Helicopters

Thoughts on the wilderness through the lens of a helicopter bubble, as published in Say Yes to Adventure Magazine, Dec. 2016:

syta_volume-seven_andrew-magness-2-page-001syta_volume-seven_andrew-magness-2-page-002I’ve been flying in helicopters a lot recently.  It’s made me realize a couple of things. To begin with, we never know what our futures hold.  If five years ago someone asked me what I was going to be doing when I was 41, I might have said a lot of things, but I would not have suggested that my line of work was going to make flying over remote and spectacular scenery in a helicopter such a common occurrence that it felt ordinary and blase.

More importantly, perhaps, it has given me regular cause to think about the juxtaposition between nature/wilderness as it is experienced via media–coffee table books, go-pro clips, social media feeds and the like–and nature/wilderness as it is experienced in reality.

These experiences are separated by light years, nothing less.  Wilderness/nature–stunningly rugged and remote coastlines; soaring, corniced mountain ridges; pristine lakes of impossible blue, forests of lush and vibrant fifty-shades-of-green–these things used to take my breath away. They invoked such a spectacular impression of striving, of wonder, of adventure, that I’d yearn for them.  I’d look at the glossy pictures and watch the high-def videos and covet the settings and actions that were being displayed–the smooth inky water of a rugged and wave strewn coast at sunset, the majestic vista of snow covered peaks poking through a blanket of clouds, white on white.  

I’d yearn for the illusion. The fantasy.  

It’s much the same when travelling by helicopter.  Through the clear glass of the bubble it all appears very much as it does in those crisp pages and on the HD monitor.  And the first time I flew over those soaring ridges and lush vibrant forests I was filled with those same senses of longing.  But then…well…then I was promptly put there. And it was cold. And wet.  And the smooth undulating landscape formed by the tops of those crisp trees hid another landscape of head high ferns and tangled roots that made travel ridiculously challenging.  As I exited the more or less climate controlled cabin of the chopper, my other senses had equal say, and the input they received did less to stir my soul to song and more to make it cry out in a desperate plea, “please don’t leave me here alone!”

There is nothing glossy about real wilderness.  And in my experience the sense of potential that a talented photographer (especially an airborne one) can elicit via his lens is rarely, if ever, felt within its midst. Humility, sure. Fear, check.  Isolation, smallness, a sense of the profound scale of our world.  Of impossible effort.

Experiences shared in wilderness, in the middle of harsh, indifferent, landscapes far from influences of man’s shaping hand, are, however glue.  Wilderness is a catalyst for relationships, one of several such crucibles (war is another I imagine) that can contribute to unbreakable bonds being formed with near instantaneous speed.  My early experiences in real wilderness were all with company, and in retrospect maybe I kept venturing back for these companionship rewards.

But these days I make my trips alone, and alone, no such rewards are offered.

So why do I go?  Why do I keep getting into that chopper, knowing that at the end of its glorious flight–the very thing that tourists pay top dollar for over and over again–a lonely and grim trial awaits?  I’m not sure.  I guess part of it is the money, but then there are plenty of other ways to earn a living.  So there must be something else.  Maybe it is the desire to feel the reality, rather than the illusion. To keep it fresh in my mind, or fresh enough, so that I can navigate this in-your-face modern world where the media consumption of everyone else’s wilderness/nature experiences is so pervasive that it is easy to feel that my life is somehow less spectacular than that of my peers.  It can be easy to forget, as we wade through the magazine cover worthy photos of our ‘friends’’ last epic wilderness adventure, that there were bugs out there too.  And wet tents to pack up. And shivering, sore muscles, maybe some real fear, and probably at least a few moments where they would have traded it all in for a nice cup of coffee at their favorite cafe.

But really I think it is because, illusion or not, that siren song of wilderness persists for me.  As deceptive and one-dimensional as their captured images may be, those soaring ridges and rugged coastlines, those plunging rivers and tangled forests still call to me.  There are these 10-second snatches that pop up unannounced a handful of times during an otherwise punishing day, rare and fleeting moments, infinitesimal fractions of the whole, where the light years of difference disappear and the illusion merges with the reality.  Perhaps it is in these precious instances, where through a genuine reckoning with such a magnificent and formidable environment, the rapture of unlimited potential mixes with the gritty truth of fear,isolation, and profound humility, and a moment is formed that is just, well, worth it.  

