The Dirtbag Ultra Diaries

Mmmm....Ramen. The near perfect race food for ultra events!

Mmmm….Ramen. The near perfect race food for ultra events!

Here are links to a couple of articles I wrote for a cool little Canadian adventure mag called Breathe.  It’s a super rag and I highly recommend folks who dig adventure subscribe to it! The links below will take you to the articles in question which provide insight on how to approach the goals of ultra distance type adventures with the dirt-bagger ethic.  Do more for pennies on the dollar and find greater happiness while you’re at it!

Dirtbag Ultra: Food

Dirtbag Ultra: Gear

All wet (AKA drowning rats)

IMG_20150129_164625221A facebook correspondent and UM fan has done some digging and sent me a blog post he dug up that provides a critical dispute of the ‘anti-fatigue’ factor mentioned in liver that I discuss in the nutrition chapter in the book.  Awesome–I mean any blogger that actually performs t-tests to include in his post is worth listening to, right?  Anyway, it’s super cool to be educated by readers!  I love it! [Here is the link]

So first of all, a big thanks to Wazz Up (whoever you are!)–hope you’re doing well over there in Denmark and having some good workouts on that elliptical of yours.

I am honestly not surprised to learn of the flaws in the Erkshoff study upon that the author of the blog post pointed out and am readily convinced that, as I at least allowed for in my discussion of liver in the book, any effect I’ve experienced was a placebo and not due to this mysterious factor.  The central idea (in case you don’t want to read the whole thing) that the rats that survived weren’t powered by liver, they just weren’t anemic like the control rats were–

“A number of investigations conclude that anemia is a central component of the inability of iron-deficient individuals to temperature regulate when they are cold stressed.”

Brigham and Beard, 1996

I was given pause to think about the new information that afternoon as I went for a swim in the lake.  You see, I’ve decided to enter a local 2K swim next weekend and figured I’d better do a few quick laps to the 200 M buoy and back before then.  The water which was normally quite tolerable on a nice day was downright frigid. Maybe it was the fact that the ambient temperature was 15 degrees colder than what it is on said ‘nice day’.  Maybe it was the fact that it was 3 4:30 P.M. and I’d had little more than a cup of coffee and a piece of toast.  Whatever the reason, half way out to the buoy my chest was tight, my shoulders heavy, and my breathing shallow.

I felt like one of those Norwegian lab rats mentioned by the blogger–a natural swimmer who can go for hours on end under normal circumstances, but severely affected by poor nutrition and cold water.  Although I don’t particularly feel anemic, I might just bulk up on my iron over the next few days to be sure…



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…

One good workout with Peak Performance

I’d been on a consistent but frustrating schedule the last couple of weeks.  My strength training on Monday or Tuesday, a one-mile time trial on Wednesday, one-mile tire drag time trail on Friday, and then a tempo run with the balance of my hour on Sunday.  The consistency was great but the frustration was starting to build because I felt like I was on a slippery slope of low motivation and no objective ways to ensure my effort.  My one mile time trials times had steadily decreased from 6:00 to 6:03 to 6:08 to 6:13 just a few days ago.  Sure the 6:13 was done in the dark with slightly blurry vision (long story) and a fresh dusting of snow over icy roads… but how could I be sure that was the reason and it wasn’t that I was just getting lazy?! Grrrrr….

And then this week I actually ran out of time on Friday–a trip to the lake to say goodbye to in-laws before our New Zealand journey.  My consistent streak was gone and my last workout had left me disappointed.  To make matters worse, I’d been following the action of the Adventure Racing World Series via the internet and was struggling a bit with faint traces of jealously (I haven’t done a big race since February).  My brother Jason was in Ecuador for the event and I watched as his team was fighting their way to a top 10 place–a fantastic result.  I was in a funk.

