Success?

Success is a tricky thing.  For any goal it can be defined in a way that is objective and arbitrary, or one that is more subjective but meaningful.  If you’re lucky, pursuit of the goal can facilitate both measures of success. But we don’t always get lucky.

Case in point my most recent ‘UltraMental’ mission: an attempted one day circumnavigation of the Hollyford-Big Bay-Pyke route in Fiordland national Park.  The lolli-pop loop follows tracks of mixed difficulty over nearly 150 kilometers and normally takes 10 days, at least according to DOC literature.  I’d been intrigued by the route for more than a decade when the one day attempt appeared on one of my ‘mission’ lists back in 2006 while i spent a year working in Te Anau. With the use of a packraft, I reasoned it would have been possible to paddle nearly 100 km of the journey, including some of the more difficult sections of track, making the sub 24 hour goal attainable.  But I left NZ without making an attempt.

Two years ago I returned for good, relocating to Te Anau with my family permanently.  I was so excited about the opportunity to have a go that I’d had a crack at the mission before I’d even found work. My partner and I, John Kenny, left the road end at 1 pm, paddling a two person packraft.  We returned to the car 26.5 hours later, exhausted, drenched, freezing, and–myself at least–very nearly broken. Close, but not quite.

Jo, Andy, Neville, and Adrian at Martin's bay after seven hours on the go.

Jo, Andy, Neville, and Adrian at Martin’s bay after seven hours on the go.

Then just last weekend, I tried again. This time with three GodZone veterans, Adrian Braaksma, Neville Thorne, and Jo Williams.  The objective measure of success was defined very clearly as a car to car, self-supported effort that took less than 24 hours. Clear, but arbitrary. We lauched our packrafts out of the first eddy at 5am, deep in the grip of nautical twilight, starting the journey as a team of four with a common and audacious goal.

This time, at least based on this arbitrary version, I met with success when I crossed the final swing bridge back over that starting eddy at a minute before 3:30 am, 22.5 hours later.

But it was, as Jo put it, hollow.  Because not everyone crossed that swingbridge with me. Adrian had fallen ill at perhaps the furthest point of the route, somewhere between Big Bay and the upper Pyke.  The audible nature of his multiple vomiting spells were like nothing I’d ever heard–deep and gutteral booms, a sharp contrast to Adrian’s normally very mild mannerisms. His legendary toughness evaporated and stunned us all. Somehow he rallied just enough to get to the banks of the Pyke before collapsing next to the river.  With coaxing we got him on the bow of one of the boats where he lay in the fetal position, hands siezing up, shivering, and talking in slurs.  He couldn’t keep food down. Or water. He was eerily child like–but a drunk and sick child.  

Adrian rallied again during the paddle across lake Wilmot, but his upright stint in the boat lasted only minutes this time.  When we hit the longer lake Alabaster it was nearly dark and we hooked Neville’s boat up to ours so we could stay together and help tow Adrian across the lake.  Finally, we’d seen a faint glow from one of the windows of the hut on the Southern shore of the lake. Before that, we’d smelled the fire.  It had started to rain.  We carried all the gear 50 meters up the path to the shelter of the eaves over the hut’s wide deck. When I returned for Adrian he was on all fours, dry heaving.  He’d wretch violently between his outstretched arms and then flop forward onto his chest to pull himself a half a meter up the beach.  It looked like he was dragging hit torso through his vomit but to be honest I couldn’t tell what, if anything, was coming out of his body as a result of the violent twistings of his stomach.

Adrian, post crash, on the banks of the upper Pyke.

Adrian, post crash, on the banks of the upper Pyke.

I don’t actually remember how he got to the hut–did we help him?  Did he finally get up and walk on his own? It all became a candle-lit blur after that.  I tried to get the fire going and then someone came out of the bunkroom and helped me with a splash of stove fuel.  Another camper asked what we were doing and when we explained the goal she just shook her head and gave us a look equal parts bewilderment and disgust and said, “but why?”

Then there were the decisions.  Would we all remain? Would we leave Adrian on his own?  If some of us pressed on, who would go?  How would we communicate?  How would those who remained get picked up the next day?  What if Adrian couldn’t get out the next day at all? We spent nearly an hour going back and forth, the long day (the alarm had gone off at 2 am the previous morning) taking it’s toll on our collective mental facalties so that we had to repeat the slowly forming plans over and over again.

Finally it was decided that Jo and I would go–it was Jo’s car and she had work on Monday so needed to get back to Wanaka.  Neville had the Delorme tracker and could send texts via satellite to help arrange a pickup.  He was super keen to finish but also, as the youngest and fittest, probably had the least to prove.

After more than an hour in the hut sorting things out, Jo and I set off.  It was lonely, going from four to two like that.  And suddenly being in the dark, and the rain.  We ran for a while until my headlamp got dim. I pulled out my spare but discovered it had been left on and was completely flat.  The terrain grew rocky and so we walked for what seemed like hours. Half way to the road-end we started running again as the track improved, I followed Jo this time trying to take advantage of her brighter light.  But I couldn’t quite keep up and so trailed behind, running and then walking in the soft white bubble of my torch’s lowest setting, the only one it had left.  It was surreal, as it always is in such situations–the world sliding past in a two meter wide tunnel.

As the kilometers ticked by I reflected on the trip–I knew we would make it. We’d left the hut with 5 hours to go 20 kilometers. Plenty of time.  But we’d split up. We’d left Adrian.  And while I knew he’d be fine–or at the very least that he was in capable hands and that us staying wouldn’t have helped him at all, it just felt a little bit wrong.  Yes, it was practical.  It was pragmatic.  There were reasons we left.  Adrian himself wanted someone to keep going, to finish what we’d started.

And we did.  But not really. We’d achieved the objective, arbitrary success, at the expense of the subjective, more meaningful one.  I’m not saying it was the wrong decision. Adrian bounced back after some sleep and was at the road end the next day by 1 pm–no harm done.  But as a result splitting the team and pressing on with Jo through the night, the whole thing, despite the time on the watch face as we stepped off the swing bridge, still felt somehow unfinished.

