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

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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.

It’s EASY! It WORKS! (from the archives, 2013)

Every once in a while, I’ll admit, I click on one of those insanely buff dudes in the sidebar of my Facebook page. You know, the ones where the tag line reads something like ‘new secret reveals ancient wisdom’s super easy way to get absolutely shredded while sleeping!’ My latest click actually involved something called “muscle rev x” and took me to the fascinating land of Men’s Health advertorials where the sales pitch ensued: lots of awesome before and after pictures [check out this link for the secret behind these magic tricks], sweeping references to “clinically proven” and “scientific research” and an ocean of comments from the fascinating land of “Bro-Merica” (no seriously!  check it out… um, Bro?).  This particular link was selling supplements though many links are portals for training programs that make similar claims – ‘get ripped in 6 minutes a day while drinking beer!’ My morning’s visit to these distant shores got me wondering why i’m not seeing more insanely ripped people out there these days given the quantity of these opportunities that seem to exist and the fact that all of us spend at least 3 hours a day on Facebook (right Bro?).

And while the answer might be clearly apparent to most, here is my version.  These program/supplements aren’t creating an army of Gerard Butlers because of the difference between the theoretical truth and pragmatic truth.  You see, all of these opportunities are really selling theoretical truths.  It is possible to do regular six minute super high intensity workouts, integrate them with a shot glass full of beer, eat really healthy, and see awesome results.  It is possible to take virtually any supplement as part of a solid exercise program and diet and radically change the way you look.
Pragmatically though, things are much more difficult.  YOU (or whoever is wanting to get ripped, fit, or lose weight) don’t actually change in any significant way when you key in your credit card number to an online order form.  The habits, desires, time management, etc that got you where you are will not yield to gentle pressure.  There are no easy solutions.  If you are out of shape or unhealthy it has taken a long time to get you that way – a long time spent making decisions that negatively impacted you health and fitness.  Even when claims of supplements, for example, are true – they only (at best) accentuate any benefits (i.e cause slightly faster weight loss) provided by a meaningful switch to making healthier choices.

The bottom line is that if YOU don’t change – and stick with that change – then no amount of money will get you where you want to be.  This is true regardless of what the tagline next to the buff dude tells you.  The good news is that if you do really change, then you probably don’t need the supplements anyway, and it won’t really matter so much which particular training program you end up following.

The reason we’re not all super athletes with fit and healthy bodies is that significant change, the kind required for results – is very hard.  So next time you see those ads Bro, remember that you’re being sold the theoretical truth and it is the pragmatic one that matters –

It’s (never) EASY! It (all) WORKS!

PS – did i get all the “Bros” right?

ONE (really) good session

One good session blog picI’m fascinated really.  I went out for a run today, a short one. After a very stressfull couple weeks where my training seemed to be my last priority.  Where I was on the tails of a botched taper for GodZone, a race that I didn’t end up going to because of some terrible life circumstances. I hadn’t run in any serious capacity for at least two weeks, and before that only a handful of short efforts over the last month or so.  I’d been staying active–three minutes of CTL (continuous training load) strength work once a week, an intermediate hang-workout at the same frequency, and some swimming once in a while.  A solid bike effort in the lead up to GodZone (happening now! Check it out!) with superstar Cheley Magness two weeks ago or so.  A long slow burn day in the hills stoat trapping.  But hardly a proper training schedule.

And I was pretty bummed. Bummed about the circumstances.  Bummed about GodZone. Bummed that I was struggling with letting go of GodZone in the midst of the circumstances. Things were challenging.  But I was trying to find some normalcy in it, to grab back a bit of control over things that just seemed to be spinning every which way. And one way I do that is with training.

So anyway, I’d put together a ‘start again’ schedule last night.  Today was a run. A short one.  My first in two weeks like I said.  I waited until the last minute, procrastinating till the end, because well, HIIT is hard. And besides, I’m really good at procrastinating. But then it was time, no more delays.  The curry was simmering in the pot–dinner time t-minus 30 minutes.  Now or never.  