Thankfully, experience has taught me that it only takes one good workout for me to get back on track and so I was determined to have that take place right away.  Saturday afternoon at the lake I set out on a 6 mile run.  I decided I was going to be uncomfortable the whole time–that if I ever started settling in I was going to refocus and push my edge. As I started out, I began imagining I was down in Ecuador racing with a team–pushing for a cutoff near the end of a long foot stage.  Push. Push. Keep the suffering conscious and purposeful.  Strangely, I wasn’t with Jason’s team, but with a Swedish team, Peak Performance, as I ran through the snow covered gently undulating landscape on lonely country roads.  While Jason’s team beat Peak Performance, these guys have one of the best team videos in history, and it kept me quite inspired.

Just like that, I feel like I’m back in the game.

Strength Training

I have always wanted to be strong(ish).  In my youth this desire stemmed from a sunken chest and skinny arms, coupled with years of swim team in which I was confronted daily by mostly naked examples of much a more muscular male physique. Those were formative years I suppose and they must have made an indelible mark in my psyche

As soon as I was old enough to go to the gym on the military base where I lived on my own (age 16!), I spent 6 days a week there, for two hours a day.  I was obsessed, something that the piles of IRONMAN, MUSCLE AND FITNESS, and RIPPED magazines stacked next to my bed testified to.  I emulated the routines of the pros–too naive to understand that these guys were nothing like me, and that no amount of hard work would get me to look like them. In hindsight I realize I dodged a bullet there, but I digress.

In college I discovered climbing which brought me to a bit more balance with it’s emphasis on functional strength, but I still didn’t quite let go of the idea of being strong for strong’s sake, and ripped regardless.  I did abandon my silly notions of high volume work and focused instead on higher intensity efforts a few times a week.  I got much stronger too, mastering the ability to do full one arm pull-ups, parallel bar dips with 90 extra pounds hanging from my waist, and reps of the military press (shoulder press) with 135 pounds (nearly my bodyweight).

Today, the ego driven side of things has diminished in intensity.  I’m happily married with a couple of great kids and no longer motivated by an subconscious belief that my chiseled pecs serve some bio-evolutionary mate attracting purpose.  My desire to be strong has relegated itself  to a more pragmatic realm.   I now view strength in terms of ‘strength to weight ration’ rather than the number of pounds I am able to move. My focus has shifted to a very functional and easily measured strength–the ability to handle my bodyweight.

My current strength regimen is based on my desire to do as much as I can with as little time, as well as a comfort with the notion of maintaining the pretty decent level of strength that I already have.  Just before losing my access to the gym a couple of months ago, I had begun using a routine modified from Doug McGuff’s book, Body by Science (muscle building in 12 minutes a week–my kind of read!),  His program called for a five movements on machines, done in succession, one set after the other in very slow form.  My excommunication from the gym means I don’t have equipment and forced me to re-think the routine. I decided to do what I do best and take what already seems a crazy low-volume approach and go a step further.  I settled on a two movement routine, done once a week.  The whole thing takes just over three minutes. Here’s the plan:

Movement 1: Chin-ups. Do as many reps as possible using a strict 5 second concentric contraction (chin to bar) and 5 second eccentric contraction (lowering to nearly straight arms–not completely releasing the lats as the point is to keep muscle tension throughout).

Movement 2: Push-ups or parallel bar dips.  I’m currently doing push-ups while a rotator cuff injury heals but plan to move to dips once I am pain free, as it is a more robust compound exercise than standard push-ups.  The same 5 second concentric and eccentric contraction patterns are followed as with the chin-ups.

I’m currently able to perform 9 of the chins and 10 of the pushups, having advanced slightly in both over the past four weeks.  If it doesn’t seem like much, try it!  In truth, if you are in the league of folks who can endure a constant level of muscular tension strong enough to counter your full body weight through a full range of motion for 90 seconds on a chin up bar, you’re in a pretty select group.  Of course there are folks that are able to do more, but there are always going to be folks who can do more, and these days I’m becoming more and more comfortable with the idea of focusing on what I can do vs. what I want to do, and as always, pursuing my goals as efficiently as possible.



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.


Maintainable Base Fitness

For me, the answer is–NONE OF THEM!