It’s time to go. My helicopter is waiting.

Sandflies and Hedonism (thoughts from Resolution)

 

sandfly

My only company for six days…

A sandfly just bit me on the thumb.  It’s probably the thirtieth bite I’ve gotten today but considering how many of them seem to have somehow ended up on the inside of the small two bunk bivvy, that’s a pretty low number.  It is 11 pm and they are supposed to ‘go away’ after it gets dark, but like me, the ones in the biv must be wide awake for some reason.  I’m not sure what I’m wanting to write about, but I finished my days work at 1:30 and have already eaten six times, had three cups of tea, two thermoses of Raro, read for hours, watched a movie on my laptop and spent an hour trying to fix the solar power to no avail.  I’m sure if i’d have gotten that sorted I wouldn’t be writing at all–I’d be struggling in vain to complete the Ipad quest game I brought along just so I’d have something to do.

But alas, all the batteries are flat and so here I am, reaching for the one device that still has an ounce of life left.  If I dim the screen long enough maybe I can get another half hour of writing out of it.  

Which again begs the question as to what i want to write about.

reso

Tools of the trade. Photo courtesy of DOC

Well, I’ve noticed a few things on this trip, but before I launch into that, I’ll provide a brief rundown of what ‘this trip’ is.  I’m on Resolution Island of the coast of Fiordland.  It’s one of two big islands in Fiordland that some years ago they decided to try and make pest free–pest meaning possums, rats, and stoats–so that they would be sanctuaries for native birds.  It works, kind of.  Resolution has been declared possum and rat free but there are still the occasional stoats that swim over from the mainland and think they’ve hit the jackpot.  And to keep them from raising their families over here, the Department of Conservation sends a crew of guys (like me) out to check and rebait the over 2000 stoat traps that criss cross the rugged landscape on a network of rough cut trails.  I’m on the island crew (there is a boat crew that lives aboard the ship and checks traps on the shoreline)–one of four.  Each day I have a set route of traps to check.  I’m all by myself in the middle of nowhere for 6 days.  

This is my second time on a trip like this. The first was on the other of the two islands, Secretary.  That trip was in winter (colder) but the sun shone brilliantly and there were awesome mountains and steep country and i mostly loved it.  This time I was in the bush pretty much the whole time–no great views. And it rained. A lot.  

I’ve learned I’m not a big fan of going from cozy to not cozy. Once I’m not cozy, I’m pretty sweet. I can soldier on through grim conditions as good as anyone, maybe even better than most.  But when I have the choice–when I’ve got 60 square feet (7.5 square meters) of dry and warm and slippers on my feet and my ipad and book and instant coffee and the rain is pounding on the roof it’s really hard to go to work when work is going to be cold, wet, muddy, and involve lots of physical work.  

But…I’ve also realized that the work is what makes these trips so unique.  I find that  because of that work, and the solitude, I collapse into a sort of hedonism. Not the kind that money and drugs and a misplaced sense of one’s own importance brings, mind you, but one driven more by the ferel nature of the job and the sense of solipsism surrounding the whole experience.  I’m completely on my own.  I’m in a sometimes harsh and uncertain environment, dealing with demons (deciding not to turn back when no one would know), suffering a little or a lot, and taxing and testing my physical machine.  And then I’m done.  Because of how I am, once I’m out there I go pretty non-stop, which means my days have been shorter than expected this trip–often only 6ish hours.  And when I get back, I just consume.  Food, drink, technology.  And although I reflecto on it, I’m strangely satisfied with it all.  I don’t think I should be doing anything else really, don’t feel guilty for eating a whole bar of chocolate (250 grams) then a whole bag of lollies (kiwi party mix), before a massive dinner of stir fried veggies over noodles.  If I had the juice and the patience with torrenting over slow connections, I’d happily consume season after season of whatever Sci Fi series I am taken with at the time, too [the 100 was great, Shannara chronicles not so much. The Expanse seems promising…].  Or, as on this trip, battle evil forces on my Ipad for hours.  

