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 (

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.


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…

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.



Success…well almost.

nopicIt’s been a couple of weeks since the big holly-day mission and I think I’m mostly recovered.  It was great fun and I ended the day and two hours (it took us about 26.5 hours, car to car) suitably shattered.  The last 10k I suffered from IT band pain that seemed determined to stop me in my tracks–all this in a full on fiordland rainstorm that left even the most expensive gore-tex as effective as a cotton t-shirt.  My partner was stronger than me on the foot sections and this allowed me to really reach my limit which was the plan all along.

The paddling sections were brilliant, the demon trail was epic as expected, and much of the most difficult to find parts of the route were encountered in the darkness.  We got lucky, barely squeaking by around Long Reef Point  just after high tide.  John also got lucky that the massive sea lion that he surprised and who barked and lunged at him as he passed a meter in front of where it lay under a rock overhang was a female and not a more territorial and aggressive male.

We got lost twice–once for about an hour or so looking for the track from the North end of Big Bay heading toward the Pyke Valley.

By the end I had elbow tendonitis, the IT band issue, chaffed nipples, a chaffed butt-crack, a raw lower back from pack-rub, chaffing at the very top of my inner thigh/groin from the hem of my undergarments (to the point of even a bit of bleeding), and size-able blisters on both pinky toes.   All the discomfort was of the self-limiting sort thankfully, but I did have to do some pretty serious mental gymnastics to keep running at all during the last 20K back to the car.   [It’s interesting too to note that ‘running’ at this point was predictably more of a shuffle than a run–perhaps movement speeds shifted from 5 to 7 kph (3 to 4.5 mph)… but over the course of that distance such a seemingly small gain in speed is quite significant.]

The bridge back to the car park finally came, an hour after I started hoping it would.  And after changing into dry clothes in a damp porta-potty and sitting in front of the car heater on full blast to stop the incessant shivering (the result of being soaked to the bone and the inability after such a long day to produce any of my own body heat without voluntary muscle movement–which I no longer wanted to produce!), John and I were even able to split shifts to drive the two hours home in time for dinner.

Sorry – no pictures of the trip.  It was so cutting edge we couldn’t admit the weight of a camera.  Or maybe I just forgot it on the dash.

Mission #1: Getting one under the belt

A week ago I managed to get away for the day with local Te Anauian, Jarod, for an adventure.  It was great to finally be out in the bush and not just looking at maps.

Then plan was to hike up Mistake Creek (in the Eglington Valley), around the North end of Consolation peak, down the Melita valley, then pack-raft to the Southern end of lake Gunn and down the Eglington river back to the car.

View Larger Topographic Map

In my head the whole thing should have taken 6-8 hours, and this is without running.  Ha!

I learned some valuable lessons on this trip.

  1. A trail on a map in NZ means nothing.  In my head I see a trail and think it is ‘runnable’.  I’m used to being able to cover at least 8K (5 miles) an hour on even ‘tough’ trails.  The Mistake Creek trail was not even thought of as a particularly tough trail and it seemed to take ages!

    Jarod enjoying off track travel

    Jarod enjoying off track travel

  2. No trail on a map in NZ can mean anything.  Sometimes we were able to move down a boulder bed stream at 3K and hour.  Other times we were reduced to crawling through bush at less than 500 meters per hour.
  3. Don’t second guess the locals. Looking at the contour lines around Consolation peak, I was sure it would be a walk in the park getting to the Melita valley.  It wasn’t.  We managed, but there was some seriously steep ground in a few places and I was very very glad to have decades of climbing experience under my belt.

    Jarod enjoying easy ledges on the sidle around Consolation peak

    Jarod enjoying easy ledges on the sidle around Consolation peak

  4. Things are hidden in the bush!  Maybe the topo maps here are often based off of the top of the canopy (because the canopy is so thick).  Whatever the reason, we stumbled across some creek gorges that were 30-50 meters deep and only a few meters wide on our descent of Melita creek–stuff I’d have expected to show up on a topo with 20 meter contour intervals.  Invisible.
  5. It rains a lot up here.  Although our day out was perfect weather, much of the forest was covered with moss up to 30 cm thick.  Sloped tussock drainages were sopping wet even after 48 hours without rain.  There is water to spare in fiordland.

    the moss in Melita Valley

    the moss in Melita Valley

It was a good, long day out that ended up taking about 11 ours to get to the end of the lake.  The river turned out to be too low for pack-rafting, but that turned out to be a good thing, as we were already an hour overdue.

About to put in on Gunn's Lake

About to put in on Gunn’s Lake

Tomorrow John Kenny and I tackle Mission #2, the previously mentioned Big-Hollyday! (see last post)


Big Hollyday

Martins Bay

Martins Bay

If all goes as planned, my next big mission is on it’s way.  John Kenny, a friend and racing partner from Canada, is visiting me in NZ as part of hisyear long world cycling tour.  I’ve twisted his arm to accompany me (fingers crossed) on what was atop my list 8 years ago when I was last in this glorious country–my ‘big hollyday’. Although I could get heaps of partners up here in NZ to tackle this route with me,  I’m finding I’m still a bit of a rare bird in that I like to do not only difficult things, but that I like to do them as fast as I can do them.  Even a 12 hour day, super long for most trampers, is only a half day in my mind.  Not many people share this penchant for suffering, which is why when I find someone who does, like John, I plan trips around him!

The Route!

The Route!

