

Photo of my legs from behind. You can clearly see I hope what the problem is!

Anyway, the length of my leg and the positions of my ankle and heel will be corrected all-at-once by this next operation. Ultimately this will mean walking will be easier, less painful, and I won't be damaging my ankle and back further by trying to behave normally. So it's worth doing, even if it does feel like a massive step backwards. I've been talking myself into it for ages now basically along the lines of the following conversation:

"I don't really need this operation, I can manage just fine now, I've adapted."

"Yes but what about in 10 years' time, will you be able to manage then?"

"I don't know, possibly not if it gets worse."

"Well if you can't, or if it gets much worse, will you regret not having this operation then?"

"Yes I will."

And that is not good, and that is why I'm going through with it, even though I know what it means in terms of mobility, pain, and hassle. I will have a frame bolted to my tibia not unlike the previous one, except this time I will adjust the struts to lengthen my leg out, not straighten it. You can grow your bone 1mm per day, so that will be about 25 days of adjustment, after an initial settling-in period of about 2 weeks if it is like last time. Then you are just waiting for the bone to fill in the gap you've made. That will probably take 4-5 months. At the same time, they're going to break my pretty much completely fused already ankle, and re-fuse it in a better position, more perpendicular to my leg, so I can put it flat on the ground. And, they will break my heel bone and pin it so that it is in better alignment with my ankle and knee. So all these adjustments are to improve my biomechanics, make them more like a normal person would have.

In hassle terms, it means wearing the frame for about 6 months, which is awkward and irritating because it's bulky, you can't wear normal clothes, it looks awful, and mainly because you have to keep the pin sites, the bits where metal enters your body, very clean. In practice it means cleaning and dressing them all probably every other day. This means lots of dressings and stuff, but I remember all that stuff from the two previous times so as long as I can get everything from the pharmacy it should be OK, it just takes time and you have to do it properly because infection would not be good. Really not.

This is what it looked like last time.  This time will be similar, except my leg is now straighter,
and it may be longer this time, going down closer to my ankle.

Obviously it means no driving, no biking, difficult to get around. I now have quite a lot more going on than I did last time, so I'm probably going to get more frustrated than I did last time, and then on top of that there's the knowledge that I chose to have this done and I'm doing it from a position of relative activity, not like last time.

I haven't written this to make you feel sorry for me, not at all, just to explain what's going to happen so that if you see me afterwards you know some of the story. This is operation number 15 in total. It will hopefully be the last. If you want to know the full story, look at my previous post called 'Recover' ( Or click on 'The Accident and My Leg' above.

Another thing that's very different from last time is that I have a lovely wife at home who is prepared to suffer me, and a great extended family through our church. This will make a massive difference I'm sure. We started going to Revive Church just before my last frame was removed, in November 2012. I'm really thankful for how my life is now. I thank God every day for it, but the truth is that the good is inseparable from the 'bad'. What happened to me and the resulting changes in my life and faith are completely inseparable, so I thank God for my accident and my dodgy leg. And for the NHS and blood donors. For my wife, my family, our church, my job and my altered perspective.

No doubt I'll feel the need to blog again about this, and post photos, after the op :)

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

The Fred Whitton Challenge

It's been a shameful while since I wrote about one of my cycling adventures, but the one I did yesterday deserves a write up. The Fred Whitton Challenge, for those who don't know, is a famously hard ride in the English Lake District. It is named after a chap who was secretary of the Lakes Road Club and who sadly passed away at the early age of 50 in 1998. In it's current form, the ride is 112 miles long and involves about 3700m of vertical ascent, going over many of the major Lakeland passes, which are bad enough to get over in cars, never mind ride over on bikes. It is run as a sportive event each May, but there is always the option to do it outside of this event, which is what Sam and I did yesterday.

Needless to say it was very hard going in places. It was a long day in the saddle, perhaps the longest I've ever done. For me it did involve some walking, up the steepest gradients, but there are several reasons for that, which I may come to later.

