Reflections on an Apprenticeship

Beauty and the Beast. Vaughn (L) and Adrian atop Mount Luxmore.

Beauty and the Beast. Vaughn (L) and Adrian atop Mount Luxmore.

The Kepler Challenge is approaching quick.  Vaughn Filmer is feeling confident.  His most recent long run has helped quite a bit (http://ultramentalapprenticeship.blogspot.co.nz/).

This experiment of assisting with his training using HIIT methods has been a good one and I’ve learned heaps from watching his progress and more importantly reading his blog which gives good insight into what is going on in his head.  Here are a few things I’ve picked up, or that have been reinforced for me as a result–

  1. It works.  Using HIIT to develop fitness, for those that are capable of performing such efforts routinely, works beautifully.  After 16 weeks of training Vaughn’s running (of which he’d done very little previously) was on par with many runners that have been running at much higher volumes for most of their lives.  Focusing on speed/form vs distance during the outset of training seems to have returned very good results.
  2. Doubt is normal.  Wondering whether we will be ‘up for the task’ when using HIIT as a primary tool in preparing for a big endurance event is to be expected.  Reading through Vaughn’s blog you’ll notice that he has lots of doubts about his ability to cover the 62 challenging km of the Kepler Challenge.  He worries about missing workouts, about not running longer, and about a whole host of things.  Keep in mind that he’s taking on this ‘challenge’ with a longest ever casual run of about 10 km, prior to commencing training 4 months before the event.  His recent post, written in the aftermath of his longest run, is the first real glimpse you’ll get of him feeling up to the task.  And he is.  Until you get that first real serious effort in it is hard to believe that doing so little (time wise) might still allow you to do so much.
  3. Doubt is inevitable.  I know, we’ve already covered this, right?  But I’ve realized there is a LOT of doubt.  This additional doubt comes primarily from the the pursuit of something along unconventional lines, particularly when a very strong conventional training climate exists.  For example, Vaughn’s mate Adrian (who will also be my teammate at Godzone) is also running the Kepler and is an animal.  He trains hard and he trains a lot–using a much more traditional volume.  He seems to recover in half or less of the time than other people do.  Going on a run with him means you’re likely left in the dust or pissed off because while you’re suffering he seems to be on cruise control.  This is at turns both motivating and disheartening. It is easy to look at the Adrian’s out there and think that you ‘should’ be doing what they are doing.  But the reality is that the in the spectrum of athletic ability everyone (even Adrian) will fall somewhere between the two extremes.  The tendency for most of us is to only look only towards one end–to gaze ‘uphill’ at those doing more than we are or doing it faster.  And of course, because using HIIT for endurance is so unconventional, it is almost a sure thing that the training methods used by that ‘uphill’ bunch won’t be the training methods you’re using.  So it becomes important to maintain perspective–remember the main motivation for using HIIT for endurance for those of us that choose to do so is because it takes so much less time.  I won’t make the argument that training hard 1 hour a week is better than training hard 6 hours a week.  But training hard 1 hour a week might be better than training more moderately 6 hours a week, which is quite likely what many of those people you’d see if you looked ‘downhill’ or laterally might be doing.  Get confidence in looking at your peer group–what does your training allow you to do?  How much have you sacrificed in terms of time/lifestyle to achieve this.  Don’t take your hard work, however short in duration for granted!  Even though Vaughn might arrive at the finish line behind Adrian, he will arrive ahead of a great many people who’s training commitments were three or four time’s what his was, and be competitive with plenty of serious ‘amateur’ runners who were putting in 60-100 km weeks in preparation.

Remember, if you’re goal is to WIN races, you need devote most of your time/energy to your fitness.  Even extremely low volume approaches for competitive triathletes at the Ironman distance is around 10-12 hours a week (as compared to 20-30 for normal volume).  These folks are certainly focusing on as much HIIT as they can manage, but supplementing it with a healthy diet of more moderate intensities as well.  But for those of us who are happy being personally/recreationally competitive, focusing on HIIT first and cutting out the rest–as I’m hoping Vaughn will realize–can offer a good alternative to prioritizing fitness (and all the resulting complications this has with having an othewise robust life) over everything else.

 

Maintaining (humility)

It has been a long time since I’ve added a blog to the site.  I’ve been busy–working, playing, travelling, learning how to take care of hen’s whilst they incubate eggs, and last but not least, experimenting daily with the best way to remove boards from pallets (I haven’t yet found a good way).