The Hollyford Track is a one way tramping route that runs along the Hollyford river to the remote Martin’s Bay. Most people do it as an out and back.  Some intrepid and experienced parties, continue past Martin’s bay, through Big Bay, overland to the Pyke river, and back to the Hollyford Track, forming a sort of lolli-pop route.  [link to route description, only in reverse]

The total distance via the track is roughly 144 km and is ‘normally’ done in 9 days.  Our goal is to knock the whole thing out as quickly as we can, without sleep.  While this might seem doable based on numbers and elevation data alone, many of these km’s are through trackless wilderness (what they call a ‘route’ in New Zealand) or along tracks that are ‘tracks’ in name only.  When sections of the trail are named things like ‘the demon trail’, you know it’s going to be fun.  Other sections involve serious river crossings, soul sucking mud, and an occasional 3 wire bridge.  Awesome.

But John and I have a secret weapon…an Alpacka Gnu!  This is their latest line of boats and quite possibly the coolest thing I have ever owned–a two person packraft with nearly a 4 mph cruising hull-speed (when we put our minds to it!).  So our plan is to use this boat to paddle, not walk, down the hollyford valley via the river rather than the track, hopefully getting wind at our back (a rare SE wind is in the forecast if it holds!) for a long lake crossing to avoid the demon trail, pack up the boat for the crossing to the Pyke river, and then paddle back downstream avoiding the worst of the trail. This route entails about 52K of running and 92K of padding.  Assuming we can average 6K and hour on the water and 7K on foot, and with an hour or so thrown in for unloading and loading the boat, getting lost, etc, it seems a reasonable to assume the mission is possible in our timeframe [92/6=15+ and 52/7=7+ and 1+ for mucking around=24 hours!].

Yeah, I know I’m crazy, and I know that I’m only very rarely right on these things (I prefer to only plan optimistically!), but an adventure is sure to be had.  Our planned attempt should come sometime end of next week. Stay tuned for details!  Don’t worry, I’ve been training too–had a good mile sprint workout yesterday!

The Pyke river

The Pyke river



mil19A few days ago I was up in Milford Sound again.  It had been 8 years since my last visit–my departure from New Zealand back then left me with a notebook full of undone missions.  Ever since my return I had been steadily adding to this list. Gazing up at Mitre Peak, the iconic summit rising like a bush covered tooth out of the sea, I mentally penciled in one more item.

There is just way too much to do here.  Waaay to much.  Eight years ago it led to significant marital disharmony. Now it’s leading to a different sort of angst.  I want to do it all, and that is going to make it pretty hard to stick to any sort of low-volume training I think…


no-treadmill1If you read the last post you know a bit about my situation–I’m a dirtbag at heart.  This means, ironically, that although I tout the benefits of High Intensity work on the cardio equipment you find in gyms…I’m hesitant to pay for an actual gym membership.

I’ve gotten around this little conundrum for years–first as a graduate student at the University of North Dakota (where membership comes as part of unavoidable student fees) and then thanks to my wife’s generosity.  She had provided me and my boys with free membership to our local YMCA for years when she was on staff teaching weekly Yoga classes.  Even after she stopped teaching regularly about a year ago, she continued to stand in as a ‘sub’ for the occasional class which apparently was good enough to hook us up with the membership.

At least until last month.

Yep, she got an email notice that membership status would no longer be extended to employees or subs without a minimum number of weekly hours–a number she fell below.

I was out in the cold, figuratively speaking.  And after a few weeks, I’d be out in it literally too.  I do live in North Dakota after all.

But I’ve always enjoyed a challenge and so rather than be dismayed decided to look at it as an opportunity to see how well I can translate my UltraMental ideas to a workout schedule that doesn’t include any indoor training.  So far my excommunication from the gym has taught me a few things, and reinforced a few others.

To begin with, I stand by my assertions that you’ll obtain the best results (in terms of approaching your limits on a consistent basis) using indoor equipment and constant and reliable feedback.  I don’t yet have a GPS watch and I imagine use of one would allow me to ‘close the gap’ so to speak on the technological side of the equation (reliable feedback), but the distractions and ‘environmental’ uncertainly present outdoors is a limiting factor that seems insurmountable.  I’ve also noticed that my day by day results are noticeably affected by wind and temperature.  Wind I suspected would be a factor but temperature seems far more important than I’d anticipated.  On my two most recent 1 mile tire drag time trials, my pace was nearly 20 seconds per mile different under identical wind conditions and at similar levels of perceived exertion.  The slower pace, however, resulted on a day where the ambient temperature was more than 20 degrees lower (28 F vs. 50 F).

Beyond the challenges to consistency that will affect how robustly baseline/repeatable workouts can be used as part of a high intensity approach, I have discovered that I actually enjoy being outside.  My workouts are even more flexible now as I don’t have to work around gym hours, schedules or possible equipment shortages.  I can walk right out my front door (even when my wife is gone and my two young boys are home playing legos), and run laps around the block if need be.  I also get to drag the tire on a more regular basis now, something that garners little head shakes and what I can only imagine are stares of admiration from all the neighbors (you know, as they wonder to themselves how I can run so fast while dragging that thing) which is kind of cool perk.

Andy Magness at the high point of the Teal Bay route

I’m no stranger to NZ and look forward to getting back to the birthplace of UltraMental and having some great adventures!

But I do miss the gym to be honest–since my hiatus I have yet to feel quite the same sense of desperate agony that used to be a regular feature of my experience during the five minutes after those red LEDs on the cardio machine console counted down to zero.  This might seem like a perk, but for me it’s really not.  It’s those five minutes that I rely on to tell me I’m working hard enough.  Under ordinary circumastances, though, I don’t think I’d last very long before I had to do the hard mental work to overcome my cheapskate tendencies and pony up that cold hard cash for access to all that technology again.  But as it turns out, the experiment of taking UltraMental beyond the gym will last for a while longer yet, as my exile from the gym will turn into a self-imposed exile from the country.

In three weeks time, my family and I head over to rural New Zealand for a little more than four months.  I get to escape the North Dakota winter and I get a whole new group of neighbors to impress. Awesome.