And so I went.  Outside and down the driveway.  The Pylon run, just under 2 K out n back–down then up to the pylon, then back down and up again to the finish line at my cottage. Either up or down–all steep enough to hurt but not so steep to give you an excuse not to work your ass off. Brutal stuff for a time trial, and as my friend and fellow Kiwi transplant (you’re welcome!) Caleb K. says–it’s the gold standard as far as Te Anau time trials are concern.  Adrian Braaksma has gone 10:45. UltraMental Apprentice Vaughn Filmer has gone 10:50 something. I’ve never, even when I was hitting it regularly during regular training cycles, gone sub 11. My PR sat somewhere around 11:04.

Until today.  I told myself I’d be happy with a sub 11:30.  Just a good effort, as long as I pushed hard enough to feel some pain by the end.  Just needed to help with my funk a bit.  I didn’t expect much–couldn’t expect much with the month I’d had.  Yet somehow when I crossed the finish line–the imaginary threshold between the corner post of the paddock fence and the corner of the cottage–and looked at my watch it read…10:57.

Yeah, it hurt.  The crisp evening air burned my lungs coming up the final hill.  They still burned during deep breaths half an hour later. I had the tinny taste in the back of my throat.  I’d wanted to hurt a bit.  But I never expected to be faster.  I just can’t figure it out honestly, but i’m not going to try too much, because, just like that, one good workout, and I feel a bit more in control.  Sure it doesn’t really mean anything (other than that I’ve got a new benchmark… ouch), but I certainly love the way that one good session can seem to turn things around.  And somehow, i always seem to be able to have one when i need it.  Maybe it’s a self fullfilling prophecy because after all i’d already lifted the expectations–I’d have been stoked with a 11:15.  So I couldn’t really fail.  And although i felt a bit out of shape, maybe that’s just my mind.  Maybe i’d been doing just enough to keep reved up but nothing extra that, when combined with all my other stress, would have led to decreased performance.  Maybe, at least considering my circumstances, less really was more.

I’m on a high right now which feels nice because it’s been a while.  It won’t last forever, but rest assured, it’ll come again, probably just when I need it, with or without another PR.

Lessons from the field

Atop hanging vallye with a gaggle of youngsters.  My second time up for the day...

Atop hanging vallye with a gaggle of youngsters. My second time up for the day…

I’ve spent the last three weeks out in the field. For me that meant a week as an outdoor instructor at a pair of all girls camps (three dozen 14 year old girls, oh my!), a week as a guide on a 6 day, 150 km long pack-rafting trip, and most of a week as a parent helper at a pair of overnight primary school camps with my two boys. The first two weeks were too important financially to skip, and the last one was pretty critical to maintaining the work-family balance.  But these weeks were pretty also pretty key training weeks my lead up to GodZone, this years “A” race for me.  In fact, they lay 7, 6, and 5 weeks out respectively–prime training time.

Initially I struggled to decide whether to accept the offers of work, fearing that it would impact my training.  But in the end the dollars were too hard to turn down and I decided to try to take the work. Same deal when upon return from that pack-rafting trip my boys informed me they wanted ME to come to both of their camps. I initially thought only of what workouts I’d miss and started, by default, rationalizing why their mom should go instead.  But in then end I couldn’t refuse. I just sucked it up and did my best to fit the training around these priorities and in doing so got quite an education.

Week 1 'training' camp accommodations.

Week 1 ‘training’ camp accommodations.

The first week’s work entailed daily hikes of 2-3 hours, as well as leading lots of “ABL” (adventure based learning) activities.  It also involved lots of singing and screaming and organizing and talking with the other teachers. It was exhausting.  Since I was getting paid to lead the walks and manage the activities, my training window was 6 to 7:30 am.  No problem for my wife, but a major problem for me, as I’m hardly a morning person.  To make matters worse the camp was set in Deep Cove, a stunningly beautiful spot in Fiordland New Zealand that also happens to be one of the wettest spots in the world.  It was almost always raining.  For someone who doesn’t like getting up early to begin with, getting up early to train is pretty hard.  Getting up early to train in rain that is measured annually in meters is damned near impossible.  But then again, so might be finishing GodZone.  I managed the former by hoping it might help me manage the latter.

packraftUM

early mornings on the water. Great paddle training!