I haven’t had a good adventure in a while, nor a big mission. That’s not to say I haven’t suffered thought–I spent a couple of cold and rain-soaked days working in the Clinton Valley for my ‘boss’ Adrian where I found myself pulling out all my mental tricks to keep from giving Adrian the mental middle finger (as my central Governor was telling me to do) and quitting early to retreat to the warmth of the hut where we were spending our nights.  The dialogue ran something like this–“Does it really matter if I get all these tracking tunnels laid out?  Can’t we just make up the data?  I’m freezing and my hands aren’t working anyway…this is getting dangerous!” But in the end I sucked it up a broke the hours into minutes–the dozens of traps and tracking tunnels into one at a time.  I also literally sucked on the the tiny spoon I was using to scoop peanut butter out of a jar to bait the tunnels with, soaking in a few more calories to insulate me against the 10 or so kilos of near freezing H2O that I was carrying against my will as part of my clothing. Instead of Adrian, the middle finger went to the peanut-butter monster that was following me through the bushes.  That night I was rewarded with as much back-country sushi as I could eat.

assushi

Adrian, a mild-mannered and unassuming uber athlete and back-country sushi specialist.

Anyway, I digress.  This general lack of missions had me restless and I’ve realized that there are only two things to do in such a situation–actually go on a mission, or, alternatively, commit to one in the future.  Because I wasn’t particularly inspired to ‘go and do’ I decided on the latter option–and on a more recent work trip with Adrian (with far better weather) we agreed to sign up for GodZone, NZ’s toughest adventure race and one of the most competitive expedition AR’s in the world.  I committed by fronting the 7500 entry fee. Filling out the four person roster will be my brother, Jason and his wife, Chelsey of team Yogaslackers.

Adrian thinks this means I’m going to have to train more.  Maybe it does.  But one thing I’ve realized over the past year is that although building fitness might take a lot of time, maintaining fitness takes very little.  I’ve (thankfully) found that although I’m not quiet as fit as I have been when I’ve put a bit more time into it, I’ve been able to maintain a reasonably high level of fitness on roughly 30 minutes a week of effort.  This is the case strength and speed particularly, but also, to a reasonable extent, for endurance.

Finding time to train is hard.  Training higher volume consistently is really hard. One reason for this is that if you ever drop the habit–get busy and have to choose work or family over training–then recreating training time in your schedule is a hurdle to overcome.  By focusing/prioritizing a regular, non-time intensive, maximally effective (HIT) regimen once you’ve reached your fitness peak, a base level of fitness that is much higher than what is enjoyed by most amateur/recreational athletes can be maintained.  Which means that when the time comes to do your next big mission (like GodZone), your starting fitness platform will be closer to the goal platform, which means fewer weeks of ‘extra’ work will be needed to get into ‘racing’ shape.

Unless that is, you’re racing with Adrian, who joined me for today’s pylon run.  Although I led for the first half (it take’s him a while to ‘get into it’ he claims), he led the second, by greater and greater margins, with enough energy in reserve to shout encouragement over his shoulder as he climbed the finishing hill. Bugger–I thought I was a faster runner than he was too.  But that is just another perk of the minimalist approach I guess, combined with run-ins with the Adrian’s of the world, it allows me to maintain more than just my fitness…

Doing well

 

50-off

For for than a decade now I’ve pursued the goal of being a ‘jack-of-all-endurance’ trades. I have aspired simultaneously to train so that I could both ‘do anything’ and ‘do it well’.  For quite some time I’ve left the notion of what ‘doing it well’ meant purposefully vague but have long contemplated the phrase, wondering what, at least for an ambitious recreational athlete like myself, it should actually mean.  The time has now come to offer up a more concrete criteria.  

I’ll begin by admitting that these criteria are going to be largely (entirely?), arbitrary.  But in truth, at least from a suitably wide perspective, everything else is largely arbitrary too. Arbitrariness is unavoidable.  That being said, arbitrariness can be more (when backed by reasoned arguments) or less (lacking any meaningful justification) sensible. The bit of arbitrariness in question here falls into the former category of course–in my opinion anyway and since this is my article, I guess no more justification is required. So without further ado:

Doing something well (as an age group, non professional athlete) implies–at least when concerning athletic endeavors that are measured by ‘time to completion’– finishing within a time no more than 50% greater than that of the world’s top athletes in the given discipline.  In other words, you’ve done it well if you are ‘Off by 50’ or less.