I’ve decided to describe what I’m trying to achieve with the acronym MBF which stands for Maintainable Base Fitness.  MBF describes the maximum fitness an individual can achieve using a training schedule that is maintainable indefinitely.  No periodization.  No offseason.  No peaks and valleys.  Any MBF is bound to be pretty low volume – most people keeping track of their training over a period of years would find that even something considered very low volume (in the ultra endurance world) such as 6 hours a week is not sustainable in the long term.  Traditional IM training?  Forget about it.

The idea of what MBF  means is of course open to variation and interpretation.  Different people might look at developing an MBF  for a  period of a single year, several years, or be aiming at a decades long approach, which I am the most interested in exploring.  My journey started some years ago with three hours of weekly training.  But over time I found that even three hours produced psychological stress in my life that I don’t want to sustain indefinitely.  When I reduced the load to two hours it still led to some minor mental and motivational issues.  So now I’ve settled in to one hour a week and so far so good.

Of course I have big ambitions, and part of what it means for something to be maintainable for me is that it must enable me to challenge those ambitions occasionally.  In other words, it’s still gotta get me through that Ironman, that four day adventure race, and allow me to feel age group competitive (which for me is finishing roughly in the top third) in pretty much any event.

I know many people read this and think that I’m crazy and should settle for less, or perhaps more correctly, that reality will force me to do so.  But i don’t want to, and apparently, at least based upon what I’ve been able to accomplish on 3 or 2 hours a week, reality must be sleeping on the job.

But the question remains as to whether my MBF on only one hour a week will actually be sufficient given my ambitions.  I’m pretty confident though, and not without reason – I feel as fit, or nearly so, as when I was putting in three times as much time, and succeeding at really big things.

Too much information

Too-much-informationThis is just my opinion (as if anything on this site is anything else?!), but I feel that, at least for the average Johnny or Sheila hoping to get fit and/or pursue athletic ambitions, the athletic/health science industry is doing more harm than good.  The fact that at our fingertips rests such an immense wealth of information isn’t always a good thing.  It makes us believe that there is a right answer.  And when we believe there is a right answer, we often feel compelled to find it and follow it.

The problem is though, that the right answers aren’t always clear, aren’t always easy to follow, and in the absence of our ability to follow this ‘correct’ course of action in it’s entirety, we often opt to do nothing.

Look, I’m a scientist by training and I recognize the tremendous benefit the field provides.  But science, at least to the non-scientist, can be misleading.  It produces claims about benefits of one course of action over another that while perhaps technically true, can (and maybe should) pretty much be ignored.

Supplement X performs better than Supplement Y, and both are shown to provide benefits as compared to a control group that didn’t take either.  Better go get supplement X, right?  Training regimen A produces a greater increase in VO2 max than regimen B, so looks like I need to go and change the way I’m training now too!  Well, not so fast.  In truth it is likely that while supplements X and Y do produce statistically significant differences in some measurable characteristic of health over the control group, it is very small difference. It might also be that you are not similar to the control group at all!  And if you don’t actually know what statistical significance is in the first place, then maybe you should research that before you google any more Brand X’s or Program B’s.

It comes down, again in my opinion, to a bit of a need for external validation.  Sure, it’s good to do research and learn about whatever you are interested in, but it is FAR more important to develop an intuition about your own body and mind–what works and what doesn’t.  A genuine internal confidence in whatever you decide to do will pay the kind of dividends that can’t be paid for, no matter how slick the sales marketing might be.

Eat good food and move regularly.  Spend time with people you care about and care about what you do with your time.  Now that’s not too much information, is it?

How much is too much?

exhausted-cyclistI had a tough workout yesterday that left me asking this question.  I mean, all my workouts are tough, but this one was exceptional. I hadn’t eaten well all day (two cookies and two cups of coffee prior to my 4:00 pm effort) but was determined to squeeze the workout in.  Going in I suspected that my performance wouldn’t be stellar but was hell bent on at least matching my performance from the previous week where I’d done the same workout.  I’d actually commented in my training journal that I thought I’d be able to ‘move up’ the next time I tackled it, so just matching it felt like I was giving myself an ‘easy day’ pass.

