Making Do vs. The Right Tool

Home renovation projects are like multi-sport training...

Home renovation projects are like multi-sport training…

I’ve been spending waaay too much time on projects around the house recently. Mostly because it’s a brand new house and there are waaay to many projects that need doing, but also partly because a little part of me gets satisfaction from ticking things off of a list. I won’t get into the psychology of list ticking (maybe that’ll be another post) but I will get into what I’ve found to be pretty different psychological approaches to life’s little problems and goals, whether they involve drill-bits and caulk or not.

In many ways there are two competing schools of thought when it comes to problem solving.  There is the ‘get the right tool for the job’ school and then there is the ‘make do with what you’ve got’ school.

Can you guess which school I’m in?

Well, I’ll give you a hint.  I use whatever screws are available, often substitute knives for scissors, rocks for hammers, and like to design my projects around the cuts of wood that are lying around my yard, rather than what is in the yard of the home improvement store (unless they are giving it away).

It drives my wife nuts–she’s more of a ‘get the right tool for the job’ gal.  She gets it from her father–an incredible craftsman and builder who always had exactly the right type of fastener and fastening device for whatever he was doing.

hammer vs. rock

hammer vs. rock

It’s not necessarily that one is better overall, but in my opinion for the vast majority of people being a ‘right tool’ kind of person can make it harder to get things done, especially when it comes to certain types of projects including big endurance based efforts.

Maybe you think i’m stretching it a bit, but hear me out.  In order to have all the ‘right tools’ to pursue a big multi-sport adventure, let alone to train for it, you’re going to be shelling out nearly 20 grand, especially if you’re in colder climates where things like drysuits and skis start coming into the picture. But more than the outlaid cost, having the ‘right tool’ mindset can quickly become an excuse for not doing something.  I can’t compete in that triathlon because I don’t have the right bike–my shoes are mountain bike shoes, not road shoes–I’ve got an old model pack-raft/kayak/paddle. My backpack is too heavy, my ski-s are too straight.  I would, if only I had the right gear/food/training program.

It is these attitudes that are a recipe for not. Not doing. Not trying.  Instead, the making do philosophy, while it will occasionally lead to an epic, at least allows things to get done.  Sit on top kayak for grade III?  Not ideal, but it could work.  Flats on a steel bike for a triathlon?  You’re not going to win, but were you really going to win anyway?  Making do with what you have encourages a creativity and problem solving and puts the emphasis back on what you’re doing, instead of the equipment that you’re using.  And remember–whatever old, dilapidated, and out-of-date gear you’ve managed to scrape up in service of your next adventure, it was probably new and cutting edge at one point.  20 years ago people were plowing through a meter of fresh powder on those stick skis that can still be bought for $5 at thrift shops today–not taking advantage of that fresh dump because you can’t afford the latest $1K pair of boards is just a bad excuse.

In the end, there is no argument that the right tool can make things easier and/or more fun. Lighter bikes are more responsive, shaped skis float and carve with superiority, and the modern pack-raft tackles class III with much more ease than the old style boat.  But what is the alternative–not doing?  Exactly.  

Truth be told,  if I ever have a massive amount of disposable income I too will probably shell it out on the right tools and end up with a gear shed worth many times what I paid for my house. But until then, I’ll keep doing everything I want (which is just about everything) by simply making do with what I have.

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  ( 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


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.

A simple plan (MBF revisited)

house planI’ve got two blog posts waiting to be written, but have put them on the back-burner in favor of trying to plan a house build that needs to happen ASAP, unless we want to start paying rent.  I’ve discovered planning for a house build isn’t my favorite activity, nor is it one that I expect I’m particularly good at.  It’s been a stressful month even though we’ve not even begun the actual process yet (beyond sketching on graph paper and researching stuff online).  When I’m stressed, it’s even more important for me to maintain some consistency in a workout program, which is one of the primary ways I cope with stress.

The upshot of all of this is that the program I’ve been using pretty consistently for the past couple months has been really enjoyable and easy (stress wise) and flexible too and so I thought I’d share.  To begin with, I’ll lay out the aims I had back when I was heading what I knew was going to be a stressful period–winter coming on, no big missions on the horizon, occasional but inconsistent big, physical, days at work, and all the mental stress of the home building project outside of work.  For me, fitness is a double edged sword–if my pursuit of it demands too much time/energy and adds stress to my life, this is a problem.  But if the program I’m using isn’t effective then I suffer because I am grumpy and unhappy in my priorities.  It’s a challenge to find this balance, but this program has found it, remarkably well too.  Specifically, my aim is to keep up my fitness in terms of endurance and speed in cycling, running, swimming, and paddling, as well as strength (bodyweight specific), and my climbing ability.  I’m not in a phase of life where increasing ability is a priority.  But I am (and expect I always will be) in a phase where maintaining ability, is.  I call this principle Maintainable Base Fitness, or MBF.