Ah, hedonism.

Ah, hedonism.

I stay up late–as late as 1 am one night.  Reading, thinking, more movies. That first secretary trip I didn’t know how I’d be on my own–I’d never gone more than the better part of my day without company.

And during the days–when i’m out in the field trudging my way over roots and rocks and up and down hills, scrambling and slipping and clutching desperately at the mud and ferns sometimes–I just enter a zone.  It goes by so quickly.  It’s not as if I’m not aware–I am. I have to be. To move quickly in this terrain requires focus.  But the days are long and daunting and I let my mind wander. It’s almost like I’m of two minds–a present mind completely absorbed in the task, and a higher/intellectual mind that is able to detach and think about whatever it wants–my family, new business ideas, notstalgic reminiscings, sex, food, racing, politics, and end of the world type stuff.  I write novels in my head, I talk to myself (seriously), and sometimes even sing.  As I’m writing this now I wonder what this sort of dual natured experience means, what my wife the meditator who is studying mindfullness would think.  I wonder who else has had similar experiences.  In my estimation, it is a good thing–it allows me to cope, to get through a long uncertain day, to overcome tired muscles and not let the negative self talk that might otherwise overcome me derail my efforts when the going gets hard. This duality has a purpose.  Yeah, it keeps me from ‘really experiencing the moment,’ to fully appreciating the grandeur around me and where I am, but it also keeps me from sitting down on a rotting log and crying at the crushing thought of how heavy my pack is and how much further I have to go.  

Tomorrow is my last day. The helicopter comes the morning after that.  It’s been long enough.  My legs are tired.  My clothes–(i’ve got one field pair and one hut pair) are getting pretty stiff.  I’m ready to go. But it has been an interesting journey.  I get two days off and then I’m back out for six days–but this time as a packraft guide for six clients.  

I somehow don’t think the feral hedonism will be part of that trip.  

But I suspect the sandflies will.

Fragility

ned-stark-970x545I had a good week last week.  It was school holidays which meant my kids had two weeks off, and the first week we’d lucked into a stint as a ‘volunteer hut warden’ up at Luxmore Hut, the first of the Kepler Track’s (one of NZ’s great walks) palatial accommodations.  Not only did I get to refer to myself as ‘Warden of North*’ for a whole week, which has always been a secret fantasy of mine ever since Game of Thrones, but I also got to hang out with my family in an awesome alpine environment.

We took hikes, explored caves, got dumped on by half a meter of snow, built snowmen, had snowball fights, chopped wood, read books, played games, slept in, kept cozy by the fire, cooked good meals, drank lots of coffee and drinking chocolate. It was awesome.  We even improvised ways to do our body-weight training by using a broom handle suspended across two upper bunks.  I even got a good run to the top of the mountain in before the mid-week storm brought the hammer down.

Trails before the storm

Trails before the storm

It was that hammer coming down that planted the seed of fragility, but it was the helicopter ride down–a 90 second trip that covered a distance that would take over half a day by non-motorized means–and the resulting reflection that saw it blossom.

As an athlete, I occasionally feel very powerful.  And when I look at images of other athletes–top mountain runners for example, churning their way along knife ridges, visions of sinew and sweat and efficiency I feel their power.  I quietly cultivated the feeling on the day before the snow as I ground my way up to Luxmore summit, doggedly running every step despite the steep grade, and then revelled in that sense of power as I charged back down, dancing my way across the rocky sections, slip sliding in the mud, and bending gravity to my will.

After the storm

After the storm

The day after the snow fell I got a bit antsy.  I was up in the mountains.  I wanted to run–to take the opportunity to get a big day in.  Test the machine again.  Feel the power.  So I tried.   Tammy got back from her short hike and gave me the green-light, but warned about how hard going it was.  I put on the gaiters. I decided to head back up the mountain and not take advantage of her footsteps going down.  The wind was blowing.  It was still snowing.  Adventure.  Harsh conditions. I was powerful, I could do it.  Sure, it would take me longer to get there–that was to be expected–but I’d get there.

