Lessons From the Water

The route--3 km lake, 22+ km river, 9 km lake

The route–3 km lake, 22+ km river, 9 km lake

Last Sunday, on a whim, I texted Arno to  see what he was doing the following day.  I’d decided rather spontaneously that it was time to tackle the mission I’d been thinking about for over a year–a swim from Te Anau to Manapouri.  I’d planned on ‘getting fit’ for it and having a go in a month, but something inside me on Sunday told me I wasn’t really going to be getting fitter than I already was, and that I just needed to get it done.

With Arno available to pilot me down the 23 km or grade I river and carry my food for the journey, I had no more excuses. Details were hammered out and at 10 am on Monday I waded into the calm waters of Lake Te Anau for the first 3 km lake crossing.

One of the benefits of a spur of the moment decision to take on something somewhat epic is that you have less time to really worry about it.  Sure, there was still plenty of worrying between the time Arno committed and when I started swimming, but there was only a 12 hour window for that worrying to happen in and at least some of that time was spent sleeping.  

I worried about being too cold mostly. While the water temps have warmed up nicely from what they were this winter (15-ish degrees celsius vs 8!), my longest swim in ‘training’ had been roughly an hour–far short of how long I’d be immersed if I was to cover the 35 km of lake and river that lay between the towns.

I was full of nerves moments before starting the swim

I was full of nerves moments before starting the swim

Which brings me to lesson one: Most of what we worry about never happens.  Depending on your source, social and psychological sciences place the ‘needless’ worry at between 85 and 92% (or thereabouts).  Which means that an awful lot of mental energy is wasted on worrying about things that either we can’t control, cannot change, or that will never actually happen.  In this case, most of my worry, and my pre-swim’s fitful night’s rest, were the result of such a worry. Thankfully, there was a limit in my case, temporally speaking, to how much I had to sit with this worry. Once I started my journey it’s mootness became more concrete–I was wearing what I was wearing and I’d either get too cold or I wouldn’t, so worrying about it was pointless. I could just swim.

And swim I did. A bit more than 3 km across lake Te Anau–a good solid pace to start with but nothing too ambitious. My goal was to finish first, and push second.  I was feeling pretty good as I jogged the half kilometer gravel path around the control gates at the head of the river.  I was an hour in and took the opportunity to grab my first fuel, some gummy powergel snacks and a couple of swigs of Raro (a New Zealand version of Tang).

The river was awesome. I’d swum the first half of its 22 km length a number of times recently and so knew it well–it’s rocks and chutes and corners.  It was fast and exciting, especially the second half which I’d only swum once.  I had a bit more apprehension here–this section has a few tree choked braided sections where collision with something is a real possibility and there are frequent spooky moments where carcasses of ancient trunks reach up like claws from the abyss–the river carrying you relentlessly forward over their outstretched fingers.  But I had Arno as my guide (he really is a guide–regularly leading commercial packrafting trips down this section of water).

Perfect swimming conditions, nothing to worry about!

Perfect swimming conditions, nothing to worry about!

So I tried to relax and embody lesson two: go with the flow. There is simply no activity I have engaged in during my rather storied life where this lesson becomes so obvious as when I’ve been swimming down this river.  Any form of resistance to the literal flow is immediately felt.  The experience is visceral.  The more I was able to be at ease with what was happening and save my ‘reactions’ for what was genuinely occurring, the more relaxed I was both mentally and physically.  Awareness was a big part of this–in the section of the river that I knew well it meant planning ahead, understanding the nature of the flow from experience, and working with it. I lined up for the corners, allowed the current to sweep me towards the outside knowing that I wouldn’t get pushed too far, and enjoyed the speed.  I didn’t fight the rapids on the surface, gasping for breath against the chaotic waves, but dove down and rode the under currents for a smoother ride.  I saved my energy by stroking it out when the river turned placid and I could swim efficiently. I fought the flow only when it was absolutely necessary, when the consequences for not doing so were both unimagined and negative.  

And for the part of the river where I felt uncertain, I practiced lesson three: commit to trust.  While it is important to decide carefully who you are going to trust, when you’ve made a decision, commit to it.  I was lucky to have Arno with me as our relationship and his water reading skills made it easy to trust him.  Whenever I’d considered this section of the swim previously, even without a committed date, I’d been anxious about this section of the river. But with Arno as chaperone, I was able to relinquish that anxiety by knowing that he had my best interests at heart, would be attentive to those interests, and that as a result I could ‘let go’ of my need to control a situation that would otherwise have been very stressful.  The act of trusting is linked to the ability to take risks as well–those more likely to trust in general tend to be more likely to accept a certain level of risk in their lives. And at least in my opinion, the acceptance of risk (and the inevitably resulting failures) is a key factor in a robust life. And as I finally swam out of the river mouth and into Lake Manapouri, my life certainly felt very robust.