Some of the ideas presented in the free training guides and UltraMental always seem to apply to my workouts, even when I experiment (as I have been recently) with much less structured programs.  Higher intensity work of course is important, as is the use of Baseline workouts–repeated efforts that allow for good honest data to track progress/maintenance and encourage proper effort.  Both of these elements are part of this current program I’m using.  Days off between workouts, and a ‘regimented consistency’ are not.  Without further ado…

The Plan:  It’s a loose plan really, in which I cycle through the following disciplines–running, biking, swimming (or SUPing), hanging (hangboard workout), and upper body strength.  I will hit each of these disciplines once to complete a cycle.  Within a cycle I don’t have consistency of order, meaning on one cycle the swim day might come at the beginning, and on the next it might come near the end (some days are just better for swimming!). Once in a while, one of  the workouts will be longer efforts, when this fits in my schedule and I’m properly motivated, but often (the last two weeks for example) each effort has been pretty minimal.  I have a pool of workouts for each discipline that I choose from and at least two thirds of the workouts I do will be from this pool. This means 2/3 of the time I’ll have data, and all the benefits it brings with it, heading in to the workout–i.e. a target pace, confidence of hitting that target pace, numbers for comparison after the fact.  Here is a list, by discipline, of the workouts in my pool–

Running:  1 mile time trial (on a consistent course), 2 x hill repeat (about .3 mile) intervals, 4 x 400 intervals leaving every 2:00, pylon run (~1.75 miles, hilly course).

Cycling:  Short loop time trial, MTB (2.5 miles), 3 x hill repeat, MTB (same course as run), Pylon TT, MTB (same course as run), Road Bike time trial, rolling hills course (~4 miles).

13043690_860682407391334_7744007119342576783_nSwim/SUP: Buoy time trial (for either)–out n back (~400 meters),  Buoy loop time trial (for either, ~1 km), 4 x 100 meter intervals (swim) leaving on 2:30, 6 x 100 meter intervals (SUP) leaving on 1:30.

Strength: CTLs (continuous tension lifting) for chins/pulls and pushups.  I’ll always do one set of each (per workout) but will change rep length for variety.  Currently I’ll choose between 20 second reps (10 sec each for positive and negative phases), 8 second reps, and have now added 30/30/30’s to the mix where I’ll start each movement with a controlled 30 second negative followed by a 30 second positive (concentric) and then a 30 second negative, finishing with as many full reps in good form has possible.  Ouch.

Hanging:  Done on a hangboard.  I’ll alternate between 1) a tabata inspired effort where I hang for 8 rounds of 20 seconds separated by 10 seconds rest, measuring intensity/progression by the number of rounds I manage on a smaller edge before going to the large edge, and 2) a 10 minute ‘intermediate’ hang program from the Metolius website.

Plenty of variety. Plenty of flexibility. And a total training time ‘requirement’, depending on my exercise choices, of somewhere between 20 and 45 minutes a week.  Results so far have been awesome…my mile time trial has remained consistent as have my interval paces.  Same for my biking. Swimming has gotten a bit faster, although there is far more variability there in terms of conditions, as has my finger strength (I managed 5 rounds of the tabata on the medium edge last time…three months ago all rounds were on the large edge and it was brutal!).  Strength is staying put, which, after all, is really the point.  So all up I’m pretty happy.

Interestingly enough it has taken me longer to write this than it would have taken to do a weeks worth of training.  Go figure.  Better get back to researching flooring options.

Happy training.


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?

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.


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!

Subjective Suffering

I just gotten back from another two days working for Adrian.  Now I’ve had some great days working for him in the past–sunny days walking through spectacular bush, jogging up the Milford track while eyeing the rapids above the Clinton Forks and planning a never-going-to-happen-because-it-is-against-the-rules pack-rafting trip, and eating ‘hut sushi’ in the evenings next to a roaring fire in the wood-stove.  But these last two days?  Well, at least the sushi was still good.