I didn’t get there.  I didn’t get more than 400 meters from the hut, and even that took 15 minutes.  Snow stung my face.  I couldn’t open my eyes to look ahead without goggles.  The drifts were on occasion waist deep.  It was hard going. I didn’t feel powerful at all.

I felt fragile.

20160711_110942

Our minds and machines may be powerful…but our bodies?

The helicopter ride just cemented these feelings.  Nature is really, really big. The wilderness is unforgiving.  Yes, places exist where the wilderness is negotiable, where you  can run and leap and travel through it with grace and ease.  But those places are the exception, not the rule.  For the most part, for the overwhelming majority of the undeveloped places on this planet, nature/wilderness is harsh, brutal, big, and uncompromising.  We are only the powerful beings, the efficient machines of my earlier conception in these narrow places.  This fraction of a fraction of the world that we have claimed as our own and modified to suit our abilities.  Even places we think of as wilderness–the trail of the Kepler Track traversing it’s mountains, for example, aren’t.  They offer glimpses into the wilderness. They are a degree–a shade perhaps–closer to wilderness, but only just.  Our abilities, this physical power, is felt only on the backs of billions of people and millenia of reshaping the places in which we live and play. There is an arbitrariness to this. We’ve created a closed system, separate from nature, and the judgements we make about ourselves–athletic or otherwise–take place almost entirely within this closed system of human design.  It is a fascinating thought.

20160714_112451A simple act of nature–a dump of snow–took that ribbon of trail where 48 hours before I’d felt myself a powerful being, at home and in control of this breathtaking mountain environment, suited to it’s rough and undulating terrain, up to challenge this ‘wilderness’ presented, and made it beyond me.  Inaccessible. It was not mine. The work and training and experiences I’ve had did not give me power over this place, this ridge, this peak, unless things were just right–unless conditions allowed. A simple act of nature took it all away.  And this wasn’t even ‘real’ wilderness.

I’ve been in real wilderness too, and reflecting of my time there I realize I’ve never felt powerful there. I’ve always felt fragile.  Afraid, humble, slow, tired, and unsuited for the task.  The speed and powerful feelings cultivated in the land of men do not translate. They are a world apart.  Power, fitness, feelings of physical and mental achievement are only relative to our created human environment.  Even in something like adventure racing, so long as we’re feeling powerful, we’re at best dashing through toy-sized sections of wilderness, or connecting areas of human creation by tenuous threads of trail passing through larger chunks.  Occasionally, if ever, we actually move through wilderness/nature (and so few of us probably ever do), then there is only fragility and humility.

Happy Training

*Yes, I know that Luxmore hut isn’t really ‘North’ in any meaningful way (North of lake Manapouri?), but the ‘Warden’ part took me too close to worry about this niggly little detail.

Too Much Ambition

ambitionI want to do a lot.  In fact, my head always seems to be full of big ideas–such big ideas and so many of them that I need to be like Michael Keaton in that classic 90’s film, Multiplicity (what, you didn’t think that was classic?). I recently felt so bogged down with all my big ideas that I made a list.  Now mind you, this isn’t just pie in the sky stuff–these are opportunities in line with my myriad passions that I  have the experience to actually work hard towards and see to fruition.  Just not all at the same time. And because I know you were about to ask what’s on this list of mine…here it is, in no particular order:

  1. Start the Fiordland Adventure Society (FAS), a non-profit group dedicated to doing all sorts of things, and act as the executive director.  What sort of things? How about:
    1. ‘Non-guided’ outdoor missions–packrafting, through running, ridge traverses, big swims, epic stuff like that.
    2. Put on events/races, like in #2
  2. Direct epic races.  I’ve got two ways to go here, either big and corporate, or small and grassroots (see #3).  My experience is small and grassroots, but some of my events, seeing as how they’re located in one of the most spectacular places on the planet (can you say ‘World Heritage Site?’) definitely have ‘Red Bull’ potential.  These include
    1. A swim run to rival Otillo
    2. A game changing triathlon
    3. A vertical mile that makes those ‘pipe runs’ look like a kids race.
    4. A ‘superhero’ swim
  3. NZ8 (1 of 1)Direct hardcore wilderness events. Like #2, but the grassroots version.  I’ve already got the name picked out–SCAR racing which stands for ‘Self-Containted-Adventure-Racing’.  These are either marked course events or navigation based ones where you start and finish with all your gear.  No transition areas, food drops, or medical staff.  Better bring your A game–triathletes need not apply.  I’ve got a number ‘planned’ already but the opportunities for new courses each year would span decades. Awesome.  
  4. Drop-ship racing.  As close to Pie in the Sky as this list gets, a variation of #3 where racers (in teams of 2) are helicoptered into the middle of Fiordland and must make their way back to civilization.  A version of this could instead have them head to an extraction point instead (called Drop Ship: extraction).  I can see reality T.V. show written all over this, if only I knew the right people…
  5. Pallet Houses. I want to learn how to build small houses/sleep-outs out of pallets and other recycled materials and then go around and teach other people  You didn’t think I only thought about racing and adventure did you?
  6. Adventure Racing Team. This could be part of the FAS–I’d call it FAST–Fiordland Adventure Society Team.  We’d focus on getting local youth into the sport and maybe have an adult team, because why should kids have all the fun?
  7. Personal Training–part of me wants to work harder at building training clients.  I could do this in two ways
    1. Locally–in conjunction with the personal trainer in town. I’d specialize in getting folks ready for events like the Kepler Challenge and the Milford Classic, following on with my success with Vaughn Filmer but maybe actually charge something.
    2. Web-based.  I’ve played around with this before, but could easily do something like what my brother Jason is doing successfully HERE–only with a bit less functional fitness and more HIIT.
  8. Writing. Wow, this is a big one.  I love writing, and do it quite a bit in a variety of forms and to a variety of ends, the main ones including:
    1. ImageFromArtStudioFiction–I’m writing a fantasy novel for pre-teens based on a dungeons and dragons campaign I started with my boys last year.  You can read the first bit for free HERE.  Not sure if it’ll ever get published, but I’m going to work on is as though it will, because, why not?
    2. Adventure Writing–I’m keen to keep writing commentary about adventure and detailing some of my more exciting exploits.  I get published a couple of times a year in magazines such as Wilderness (NZ) and Breathe (CA).  Can’t quit my day job yet, but then again, I don’t really have a day job to quit.
    3. Fitness writing–similar to adventure writing, my thoughts on all things fitness and nutrition inspire me to occasionally put pen to paper, and once in awhile someone thinks I’m saying something of value and publishes it, like recent articles in WOD talk and NZ triathlon and multisport.
    4. UltraMental stuff–of course I’m still spending time and energy thinking about my training, fitness philosophy, and new programs and sharing them on the UM blog. In addition, I’ve just finished the One Hour Series #2 on Ultra-running, and will tackle number three after a bit of a break.  Now if only Tim Ferris would have a read and give me a courtesy tweet…
    5. Other books–I’ve got heaps of ideas from a memoir of my brother and I’s early climbing days (and years of journals) to UM like books on training with kids, risk, parenthood, etc.  
  9. Youth Guiding.  I’ve had heaps of fun each time I’ve done a stint of guiding for local school groups and have considered getting more into this, particularly by offering SUP and or Packrafting to things they already do.  After all, packrafting is the future of outdoor rec. in NZ, and I’m a pretty decent packrafter.
  10. Conservation work.  This is how I earned most of my income last year.  It’s really like paid training.  Shouldn’t I just focus on this, make some dough, keep uber-fit, and help rid the island of unwanted (and non-native) bird-killing pests?  Hmmm…but there are so many other things on the list, and some days it’s really cold and wet out there in the mountains. Still, don’t want to give this one up, after all, I’m getting paid to hang out and take helicopter rides.  Ok, I’m really getting paid to scrape maggots out of traps and handle raw meat, but focusing on the riding in helicopters bit makes it seem more awesome.
  11. Teaching and Tutoring.  Believe it or not, I’m actually quite educated–having been a high school teacher and having earned a Master’s Degree in physics in a former life. I enjoy both teaching (and could, were I to choose to, more ambitiously pursue either relief teaching or a more full time position) and tutoring. So many choices!
  12. 13043690_860682407391334_7744007119342576783_nStand Up Paddleboarding: Last year my wife and I decided there needed to be something low cost to do on the lake. So we invested 8000 in SUPs, I took an instructor’s course, we built up an old trailer, and Viola, started a lake-front rental business. We missed most of last summer, but, depending on how much elbow grease we want to invest next summer, could potentially grow this by
    1. Starting a weekly locals race series/time trial
    2. Host bigger events (see #2 and #3), including down-river events
    3. Guiding SUP trips from one hour excursions to multi-day adventures
  13. Waiau River Festival: By combining #2d, #12b, a SCAR type event, and some fun up-river swim/SUP competition, or even a down river SUPcross type event, an entire three day weekend could be spent partying on the Waiau river between the Control Gates and Rainbow Reach.  How awesome would that be?
  14. Pack-Raft Guiding.  Did I mention that pack-rafting was the future of NZ outdoor recreation?  Well luckily I’m a guide for the NZ’s only commercial pack-rafting outfit and am helping develop new trips down in my neck of the woods, including full on 6 day wilderness experiences in the heart of the Darran Mountains.  
  15. And Finally, there is the Men’s Yoga class that i figure is very much needed in this Southland town where I’ve taken up residence.  Most of the guys out here are probably reticent to any sort of mixed class, or anything with too much of the feel good stuff, but a basic ‘blokes only’ offering would probably do well. 