And I know that had I stayed, it wouldn’t have been perfect either. A piece of me would have nagged with the wonder, even as certain as it seemed, of if I would have made it, and I’d have had to plan another trip to find out.

But now I feel the need to plan another trip anyway, at least with Neville and Adrian, so that we can finish what we (all) started.  Maybe next time, we’ll go even faster, and all cross that bridge in under 20 hours…together.  Maybe next time the arbitrary external goals and the more meaningful internal ones can all be met, and the sense of success will be more complete.  Maybe next time we’ll get lucky.

Helicopters

Thoughts on the wilderness through the lens of a helicopter bubble, as published in Say Yes to Adventure Magazine, Dec. 2016:

syta_volume-seven_andrew-magness-2-page-001syta_volume-seven_andrew-magness-2-page-002I’ve been flying in helicopters a lot recently.  It’s made me realize a couple of things. To begin with, we never know what our futures hold.  If five years ago someone asked me what I was going to be doing when I was 41, I might have said a lot of things, but I would not have suggested that my line of work was going to make flying over remote and spectacular scenery in a helicopter such a common occurrence that it felt ordinary and blase.

More importantly, perhaps, it has given me regular cause to think about the juxtaposition between nature/wilderness as it is experienced via media–coffee table books, go-pro clips, social media feeds and the like–and nature/wilderness as it is experienced in reality.

These experiences are separated by light years, nothing less.  Wilderness/nature–stunningly rugged and remote coastlines; soaring, corniced mountain ridges; pristine lakes of impossible blue, forests of lush and vibrant fifty-shades-of-green–these things used to take my breath away. They invoked such a spectacular impression of striving, of wonder, of adventure, that I’d yearn for them.  I’d look at the glossy pictures and watch the high-def videos and covet the settings and actions that were being displayed–the smooth inky water of a rugged and wave strewn coast at sunset, the majestic vista of snow covered peaks poking through a blanket of clouds, white on white.  

I’d yearn for the illusion. The fantasy.  

It’s much the same when travelling by helicopter.  Through the clear glass of the bubble it all appears very much as it does in those crisp pages and on the HD monitor.  And the first time I flew over those soaring ridges and lush vibrant forests I was filled with those same senses of longing.  But then…well…then I was promptly put there. And it was cold. And wet.  And the smooth undulating landscape formed by the tops of those crisp trees hid another landscape of head high ferns and tangled roots that made travel ridiculously challenging.  As I exited the more or less climate controlled cabin of the chopper, my other senses had equal say, and the input they received did less to stir my soul to song and more to make it cry out in a desperate plea, “please don’t leave me here alone!”

There is nothing glossy about real wilderness.  And in my experience the sense of potential that a talented photographer (especially an airborne one) can elicit via his lens is rarely, if ever, felt within its midst. Humility, sure. Fear, check.  Isolation, smallness, a sense of the profound scale of our world.  Of impossible effort.

Experiences shared in wilderness, in the middle of harsh, indifferent, landscapes far from influences of man’s shaping hand, are, however glue.  Wilderness is a catalyst for relationships, one of several such crucibles (war is another I imagine) that can contribute to unbreakable bonds being formed with near instantaneous speed.  My early experiences in real wilderness were all with company, and in retrospect maybe I kept venturing back for these companionship rewards.

But these days I make my trips alone, and alone, no such rewards are offered.

So why do I go?  Why do I keep getting into that chopper, knowing that at the end of its glorious flight–the very thing that tourists pay top dollar for over and over again–a lonely and grim trial awaits?  I’m not sure.  I guess part of it is the money, but then there are plenty of other ways to earn a living.  So there must be something else.  Maybe it is the desire to feel the reality, rather than the illusion. To keep it fresh in my mind, or fresh enough, so that I can navigate this in-your-face modern world where the media consumption of everyone else’s wilderness/nature experiences is so pervasive that it is easy to feel that my life is somehow less spectacular than that of my peers.  It can be easy to forget, as we wade through the magazine cover worthy photos of our ‘friends’’ last epic wilderness adventure, that there were bugs out there too.  And wet tents to pack up. And shivering, sore muscles, maybe some real fear, and probably at least a few moments where they would have traded it all in for a nice cup of coffee at their favorite cafe.

But really I think it is because, illusion or not, that siren song of wilderness persists for me.  As deceptive and one-dimensional as their captured images may be, those soaring ridges and rugged coastlines, those plunging rivers and tangled forests still call to me.  There are these 10-second snatches that pop up unannounced a handful of times during an otherwise punishing day, rare and fleeting moments, infinitesimal fractions of the whole, where the light years of difference disappear and the illusion merges with the reality.  Perhaps it is in these precious instances, where through a genuine reckoning with such a magnificent and formidable environment, the rapture of unlimited potential mixes with the gritty truth of fear,isolation, and profound humility, and a moment is formed that is just, well, worth it.  

It’s time to go. My helicopter is waiting.

Sandflies and Hedonism (thoughts from Resolution)

 

sandfly

My only company for six days…

A sandfly just bit me on the thumb.  It’s probably the thirtieth bite I’ve gotten today but considering how many of them seem to have somehow ended up on the inside of the small two bunk bivvy, that’s a pretty low number.  It is 11 pm and they are supposed to ‘go away’ after it gets dark, but like me, the ones in the biv must be wide awake for some reason.  I’m not sure what I’m wanting to write about, but I finished my days work at 1:30 and have already eaten six times, had three cups of tea, two thermoses of Raro, read for hours, watched a movie on my laptop and spent an hour trying to fix the solar power to no avail.  I’m sure if i’d have gotten that sorted I wouldn’t be writing at all–I’d be struggling in vain to complete the Ipad quest game I brought along just so I’d have something to do.

But alas, all the batteries are flat and so here I am, reaching for the one device that still has an ounce of life left.  If I dim the screen long enough maybe I can get another half hour of writing out of it.  