Newlands Hause. The white speck is Sam.

Every year around the anniversary of my appointment with destiny (June 21) I try to do something to mark it. Plus it is Sam's 40th birthday next week, so here we are.

The route starts and finishes in Grasmere, but it is a loop so I suppose you could start anywhere. However I know a nice hotel in Grasmere, The Swan, so Sam and I stayed there on Sunday night. We wanted to leave early but breakfast was at 8 so we couldn't. One of the reasons for going 'on our own' was that we could choose whether to actually set off based on the weather. The past few years of the sportive have seen some horrific weather, which, I think, makes this ride quite dangerous as well as a miserable experience. Rain is one thing, but imagine riding around these beautiful roads and not being able to see anything? No thanks.

We decided to do this ride on a Monday on purpose, for two reasons. Firstly, we figured there'd be a lot less traffic on these little tourist roads than on a weekend, and second, things would be open, think bike shops etc., should we need them.

The weather that greeted us on Monday morning when we woke up was about the worst possible from a decision-making point of view - light rain. Heavy rain = no. Sun, light cloud etc = yes. Light rain = ? The weather forecast was saying thunderstorms in the afternoon, light rain all day in Grasmere, Keswick and Eskdale. In other words, the whole ride in light rain. Not fun.

At about 9am it didn't look too bad so we went out and got everything ready. Not raining, good. Plan A was to set off and see how it went weather-wise. Because of the route, after about 20 miles in it is possible to return to Grasmere from Keswick quite easily until about half of the ride is over. After Whinlatter, more later, you're on the 'wrong' side of the Lakes and quitting from there is more difficult. So at the very least crossing Whinlatter is the 'point of no return', kind of. Anyway, flexibility is good.

I should say as usual I have spent a lot of time thinking about this ride, looking at the map etc., reading about it and other peoples' experiences of it, and I really wanted to do it. But, contrary to popular belief I am not an idiot and I was prepared to bail if I thought it wasn't sensible, even after 55 miles.

We had it in our minds that there were quite a few things that could go wrong apart from the weather; mechanical issues mostly. One thing neither of us thought about was road closures. So I laughed when we got to the bottom of the first climb of the route, up Holbeck Lane near Ambleside, to find a 'Road Closed' sign. At this point I was thinking we were doomed not to succeed today, and any idea we had of following the 'official' route exactly was now gone. We went south a bit to Troutbeck Bridge and turned left to Troutbeck to meet the closed road up the hill.

Road closed, honest. Not something we anticipated!

What this meant was that I biked along the fateful stretch of road past White Cross Bay for the first time. I wish I could say I remembered exactly where it happened, but I don't, I just know where it was because of the map the police gave me. Maybe it's better that I don't remember, what I do remember of it is bad enough I suppose!

Kirkstone Pass.

OK, official route rejoined at Troutbeck, now going on to join the Kirkstone pass road. This is a pretty easy climb akin to what we do in the Peak District, or what we did on the Dragon Ride two weeks ago, a steady gradient gaining height. At Kirkstone Summit there is the inn, and the junction with the road called 'The Struggle', which I thought the Fred Whitton went up but doesn't. So that one will have to wait for another day. Kirkstone Summit is the high point (elevation) of the whole ride, and right near the beginning, but even though the other summits are lower, getting to them is harder...
Dropping off Kirkstone into Patterdale was a good few easy miles, the descent fast because the road is obvious and visible. Some flat miles along Ullswater and then turning left a climb over  Matterdale End, affording great views back to the lake.

Looking back to Ullswater on the way up to Matterdale End.

Another drop down and we joined the A66. This is not a good road to ride a bike along. We could have taken the back road (and should have) but this would take longer of course. Needless to say I had quickly had enough of being passed by big lorries and fast cars, so at Threlkeld we came off it and went over the hill via Castlerigg Stone Circle, much better. Also we get to go through Keswick centre. I suppose the official route bypasses Keswick a bit and uses the A66 for time reasons, to make the whole route faster, but I think it should go on the back road, it's much nicer and safer. Deviation number two then from 'official'.