So you see my dilemma.  A dozen or so potential careers.  On top of this I’m pretty keen to get back into a bit of climbing and keep training so that I can tackle one or two big races a year like GodZone. And of course spending heaps of quality time with the kids and wife (which is more important than any career in my book). There’s no way to do it all.  Going to have to choose.  But how?  Never been good at this part, I’ve always been more of the idea man.  Knuckling down is hard.  Any suggestions?  Flipping a coin maybe?  Or rolling one of those 12 sided dice I’ve recently become re-aquainted with (see #8a)? Home made darts and dart-board?

Lessons from the field

Atop hanging vallye with a gaggle of youngsters.  My second time up for the day...

Atop hanging vallye with a gaggle of youngsters. My second time up for the day…

I’ve spent the last three weeks out in the field. For me that meant a week as an outdoor instructor at a pair of all girls camps (three dozen 14 year old girls, oh my!), a week as a guide on a 6 day, 150 km long pack-rafting trip, and most of a week as a parent helper at a pair of overnight primary school camps with my two boys. The first two weeks were too important financially to skip, and the last one was pretty critical to maintaining the work-family balance.  But these weeks were pretty also pretty key training weeks my lead up to GodZone, this years “A” race for me.  In fact, they lay 7, 6, and 5 weeks out respectively–prime training time.

Initially I struggled to decide whether to accept the offers of work, fearing that it would impact my training.  But in the end the dollars were too hard to turn down and I decided to try to take the work. Same deal when upon return from that pack-rafting trip my boys informed me they wanted ME to come to both of their camps. I initially thought only of what workouts I’d miss and started, by default, rationalizing why their mom should go instead.  But in then end I couldn’t refuse. I just sucked it up and did my best to fit the training around these priorities and in doing so got quite an education.

Week 1 'training' camp accommodations.

Week 1 ‘training’ camp accommodations.