Which again begs the question as to what i want to write about.

reso

Tools of the trade. Photo courtesy of DOC

Well, I’ve noticed a few things on this trip, but before I launch into that, I’ll provide a brief rundown of what ‘this trip’ is.  I’m on Resolution Island of the coast of Fiordland.  It’s one of two big islands in Fiordland that some years ago they decided to try and make pest free–pest meaning possums, rats, and stoats–so that they would be sanctuaries for native birds.  It works, kind of.  Resolution has been declared possum and rat free but there are still the occasional stoats that swim over from the mainland and think they’ve hit the jackpot.  And to keep them from raising their families over here, the Department of Conservation sends a crew of guys (like me) out to check and rebait the over 2000 stoat traps that criss cross the rugged landscape on a network of rough cut trails.  I’m on the island crew (there is a boat crew that lives aboard the ship and checks traps on the shoreline)–one of four.  Each day I have a set route of traps to check.  I’m all by myself in the middle of nowhere for 6 days.  

This is my second time on a trip like this. The first was on the other of the two islands, Secretary.  That trip was in winter (colder) but the sun shone brilliantly and there were awesome mountains and steep country and i mostly loved it.  This time I was in the bush pretty much the whole time–no great views. And it rained. A lot.  

I’ve learned I’m not a big fan of going from cozy to not cozy. Once I’m not cozy, I’m pretty sweet. I can soldier on through grim conditions as good as anyone, maybe even better than most.  But when I have the choice–when I’ve got 60 square feet (7.5 square meters) of dry and warm and slippers on my feet and my ipad and book and instant coffee and the rain is pounding on the roof it’s really hard to go to work when work is going to be cold, wet, muddy, and involve lots of physical work.  

But…I’ve also realized that the work is what makes these trips so unique.  I find that  because of that work, and the solitude, I collapse into a sort of hedonism. Not the kind that money and drugs and a misplaced sense of one’s own importance brings, mind you, but one driven more by the ferel nature of the job and the sense of solipsism surrounding the whole experience.  I’m completely on my own.  I’m in a sometimes harsh and uncertain environment, dealing with demons (deciding not to turn back when no one would know), suffering a little or a lot, and taxing and testing my physical machine.  And then I’m done.  Because of how I am, once I’m out there I go pretty non-stop, which means my days have been shorter than expected this trip–often only 6ish hours.  And when I get back, I just consume.  Food, drink, technology.  And although I reflecto on it, I’m strangely satisfied with it all.  I don’t think I should be doing anything else really, don’t feel guilty for eating a whole bar of chocolate (250 grams) then a whole bag of lollies (kiwi party mix), before a massive dinner of stir fried veggies over noodles.  If I had the juice and the patience with torrenting over slow connections, I’d happily consume season after season of whatever Sci Fi series I am taken with at the time, too [the 100 was great, Shannara chronicles not so much. The Expanse seems promising…].  Or, as on this trip, battle evil forces on my Ipad for hours.  

Ah, hedonism.

Ah, hedonism.

I stay up late–as late as 1 am one night.  Reading, thinking, more movies. That first secretary trip I didn’t know how I’d be on my own–I’d never gone more than the better part of my day without company.

And during the days–when i’m out in the field trudging my way over roots and rocks and up and down hills, scrambling and slipping and clutching desperately at the mud and ferns sometimes–I just enter a zone.  It goes by so quickly.  It’s not as if I’m not aware–I am. I have to be. To move quickly in this terrain requires focus.  But the days are long and daunting and I let my mind wander. It’s almost like I’m of two minds–a present mind completely absorbed in the task, and a higher/intellectual mind that is able to detach and think about whatever it wants–my family, new business ideas, notstalgic reminiscings, sex, food, racing, politics, and end of the world type stuff.  I write novels in my head, I talk to myself (seriously), and sometimes even sing.  As I’m writing this now I wonder what this sort of dual natured experience means, what my wife the meditator who is studying mindfullness would think.  I wonder who else has had similar experiences.  In my estimation, it is a good thing–it allows me to cope, to get through a long uncertain day, to overcome tired muscles and not let the negative self talk that might otherwise overcome me derail my efforts when the going gets hard. This duality has a purpose.  Yeah, it keeps me from ‘really experiencing the moment,’ to fully appreciating the grandeur around me and where I am, but it also keeps me from sitting down on a rotting log and crying at the crushing thought of how heavy my pack is and how much further I have to go.  

Tomorrow is my last day. The helicopter comes the morning after that.  It’s been long enough.  My legs are tired.  My clothes–(i’ve got one field pair and one hut pair) are getting pretty stiff.  I’m ready to go. But it has been an interesting journey.  I get two days off and then I’m back out for six days–but this time as a packraft guide for six clients.  

I somehow don’t think the feral hedonism will be part of that trip.  

But I suspect the sandflies will.

The Perks of Over (winter) Training.

Over-winter-training back in North Dakota a few years ago--a place that takes the concept to a whole other level.

Taking over-winter-training to another level in North Dakota, 2011.

I typically hate training outdoors in winter, particularly when embracing more high intensity efforts. And particularly when I’ living someplace where it actually gets cold. And since I do live somewhere where it gets cold…

Last winter, I ended up buying a rather expensive gym membership (everything is rather expensive in New Zealand) and gutted it out on treadmills, rowing machines, ellipticals and stationary bikes for five minutes at a time. It was epic. But it was still cold (apparently heat, too, is expensive–so much so that the gym membership didn’t include it).

So when winter rolled around this year I just manned up and stayed outside. Thankfully it was relatively mild and I only occasionally had to face challenging conditions like freezing rain, but it was still cold none-the-less.  Which meant that lungs burned badly, joints ached, and muscles felt sluggish as I raced along the final straight-away on my 4.5 km mountain bike time trial or rounded the last bend on my last 400 track repeat.

But I stuck with it, set reasonable expectations, and low and behold, it is suddenly spring.