It was actually pretty good AR training.  Headlamps, mud and water, darkness, and hills. Big hills.  I was so exhausted by the early start coupled with the near constant activity that I wasn’t able to do anything fast, but I did do it.  The same went for my training while guiding.  Even though the trip was relatively easy for me, it still covered some 140 km over six days.  I added an extra 16km on day two when I had to choose between an afternoon nap (the day’s seven hours of travel had ended by noon) or a trail run.  A fartlek in packrafts on day 5, blasting from the last of the three clients to the front on the lake paddle, served as an attempt at higher intensity work, the first attempt in during the period in question.  My back got knackered–a heavy ill-fitting pack and the long hours in the boat followed by the hunched walking position and crappy hut mattresses.  But I soldiered on, pushing the clients through torrential rain (a third of a meter over two days!) and accross swollen rivers.

And then this most recent week–full days of leading hikes and kids activities on the beach, complete with atrocious food (the food situation gradually got worse over the three weeks…), and heaps of sandflies.  A super cold night that reached zero degrees (celsius) with me in a 10 degree bag kept me from getting much sleep before being joined just after six AM by my teammate for an hour uphill run before the kids woke up.  Then I went up the mountain again the next day once they went to bed.  For lack of other options I did a 30 minute tempo paddle in a tiny packraft (scout) and a couple of 500 meter time trials on an inflatable SUP.

It’s been a complete departure from anything I’ve done before, particularly my normal way of training.  I’ve been very busy.  Very physically busy (unusual for me) for so long now.

Here are some of my take-aways:

  1. Relationships make training long hours very hard (for me).  I always feel like i’m choosing racing over relationship when I train too much.  This is why HIIT works so well for me in general–I don’t feel like I’m sacrificing time with my partner, or attention to my partner and family for an unreasonable amount of time.
  2. HIIT, at least my version of it, isn’t really compatible with even a reasonable level of other (physical) activity.  I found it virtually impossible to do any significant HIIT over the past three weeks. My levels of activity, both physical and mental, were WAY too high.  The motivation was gone to work that hard.  I suspect that even if I would have tried my performances would have been sub-par, but in truth it was just impossible to try.  Moderate/tempo pace work was the best i could hope for, but in light of everything this became pretty satisfying.
  3. Nutrition isn’t unimportant.  But it’s not that important.  My diet was pretty good the first week (and there were plenty of calories).  That being said I didn’t eat and drink during any workouts, even ones that were 90 minutes long.  I also didn’t eat on any of the hikes. I did eat lots during meals though.  The second week, I forgot my lunches (long story) and so had only a breakfast of porrige before 6-8 hours of near constant activity (low-moderate intensity). This would sustain me fine until my freeze dried dinner.  All in all I was probably taking in 2500 or so calories a day, and burning far more. I still felt good and strong on this strategy. The final week the food was crap. Frozen meat, white bread, and lots of ‘baking’ (cookies, brownies, etc).  The first overnight I ate tons of the stuff and even though I exercised, I felt like crap.  Not just physically, but mentally too–just a real funk. But the second overnight I brought my own food in and had the willpower to resist the baking.  The exercise didn’t necessarily go any better but the mood was night and day different.  Food for thought.
  4. It’s HIIT and nothing else or no HIIT for me.

Happy training!

The Weakest Link

Hello, my name is Andy. I am the Weakest Link...

Hello, my name is Andy. I am the Weakest Link…

There was a game show in the late 90’s where a team of contestants competed answering questions, the prize pot growing with each successful answer.  At the end of each round they all voted one of the team off the show, based on the their performance.  This person, and the show, was aptly called “the weakest link.”

In adventure racing, unfortunately, a team doesn’t get to vote off a member that isn’t performing at the level of the rest of the team.  In a way this is good (for me), but in a way it creates both a massive amount of pressure and a potentially uncomfortable situation.  Because, you see, I’ve realized beyond a shadow of a doubt that when I arrive at the GodZone startline in some 8 weeks, there is no doubt…I will be the weakest link.

It’s interesting really, going into such a big undertaking where team dynamics is so front and center to success, with such knowledge.  But it is knowledge.  Every time I train these days it (in this case, teammate Adrian) is glaringly obvious.  I’m approximately 5-10% slower than him over any distance in any discipline (except swimming, but swimming won’t be a factor in GZ).

