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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today I manged 8:05.

Sorry, Lance.

Sorry, Lance.

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

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

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

Happy Training.

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.

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.

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?

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

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

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

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

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

It’s (never) EASY! It (all) WORKS!

PS – did i get all the “Bros” right?

ONE (really) good session

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

The Weakest Link

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wake Up Call

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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At the top!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Training