If you think that this sounds too easy – that 50% is too generous a cushion – consider the following examples:

  1. The fastest marathon time is just over 2 hours.  By my criteria, an age grouper who runs a 3 hour marathon is doing dandy.  In fact, they’ll qualify for Boston with time to spare. This evidence clearly supports my thesis and scarcely have I seen a better start to a well reasoned argument.  So far so good.
  2. The fastest IronMan (IM) distance triathlon is somewhere right around (slightly under) 8 hours – so breaking that 12 hour barrier puts you in pretty good company.  Additionally consider that if you look at the results of most general registration (no qualifying time is required) IM distance races on reasonably flat courses, a sub 12 hour performance would put you in approximately the top 35% of the field.  Considering that there are no ‘average’ athletes running such a race and you get an idea of the achievement.  If you ask me the logic, at least for efforts at the top end of the scale, is simply infallible.  But what about shorter endurance efforts?
  3. Well, what about them?  A sub 4-minute mile is clearly in the realm of elite runners at this distance (the world record is 3:43). This translates to a good goal for an age grouper like myself being a sub 6 minute mile, or if we’re going with the hardcore expression of the criteria (50% increase over the WR) a time of less than 5:35 is needed.

Wow.  I think I’ve nailed it, don’t you?  It’s hard to find fault in such an arbitrary criteria that is also so sensible.  Completely coincidentally, it just so happens that these numbers pretty closely define the edges of my own abilities which is pretty awesome.  The target goals created by the criteria are met often enough to placate my ego but challenging enough to require quite a bit of hard work and focus which keeps me lean and keen.  Not that these two coincidental factors have any influence on such a well reasoned, logically derived, but arbitrarily chosen measure of meaning, because that’s just silly.  

No, it was chosen simply because it makes sense.  In fact, it’s so good that I’m convinced it’s just a matter of time before it catches on, becomes the industry standard, and enters our everyday lexicon:

Athlete A:  So how’d you do in your race Saturday?

Athlete B:  Excellent!  I was only ‘Off By 50!’

Athlete A:  Whoa! You’re really doing well!

Can’t you just hear it?

Here are some more ways to be ‘Off By 50’. How many can you manage?

Running:

100 meters:  9.58 seconds.  Off by 50 time:  14.37 (equivalent to running 3:53 mile pace for 100 m)

1 mile: 3:43  Off by 50 time: 5:34

10 K (road): 26:44  Off by 50 time: 40:06

Half Marathon:  58:23  Off by 50 time:  1:27:35

Marathon:  2:03:06  Off by 50 time:  3:04:39

Swimming:

50 meter freestyle:  20:91  Off by 50 time:  31.36

1 mile (open water):  16:23  Off by 50 time:  24:35

10 K (open water):  1:54:30 (approx)  Off by 50 time:  2:51:45

Biking:

10 mile:  17:57  Off by 50 time:  26: 55

40 km time trial:  47:36  Off by 50 time:  1:11:24

[Note–this piece was originally published back in 2012 on my early blog, three hours a week, as two separate posts.]

Bush time and Guinea Pigs

I’m getting some more time in the bush this weekend, learning another new trade!  If you aren’t up to speed on the last new bush trade I learned–check out the article I wrote for Breathe online and the accompanying video (included below in case you just want to watch!)

This time I’m headed to Deep Cove, a spectacular sound in SW Fiordland National Park, NZ, to learn…drum roll please…POSSUMING!

If you don’t know what possuming is, well, you’ll have to check out my post possuming report I suppose.

And speaking of vicious, small and furry animals, I’ve got a proper guinea pig for some of the 1-Hour Series training protocols.  A local teacher at the high school here has signed up for a big mountain run (64 km!) and with no specific endurance racing experience under his belt he’s counting on me to transform his recreational level of fitness into something that’ll get him through the mountains with a training program that doesn’t require a substantial time commitment.  We’re in our second week so far–today he’ll run his first 5K (ever)–and he’s already wizened up as to why more people don’t train this way.  But he’s sticking with it.  I’ll keep you posted on his progress and am having him keep a training journal too.  If he gets through this then perhaps this whole experiment will go from a state of N=1 to a state of N=2!

 

Feeling Bad: the dark side of high intensity training

darthHigh intensity training for endurance has a dark side.

It never feels easy.  In order to embrace and benefit from true high intensity work, you must first realize and then accept the fact that workouts aren’t going to feel good.  You’re not going to get to the point in the program where you get to go out and run a few miles and pat yourself on the back because ‘hey, that felt great!’

When you do high intensity work, you won’t get the runner’s high…or the cyclists thrill of the open road.  You will get pain, doubt, the taste of blood in the back of your throat, and uncooperative bowels.  You won’t struggle to fathom how you will manage another mile, but how you’ll manage another minute. You won’t feel fast and light and easy.  You’re legs and arms will feel heavy, your lungs too small, and your will inadequate to it’s task.