Anyone who knows the Fred Whitton knows that the first major obstacle is Honister Pass, which is about 7 miles south from Keswick. All the way along this road I am getting anxious about what we will face. Honister is famously hard. I should say I've never ridden any of these passes before, but 25% gradients are not good wherever they are. We could see some traffic coming down the road about a mile before we got to the base, and it is obviously very steep at first. At Seatoller an ominous road sign announces the impending ramp. Still, take it easy, and don't panic, it might be OK. Of course I knew Sam would disappear up the road, he's much stronger than me and has a multitude of other advantages over me which I might go into later on... anyway, that's not a problem. I just focus on myself and my own struggle. The first few minutes of the really steep bit were hard but out of the saddle I seemed to be doing OK. Then the killer that kills me every time, you round a little curve and see the gradient continue without relenting for another 150m or so. Beaten, psychologically I think. I still don't like unclipping, especially on a steep slope, but I did. I had to. I will say this again in this post, but next time I ride this road I will do better, because I will know what's coming. I have heard it said that it's better not to know, which may be true for you, but for me it's always better to know.
So, now I've a new problem: I have to walk for a bit, until the gradient relents enough for me to get back on the bike again. Walking for me is hard, in cleats is harder still, up hills is harder still. So I swap one form of physical suffering for another. Remember: I'm here voluntarily, nobody has coerced me into this, I could be at home (at work actually it's Monday) but I'm not, I'm here on a 25% slope struggling to push my bike and trying to keep my left foot in the shoe because it doesn't stay in... I was never going to lose it mentally, it's just really hard, especially knowing Sam has danced up here minutes ago.

Having a rest on Honister Pass.

OK, the gradient has slackened off a bit, so I can get back on, and now I see what I wanted to know and what will make me do it next time: there's a flat(ish) bit here where you can recover before the next slope. The next slope which is hard but not 25%, so rideable, and ride it I did. The top of Honister has a Youth Hostel, what an awesome location, and a ski-resort style cafe. Stopped for a picture, then off over the other side. This descent was steep but not too bad, of course we had good visibility and dry roads, but it was fun dropping down into Buttermere. I like Honister Pass actually and I know I can get up this properly now that I know what it is like.

Sam at the top of Honister Pass, with the superbly located Youth Hostel.
Looking to the left on the Newlands Hause road.

At Buttermere a right turn signals the start of the second major pass of the day, Newlands Hause. This is famous for being a road that's carved right across the slope of a big hill, steep slope up on your right, steep down on your left. I knew that round the bend I could see, it continues, so the bend is not the top, so I couldn't be knackered there. But, very different from Honister, I can see the road from afar so I can see where the efforts are and where the recover points are. So even though I again watched Sam disappear in the distance, I was confident I could ride this. I did stop to take pictures, but by choice (honest) (no, honestly). There are a couple of nasty little bends after the bend you can see from a distance, but you know the top is there so you can max out on those knowing you'll get a rest. Looking down the other side, great feeling knowing there's a good few miles of downhill ahead, almost all the way to Braithwaite.

The way ahead from the summit of Newlands Hause.

Things were not looking promising on the way up Whinlatter Pass.

Braithwate, turn left, up Whinlatter Pass, a doddle in comparison. Well, it is, but now we're both getting a bit hungry and the plan A of having lunch at Whinlatter Forest Park has gone wrong slightly insofar as it has taken us a lot longer to get here than we would have liked. We were both I think getting a little crabby, and the light rain had started to boot. On the way up this hill I was thinking hard about whether it was sensible to continue, this being my 'point of no return' really. The rain didn't really look like abating, but we were stopping anyway so no decision had to be taken yet.
Whinlatter Forest Park is a bike centre. The trails in the forest there are really good fun, high in altitude and in number. It is my favourite of the trail centres I've been to, and one day I will come back with the MTB and ride them again. Maybe soon! It is a mountain bike trail centre, but in the cafe they won't fill your bottles up, you have to go round the back to where the toilets are and use the water fountain. This, even if you are buying your lunch and sitting down inside. I think that's a bit mean.