The first week’s work entailed daily hikes of 2-3 hours, as well as leading lots of “ABL” (adventure based learning) activities.  It also involved lots of singing and screaming and organizing and talking with the other teachers. It was exhausting.  Since I was getting paid to lead the walks and manage the activities, my training window was 6 to 7:30 am.  No problem for my wife, but a major problem for me, as I’m hardly a morning person.  To make matters worse the camp was set in Deep Cove, a stunningly beautiful spot in Fiordland New Zealand that also happens to be one of the wettest spots in the world.  It was almost always raining.  For someone who doesn’t like getting up early to begin with, getting up early to train is pretty hard.  Getting up early to train in rain that is measured annually in meters is damned near impossible.  But then again, so might be finishing GodZone.  I managed the former by hoping it might help me manage the latter.

packraftUM

early mornings on the water. Great paddle training!

It was actually pretty good AR training.  Headlamps, mud and water, darkness, and hills. Big hills.  I was so exhausted by the early start coupled with the near constant activity that I wasn’t able to do anything fast, but I did do it.  The same went for my training while guiding.  Even though the trip was relatively easy for me, it still covered some 140 km over six days.  I added an extra 16km on day two when I had to choose between an afternoon nap (the day’s seven hours of travel had ended by noon) or a trail run.  A fartlek in packrafts on day 5, blasting from the last of the three clients to the front on the lake paddle, served as an attempt at higher intensity work, the first attempt in during the period in question.  My back got knackered–a heavy ill-fitting pack and the long hours in the boat followed by the hunched walking position and crappy hut mattresses.  But I soldiered on, pushing the clients through torrential rain (a third of a meter over two days!) and accross swollen rivers.

And then this most recent week–full days of leading hikes and kids activities on the beach, complete with atrocious food (the food situation gradually got worse over the three weeks…), and heaps of sandflies.  A super cold night that reached zero degrees (celsius) with me in a 10 degree bag kept me from getting much sleep before being joined just after six AM by my teammate for an hour uphill run before the kids woke up.  Then I went up the mountain again the next day once they went to bed.  For lack of other options I did a 30 minute tempo paddle in a tiny packraft (scout) and a couple of 500 meter time trials on an inflatable SUP.

It’s been a complete departure from anything I’ve done before, particularly my normal way of training.  I’ve been very busy.  Very physically busy (unusual for me) for so long now.

Here are some of my take-aways:

  1. Relationships make training long hours very hard (for me).  I always feel like i’m choosing racing over relationship when I train too much.  This is why HIIT works so well for me in general–I don’t feel like I’m sacrificing time with my partner, or attention to my partner and family for an unreasonable amount of time.
  2. HIIT, at least my version of it, isn’t really compatible with even a reasonable level of other (physical) activity.  I found it virtually impossible to do any significant HIIT over the past three weeks. My levels of activity, both physical and mental, were WAY too high.  The motivation was gone to work that hard.  I suspect that even if I would have tried my performances would have been sub-par, but in truth it was just impossible to try.  Moderate/tempo pace work was the best i could hope for, but in light of everything this became pretty satisfying.
  3. Nutrition isn’t unimportant.  But it’s not that important.  My diet was pretty good the first week (and there were plenty of calories).  That being said I didn’t eat and drink during any workouts, even ones that were 90 minutes long.  I also didn’t eat on any of the hikes. I did eat lots during meals though.  The second week, I forgot my lunches (long story) and so had only a breakfast of porrige before 6-8 hours of near constant activity (low-moderate intensity). This would sustain me fine until my freeze dried dinner.  All in all I was probably taking in 2500 or so calories a day, and burning far more. I still felt good and strong on this strategy. The final week the food was crap. Frozen meat, white bread, and lots of ‘baking’ (cookies, brownies, etc).  The first overnight I ate tons of the stuff and even though I exercised, I felt like crap.  Not just physically, but mentally too–just a real funk. But the second overnight I brought my own food in and had the willpower to resist the baking.  The exercise didn’t necessarily go any better but the mood was night and day different.  Food for thought.
  4. It’s HIIT and nothing else or no HIIT for me.

Happy training!

Reflections on an Apprenticeship

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bush time and Guinea Pigs

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

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

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

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

 

Battling Grizzlies

Death Race, coming at ya!

Death Race, coming at ya!

I received an email yesterday from Josh, an acquaintance of mine up north of the border asking advice on training for an event he recently signed up for–the winter Death Race.  The event represents a significantly bigger effort than anything he’s attempted before and he’s wondering how to go about preparing for it.