This dark side will also play tricks on your mind and your mind will challenge you by repeating it’s rhetoric. It will tell you that you failing.  That you are slower than last time.  That you have no hope of making your goal–that your efforts are futile.  These suggestions will be hard to ignore, particularly when you feel awful less than 5 minutes into your workout.

It will be easy to give up.  It will be even easier to slow down–to decide to settle for less speed if it simultaneously means less pain.  There are a million reasons why you might be actually be slower, why you might not meet your goal.  You didn’t get enough sleep, you haven’t eaten well, you’ve got too much on your plate and are stressed.  Your mind will run through the list and try to get you to abandon your attempt because your mind isn’t a big fan of discomfort.  And maybe some of these reasons truly do apply–they’re not just excuses but actual factors that are negatively affecting your performance.  On the other hand…

My experience has been that I always feel lousy.  When I’m totally busting my butt and really going after it I always feel flat, tired, spent.  I never really feel fast.  I just hurt.  So I’ve made my peace with the dark side.  I don’t try to fight it, but I don’t give in either.  I just let the thoughts come in  and listen to their arguments and often even agree with them, believing that indeed I must be going much slower, sometimes pathetically so, than I’d hoped.  But I don’t ease off.  I never ease off.

And in the end, I’m usually not slower after all.  

Happy Training.

Know Thyself

My wife turned me on to a recent blog post from one of her favorites, Mr. Frank Forencich of the Exuberant Animal.  It discusses the ideas of ‘lifestyle intelligence’ and bricolage–an ability to adapt and successfully reach a desired outcome using diverse and available materials. In reading and reflecting on Frank’s piece, I was struck with the importance of being able to assess your strengths and weaknesses as an individual in order to have a shot at achieving your goals.

I’m not talking about recognizing that your swim times aren’t as on par with your bike times compared to other age group athletes or anything like that.  I’m talking about understanding who you are as a person when it comes to following through on workouts, best times of the day for motivation, and being realistic both in setting goals and then in how likely you are to meet the demands of any particular workout program you attempt to follow in order to meet them.

My wife, for example, is a morning person.  She’d rather get up at six A.M. to go for a run in the dark and be back and showered before anyone in the house is up.  She’s more likely to find excuses not to do her workout the longer the day goes on.  Mornings work for her.  Mornings do not work for me on the other hand–not much works actually until after a cup of coffee or two.

I am, however a pressure player–a procrastinator.  I will put off workouts until the moment where if I wait any longer I won’t get it done.  If my wife needs to head to work at 5:15 in the evening (as she did a couple of days ago) I might wait until about 5:00 to start running.  It suits me primarily because most of my workouts are really hard and really short.  The ‘hardness’ makes me put them off as long as possible whereas the shortness means that I can, in fact, squeeze them in at a last minute here or there.

Timing aside, another huge part of knowing thyself has to do with understanding one’s personal capacity for both volume and intensity. So many programs prescribe efforts as though everyone is capable (mentally and phyiscally) of any combination of these elements, assuming they can decide to commit the time.  Of course this is anything but true.  While it may be the case that committing time is all that is required to meet the volume side of the equation, meeting intensity is another thing.  Some people just can’t do, or won’t do, intensity. For most of us, however, it’s more a matter of how much and how often.  All out sprints or proper Tabata protocol might be a once a week thing for some or a once a month thing for others (just long enough to forget the taste of blood and/or bile in the back of the mouth).

My training has been modified over the years based on my changing circumstances and my diligence in understanding what these changes mean in terms of what I can/will realistically do.  I was able to manage three true high intensity workouts a week during winters in North Dakota when I was a member of a gym, had a great range of high end cardio equipment, solid race goals, and spent most of my day sitting in front of a computer.  Now-a-days, living in New Zealand with no gym access, adventure rather than race goals, and a daily routine that involves more general activity than I’ve had in a while, the mental demands of putting up more than one or two true high intensity efforts a week are beyond me.

Training programs in and of themselves aren’t bad things of course–following a plan that someone else has put together can certainly seem to take some of the pressure off and even allow you to benefit from someone elses (hopefully sound) knowledge about training and fitness.  But it is important to remember that the biggest factor in success or failure is probably not the viability of the program itself, but in how well it is matched to your actual abilities and how well it fits itself in with your other life needs.  Just because you think you want to do something doesn’t mean you will actually do it. Take the time to understand realistically who you are in terms of not only what you want, but what you’re willing and more importantly able to do to reach your goal.  And make sure any training program you adopt serves this pragmatism.