It was 3 o'clock, and we both knew that it was going to be a late finish now, maybe 8 or 9 o'clock. 58 miles down, 55 miles to go (although we thought 50). On the plus side, the section between here, Whinlatter Summit, and Eskdale has two climbs on it but otherwise should be quite fast. After we had eaten and had coffee, refilled our bottles and so on, the rain had gone away and now it didn't really look like returning. This, now I think about it, was kind of a miracle. When we walked in I wasn't sure we'd be carrying on. When we walked out all doubt had disappeared. And it didn't rain again.
The next miles went quickly. I have not spent much time on that side of the Lakes, so I didn't really recognise any of the fells as we made our way past Loweswater and turned south. There's a hill called Fangs Brow to get over, and quickly enough a sharp descent to Croasdale with some hairpins on it that I feel sure must have caught out some riders in the past.

Lovely weather now on Fangs Brow.

After Ennerdale Bridge there's a climb onto and over Cold Fell, which is quite serious but actually was OK. When the gradient flattens out onto the moor this is a quite beautiful road. The sun was out now too, and there were Herdwick sheep a plenty. This was one of my favourite sections of the whole ride. Sure, the sun helps, but it was an exposed road with no traffic, easy ups and downs, moorland and sheep. Also horses.

The road to Cold Fell, one of my favourite stretches.

It's now that you know that the next proper uphill is the big one. Sure, there a little lump to get over at  Santon Bridge, through the woods, but your mind is already set on the inevitable. Arriving into Eskdale Green and just before the turn off towards Hard Knott, there was a pub where we stopped for a refuel. I did have a half, after 90 miles I felt it was OK ;) Also some jelly babies and water and a gel. We probably stopped here too long in hindsight. As soon as we started riding again I knew we couldn't stop again, my bottom was getting sore! 4 miles down this road is Hard Knott Pass. It's only 20 miles now to Grasmere, which normally would take about 90 minutes tops, but the difference here is you've got one of the hardest roads in the country to get up, and, by then, you've already ridden 95 miles.

The base of (very) Hard Knott Pass.

There is the obligatory road sign announcing that you're about to suffer, and the road kicks up. Really. You have to go over a cattle grid which is not big deal really, then there's a little layby which I rode into to try to reduce the gradient a bit, didn't really work. I look up and I can see the first right hand bend, but it may as well be a hundred miles away. I'm not strong enough for this, certainly not at this point. My mind gives up, I unclip. Walk up to the bend, OK I can get back on here. Taking it really slowly and measuring every pedal stroke. Problem - there's another really massive ramp ahead. Just keep calm. Halfway up this really steep bit I simply could not push/pull the pedal down, it was like the chain had stuck. I'm not good at unclipping at the best of times, but this was a new experience for me. I fell off. To the right and into a few nettles, but thankfully not over a 100ft drop. I lay there for a bit trying to get my left foot out of the pedal. OK. Walking now up this really steep bit. Next time I could get back on, decided not to clip my right foot in so that what just happened doesn't happen again. OK. Up the next steep bit, new problem. My left leg is not as strong as my right, it hasn't been since it was reconstructed and I think my mind protects it. So it doesn't work as much, and now, because my right foot is unclipped, it has to work more that it's used to. A really sharp pain in my inner thigh, cramp. Oh dear. Meanwhile Sam is probably at the summit cairn having a lie down. I got off, drank pretty much all the fluid I had left, stretched a bit. What if I get back on and it hurts the same? Don't know. Walk for a bit, OK. Hard Knott is like two passes really, there's the first miserable pitch, then it's reasonably flat for a bit and you can see the second steep bit ahead. I rode most of the flat bit, of course, and walked most of the second steep bit. I guess Sam had waited about half an hour for me. He managed to ride all the way up. How that is possible I do not know. I am not sure that even at my 'prime' whenever that was (2009/2010 probably) I could have got up this. It's simply unbelievably steep in places.