I cringe when I think how this translates to a race that might take me six days to complete. If the percentages hold that means that (assuming the rest of the team could keep up with Adrian too) that I’m liable to hold them back nearly half a day.  Yikes.

The good news is that this realization comes with still nearly two months of training time.  The bad news is that Adrian is still training too and although I might be able to make up a few percent, it is incredibly unlikely that my status in the team chain will change at all.  But I guess someone has to be the weakest link, maybe it’s just my turn.

It’s going to make the first 12 hours pretty shitty of course.  I’ll get to choose between feeling like my lungs are about to expolde while I watch everyone else cruise along at a sustainable tempo pace or feeling the sting to my pride and the guilt of knowing that everyone else wants to be going faster.  Or of course, asking to start the race on tow.

Not a great choice.  But maybe, just maybe, I’ll get lucky and it’ll all start with a 12 hour sea kayaking leg and I won’t have to choose at all.  With two in a boat it’s like a tow without having to ask for it.  Fingers crossed.

Wake Up Call

The moment before the alarm goes off--Caleb and Adrian, getting ready for the ascent of the Monument.

The moment before the alarm goes off–Caleb and Adrian, getting ready for the ascent of the Monument.

It’s roughly two months to GodZone, a seven day adventure race on the South Island of New Zealand.  Because of the depth of AR talent in NZ and the sold out status of the event, it is probably going to be one of the most competitive expedition length ARs of the year.  It is also the next big race I’m going to be doing.

The problem is, I haven’t really been training.  Sure, I’ve been staying in shape–swimming a bit, doing a few 3 minute time trials on the SUP or 4km loops on the road bike.  A few weeks ago I was even doing a shortish 3km hill run every other week ago, but then I hurt my knee and so have had to take a bit of a break from that too.  It’s true, I’ve had a couple big days here and there mostly working for my teammate and boss, Adrian, a task involves an occasional 8 hour day hiking through the New Zealand bush, and this probably counts for something.as well.

But GODZONE!  This beast is seven days of non-stop paddling, trekking/running, and mountain biking.  It’s a big undertaking in itself but the fact that I’m doing it with Adrian and another couple of super athletes who happen to be my inlaws (link to article) is what really scares me.  Decades of big missions in the mountains make me relatively assured that I can survive pretty much anything, GodZone included. But yesterday’s wake up call makes me realize that keeping up will be another matter entirely.

So about yesterday then….yesterday I had three hours between the time I dropped my kids at a birthday party and picked them up.  It was the perfect amount of time to get in a ‘longer’ but still hard training session to jump start things and start getting serious.  Adrian and I had agreed that we needed a bit of focus on paddling (including canoe paddling–a mandatory skill for the race) with a little bit of hiking to test my knee.  The B-day party was a bit of a drive from home but near lake Manapouri, home of ‘the monument’–an iconic point of rock jutting out 300 meters above the lakes surface.  Sitting 8 or 12 km from the access beach (depending on the paddling route and portage), we figured we’d have to push the pace in order to get the ascent done in the time window.  We invited a third person too. Caleb, a young buck who’d been visiting (and sleeping on my living room floor) for the last 6 weeks, had more endurance experience at 23 than most athletes twice his age.  It was a good crew, notwithstanding the fact that Adrian had just finished the Milford Mountain Classic (a 120 km road race) only 14 hours before and his legs were ‘still a bit tired.’

The paddle, to be honest was fine.  It was good adventure race style training–i ended up sitting/kneeling  in the center of the boat, using a paddle that was slightly too long and leaning awkwardly to one side of the other to get the paddle in the water.  Caleb, at 6’3” sat in front with a paddle far too short (half a kayak paddle with a t-grip).  Still we hammered, pushing the very non-hydrodynamic hull through the water at around 5 miles per hour.  My shoulders got sore and then adapted nicely to the effort.  The portage was quick and efficient with Adrian demonstrating why he was such a good choice for a teammate by leaping out of the boat, yoking up to a sling on the front, and taking off down the trail at a 10 minute mile pace towing the bright yellow canoe. Flat legs indeed.

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At the top!