Wow.  Where to start…

Pondering what advice I might possibly give reminds me of a something I heard somewhere, from someone (pretty vague, I know) that goes like this:  just because someone told you what to do when you’re being charged by a grizzly bear doesn’t mean you’ll be able to avoid being eaten if/when it actually happens.

In other words–knowing something intellectually is very different than knowing it viscerally.

Until you face that grizzly, you really won’t know what you’re made of–whether you’ll be able to act rationally, control your fear, or even whether you’ll remember what you’re ‘supposed’ to do.

At some point during that winter death race, Josh is going to come face to face with his first (of possibly many) grizzly bears and regardless of what I tell him, the most relevant factors that determine his chance of ‘survival’ are parts of his character that I have no access too.  The fascinating truth is that based on the fact that he’s asking for advice in the first place, he probably doesn’t have access to that information either.

But since he asked for advice, this is what I’ve got: there is no way to prepare for an event like the one in question.  Big events are meant to take you to dark places–the stomping grounds of Grizzlies.  Embrace this chance to come face to face with them and see what happens. Expect to be afraid and destroyed and be confronted with more self-doubt than you’ve ever known.  Expect it to be really, really hard. But beyond that, do your best to remove all your expectations–they can only be used against you during your lowest points.  And your idea of really really hard will probably pale in comparison to how hard it actually is. For most of us, our lives are so sheltered from true hardship that we can only extend our minds so far down the road of suffering. From what I’ve read of the Death Race, which is pretty much designed to break everyone, I gather that it’s road goes on for miles and miles beyond that personal horizon.  Your best hope is that you have some innate and deep seated (and possibly disturbing to the general public) fascination with the primal spaces of your mind–the places that you can only access when everything else beyond the exact moment which you inhabit is forcibly stripped away.

The bottom line is that Josh has signed up to do battle with Grizzlies, and because he’s never really fought them before, anything I can say is going to be pretty irrelevant. Until he lock eyes with that 1000 lbs of fur and muscle he just won’t know what it is going to be like for him.

Good luck Josh, I’ll wait anxiously for the race report!

Recovery

Without proper recovery, there can be no improvement.  This fact remains regardless of what your workout program includes–whether it be high intensity sprints, hour long sessions in the gym lifting weights, or 30 mile long runs.

One benefit that I’ve noticed about my type of training is that I rarely, if ever, need to consider whether I’m recovered. Over-training, a specter that waits in the shadows for many recreational athletes aspiring to endurance greatness, hasn’t haunted me at all since I began following a low volume training regimen as I try to train for epic races. At present, using a 30 minute a week schedule broken into 3 workouts a week, it is simply impossible to over-train.  I can put 100% effort into each and every second of my workouts and by the time the next one comes along (typically about 47 hours and 53 minutes later), recovery and super-compensation have both invariably occurred.

But there is a slight downside to low volume methods–the epic races and adventures themselves can take a bit more of a toll on someone using them.

I had my own experience with this recently when doing a run through of part of the marathon course that will anchor the Wilderman triathlon (a race I’m directing) this summer.  The effort was a ‘test’ of sorts to see how my current program–which includes only about 3 miles of running every three weeks–prepares me for ‘bigger’ things. Although I managed the 20+ miles reasonably well, I’m sure I’m paying a bigger price today than my running partner who regularly engages in 10-15  mile runs as part of his weekly training.

Recovering from such a long day out takes longer for me. Part of the extra toll I pay is because of the low volume–my ligaments and tendons and other connective tissues are likely not quite as durable as those of someone who isn’t over-trained and regularly puts in training sessions which last longer (1/2 of the time/distance of a goal race, for example, as opposed  1/25th).  But the other part of my increased recovery time stems from the fact that my next workout requires me to actually be recovered because it will demand near 100% intensity.

Low volume high intensity training is only possible for athletes that know how to recover properly and following such a program based is a great way for those currently engaged in chronic-cardio to gain a quick education in the art of resting.