Today it was 17 degrees and sunny (about 63 F for all you Americans and Brits) as I shook the legs out in preparation for my mile time trial.  I wasn’t looking forward to it.  It was desperately rushed and last minute. But on the plus side I could run shirtless for the first time since April.

I took it easy on the way out, giving myself time to get into it.  As I passed half way I still felt pretty good.  My lungs weren’t burning.  My skin didn’t sting. I hadn’t once registered an achy joint. I cruised down the finishing straight, happy that it had been relatively painless because I’d really been dreading it.  All winter the time trial was the hardest of my rotating HIIT runs.  It usually felt horrible by a minute in and I’d just hang on for the rest, wanting to dry heave at the end. And I’d always feel the rawness of stretched or dry or  broken alveoli (whatever it is that causes that awesome post HIIT cold weather burning of the lungs) with every deep breath right through until bedtime.

But this time around a combination of low expectations and higher temperatures made for a matching of my personal best, all without what felt like a personal best effort.  And that, in my opinion, is one of the unexpected perks of over (winter) training.

Fragility

ned-stark-970x545I had a good week last week.  It was school holidays which meant my kids had two weeks off, and the first week we’d lucked into a stint as a ‘volunteer hut warden’ up at Luxmore Hut, the first of the Kepler Track’s (one of NZ’s great walks) palatial accommodations.  Not only did I get to refer to myself as ‘Warden of North*’ for a whole week, which has always been a secret fantasy of mine ever since Game of Thrones, but I also got to hang out with my family in an awesome alpine environment.

We took hikes, explored caves, got dumped on by half a meter of snow, built snowmen, had snowball fights, chopped wood, read books, played games, slept in, kept cozy by the fire, cooked good meals, drank lots of coffee and drinking chocolate. It was awesome.  We even improvised ways to do our body-weight training by using a broom handle suspended across two upper bunks.  I even got a good run to the top of the mountain in before the mid-week storm brought the hammer down.

Trails before the storm

Trails before the storm

It was that hammer coming down that planted the seed of fragility, but it was the helicopter ride down–a 90 second trip that covered a distance that would take over half a day by non-motorized means–and the resulting reflection that saw it blossom.

As an athlete, I occasionally feel very powerful.  And when I look at images of other athletes–top mountain runners for example, churning their way along knife ridges, visions of sinew and sweat and efficiency I feel their power.  I quietly cultivated the feeling on the day before the snow as I ground my way up to Luxmore summit, doggedly running every step despite the steep grade, and then revelled in that sense of power as I charged back down, dancing my way across the rocky sections, slip sliding in the mud, and bending gravity to my will.

After the storm

After the storm

The day after the snow fell I got a bit antsy.  I was up in the mountains.  I wanted to run–to take the opportunity to get a big day in.  Test the machine again.  Feel the power.  So I tried.   Tammy got back from her short hike and gave me the green-light, but warned about how hard going it was.  I put on the gaiters. I decided to head back up the mountain and not take advantage of her footsteps going down.  The wind was blowing.  It was still snowing.  Adventure.  Harsh conditions. I was powerful, I could do it.  Sure, it would take me longer to get there–that was to be expected–but I’d get there.

I didn’t get there.  I didn’t get more than 400 meters from the hut, and even that took 15 minutes.  Snow stung my face.  I couldn’t open my eyes to look ahead without goggles.  The drifts were on occasion waist deep.  It was hard going. I didn’t feel powerful at all.

I felt fragile.

20160711_110942

Our minds and machines may be powerful…but our bodies?

The helicopter ride just cemented these feelings.  Nature is really, really big. The wilderness is unforgiving.  Yes, places exist where the wilderness is negotiable, where you  can run and leap and travel through it with grace and ease.  But those places are the exception, not the rule.  For the most part, for the overwhelming majority of the undeveloped places on this planet, nature/wilderness is harsh, brutal, big, and uncompromising.  We are only the powerful beings, the efficient machines of my earlier conception in these narrow places.  This fraction of a fraction of the world that we have claimed as our own and modified to suit our abilities.  Even places we think of as wilderness–the trail of the Kepler Track traversing it’s mountains, for example, aren’t.  They offer glimpses into the wilderness. They are a degree–a shade perhaps–closer to wilderness, but only just.  Our abilities, this physical power, is felt only on the backs of billions of people and millenia of reshaping the places in which we live and play. There is an arbitrariness to this. We’ve created a closed system, separate from nature, and the judgements we make about ourselves–athletic or otherwise–take place almost entirely within this closed system of human design.  It is a fascinating thought.

20160714_112451A simple act of nature–a dump of snow–took that ribbon of trail where 48 hours before I’d felt myself a powerful being, at home and in control of this breathtaking mountain environment, suited to it’s rough and undulating terrain, up to challenge this ‘wilderness’ presented, and made it beyond me.  Inaccessible. It was not mine. The work and training and experiences I’ve had did not give me power over this place, this ridge, this peak, unless things were just right–unless conditions allowed. A simple act of nature took it all away.  And this wasn’t even ‘real’ wilderness.

I’ve been in real wilderness too, and reflecting of my time there I realize I’ve never felt powerful there. I’ve always felt fragile.  Afraid, humble, slow, tired, and unsuited for the task.  The speed and powerful feelings cultivated in the land of men do not translate. They are a world apart.  Power, fitness, feelings of physical and mental achievement are only relative to our created human environment.  Even in something like adventure racing, so long as we’re feeling powerful, we’re at best dashing through toy-sized sections of wilderness, or connecting areas of human creation by tenuous threads of trail passing through larger chunks.  Occasionally, if ever, we actually move through wilderness/nature (and so few of us probably ever do), then there is only fragility and humility.

Happy Training

*Yes, I know that Luxmore hut isn’t really ‘North’ in any meaningful way (North of lake Manapouri?), but the ‘Warden’ part took me too close to worry about this niggly little detail.