One of the benefits of having got off and walked (trying to find some positive here!) is that I could look back and take some pictures in the failing light, very nice. I'd rather have been able to bike up though. One of the benefits of it being quite late in the day is there was virtually no traffic.

Hard Knott summit cairn, looking ahead to Wrynose.

Next: descent off Hard Knott, steep but again nothing to worry about in the dry. In the wet this would have been a different story, but we were lucky with that. You're down at about 240m now, from ~390m at Hard Knott summit. Wrynose Pass is next and the last obstacle of the day woo hoo! You know the elevation change is not great, it can't be. I did have to walk up a bit of it, but not much, only the steep left hander, and I could easily do this were it not coming after 100 miles. Next time this one won't be a problem. You can see where the top is, that helps immensely.

Looking back to Hard Knott from Wrynose.

Sam feeling pleased with himself on Wrynose summit.

The rest is downhill, mostly, then a frivolous loop to Elterwater and bizarrely not going over Red Bank straight back to Grasmere but returning to Ambleside and taking the Rydal road north back to the main road. I think if it's going to Elterwater it should be to go over Red Bank, but hey. On the plus side that last few miles is very fast, as typically you unload any reserves of energy you have held back because you know the end is a mere 15 minutes away.

It was almost 10 o'clock when we got back to the hotel and the car. Elapsed time 12.5 hours, that's surely the longest I've ever been out on my bike for. Later I discovered that the moving time was 10h10m, which means were were stopped for 2h20m, much more than I would have guessed. 10 hours for this route is probably not too bad.

What have I learned?

This is an amazing ride, but in bad weather you need to forget it. Didn't I already know that? Yes I think I did, but doing it has reinforced that. If I entered the sportive and woke up and it was raining hard... Having said that, the forecast was bad, it looked bad both before we set off and halfway round, and it didn't turn out to be. Even more so that the Peak District I think, the Lake District has massively changeable and unpredictable weather. You could set off in bright sun and finish in heavy rain or vice versa. I think you have to be able to bail if it doesn't look good. Hard Knott would not be a good place to be in a storm. But, if you get to the base of Hard Knott and the weather turns, then what? I don't know. I think with this, you have to say a prayer beforehand that it will work out. We were very lucky with the weather, I know that. We didn't get wet even though the forecast was light rain all day, thunderstorms in the afternoon. To read how bad it can be, look no further than my super-fit triathlete friend John's account of his experience on the 2013 sportive.

I am unfit. I did not prepare for this in nearly as proper a way as I would have liked. Yet, I only really struggled when the gradient was above 20%. Conclusion, I am not strong enough to get up the steepest slopes. Didn't I already know that? Well, yes. I am not sure how much of it is lack of training and how much of it is the limit of what my legs can do now. Because I spent a silly amount of money on the Garmin Vector pedal-based power meters, I know that my left/right power balance over that ride was 44%-56%. After the next op, this is something I need to consciously work on, the strength in my left leg. Nevermind how fit I am overall, I have to pull my left leg up to somewhere more equal.

Cardiovascularly I must be OK. I've only ridden 500 miles this year, very unusual for me, and 200 of those were in the rides I did yesterday and the Dragon Ride two weeks ago. Preparation was not ideal, yet it wasn't endurance that made it hard.

Do I need a new bike? Probably. This one has served me well but I feel like it's had its day. I wonder if it didn't get a bit damaged in my accident on the Tour of the Peak and the rear mech is definitely bent a bit. It's not the bike's fault, but having a nice carbon machine like Sam's would certainly improve the chances of successfully getting up those slopes. I could lose kg off my body too of course.