Alright, that’s it for this post.  It’s 4:39 and I’ve gotta get changed and get my two mile time trial in and then pick up the kids by 5:00–talk about perfect timing.

Happy training,

Andy

 

Snow Day

Sticking with it isn’t easy. Some days it feels downright impossible.  But that really is the key–if you can master that, you can pretty much do anything.

IMG_20150414_115432622Underneath that simple thought somewhere is the necessity of doing the work to figure yourself out well enough to understand what it is that you can stick to.  Aim to high and you’ll quit (probably sooner than later). Aim to low and you don’t reach your potential.

For me it’s about 5 workouts a week–three short but high intensity ‘cardio’ efforts, and two single set max effort bodweight sets, one of chin-ups and one of push-ups. My total training time varies between 40 and 90 minutes a week, give or take.  It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s enough for me.  In truth, it is about all I can maintain. Occasionally I’ll get more–some sort of longer effort–but I don’t count on it or need it.  I work hard and keep at it and it keeps me pretty darn fit.

The last couple days were a challenge though–cold and snow and a major hassle just to keep warm (the ‘cottage’ we’re living in doesn’t have heat yet…).  And there are the daily trips to the library for internet (don’t have that at the cottage yet either) to spend a fun couple of hours in front of the computer doing taxes.  Then family dinners before everything gets dark by 6:30 because, you guessed it, the cottage doesn’t have electricity yet either.

IIMG_20150413_085419951‘m not really complaining though–the cold snap also means cozy family cuddles on the couch under heaps of blankets and sleeping bags watching torrented movies on the chromebook (“Trash” was on tap tonight) before a bit of bedtime Harry Potter (just starting book six) for the boys.  La Dolce Vita, really, but not quite ideal for motivating training.

That, though is the challenge.  And whether it’s living in a cottage chock full of good excuses not to go outslde or a long day at the office, it’s all the same.  If you decide you want something, to pursue something, you also have to decide to commit to the journey it’s going to take to get there.  No one else can do it, and most of these goals we opt to go after take pretty long journeys. It’s not the first day on the path that is the hard one.  Or the second.  Or the fine days.  It’s the snowy, cold, miserable ones.

So yesterday, between bouts of sleet, I managed to steal outside and get my hill intervals in (UM training file #7). And tonight–after Harry Potter, after I’d polished off the rather too cold bottle of Gewurstminer that had been sitting with a glass and a half left in it on the dark kitchen counter while watching the movie, after I’d eaten the rest of the sour gummies the kids got to pick out for a ‘it’s cold outside so lets eat candy’ treat, but before brushing my teeth–I did my pushups.

I did the slow ones–one rep every 10 seconds.  I failed on the 13th, a new record for me (six months ago I could barely get 9).  I guess it means I’m improving.  Stick with it–even during the snow days–and whatever your goal might be, you will be too.

 

 

Waypoints

I prefer really big waypoints that I don't have to build as often...

I prefer really big waypoints that I don’t have to build as often…

Every so often I feel the need to build a waypoint.  For me, these are points that serve to let me know where I am fitness wise in the larger ultra-endurance landscape–not necessarily compared to other people, but compared to past iterations of myself.  Waypoints ground me and give me confidence in where I am, and that what I’m doing (my training), is keeping me moving in the right direction (capable of doing anything).

I usually get antsy after a couple months of not doing anything big enough to make me want to lie in bed and not move for a few days, and it has pretty much been since John and I’s mission on the Hollyford back in January.  I’ve been busy, but busy isn’t really and excuse.  My original plan had been an epic swim, trialing a course for a possible swim event in future years, but I kept putting it off and now the water is so cold that it wouldn’t be as much a test of fitness as a ‘how long will it take until my body shuts down and I die’ sort of mission, so I’m going to be forced to put it on the back burner for now.

That leaves me wondering what to do–or rather trying to decide between the available choices.  On the one had I’ve got a list of adventures ranging from long days to multi-days that are all within a few hours drive, but that will likely require a partner.  On the other hand, I’ve just learned of a local 6 hour lap race happening this weekend.  I’m tempted by the latter, both because it’s only 6 hours (and apparently has bouncy castles for the kids) and because it would be an interesting experiment, considering my weekly running mileage has been hovering right under 3 km (less than 2 miles) for the past couple of months.  That twisted part of my brain that I serve when I suffer is definitely keen to see what happens were I to tackle this challenge.

I feel far fitter for wood chopping these days (I spend more time chopping wood than running, biking, and swimming combined), but unfortunately my google search for ‘ultra wood chopping competitions’ returned a null result. Whatever I end up deciding, I’m going to need to get out there soon and get building.