A simple plan (MBF revisited)

house planI’ve got two blog posts waiting to be written, but have put them on the back-burner in favor of trying to plan a house build that needs to happen ASAP, unless we want to start paying rent.  I’ve discovered planning for a house build isn’t my favorite activity, nor is it one that I expect I’m particularly good at.  It’s been a stressful month even though we’ve not even begun the actual process yet (beyond sketching on graph paper and researching stuff online).  When I’m stressed, it’s even more important for me to maintain some consistency in a workout program, which is one of the primary ways I cope with stress.

The upshot of all of this is that the program I’ve been using pretty consistently for the past couple months has been really enjoyable and easy (stress wise) and flexible too and so I thought I’d share.  To begin with, I’ll lay out the aims I had back when I was heading what I knew was going to be a stressful period–winter coming on, no big missions on the horizon, occasional but inconsistent big, physical, days at work, and all the mental stress of the home building project outside of work.  For me, fitness is a double edged sword–if my pursuit of it demands too much time/energy and adds stress to my life, this is a problem.  But if the program I’m using isn’t effective then I suffer because I am grumpy and unhappy in my priorities.  It’s a challenge to find this balance, but this program has found it, remarkably well too.  Specifically, my aim is to keep up my fitness in terms of endurance and speed in cycling, running, swimming, and paddling, as well as strength (bodyweight specific), and my climbing ability.  I’m not in a phase of life where increasing ability is a priority.  But I am (and expect I always will be) in a phase where maintaining ability, is.  I call this principle Maintainable Base Fitness, or MBF.

Some of the ideas presented in the free training guides and UltraMental always seem to apply to my workouts, even when I experiment (as I have been recently) with much less structured programs.  Higher intensity work of course is important, as is the use of Baseline workouts–repeated efforts that allow for good honest data to track progress/maintenance and encourage proper effort.  Both of these elements are part of this current program I’m using.  Days off between workouts, and a ‘regimented consistency’ are not.  Without further ado…

The Plan:  It’s a loose plan really, in which I cycle through the following disciplines–running, biking, swimming (or SUPing), hanging (hangboard workout), and upper body strength.  I will hit each of these disciplines once to complete a cycle.  Within a cycle I don’t have consistency of order, meaning on one cycle the swim day might come at the beginning, and on the next it might come near the end (some days are just better for swimming!). Once in a while, one of  the workouts will be longer efforts, when this fits in my schedule and I’m properly motivated, but often (the last two weeks for example) each effort has been pretty minimal.  I have a pool of workouts for each discipline that I choose from and at least two thirds of the workouts I do will be from this pool. This means 2/3 of the time I’ll have data, and all the benefits it brings with it, heading in to the workout–i.e. a target pace, confidence of hitting that target pace, numbers for comparison after the fact.  Here is a list, by discipline, of the workouts in my pool–

Running:  1 mile time trial (on a consistent course), 2 x hill repeat (about .3 mile) intervals, 4 x 400 intervals leaving every 2:00, pylon run (~1.75 miles, hilly course).

Cycling:  Short loop time trial, MTB (2.5 miles), 3 x hill repeat, MTB (same course as run), Pylon TT, MTB (same course as run), Road Bike time trial, rolling hills course (~4 miles).

13043690_860682407391334_7744007119342576783_nSwim/SUP: Buoy time trial (for either)–out n back (~400 meters),  Buoy loop time trial (for either, ~1 km), 4 x 100 meter intervals (swim) leaving on 2:30, 6 x 100 meter intervals (SUP) leaving on 1:30.

Strength: CTLs (continuous tension lifting) for chins/pulls and pushups.  I’ll always do one set of each (per workout) but will change rep length for variety.  Currently I’ll choose between 20 second reps (10 sec each for positive and negative phases), 8 second reps, and have now added 30/30/30’s to the mix where I’ll start each movement with a controlled 30 second negative followed by a 30 second positive (concentric) and then a 30 second negative, finishing with as many full reps in good form has possible.  Ouch.

Hanging:  Done on a hangboard.  I’ll alternate between 1) a tabata inspired effort where I hang for 8 rounds of 20 seconds separated by 10 seconds rest, measuring intensity/progression by the number of rounds I manage on a smaller edge before going to the large edge, and 2) a 10 minute ‘intermediate’ hang program from the Metolius website.

Plenty of variety. Plenty of flexibility. And a total training time ‘requirement’, depending on my exercise choices, of somewhere between 20 and 45 minutes a week.  Results so far have been awesome…my mile time trial has remained consistent as have my interval paces.  Same for my biking. Swimming has gotten a bit faster, although there is far more variability there in terms of conditions, as has my finger strength (I managed 5 rounds of the tabata on the medium edge last time…three months ago all rounds were on the large edge and it was brutal!).  Strength is staying put, which, after all, is really the point.  So all up I’m pretty happy.

Interestingly enough it has taken me longer to write this than it would have taken to do a weeks worth of training.  Go figure.  Better get back to researching flooring options.

Happy training.

 

Practicing Suffering

Suffering, along with confidence and will, is one of the three pillars of the UltraMental Philosophy.  I’ve been thinking quite deeply about suffering lately.  Interestingly enough, these thoughts have typically coincided with pretty significant periods of actually experiencing suffering.  I tell my wife, who wakes up at  6:15 am for a daily dose of meditation and yoga, that my long suffer-filled walks in the bush are just my form of moving meditation and a practice of being ‘present in the moment’. They last alot longer, which is why I don’t need to do it as often.

suffering-occurs-when-your-ideas-about-howI spent the last two days in such a meditation.  It was pretty awful.  I was working for a new contractor putting in tracking tunnels in the Roa Burn.  I won’t go into all the details about what tracking tunnels are or where the Roa Burn is, except to say that it is in the middle of nowhere in the remote wilderness and that the task involved trekking up and down a bush covered mountainside with no trails for 7-8 hours a day.  While this might sound like fun–and on some other trips has almost been–the Roa Burn was definitely not fun.  To begin with, the weather was awful. 10 cm of slushy snow was present on the tops when I stepped out of the chopper, and it was drizzling from the inside of an massive cloud.  It rained all day–a rain that is only a few degrees above freezing.  The hillside was steep and the bush dense.  I crawled a lot.  My gloves were wet through within minutes to the point that I could make a fist every 10 seconds and wring the water out.  I was soaked to the bone within 20 minutes, my clothes weighing more than twice what they did in the chopper (yes, fleece will absorb water…). And I was just getting started.  