20 more minutes of paddling and we beached below the Monument, discarded lifejackets, and headed into the bush and uphill.  The goal was to hit the top in under 20 minutes.  The DOC sign predicted a 2 hour return.  I started out in front.  Adrian again lamented his tired legs.  Whew.  My own legs weren’t feeling great–the knee was fine but the calves were complaining about the steep grade almost immediately–so the idea I’d be able to cruise up at a  moderate pace was pretty nice.  Then fallen tree forced me off the trail.  I chose the long way around and was soon behind both Adrian and Caleb.  Within minutes, they were out of sight. I was pushing hard–heart rate up, calves now screaming, and lungs burning.  I’d occasionlly catch site of Adrian, followed closely by Caleb, when the bush opened up or they came to a trickier bit that slowed them up.  But by the time we hit the ridge proper and started the third and fourth class scrambling, all I heard were their voices–shouting encouragement down, “come on Andy!  Keep pushing. You’ve only got five minutes!”

In the end, I reached the top in about 17 minutes, only a minute slower than the other two.  It was the same on the way down too–my fleetness of foot and confidence on the downhill were no match for my companions skill either. I was relieved to be back in the boat where I actually felt a bit stronger by comparison, but where even if I wasn’t, a gap wouldn’t appear to expose the truth. We took an alternate way back–a longer portage and shorter paddle, hoping to negative split the journey.  This time Adrian and Caleb tag teamed the canoe and had it careening like a toboggan along the winding portage trail at what was, according to the data log on Adrian’s watch, the trip’s top speed of nearly 8 miles an hour.

Caleb negotiating the chimney. He was faster going up...and going down.

Caleb negotiating the chimney. He was faster going up…and going down.

It was an awesome outing–perfect paddling conditions, great company,  and just the right amount of suffering (kneeling for half an hour can get quite uncomfortable!) We didn’t quite make our time window and I was a bit late to pick up the boys but they didn’t even notice, the party was still going full swing.  We even got to participate in the lollie scramble, which was a bonus as I was getting pretty hungry (I hadn’t eaten anything before the mission).

As I headed back to drop Adrian and the canoe off, he commented that it was a ‘pretty good rest day’.  I asked him politely if, whatever he thought of it privately, he at least called it ‘active recovery’ when I was in earshot.  All in all though, whatever he calls it, it was necessary.  I’ve seen the writing on the wall and it’s time to get serious.  I’m no slouch, but if I want to keep up enough to not let the team down during GodZone, it’s time for a more dedicated training program for the next eight weeks.  I’ll be working on that today (my kind of rest day), and throw it on here for accountabilities sake, and in the interest of N=1 science (my favorite kind).

Happy Training

 

Subjective Suffering

I just gotten back from another two days working for Adrian.  Now I’ve had some great days working for him in the past–sunny days walking through spectacular bush, jogging up the Milford track while eyeing the rapids above the Clinton Forks and planning a never-going-to-happen-because-it-is-against-the-rules pack-rafting trip, and eating ‘hut sushi’ in the evenings next to a roaring fire in the wood-stove.  But these last two days?  Well, at least the sushi was still good.

I suffered. A lot.  I hesitate to write this because I worry that Adrian will read this and think me soft and start to second guess his decision to tow me through the GodZone course in April. But I also want to share my thoughts on these couple of days, after all, writing bits of this in my head while I shivered, soaked to the bone, for hours, was part of what got me through. And of course, suffering, at least according to my UltraMental philosophy, is one of three key elements that are critical to achieving success.

And these are actually my good shoes...

And these are actually my good shoes…

The truth is, I could suffer a lot less. I could get a better jacket–one that actually keeps me dry and warm. Although there is no question that most jackets (even so called waterproof ones) aren’t up to the task of ‘Fiordland bush’, apparently garments do exist that actually are. I could also get a good pair of boots and gaiters which, even if they didn’t keep my feet dry, would improve both my confidence and speed while following the trails of blue tape that leads to the possum traps (trails, I might add with classic kiwi understatement, that sometimes encounter terrain that is ‘slightly hard going’).  But despite the decent wage I’m earning, I don’t.  Instead, trip after trip, I show up with the same gear and the same shoes and so, when the weather decides to be gloomy, I knowingly enter into rather long periods of reflective unhappiness.  And this is how it was those last two days–boarding the helicopter as rain splashed the windscreen, headed into the wilderness, destined to dance a miserable dance for 8-10 hours at a time.