I suffered. A lot.  I hesitate to write this because I worry that Adrian will read this and think me soft and start to second guess his decision to tow me through the GodZone course in April. But I also want to share my thoughts on these couple of days, after all, writing bits of this in my head while I shivered, soaked to the bone, for hours, was part of what got me through. And of course, suffering, at least according to my UltraMental philosophy, is one of three key elements that are critical to achieving success.

And these are actually my good shoes...

And these are actually my good shoes…

The truth is, I could suffer a lot less. I could get a better jacket–one that actually keeps me dry and warm. Although there is no question that most jackets (even so called waterproof ones) aren’t up to the task of ‘Fiordland bush’, apparently garments do exist that actually are. I could also get a good pair of boots and gaiters which, even if they didn’t keep my feet dry, would improve both my confidence and speed while following the trails of blue tape that leads to the possum traps (trails, I might add with classic kiwi understatement, that sometimes encounter terrain that is ‘slightly hard going’).  But despite the decent wage I’m earning, I don’t.  Instead, trip after trip, I show up with the same gear and the same shoes and so, when the weather decides to be gloomy, I knowingly enter into rather long periods of reflective unhappiness.  And this is how it was those last two days–boarding the helicopter as rain splashed the windscreen, headed into the wilderness, destined to dance a miserable dance for 8-10 hours at a time.

So why do I do it?  Other than the fact that I’m cheap and new jackets and boots are expensive in New Zealand, I also, paradoxically perhaps, get something out of it.  In fact, on reflection, I probably get quite a bit out of it.  Of course there is the fitness–walking through difficult terrain with a pack for two days certainly burns the calories. But I’d get this benefit even if I checked the weather first and feigned illness (don’t think I haven’t thought about it Adrian!) when the forecast was for 5 cm of rain throughout the day (the idea of being a fair-weather contractor even has it’s merits because there isn’t a bad weather bonus). But when the rain and temperatures come down and the rivers come up, when the rocks and roots are as slick as ice and the impenetrable ferns covered in frost, that is when the real benefits kick in.

Right from the moment go–the moment I step off the skid of the helicopter and my feet touch the soggy ground–I’m already into it mentally.  I’m already negotiating, using tactics and strategies, practicing ways to stay motivated and get through the task ahead effectively and efficiently despite the fact that I wish so much I had just stayed in bed.  Being cold and wet and miserable for 10 hours in a survival situation is one thing.  Being cold and wet and miserable for 10 hours on purpose is quite another.  In many ways it is the perfect ‘training’ for the mental side of adventure racing.  The psychological idea that things change and when they are bad they will eventually get better, the idea that if you keep moving/working/advancing towards a goal you will eventually get there, these are all nice when you’re reading about them in an adventure or sports psychology book sitting in the sun with your second cup of coffee.  But these ideas can be very difficult to actually move beyond the realm of ‘theory’ and into the realm of reality.  To actually have them be useful ideas–ideas that form the basis of tools that can help achieve a goal–takes, like everything else, practice.  And working for Adrian, especially when mother nature is in one of her dour moods, is excellent practice. Here are three of my favorite tools and how they played a role in getting me through last weekend:

  1. Small goals.  In any prolonged difficult situation, or when any task looms too large, taking things one (small) step at a time is one of the things you are ‘supposed’ to do.  Sometimes this is easier said than done–if the mind is allowed to grab on to the enormity of the task, it can be hard to deal with the resulting sense of despair.  Working on the trap lines offers a perfect opportunity to focus on the small on various scales.  Traps come every 100-200 meters (depending on the trap type) which means my concentration is taken off of any negative thoughts and on to a specific and accomplishable goal every 3-5 minutes.  Even though early in the day the number of traps seems to be super daunting (OMG! I have 80 traps to go! I’m never going to make it!) I never get to dwell on this for long.  I also choose to focus on intermediate results–finishing an egg tray (12 traps)– rather than the day.  Using a variety of ‘scales’ with which to measure progress towards an end is essential when facing a long day of suffering.
  2. Envision the end.  While I was picking my way along through the soaking bush or crossing rivers of icy water above my waist, or tripping and slipping my way up and down and around treacherous bluffs, I would often remind myself of what lay ahead at the end of my ‘suffering’–a plate of sushi and dry clothes, a warm boat with free coffee, a hot shower, dinner with my family, etc.  Rather than looking at the rather ‘unpleasant’ hours that lay between the present moment and these blissful ones, I’d simply remind myself that “in X hours, I’ll be enjoying Y, and all this will be over.” I didn’t dwell on how it was going to happen, but simply that it would.  By asserting confidently and unequivocally my future warmth and comfort, what might have felt unendurable and impossibly long lasting in a different frame of mind become both temporary and quite manageable.
  3. Lie to yourself.  Adventure racing and Working for Adrian have something else in common.  When participating in either I routinely tell myself ‘never again!’  And in both cases I’m usually either researching the next race or readily accepting the next job within 24 hours (sometimes much less) of being ‘comfortable’ again.  For me, this is a natural response when doing really hard things.  Maybe it is because I’m not actually that tough–maybe some folks are able to be deep in the midst of the least enjoyable of the suffering and actively loving it–but for me at least whenever I approach situations where the word ‘misery’ is truly an accurate description of my state of being, my impulse is to turn tail and run (mentally at least) in the opposite direction.