Over the next 8-ish hours as I baited the 50 tracking tunnels, I traversed gullies, descended bluffs, crossed thick swamps, and generally negotiated kilometers of horrible, sodden country where the portion of steps I took on easy, open, level ground is most accurately described by ten to the negative two (10-2). Travelling 100 meters could take more than 10 minutes. Seriously.  And then, towards the end of the day, tendonitis in my left elbow (of all places) started flaring up–I’m guessing from using my arm to take weight and/or the near constant grabbing of branches/trees for support.   

It was hard going, but then what choice did I have?  The thoughts came and went.  This is crazy. People could die out here. What do the early stages of hypothermia feel like? It was ugly.  But then there were other thoughts: It’s just an experience.  What ifs don’t matter–right now you can keep going–the goal of camp is still achievable and time will pass and this experience of cold/wet/pain will pass too.  And of course they did.  I made camp, and the experiences changed.

I got to the bottom of the valley and crossed the final river, slipping and falling in up to my waist (which honestly hardly mattered at this point), and finding my overnight bag that had been delivered that morning by the chopper.  I set up the tent in the rain (one of my least favorite things to do) just at dusk.  I stripped out of my wet clothes and was attacked by sandflies.  But then I was in my sleeping bag, and eventually, warm.  It was time to eat.  Unfortunately, the job offer had came at the last minute–Sunday afternoon for Monday morning departure. I’d been spending time with the family so opted not to take my leave to go prepare and just ended up scrounging food from the pantries after the kids were in bed and figuring  I’d make it a ‘hardship’ mission–besides, the boss had made it sound pretty easy on the phone–so I was light on food too.  I’d had a banana in the chopper, carried a  HydroFlask of hot chocolate and licked the peanut butter off the spoon after baiting each tunnel, but otherwise hadn’t stopped to eat.  Thanks to my meager rations I experienced hunger too.

I got plenty of sleep–well, rest anyway.  Sleep was difficult as it took significant ‘attention’ to try to settle my mind.  It was raining outside.  My tent leaked a little bit.  I was going to have to put back on cold, wet clothes in the morning and do it all again, only uphill.  My meditation practice changed gears and focused on letting go of tomorrow’s suffering because, well, it didn’t really exist.  I made a pillow out of my HydroFlask, my rather moist fleece hat and a bit of toilet paper in a plastic bag,

I made it through the next day too–using tricks learned over years of racing and adventuring.  Chunk things out–one small goal at a time. Break things down.  When the bush was thick and progress seemed to halt I’d try to remember that there is no permanence.  I will, however slowly, get to better ground.  And then when I had it, I’d practice appreciating the few meters of easy going, knowing it was bound to be temporary as well.  The hours ticked by, surprisingly quickly, something that means my mind was, more or less, where it should be.  It was a pretty good session, considering the circumstances.

helifogWell, until the end–when I heard the chopper heading up the valley towards where I stood, exposed, drenched, shivering, blasted by the wind and rain.  I couldn’t see it because the fog was too dense.  My overnight gear was back at the river mouth, a 4 hour bush bash away in daylight, assuming food, daylight, energy–the former of which was completely gone while the others were severely depleted. Because then, although it sounded like it was right there, the sound started to fade, until it disappeared.  

My wife says if I was truly enlightened I would have accepted such a turn of events, and what they meant, as simply another state of being.  But I basically panicked inside.

Thankfully, the chopper did eventually return, doorless (for visibilities sake) and passengerless (just in case).  I still have some work to do, I suppose, but I think it can wait until after a week of hot showers.

Off by 50 revisited–working for a living

20160608_100100

Tools of the trade…

A couple of years ago I made an attempt to define what ‘doing well’ in an event meant to me.  I’d long ago decided my goal was to be able to ‘do well’ across distances and disciplines in pretty much any challenge I took on, so eventually the term begged to be clarified.  What I came up with (you can read the original blog HERE) was essentially that to be able to complete a task within 150% of the time it took a world champion to complete the same task, was, at least in ways that made me pretty content with it all, doing well.  

Assuming I met this goal, I’d be a sub 3:05 marathoner, be able to do a 40 km time trial on the bike in 1:11, and swim 50 meters in around 31 seconds.  [Click HERE for other “Off by 50” times]

Lately though, I haven’t been racing much, and so wondered if my fitness still measured up.  Yesterday I had a chance to find out.

Adrian Braaksma: world champion stoat trapper and bush sushi connoisseur

Adrian Braaksma: world champion stoat trapper and bush sushi connoisseur

You see, there are more ‘real world’ applications against which this metric can be applied, and one of them happens to be my ‘real world’ job–stoat trapping.  My boss, Adrian Braaksma, is arguably the world champion of stoat trappers, particularly on one section of track leading deep into the wilderness along the infamous Dusky Track.  Now Adrian has been doing this approximately 10 km ‘run’ for years–stopping every 200 meters along the way to open a wooden box with a wrench, rebait the trap with an egg and some rabbit meat, and then close the box before continuing to the next trap.  43 traps.  A trail that defies description.

Last year when he was training for a slew of events including GodZone and Challenge Wanaka–and after decades of honing his abilities to travel through the bush at superhuman speeds–Adrain set his own personal best, completing the ‘run’ in 2 hours and 12 minutes.  Now it may not sound that fast, but only because you haven’t seen the trail.  Even the likes of Uli Steck himself wouldn’t stand a chance of beating this time without some dedicated, on-site training.  