I have finally sorted my in-ride eating, I think. I now find it a lot easier to know when to have a gel or munch on something, and now I don't seem to think I don't need to eat because I feel OK now, only to suffer later. I wasn't hungry once yesterday, or two weeks ago.

It feels like I'm being characteristically hard on myself. Doing the Fred Whitton challenge was this year's event to mark the anniversary of my accident, and as such it was a good choice. Having learned last week that I will be having another major operation in the autumn has affected me I'm sure, and I  guess I'm feeling a bit sorry for myself. How about this: when I recover next time, I'll recover stronger in my left leg, I'll buy a new carbon road bike, I'll go back and do this ride again and smash my times on these passes. That's better, positive :)

*UPDATE* After looking at some of the footage I got from my handlebar camera, it appears I didn't walk as much as I thought I had. Funny how these 'failures' sit large in the memory. Particularly on Hard Knott, I made it up a lot further than I remember, even though it was yesterday, before I had to have a rest.

Kirkstone Pass: no real problem, easy gradient steady climbing
Honister Pass: super steep at the beginning, rest, less steep bit to finish
Newlands Hause: steep but recovery possible, very steep but short after the bend
Whinlatter Pass: harder than I remember
Hard Knott Pass: impossibly steep, two major pitches with recovery possible in between
Wrynose Pass: from this side, steep but short

Fred Whitton Challenge: long ride made hard because of super steep climbs, not to be underestimated, not to be undertaken in bad weather.

Looking back to Eskdale from Hard Knott Pass.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Lego Technic 42030 Volvo L350F Wheel Loader, flagship set review

I only use this blog mainly for posting about my cycling exploits and stuff to do with my leg, but I'm going to start writing about other things I'm interested in too. Here, Lego. I'm an unashamed AFOL (Adult Fan Of Lego), and have been since I was 25, since 8448 :) I will probably write another post about that, but here, I'll reproduce and expand a bit upon a review I wrote of the new Lego Technic flagship set for - it's a licensed model of a Volvo L350F Wheel Loader, so follows in line from the famous Mercedes-Benz Unimog model of 2 years ago. Last year's flagship was the Mobile Crane MkII, an incredible model, so this one has something to live up to...

The beginning of August is special for Lego fans - it's when the 2H (2nd half) of the year sets are released. In particular, it's when the year's Technic flagship set comes out. When I saw online what this year's set was, probably sometime back in March, I have to admit I wasn't filled full of excitement. After the lovely surprise of the Cargo Plane, another construction vehicle. And one that we have a previous (reasonably recent) version of too, 8265. And I will now have a hundred million yellow beams. Pfff.

Still, sometimes looks can be deceiving, and as I have said in a previous review about Technic flagships, I was pretty much always going to get this set. It's expensive - I winced slightly as I parted with 170 pounds (OK, 161.50 with VIP discount) at the Discovery Store in Manchester on Saturday. The pleasant shop assistant made me feel better though by asking "is this for you?" - "yes :)" I replied, smile included. There are few better arguments, it seems to me, for getting an education and a good job than being able to buy the biggest Lego sets....

In-keeping with the price, the box is big, much deeper than the usual boxes. When you open it of course it is not full, but there are lots of bags in there, some big tyres and that enormous bucket, which I think I read is the biggest element Technic has ever had. Wow, it is big - put it next to a minifigure! You also have a whole bunch of power functions stuff: battery box; one each of the four different motors; two remote controls and two IR receivers. There are three linear actuators. I dare say that those parts I just listed account for most of the cost of the set. You get tons of yellow beams, surprisingly few gears, lots of axles, and the portal axle assemblies too. At 1600-something pieces, this set is a lot smaller in piece count than last year's flagship, but when you have all the pieces out on your desk, you do still feel like you have bought a lot of pieces, and piece count isn't everything anyway, as we all know.