My body, on the other hand, did not. As the adrenaline response from river section slowly faded, I became more acutely aware of how shattered I felt, and the BIG question as to how my body would hold up over the next 9 km of lake.  A year ago I’d had some issues with my right shoulder that required physical therapy and it continued to bug me when I pushed too hard, even on shorter swims.  By the end of the river it was already feeling pretty wrecked–would it last another hour?  Three?  Although I’ve got plenty of experience in land based endurance efforts, my longest swim ever was a 10 mile affair, took just over 4 hours to finish, and happened 15 years ago.  It was a rather outdated litmus test from which to draw strength for what remained ahead, especially considering at the time I’d been healthier (shoulder wise), fitter (swimming wise), and even then been plagued by such severe cramping in my left elbow by the end that I swam the entire last mile with on arm.

Thankfully, all that being said, I have learned a thing or two in the intervening year, one of which I’d been reminded reminded of via a FB post recently.

The final leg...9 km to go!

The final leg…9 km to go!

Lesson four: fatigue is all in your head.  Ok, maybe not all, but certainly the point when you decide that you’ve reached your limit is. When I started to really feel broken only a short distance into the final lake swim, I relied heavily on this idea.  I knew from all my big adventures on terra-firma that the general pain that I was enduring was self-limiting. If I was broken it was almost certainly in a way that was repairable.  The pain caused by low-impact repetitive joint use, on a single occasion (not chronic overuse such as in high volume training)–hardly ever leads to actual acute injuries.  And so although the pain was great enough that I would have traded my little finger for some ibuprofen, I didn’t allow myself to listen to the part my brain that tried to tell me I should stop because I was causing permanent damage.  But it wasn’t easy.  The 30 minutes in between feeds seemed to stretch for hours so that I was continually convinced that Arno wasn’t keeping track of the time. One of my achilles started to cramp.  Both hip-flexors threatened to join it. I altered my stroke in turns–windmilling arms to keep them straight for a while, then shortening my stroke dramatically to keep them bent.  I’m not sure whether the pain even got better, but I was able to keep going.  Eventually, I rounded the headland of Supply Bay and could see the finishing beach. It was still nearly an hour away, but that sight was all it took to let my head know I was going to make it.  After my last feed I was close enough to make out the car my wife had dropped for us.  Despite having stroked continuously for over six hours at this point, the fatigue (almost) disappeared and I felt as though I was finishing the last kilometer of a 2 km swim, not a 35 km one.

All in all, my shoulders (which I am having trouble moving today) carried me for 6 hours and 45 minutes of more or less continuous freestyle. It was an incredible experience and one I hope to offer to the public next year as a marathon swim event  (www.koharacing.com). Happy training.

PostScript: In addition to the above more profound lessons, I also learned a couple of other things that bear mentioning.

The first of these is why distance swimmers almost always rely on liquid diets.  I learned this the hard way as I nearly choked on my first water based feed that consisted of PowerBar energy blasts, a brand of gummy sports chew.  I almost choked! Swallowing food is so much harder than swallowing liquid and the act of chewing and swallowing while swimming proved almost impossible.  Thankfully, I had a couple emergency Gu’s that proved more easily consumable, and some sugared drink mix I was able to fall back on (I’d planned on primarily consuming the blasts), and it saw me through.  

The second is how awesome the NoNumb swimming device is.  Typically for me, after an hour of swimming my hands get cold enough for the claw to develop.  I’d toyed with the idea of wearing thermal gloves, but the downside of gloves is that even the best of them take on some water and thus add a non-insignificant amount of  weight the the hands.  Over the course of some 15000 odd strokes, a few extra grams really matters. The NoNumb device is an ingeniously simple piece of silicone (so much so that calling it a device seems silly) that slips around your fingers to keep them together.  The lack of water circulation between fingers keeps your hands warmer, and keeps the claw from making an appearance even when your hands do get cold. I’d tested it in a time trial of my standard training course, a 800 odd lap around a set of buoys, a couple of weeks ago and posted my personal best by nearly 30 seconds, so figured I’d give it a go on the swim.  It worked marvelously–my fingers stayed together, my hands felt warm, and it was so comfortable that I forgot I was wearing it.  Awesome.  Check it out at http://nonumbsurf.com/

 

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.

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.

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…  

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.

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.

 

 

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…

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.