“Do you want a donut with that?” – My journey towards the Rás

Posted on: January 14th, 2017

At the age of 44 years, one man from the west has been dancing with The Devil on the way to his first Rás in May. This is his story.

 


Having raced until he was the tender of age of 22 years old, Cathal Dillane came back three years ago and has gone well in many races, even taking a couple of wins. But this year he is stepping up to the An Post Rás, at the age of 44.

He is part of the newly formed Team Gerry McVeigh Cars, formed in Co Galway just three months ago and about to get its first season underway.

Dillane has been pounding the roads of the west over winter and, as he explains here in this very entertaining diary piece, he got some good news lately, though there’s lots of work still to be done.


By Cathal Dillane

It’s 10am on a cold Thursday in the middle of January and I jump in the car to head from Galway to Dublin for the day.

The purpose of my journey? To perform a ramp test.

A ramp test, for the uninitiated, is a test of your fitness, performed in a laboratory; in my case on a stationary bike – as I’m a cyclist this helps!

It’s a way to measure your current fitness level and more importantly provide you with a signpost to better fitness. It’s brutal.

Starting at an easy pace you cycle for approximately half an hour at an ever-increasing power output until your legs scream “enough!” and you fall over the handlebars in complete exhaustion.

Along the way you pass various physiological milestones which are measured. You pass a few psychological milestones too; like the lack of a will to live!

The test informs you how lactate builds up in your legs as exercise intensity increases, how you consume oxygen, and what power you can churn out at various critical points along the way.

Ultimately this data is used to determine heart rate zones and to guide your training for the coming months, in the hope that when you come back to repeat the madness things will have moved on.

 

Cathal Dillane pulls the trigger to land victory on stage 3 for Seven Springs CC just head of Brian McNally from Orwell Wheelers last March (Photo: JimmyMcElroy.com)

 

I was particularly looking forward to the results of today’s test, if not the pain associated with generating them.

I had a particular reason: two days ago an entry form for the 2017 An Post Ras was submitted with my name on it.

At the age of 44 years, and having returned to bike racing 3 years ago, this is just yet another mad act in the long line of mad acts a middle-aged racing cyclist is likely to put himself through.

 

The Madness

I’m not sure where the madness comes from. Maybe it’s the desire for more and lack of willingness to settle down. Or maybe it’s the sensation which can’t be topped; crossing the finishing line first, hands held skywards.

Or maybe it’s the fact that 22 years ago I packed in bike racing and ‘The Rás’ was missing from the CV.

Anyway, I had made the commitment, put in a solid winter’s training, and today’s test was going to tell me if I was a ‘Rás Man’ contender or pretender.

As I pull out of the driveway, I do a mental recap – did I bring my pedals?

It’s a long way to go to discover you can’t do the test because your shoes don’t fit the bike. Have I all my gear?

It’s a familiar mental check I used to do when the days were longer, but it’s been about four months since I last did it.

I do it a second and third time, because the excitement of the day ahead keeps interrupting.

It’s strange; by any sane man’s measure, driving across the country to sit on a stationary bike in a lab and put yourself through living hell, and then turning around and coming home, is almost enough to get you a walk-on part in ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’.

But here I am excited about the prospect. I’m excited because 5,000kms of base training has been completed over the previous three months and I’m eager to see what changes my body has undergone as a result.

As I drive up the motorway, stomach still full from the copious amounts of carbs I ate to prepare me for the torture ahead, the sun is beaming in the window.

I’m tapping away to my favourite music and my mind rushes from one state to another. Thoughts of excitement and justification for the effort involved soon turn to thoughts of: “My God, what am I doing? I need to get a life”.

May 21st, 2017, comes back to mind and I’m happy again that preparing like this for a Ras is the sane and correct thing to do.

Quickly It’s back around to: “For god’s sake I don’t do this for a living, this is obsessive – what am I at?”

It’s a familiar mental argument that occurs every time I make the trip eastwards and so I ignore most of it.

Big donut giveaway and The Devil

Soon it was time to pull off the motorway into a service station for coffee.

“Do you want a donut with that for €1?” the cashier asks me.

My immediate thought is: “Hmmm that sounds good to me”. This is quickly followed by the day’s purpose and the thought of saying to him: “Can’t you see I’m an athlete – how dare you even think I’d want a donut!”

I declined his kind offer and left with an air of self-satisfaction that I didn’t succumb to his temptation. Perhaps on the drive home it would be more difficult to pass up the offer if the test results don’t go my way!