So why do I do it?  Other than the fact that I’m cheap and new jackets and boots are expensive in New Zealand, I also, paradoxically perhaps, get something out of it.  In fact, on reflection, I probably get quite a bit out of it.  Of course there is the fitness–walking through difficult terrain with a pack for two days certainly burns the calories. But I’d get this benefit even if I checked the weather first and feigned illness (don’t think I haven’t thought about it Adrian!) when the forecast was for 5 cm of rain throughout the day (the idea of being a fair-weather contractor even has it’s merits because there isn’t a bad weather bonus). But when the rain and temperatures come down and the rivers come up, when the rocks and roots are as slick as ice and the impenetrable ferns covered in frost, that is when the real benefits kick in.

Right from the moment go–the moment I step off the skid of the helicopter and my feet touch the soggy ground–I’m already into it mentally.  I’m already negotiating, using tactics and strategies, practicing ways to stay motivated and get through the task ahead effectively and efficiently despite the fact that I wish so much I had just stayed in bed.  Being cold and wet and miserable for 10 hours in a survival situation is one thing.  Being cold and wet and miserable for 10 hours on purpose is quite another.  In many ways it is the perfect ‘training’ for the mental side of adventure racing.  The psychological idea that things change and when they are bad they will eventually get better, the idea that if you keep moving/working/advancing towards a goal you will eventually get there, these are all nice when you’re reading about them in an adventure or sports psychology book sitting in the sun with your second cup of coffee.  But these ideas can be very difficult to actually move beyond the realm of ‘theory’ and into the realm of reality.  To actually have them be useful ideas–ideas that form the basis of tools that can help achieve a goal–takes, like everything else, practice.  And working for Adrian, especially when mother nature is in one of her dour moods, is excellent practice. Here are three of my favorite tools and how they played a role in getting me through last weekend:

  1. Small goals.  In any prolonged difficult situation, or when any task looms too large, taking things one (small) step at a time is one of the things you are ‘supposed’ to do.  Sometimes this is easier said than done–if the mind is allowed to grab on to the enormity of the task, it can be hard to deal with the resulting sense of despair.  Working on the trap lines offers a perfect opportunity to focus on the small on various scales.  Traps come every 100-200 meters (depending on the trap type) which means my concentration is taken off of any negative thoughts and on to a specific and accomplishable goal every 3-5 minutes.  Even though early in the day the number of traps seems to be super daunting (OMG! I have 80 traps to go! I’m never going to make it!) I never get to dwell on this for long.  I also choose to focus on intermediate results–finishing an egg tray (12 traps)– rather than the day.  Using a variety of ‘scales’ with which to measure progress towards an end is essential when facing a long day of suffering.
  2. Envision the end.  While I was picking my way along through the soaking bush or crossing rivers of icy water above my waist, or tripping and slipping my way up and down and around treacherous bluffs, I would often remind myself of what lay ahead at the end of my ‘suffering’–a plate of sushi and dry clothes, a warm boat with free coffee, a hot shower, dinner with my family, etc.  Rather than looking at the rather ‘unpleasant’ hours that lay between the present moment and these blissful ones, I’d simply remind myself that “in X hours, I’ll be enjoying Y, and all this will be over.” I didn’t dwell on how it was going to happen, but simply that it would.  By asserting confidently and unequivocally my future warmth and comfort, what might have felt unendurable and impossibly long lasting in a different frame of mind become both temporary and quite manageable.
  3. Lie to yourself.  Adventure racing and Working for Adrian have something else in common.  When participating in either I routinely tell myself ‘never again!’  And in both cases I’m usually either researching the next race or readily accepting the next job within 24 hours (sometimes much less) of being ‘comfortable’ again.  For me, this is a natural response when doing really hard things.  Maybe it is because I’m not actually that tough–maybe some folks are able to be deep in the midst of the least enjoyable of the suffering and actively loving it–but for me at least whenever I approach situations where the word ‘misery’ is truly an accurate description of my state of being, my impulse is to turn tail and run (mentally at least) in the opposite direction.

So there you go.  Have at it.  And if you need more practice, I hear Adrian might suddenly be a man short next time he decides to schedule a trap check during ‘periods of rain with some heavy falls’.  Happy training.