I fought tooth and nail to keep my RPM’s above 80 during the final interval.  It was as close as I think I’ve come to truly finding the ‘gun to your head’ level of determination.  And as that last interval ended and I struggled to keep the cadence during the 20 second ‘warm down’ I knew I was in trouble.  When the pain I knew was coming started I tried to spin through it.  It got worse and worse until I had to try another tactic. Hobbling straight legged to the corner I collapsed and put my legs up the wall, hoping the pain would drain from my legs with the blood. My heart rate, which had come down a bit from its peak of somewhere above 205 (the machine’s sensors stop reading above this number) was still in the neighborhood of 130 or so, ensuring both the pain and blood remained where they were.

Eventually, of course, the pain subsided and my ability to walk normally returned.  But it had me wondering how much is too much.

So today I spent a few minutes trying to answer the question.  In particular I was concerned with the condition called exertional rhabdomyolysis, which is essentially a degeneration of your muscles’ cell membranes, leading to release of cell contents into surrounding tissues.  Blood potassium levels skyrocket (not a good thing apparently) and if the condition is pervasive enough the kidneys become unable to restore the balance (they get clogged with myoglobin, another content of the muscle cells) and bad things happen.

Although Rhabdo (as it is called for short) is widely known about in CrossFit and similar extreme training circles, I’d been worried that my own brand of ‘extreme’ training might also be flirting it.  I’m not sure I’ve found any definitive answers, but I did find a pretty soothing article from Women’s Health Magazine, which is probably about as close as one can come to definitive without actually arriving there.

It mentions five signs that you might be going too hard–cheating on form (hard to do with cardio – bad form usually means less efficiency); sore joints (I’m never sore, muscularly or joint-wise, from short high intensity efforts–races of course are a whole other ball of wax); increasing intensity too fast (no danger there, it’s been high intensity for years!); training every day (even at only seven minutes I couldn’t imagine doing this, not with adequate intensity); and pushing past pain.  This last point gave me pause.  I routinely push past pain–in my legs and arms and lungs–in fact a workout without some facet of pain seems a foreign concept. And sometimes, like yesterday, it is temporarily debilitating. But even that effort only left me crippled for ten minutes and left no other lasting effects, either later in the day or in days following.  So this leaves me hopeful that my radical attention to intensity over very brief intervals is safe given my history with it and the absence of other warning signs.

In thinking further, I believe that there is a level of protection against something like rhabdo in my systematic, machine driven approach.  My intervals and intensity is very calculated–prescribed as part of a computer program–and are the same (or nearly so) every time I repeat a workout.  Although the intensity is very high, the duration is short and the movements are such that bad form lessens my ability to make the intervals.  Typically I stop right after my ‘peak’ interval–the goal of stimulating growth and causing supercompensation having been accomplished. I seek to approach maximum effort during this last interval, carry it out briefly, and then am done.

So my fingers are crossed that my system of training, despite the pain it creates, isn’t too much at all.  In fact, for me anyway, it seems to be just right.

Stairway to heaven–Stepmill to hell

Add stepmill to the list of cardio equipment that can incapacitate me in seven minutes.

Tuesday marked the first day I decided to ‘go back to normal’ on my workouts.  My new plan involves a bigger variety of equipment including the stepmill.  I’d tried it out last week but was a bit skeptical that it would be able to provide the required difficulty, but though i’d give it a shot.

Based on that previous trial  (where i did 1:1 intervals, each interval being a minute long) I decided to try 1:2 intervals which meant only 2 work intervals for 2 minutes each.  The work intervals were at the max level (level 20) and the rest intervals at level 11.  I was on a Matrix brand machine.

I made the intervals, but barely.  The resulting experience was a combination of what i’ve felt on my best bike workouts and my running through jello workouts.  The final 30 seconds i felt as though everything was in slow motion – my legs heavy like i was trying to lift my feet out of molasses.  I was sure i was going to clip one of the stairs and be sent sprawling as i counted down the final 20 steps.  After i was done, the molasses went away but still my legs screamed at me and refused to let me walk with anything resembling a normal gait for at least 10 minutes.

And no back pain the day after which is the best part–I’m happy to hobble around, it just needs to be for the right reasons, like my thrice weekly trips to the Inferno.