So there you go.  Have at it.  And if you need more practice, I hear Adrian might suddenly be a man short next time he decides to schedule a trap check during ‘periods of rain with some heavy falls’.  Happy training.



Maintaining (humility)

It has been a long time since I’ve added a blog to the site.  I’ve been busy–working, playing, travelling, learning how to take care of hen’s whilst they incubate eggs, and last but not least, experimenting daily with the best way to remove boards from pallets (I haven’t yet found a good way).

I haven’t had a good adventure in a while, nor a big mission. That’s not to say I haven’t suffered thought–I spent a couple of cold and rain-soaked days working in the Clinton Valley for my ‘boss’ Adrian where I found myself pulling out all my mental tricks to keep from giving Adrian the mental middle finger (as my central Governor was telling me to do) and quitting early to retreat to the warmth of the hut where we were spending our nights.  The dialogue ran something like this–“Does it really matter if I get all these tracking tunnels laid out?  Can’t we just make up the data?  I’m freezing and my hands aren’t working anyway…this is getting dangerous!” But in the end I sucked it up a broke the hours into minutes–the dozens of traps and tracking tunnels into one at a time.  I also literally sucked on the the tiny spoon I was using to scoop peanut butter out of a jar to bait the tunnels with, soaking in a few more calories to insulate me against the 10 or so kilos of near freezing H2O that I was carrying against my will as part of my clothing. Instead of Adrian, the middle finger went to the peanut-butter monster that was following me through the bushes.  That night I was rewarded with as much back-country sushi as I could eat.


Adrian, a mild-mannered and unassuming uber athlete and back-country sushi specialist.

Anyway, I digress.  This general lack of missions had me restless and I’ve realized that there are only two things to do in such a situation–actually go on a mission, or, alternatively, commit to one in the future.  Because I wasn’t particularly inspired to ‘go and do’ I decided on the latter option–and on a more recent work trip with Adrian (with far better weather) we agreed to sign up for GodZone, NZ’s toughest adventure race and one of the most competitive expedition AR’s in the world.  I committed by fronting the 7500 entry fee. Filling out the four person roster will be my brother, Jason and his wife, Chelsey of team Yogaslackers.

Adrian thinks this means I’m going to have to train more.  Maybe it does.  But one thing I’ve realized over the past year is that although building fitness might take a lot of time, maintaining fitness takes very little.  I’ve (thankfully) found that although I’m not quiet as fit as I have been when I’ve put a bit more time into it, I’ve been able to maintain a reasonably high level of fitness on roughly 30 minutes a week of effort.  This is the case strength and speed particularly, but also, to a reasonable extent, for endurance.

Finding time to train is hard.  Training higher volume consistently is really hard. One reason for this is that if you ever drop the habit–get busy and have to choose work or family over training–then recreating training time in your schedule is a hurdle to overcome.  By focusing/prioritizing a regular, non-time intensive, maximally effective (HIT) regimen once you’ve reached your fitness peak, a base level of fitness that is much higher than what is enjoyed by most amateur/recreational athletes can be maintained.  Which means that when the time comes to do your next big mission (like GodZone), your starting fitness platform will be closer to the goal platform, which means fewer weeks of ‘extra’ work will be needed to get into ‘racing’ shape.