So I had my goal.  3 hours and 18 minutes.  To increase incentive, I caught a late boat across Lake Manapouri (the track is only accessible by boat) with a return scheduled so that I had five and a half total hours to get back to the boat.  I reckoned I could run the way out (no traps to bait) in 2 hours, based on previous attempts, so I had my window.  Unfortunately, the vehicle that should have been waiting for me (the track started 5 km from the boat terminal) wasn’t, so I had to bike up the hill to the start of my mission. Allowing for the bike back down and the trigger happy boat Captain, this whittled my time for the out-n-back along the track to 5 hours.  I gave myself a 3 hour turn around time and set off, intending to smash the record.

One of four walk-wires on the route...

One of four walk-wires on the route…

The track was drier than I’d ever seen.  Normally there is a 100 meter section of knee deep water right off the bat.  Nothing but mud.  Things looked good…for a while.  Then I hit the second walk-wire which had been demolished by a tree.  4 or 5 more massive tree-falls broke up my pace by requiring me to crawl and climb my way around the obstacles.  As the path ascended along the river valley, the ambient temperature dropped and the box lids became frozen shut, requiring more time to open them.  Ice and frost on the bush soaked my clothes and made me cold.  The massive clearing of ferns that always makes me lose my bearings struck again and cost another 5 minutes before I found the track again.  I was soooo close.  I ended my journey, on schedule, at trap 3, meaning I had about half a kilometer left to go to the ‘finish line’ of Spey Hut.  100 meters from where I turned around the track hit a swampy clearing where a boardwalk extended the remaining distance.  I was perhaps 5 minutes from the end.

In retrospect, I could have made it.  The boat didn’t end up leaving early after all.  I managed the run back in just under 2 hours, even getting lost again in those damned ferns.  I was a bit gutted to miss those last few traps, but reckon I would easily have managed to go under 3:18–besides, there’s always next time…late July/early August.  It’s good to have goals…  

Too Much Ambition

ambitionI want to do a lot.  In fact, my head always seems to be full of big ideas–such big ideas and so many of them that I need to be like Michael Keaton in that classic 90’s film, Multiplicity (what, you didn’t think that was classic?). I recently felt so bogged down with all my big ideas that I made a list.  Now mind you, this isn’t just pie in the sky stuff–these are opportunities in line with my myriad passions that I  have the experience to actually work hard towards and see to fruition.  Just not all at the same time. And because I know you were about to ask what’s on this list of mine…here it is, in no particular order:

  1. Start the Fiordland Adventure Society (FAS), a non-profit group dedicated to doing all sorts of things, and act as the executive director.  What sort of things? How about:
    1. ‘Non-guided’ outdoor missions–packrafting, through running, ridge traverses, big swims, epic stuff like that.
    2. Put on events/races, like in #2
  2. Direct epic races.  I’ve got two ways to go here, either big and corporate, or small and grassroots (see #3).  My experience is small and grassroots, but some of my events, seeing as how they’re located in one of the most spectacular places on the planet (can you say ‘World Heritage Site?’) definitely have ‘Red Bull’ potential.  These include
    1. A swim run to rival Otillo
    2. A game changing triathlon
    3. A vertical mile that makes those ‘pipe runs’ look like a kids race.
    4. A ‘superhero’ swim
  3. NZ8 (1 of 1)Direct hardcore wilderness events. Like #2, but the grassroots version.  I’ve already got the name picked out–SCAR racing which stands for ‘Self-Containted-Adventure-Racing’.  These are either marked course events or navigation based ones where you start and finish with all your gear.  No transition areas, food drops, or medical staff.  Better bring your A game–triathletes need not apply.  I’ve got a number ‘planned’ already but the opportunities for new courses each year would span decades. Awesome.  
  4. Drop-ship racing.  As close to Pie in the Sky as this list gets, a variation of #3 where racers (in teams of 2) are helicoptered into the middle of Fiordland and must make their way back to civilization.  A version of this could instead have them head to an extraction point instead (called Drop Ship: extraction).  I can see reality T.V. show written all over this, if only I knew the right people…
  5. Pallet Houses. I want to learn how to build small houses/sleep-outs out of pallets and other recycled materials and then go around and teach other people  You didn’t think I only thought about racing and adventure did you?
  6. Adventure Racing Team. This could be part of the FAS–I’d call it FAST–Fiordland Adventure Society Team.  We’d focus on getting local youth into the sport and maybe have an adult team, because why should kids have all the fun?
  7. Personal Training–part of me wants to work harder at building training clients.  I could do this in two ways
    1. Locally–in conjunction with the personal trainer in town. I’d specialize in getting folks ready for events like the Kepler Challenge and the Milford Classic, following on with my success with Vaughn Filmer but maybe actually charge something.
    2. Web-based.  I’ve played around with this before, but could easily do something like what my brother Jason is doing successfully HERE–only with a bit less functional fitness and more HIIT.
  8. Writing. Wow, this is a big one.  I love writing, and do it quite a bit in a variety of forms and to a variety of ends, the main ones including:
    1. ImageFromArtStudioFiction–I’m writing a fantasy novel for pre-teens based on a dungeons and dragons campaign I started with my boys last year.  You can read the first bit for free HERE.  Not sure if it’ll ever get published, but I’m going to work on is as though it will, because, why not?
    2. Adventure Writing–I’m keen to keep writing commentary about adventure and detailing some of my more exciting exploits.  I get published a couple of times a year in magazines such as Wilderness (NZ) and Breathe (CA).  Can’t quit my day job yet, but then again, I don’t really have a day job to quit.
    3. Fitness writing–similar to adventure writing, my thoughts on all things fitness and nutrition inspire me to occasionally put pen to paper, and once in awhile someone thinks I’m saying something of value and publishes it, like recent articles in WOD talk and NZ triathlon and multisport.
    4. UltraMental stuff–of course I’m still spending time and energy thinking about my training, fitness philosophy, and new programs and sharing them on the UM blog. In addition, I’ve just finished the One Hour Series #2 on Ultra-running, and will tackle number three after a bit of a break.  Now if only Tim Ferris would have a read and give me a courtesy tweet…
    5. Other books–I’ve got heaps of ideas from a memoir of my brother and I’s early climbing days (and years of journals) to UM like books on training with kids, risk, parenthood, etc.  
  9. Youth Guiding.  I’ve had heaps of fun each time I’ve done a stint of guiding for local school groups and have considered getting more into this, particularly by offering SUP and or Packrafting to things they already do.  After all, packrafting is the future of outdoor rec. in NZ, and I’m a pretty decent packrafter.
  10. Conservation work.  This is how I earned most of my income last year.  It’s really like paid training.  Shouldn’t I just focus on this, make some dough, keep uber-fit, and help rid the island of unwanted (and non-native) bird-killing pests?  Hmmm…but there are so many other things on the list, and some days it’s really cold and wet out there in the mountains. Still, don’t want to give this one up, after all, I’m getting paid to hang out and take helicopter rides.  Ok, I’m really getting paid to scrape maggots out of traps and handle raw meat, but focusing on the riding in helicopters bit makes it seem more awesome.
  11. Teaching and Tutoring.  Believe it or not, I’m actually quite educated–having been a high school teacher and having earned a Master’s Degree in physics in a former life. I enjoy both teaching (and could, were I to choose to, more ambitiously pursue either relief teaching or a more full time position) and tutoring. So many choices!
  12. 13043690_860682407391334_7744007119342576783_nStand Up Paddleboarding: Last year my wife and I decided there needed to be something low cost to do on the lake. So we invested 8000 in SUPs, I took an instructor’s course, we built up an old trailer, and Viola, started a lake-front rental business. We missed most of last summer, but, depending on how much elbow grease we want to invest next summer, could potentially grow this by
    1. Starting a weekly locals race series/time trial
    2. Host bigger events (see #2 and #3), including down-river events
    3. Guiding SUP trips from one hour excursions to multi-day adventures
  13. Waiau River Festival: By combining #2d, #12b, a SCAR type event, and some fun up-river swim/SUP competition, or even a down river SUPcross type event, an entire three day weekend could be spent partying on the Waiau river between the Control Gates and Rainbow Reach.  How awesome would that be?
  14. Pack-Raft Guiding.  Did I mention that pack-rafting was the future of NZ outdoor recreation?  Well luckily I’m a guide for the NZ’s only commercial pack-rafting outfit and am helping develop new trips down in my neck of the woods, including full on 6 day wilderness experiences in the heart of the Darran Mountains.  
  15. And Finally, there is the Men’s Yoga class that i figure is very much needed in this Southland town where I’ve taken up residence.  Most of the guys out here are probably reticent to any sort of mixed class, or anything with too much of the feel good stuff, but a basic ‘blokes only’ offering would probably do well. 