The box emptied.
That's one big bucket.
And big tyres too!
All the PF stuff.
There is also of course the sticker sheet, which I won't use, as usual. The instruction book (yes, singular, book) is one of the ones with lots of pages and a spine - can't remember the last time we got one of those, a welcome sight rather than the 3 or so thinner books we've had recently. And I really love that Lego now put the books in bags with a cardboard sheet. I used to despair at the book and sticker sheet being all mangled in the box! Thank heaven those days are over.

Nice manual with a spine, not 3 flimsy separate books.

On to the build then: it's great. Not as long as some of the other flagship sets, but strangely I liked this. It's still a good 4 or 5 hours including unboxing and everything. There are no really tricky bits, and no particularly complicated steps which I suppose is a shame. The build is also slightly weighted towards form rather than function, meaning that there are a lot of steps that make the model look nice as opposed to simply working. You can take that both ways though - sometimes it's nice to put some effort into having it look right. It's very satisfying seeing how the motors fit into the model - they're not all mounted in the way you might expect, and there's stuff too to get your head around that makes the model work. All the way through you are struck by how solid this model is - I guess it has to be to cope with the forces needed to move a good fraction of the weight of the model with the servo motor for steering. Probably it will be hard on the fingers to take to pieces but that's worth it, always.
I like the green engine blocks - usually I find building the engine the worst bit of these models, but because of the new colour it seemed altogether new, like I hadn't actually put one of these engines together a thousand times and could almost do it in my sleep ;) I am also now pretty much convinced that Lego have tried hard to avoid being too tedious with symmetrical builds. This model has a few bits where you are building the 'other side' but it doesn't feel like you're repeating something. I like that a lot.

Here's all the bits, before starting to build - note green engine blocks on right.
Well into the build here, motors and receivers mounted, engine done.
Very near the end, bucket just mounted.

When you get it finished, you are struck by what a beast of a model this is. It's heavy, and big. That's really satisfying. Looking at it on my desk now, I'm happy I bought it. Last year's Crane MkII is awesome, but this year's is awesome in a different way. It's impressively solid. I love it. The wheels and bucket are massive. Did I say that already? Well, they are :)

The remote control functions are great fun too - having two controls and the fact that the functions are arranged sensibly between them means that you can drive it properly, and when you want, operate the bucket properly, both functions at once. I spent a good while just doing n-point turns on my desk top and trying to scoop things up in the bucket.

This is a big, heavy, impressive model!
Impressive front view.
Next to 8265 there is no contest - this thing is amazing. At some point I will probably build them both and put them side by side like I did with the Mobile Cranes, but I already know what the outcome will be. 42030 is awesome.

I rated this set 4/5 overall even though while writing this review I felt like I wanted to give it 5/5. I think it's expensive, but then you do get all the power functions stuff. There are no really new pieces, but then the exception is the new massive bucket. It's not the most complicated Technic model ever, nor is it particularly difficult or challenging to build, but then it is so heavy and big, and the remote functions and play value are excellent. I'll give it 4.5/5.

The finished model, after a bit of playing with the remote control functions.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Wiggle KiloToGo Flat Out in the Fens 2014

Well, that was the longest ride I've ever done by some way. But it wasn't boring, and it wasn't as hard as I thought it was going to be.

I mean, 152 miles was never going to be easy, but I was prepared for a real sufferfest which never happened. Good preparation? Good weather? New aerobars? Eating properly? Probably all of these. The weather I think was kind - I had expected it to be a lot windier, which would have made some of the long straight roads quite an ordeal I'm sure. Apparently last year it was like that, so again I have been lucky with the weather! It was hot and I had plenty of suncream on, especially on my left leg which is essentially now just one big scar below the knee. I need to find out whether it's OK to have it in the sun a lot, or whether there's still some risk I'm running by doing that. Anyway, I put loads of factor 50 on it so should've been OK.

On the start line, at Peterborough Regional Centre.