Unless that is, you’re racing with Adrian, who joined me for today’s pylon run.  Although I led for the first half (it take’s him a while to ‘get into it’ he claims), he led the second, by greater and greater margins, with enough energy in reserve to shout encouragement over his shoulder as he climbed the finishing hill. Bugger–I thought I was a faster runner than he was too.  But that is just another perk of the minimalist approach I guess, combined with run-ins with the Adrian’s of the world, it allows me to maintain more than just my fitness…

Doing well



For for than a decade now I’ve pursued the goal of being a ‘jack-of-all-endurance’ trades. I have aspired simultaneously to train so that I could both ‘do anything’ and ‘do it well’.  For quite some time I’ve left the notion of what ‘doing it well’ meant purposefully vague but have long contemplated the phrase, wondering what, at least for an ambitious recreational athlete like myself, it should actually mean.  The time has now come to offer up a more concrete criteria.  

I’ll begin by admitting that these criteria are going to be largely (entirely?), arbitrary.  But in truth, at least from a suitably wide perspective, everything else is largely arbitrary too. Arbitrariness is unavoidable.  That being said, arbitrariness can be more (when backed by reasoned arguments) or less (lacking any meaningful justification) sensible. The bit of arbitrariness in question here falls into the former category of course–in my opinion anyway and since this is my article, I guess no more justification is required. So without further ado:

Doing something well (as an age group, non professional athlete) implies–at least when concerning athletic endeavors that are measured by ‘time to completion’– finishing within a time no more than 50% greater than that of the world’s top athletes in the given discipline.  In other words, you’ve done it well if you are ‘Off by 50’ or less.

If you think that this sounds too easy – that 50% is too generous a cushion – consider the following examples:

  1. The fastest marathon time is just over 2 hours.  By my criteria, an age grouper who runs a 3 hour marathon is doing dandy.  In fact, they’ll qualify for Boston with time to spare. This evidence clearly supports my thesis and scarcely have I seen a better start to a well reasoned argument.  So far so good.
  2. The fastest IronMan (IM) distance triathlon is somewhere right around (slightly under) 8 hours – so breaking that 12 hour barrier puts you in pretty good company.  Additionally consider that if you look at the results of most general registration (no qualifying time is required) IM distance races on reasonably flat courses, a sub 12 hour performance would put you in approximately the top 35% of the field.  Considering that there are no ‘average’ athletes running such a race and you get an idea of the achievement.  If you ask me the logic, at least for efforts at the top end of the scale, is simply infallible.  But what about shorter endurance efforts?
  3. Well, what about them?  A sub 4-minute mile is clearly in the realm of elite runners at this distance (the world record is 3:43). This translates to a good goal for an age grouper like myself being a sub 6 minute mile, or if we’re going with the hardcore expression of the criteria (50% increase over the WR) a time of less than 5:35 is needed.

Wow.  I think I’ve nailed it, don’t you?  It’s hard to find fault in such an arbitrary criteria that is also so sensible.  Completely coincidentally, it just so happens that these numbers pretty closely define the edges of my own abilities which is pretty awesome.  The target goals created by the criteria are met often enough to placate my ego but challenging enough to require quite a bit of hard work and focus which keeps me lean and keen.  Not that these two coincidental factors have any influence on such a well reasoned, logically derived, but arbitrarily chosen measure of meaning, because that’s just silly.  

No, it was chosen simply because it makes sense.  In fact, it’s so good that I’m convinced it’s just a matter of time before it catches on, becomes the industry standard, and enters our everyday lexicon:

Athlete A:  So how’d you do in your race Saturday?

Athlete B:  Excellent!  I was only ‘Off By 50!’

Athlete A:  Whoa! You’re really doing well!

Can’t you just hear it?

Here are some more ways to be ‘Off By 50’. How many can you manage?


100 meters:  9.58 seconds.  Off by 50 time:  14.37 (equivalent to running 3:53 mile pace for 100 m)

1 mile: 3:43  Off by 50 time: 5:34

10 K (road): 26:44  Off by 50 time: 40:06

Half Marathon:  58:23  Off by 50 time:  1:27:35

Marathon:  2:03:06  Off by 50 time:  3:04:39


50 meter freestyle:  20:91  Off by 50 time:  31.36

1 mile (open water):  16:23  Off by 50 time:  24:35

10 K (open water):  1:54:30 (approx)  Off by 50 time:  2:51:45


10 mile:  17:57  Off by 50 time:  26: 55

40 km time trial:  47:36  Off by 50 time:  1:11:24

[Note–this piece was originally published back in 2012 on my early blog, three hours a week, as two separate posts.]