So you see my dilemma.  A dozen or so potential careers.  On top of this I’m pretty keen to get back into a bit of climbing and keep training so that I can tackle one or two big races a year like GodZone. And of course spending heaps of quality time with the kids and wife (which is more important than any career in my book). There’s no way to do it all.  Going to have to choose.  But how?  Never been good at this part, I’ve always been more of the idea man.  Knuckling down is hard.  Any suggestions?  Flipping a coin maybe?  Or rolling one of those 12 sided dice I’ve recently become re-aquainted with (see #8a)? Home made darts and dart-board?

Hardship Sessions

Most–if not all–of my longer efforts these days fall into a category of what I call hardship training. Now of course I don’t do too many long efforts, but about once a month I’ll decide on a mini-mission if I don’t have a race on the horizon. If you count my occasional work in ‘remote pest control’, then my stints ‘going long’ are slightly more numerous meaning that at least every few weeks I’m facing hardship. [The video above  is a glimpse at my latest hardship session, which took place last week–a failed attempt to negotiate a coastal section of Lake Manapouri. High water and no map led to us getting lost and having to backtrack our way out, but it still served it’s purpose–3+ hours of running, packrafting, and bushwhacking in the sometimes rain and cold. I didn’t take any water and consumed 2 energy chomps–maybe 50 cals, during the adventure, but stayed strong throughout.]

‘Hardship training’ is purposefully training in less than ideal conditions. For me this most often means lack of food and water. Sometimes it also means using inadequate gear for the environment, essentially ensuring I’m either going to get wet or cold or both. But it’s at it’s best when all of these elements are involved.

I feel this sort of training is invaluable for the adventure sport athlete, although probably pretty under-represented in most training programs. Most training seems to focus on optimizing conditions rather than purposefully making them more challenging. Good gear on good surfaces in good weather. I’m all about maximizing performance and minimizing hardship and distraction for my short and sweet HIIT workouts when the goal (though it’s never achieved) is to approach 100% intensity. These are the workouts where my 5 or 10 minutes are demanding that my body gets stronger and faster.

But the longer efforts? What is the greatest purpose they can serve? Developing mental tenacity! I’m not the only one that thinks so, either. Urban legends abound about guys like Killian Jornet embarking on 9 hour runs (how far is that for Killian anyway, nearly 100 K?) with only a single gel packet for sustenance, or Micah True (the White Horse) of Born to Run fame who’d regularly head out for a great many hours with no food or water. Whether or not they are 100% accurate, the idea is sound–figuring out how your body, and more importantly, your mind, responds to hardship.

And I’ve figured out heaps. I’ve learned how little food I actually need to maintain a moderate level of performance over a long period. I’ve learned how little water I actually need, particularly when the temperature drops, but also how to tell when I actually need it. I’ve trained my body and mind to deal with ‘less than optimal’ conditions and as a result have heaps of ‘non-race critical’ experience with how I respond to these conditions. Sure, when a race or big mission comes, I’ll take food and water (well, maybe…), but i’ll be able to cut it lean (or as I refer to it, cut it ‘optimistically’) and know that I’ll be able to deal with the repercussions.