1.10pm: I park the car, have my final fuel intake. On days like this my perception of food changes from something fun and satisfying to simply an energy producing substance. After eating I walk the 10 minutes to the lab.

1.55pm: The sports physiologist welcomes me with a smile – I’m convinced it’s the same smile the devil uses when he welcomes people through the gates of hell. I know the pain this man is about to put me through, but I’m happy to see him.

2.15pm: I’m changed and I’m familiarising myself with my surroundings: an array of sports equipment fills the room – stationary bikes, treadmills, rowing machines.

There’s also other technical stuff like lactate measuring devices, oxygen tanks and face masks, and other bits and bobs all interwoven with an array of pipes and tubes. I feel comfortable in this environment – I think it’s the tech nerd in me.

2.20pm: The doctor performs his medical check, partly to assess my health and check that all is ok with me, and partly to cover his ass in case I collapse in a heap in the middle of the test and the heart rate monitor flat-lines!

He reports that my blood pressure, blood content, lung function, and other physiological functions are all normal.

Unfortunately he reports that, once again, my body fat is too high, especially for someone hoping to hang onto the coat tails of professional riders. I roll out the standard excuse used at this time of year and blame it on the mince pies. We’re good to proceed.

3.02pm: “Did you bring your pedals?” enquires the sports physiologist (also known as The Devil).

 

The Rolls and the past

He proceeds to adjust the bike to my previous settings – meticulous as ever to get everything set up just right for me. It’s at this point that I recognise, yet again, the Rolls saddle.

I used to ride on one of these 28 years ago! Every time I see it I’m brought back to my teenage racing days and all that went with that.

I love seeing this Rolls saddle with its brass back plate – The Devil says he uses it because modern day saddles “are shite” and this one lasts.

I concur. But I’m convinced there’s more to it than that – I see it as a mark of respect to old school idea; the timeless, sometimes unfashionable, old school ideas that have always worked and continue to work; some of which I had employed this winter during my 5,000kms.

I pay it a mental homage and all it represents, and climb on for my warm up.

3.33pm: My warm-up is finished and I’ve been sitting motionless on the bike for almost 2½ minutes resting. I’m feeling good. The bike feels familiar.

The mask strapped around my face is already supplying me with lovely fresh oxygen. It feels too tight; it always does. But I’m slow to attempt to adjust it – I know that if I do The Devil will bark at me.

During my first test here three years ago I made the rookie error of trying to adjust the mask mid-test; I received a bark from The Devil with an accompanying wave of a stick which came with a warning: “Touch that again and I’ll belt you with this stick!”

I ignore the discomfort and just sit there. Ten seconds later The Devil reaches for the small shiny metal object sitting on the table in front of me.

Oh no! It’s the blade. He wipes my middle finger to disinfect it and proceeds to stab me with the blade.

He never shows it but I’m convinced he takes great pleasure in this. Immediately afterwards, he wipes the sweat off my finger and draws blood onto a swab.

It’s a weird sensation; I can feel the blood squirt out of my finger. He wipes my finger clean again, and turns away to his expensive lactate measuring device shouting “clear!” as he goes, as if rotating around the front of a group ride.

He deposits the sample into the machine and notes the resulting lactate level.

Next he reads my heart rate off the monitor in front of me and notes this in on his paperwork.

Finally, he notes my oxygen consumption from yet another device that I’m wired up to.

Shortly after this he tells me to commence pedalling and to bring my cadence up to our agreed predetermined level.

3.36pm: I’ve been pedalling for nearly 3 mins now at 120 Watts; recovery pace. The Devil has taken another blood sample and ran it through the lactate machine. HR and O2 consumption have also been noted.

The test continues to ramp up 30Watts every 3 minutes.

3.42pm: I’ve now been pedalling at 180 Watts. On previous tests this was the commencement of my Zone 2 pace.

But I notice from the screen in front of me that my HR is 112bpm, still recovery pace. I can’t recall my HR at this power output from previous tests, but something tells me that things have changed and I’m immediately excited by the prospect that the 5,000kms might have worked!

I continue to climb further steps up the ramp. The next indicator that things have changed is a declaration by The Devil. In his usual scientific laboratory-type monotone sounding voice he declares “Heart rate and O2 consumption profiles are smooth and looking really good. Lactate levels are nice and flat and low.”

He never said that at 240W before…. hmmm. I tell myself to concentrate on my pedalling and breathing and leave the analysis to The Devil.

3.54pm: At 150bpm I’m pedalling at a power output of 300 Watts. This is a big sign for me.

Three months ago 150bpm was my tempo training zone and I’m thinking: “I’m putting out 300 Watts in tempo and I feel better than normal!”

