It’s (not) Not About the Bike (AKA the sound of money)

My brother visited me in New Zealand a year and a half ago and brought his fancy bike with him to do GodZone, one of the world’s most competitive adventure races. I wasn’t jealous until I lifted the bike.  It weighed half what mine did.

It’s my bike now, although I’ve hardly ridden it since.  But I got it out today for a spin. Is it a coincidence that it’s also the day I signed up for my own chance to tackle GodZone?  Probably not.

Me, an $8000 bike, and a shipping container.

Me, an $8000 bike, and a shipping container.

As I was pulling it out of the shipping container/garage I remembered something Jason had said to my son, Keegan  (who was also enamored with the bike) way back during his visit.  He’d been revolving the pedals backwards when Keegan asked him what the sound coming from the rear cassette was.

“That, nephew, is the sound of money.” Jason said.

(Rumors are that the bike is valued at nearly $8000, though I’m sure I got it for less)

So, anyway, after adjusting the bike to my body’s geometry (I share the bike with my wife…only way she’d approve the purchase!), I took it for a quick spin around my old ‘in town’ time trial loop ride.  The loop is only 2.68 miles long with no traffic and a gradual quarter mile climb about a third of the way through.  I used to do it once every couple of weeks but it has been nearly four months since I’d been on the bike, so I wasn’t expecting big things.

But…I used to do it on a hand me down mountain bike–an old Avanti Hammer aluminum frame beast. My best ever effort was around 8:40.

Today I manged 8:05.

Sorry, Lance.

Sorry, Lance.

I want to be clear here–I’m not doing a flip-flop all of a sudden and arguing that you need to sell your kidney ($15000 if you do it in India–you’d have change to spare!) for a bike to train on. I still standby the words of wisdom I so eloquently penned for Breathe Magazine back in 2015  that espoused the superfluousness of high dollar gear for training purposes.

But I am saying that this out of shape biker just beat his former PR, off the couch, by 7%, thanks to a little bit (or in this case a lot) of carbon fiber.

I’m also saying, that, at least this time, Lance got it wrong.

Happy Training.

Back to Basics

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There have been a few things in my life recently that have made me spend some time evaluating what I really think is important.  And while most of the resulting thought has little to do with the subjects of this blog, at least a bit of it does.

Because fitness–in as much as it gives me the ability to wholly participate in and interact with this fabulous physical world of ours–is important.  And for me, because I’ve enjoyed so much personal growth at the hand of what I’ve termed ‘success enabled by suffering’, the level of fitness I seek is, at least by many people’s standards, relatively high.

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

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

But how high?  When it comes down to it, what level of fitness am I going to need to keep finding that optimum balance of having time and energy to focus on other aspects of my life while maintaining the physical and mental platform from which to keep chasing the benefits of epic challenges (like my latest effort, a swim between cities), and able to keep up with my two boys so that I can share in some of whatever (fingers crossed here) wild missions they come up with as they get older.

I wonder this because in the face of my recent evaluation, many of the motivations that have ordinarily sustained my drive to maintain a high level of fitness have all but disappeared.  I no longer feel very competitive.  The lure of forging this new and novel path–using HIIT to approach ultra endurance, has faded.

If my happiness depends somewhat on a minimum level of fitness, then by defining that minimum level I can simply use the minimum effective dose (MED) to get there and think less of training, and more of just living. And if/when my ambition returns, even if it does so spontaneously as it did last weekend with the swim, I’m well positioned to suffer my way through an epic adventure or two.

Basic Fitness Goals–to always be able:

  • Run a sub 6:00 mile
  • Swiw a sub 6:00 400 meter (open water)
  • Strength: Perform 90 seconds each for continuous tension (CTL) chins and push-ups.

Simple and easy as.

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/

 

The Perks of Over (winter) Training.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Off by 50 revisited–working for a living

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Tools of the trade…

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

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

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

Adrian Braaksma: world champion stoat trapper and bush sushi connoisseur

Adrian Braaksma: world champion stoat trapper and bush sushi connoisseur

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

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

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

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

One of four walk-wires on the route…

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

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

Hardship Sessions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s (never) EASY! It (all) WORKS!

PS – did i get all the “Bros” right?

ONE (really) good session

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Weakest Link

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wake Up Call

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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At the top!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Training