As I said in my pre-ride musings post from last week, I really had no idea what to expect from this ride time or pain wise. I guess I was preparing myself for the worst. Pretty early on though it became clear that I was going to finish this ride somewhat quicker than I imagined, if I could keep the pedals turning! I was using my average speed to gauge my effort, in the first 30 or so miles up to the first feed station, the average was around 18 mph. Big groups of riders were passing me, something which continued through the day, but I wasn't tempted to join any of them. I know all the stuff about effort in a group etc., but I'm sorry to say I just don't like it very much - I don't like being so close to people and not being able to see the road properly in front of me. One or two people is OK, but more than 5 and I'm getting nervous. Plus, these groups were going at about 21 mph, which even factoring in the saved effort is too fast for me I think. I kept reminding myself that my race was with myself, not with anyone else.

In terms of eating, I decided to stop at all 4 feed stations and make sure I was eating along the way. I think I ate more on this ride than I've ever done before, because I was concerned about the bit between 110 and 152, i.e. the end, and how tired I would be. I didn't want to struggle because I had been stupid and not eaten enough. I also thought that signal permitting I could send tweets and texts to Mum and Rebecca from these points.

The stops were at 29, 67, 95 and 130 miles. At all these points I refilled my two bottles, most times with OTE energy drink from sachets I was carrying. I made sure to eat two of the things on offer at each stop; small size cheese and onion pasties, sausage rolls, sandwiches, cakes, half bananas. This was on top of the 3 Mule Bars, one OTE Duo Bar, one packet of Powerbar Shots, 2 OTE energy gels and 2 OTE caffeine gels I ate on the move. The caffeine gels are awesome - I saved these for near the end and had one at 110 miles and the other at 140. They give you a nice boost.

It was the first time I've ridden with aerobars. I got them specially for this ride because of all the long, flat, straight roads. They're brilliant. Apart from anything they give you another position to be in, to be able to keep shifting around every now and again and stay loose. On top of that I think they give about an extra 1-2 mph. This ride was great because I was able to think about and test that during the day. I won't use them all the time, but on rides like this, and the one I'll do with Tijl in Belgium next month, I think they'll be really useful. They're Profile T3 Plus bars from Wiggle, in case you're interested.

The route was not boring. There really are some super straight roads in the Fens though - one of the stretches was, I think, nearly 7 miles straight as an arrow. Wow. The sky is big round there and there were also lots of villages on the way. Lots of interesting water management works too, engineering stuff that reminded me a lot of the Netherlands. Probably the best stretch I can recall without thought was the bit along the River Great Ouse up to Downham Market.

Time-wise I could see after about 50 miles that I was going to do quite well compared to my expectation. I had it worked out by that point that I would have to have a major problem not to end up with a Silver time for this ride, a bit surprising since on the other KiloToGo rides this year I've not even managed Bronze. I think the weather must have been a factor, but having said that I did feel good most of the way, so maybe the training has helped :)

I got a few comments about my Holme Moss jersey, which I wore on purpose as a sign that I'm from a place with big hills. Some guys from Wakefield passed me and let on.

At the end I was able to have a sit down and reflect on the previous 9 hours and 15 minutes. Lots of easy miles was my conclusion, just that there was 152 of them! I wasn't expecting to feel like this, but I think I might do this one again! There was something very different about it, but also very good. You are able to get completely in the zone, it is very relaxing. This is going to sound very silly, but at a couple of points I was actually fleetingly worried about falling asleep.

Resting at the end. Aerobars are brilliant.
Afterwards I had a rest, ate a flapjack, and drove back to the hotel, The Bell Inn in Stilton for a shower. The day ended with a few beers, some phone calls, internet and strava updating and a big juicy burger with stilton on it and chips. Mmmm. I checked my justgiving donation page - link to the right of this page - and it was up to about 450 pounds raised for the North West Air Ambulance. That's great!

Later, back at the hotel, a well-earned beer. Oakham Ales' Bishop's Farewell.

Here's my strava entry for the ride. I was very interested to hear what my friend Tijl would say after he saw this - "absolutely brilliant performance!" was his verdict, and who am I to argue? I won't be being hard on myself this time. My moving time was 8h 33m.