Now I know for sure things have changed. I’m even not bothered about the second stabbing The Devil gives me to make blood flow again.

His comment that lactate is 1.7mmol/L is expressed with a definite tone of satisfaction.

4.00pm: 360 Watts has come and things have suddenly gotten a whole lot more uncomfortable. It’s like a switch has gone off in my body – the torture switch.

My legs are starting to hurt so I think of all the training sessions I’ve done on the turbo with my teammates and convince myself that it’s not that bad really.

The blood-letting is starting to annoy me now. I can hear the noise the air makes as it passes through the mask as I attempt to suck in more oxygen.

The beads of sweat are dropping off my forehead despite The Devil’s best efforts to direct the fan towards my face.

4.03pm: I’m churning out 390 Watts and the self-deception no longer works. I know I’m entering Tortureville now.

I don’t need the 180bpm flashing on the monitor to tell me that I’m nearing the end of the test. The acidity in my legs tells me that. “One more step, 420!” shouts The Devil, “come on!”

4.06pm: The monitor ahead of me reads 188bpm (my maximum is 189bpm). The screen beside me reads 420W. In the sea of pain I think “oh this is new”.

Somehow I’m able to function and rationalise. It’s a funny place to be. It’s almost as if the pain is bearable – comfortable almost.

Of course it’s not – I don’t understand it but I think the brain function moves to a higher level and blocks out the pain, just a touch.

I recognised my shout at The Devil “hurry the f**k up!” as he attempts to draw blood for a final time, as the frustrated last gasp of a dying man.

The Devil encourages me to finish this step. He knows I’m coming to an end. He can see all the signs.

He’s been here thousands of times. He can tell the exact point at which I will stop long before it dawns on me. “Just 30 seconds more, come on!” he shouts.

4.09pm: I’m sitting upright hands on my head. The Devil has removed my mask. I’m like a fish landed in a boat with my jaw flapping about sucking in air as quickly as my lungs will allow.

 

The Connacht team readies for the Junior Tour of Ireland in 1989; Cathal Dillane is second from right. Also there were: David Rafftery, Kieran Horan, Padraig Marrey, David Coughlan and John O Halloran.

 

Moments earlier I was collapsed over the handlebars. All sorts of substances are dripping from my face. It’s not a pretty sight. I’m a blubbering mass.

This is exhaustion like I’ve never felt before. The thought of madness and insanity comes to mind.

Moments later my breathing is under control and sanity is restored. And just like that the ramp test is over.

4.25pm: I’m changed, sitting with The Devil perusing the test data and enjoying the congratulatory tone in his voice. He is delighted. I’ve never seen The Devil so excited.

As he explains the data further, it becomes clear why. My lactate levels are so low that he is convinced that I will be able sustain a race pace comfortably and preserve glycogen stores until much later in a race than I ever could before.

This confused me: I had some good results racing last year; even managed to pull off a win.

Surely the improvement wasn’t that significant?

He explained further: “With these lactate levels you won’t be going too deep too early. You could ride at 300 Watts all day.

“The accumulation effect of intensive race efforts will be much less, and so your day on day recovery will be much better.

“I don’t see why you couldn’t survive the Rás now. Based on your aerobic base of last year you might have had the odd good result, but you would be out of the Rás by day three.

“But now for this time of year you’re in excellent shape. Your 5,000kms pedalling around county Galway have worked. Now you’re a proper cyclist!”

This was music to my ears. All the long hours in the saddle had been worth it – it worked!

Of course this came with the proviso that more high end power and tolerance to lactate associated with high end efforts was needed before I’ll be ready for the Ras in May.

But in The Devil’s own words, the aerobic base that’s needed is now there.

We sat for a further half hour discussing training plans and setting heart rate zones for the next three or four months.

“Give me a shout in late April and we’ll see if anything needs to be tweaked for the Ras,” are The Devil’s parting words.

At 5pm I bid him and the doctor farewell and head west for Galway with a glow of satisfaction.

An hour later, beaming with an air of justification for all the long miles done this winter, thoughts turn to the task ahead.

I think of the gear that must be ordered this week. I think of my teammates and the efforts they have put in and how we’ll continue to build together towards the racing season.

I’ve made my way out of the busy Dublin city traffic. I’m standing in front of the service station coffee machine – the one with the donut for €1.

I smile because I know I have no intention of taking up the offer, satisfied that for today I’ll settle for just the coffee.

Today is going to be a good day. Today I’m an athlete. Roll on May 21st and the challenge of a first Ras at 44 years old!

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