Lessons From the Water

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

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

Last Sunday, on a whim, I texted Arno to  see what he was doing the following day.  I’d decided rather spontaneously that it was time to tackle the mission I’d been thinking about for over a year–a swim from Te Anau to Manapouri.  I’d planned on ‘getting fit’ for it and having a go in a month, but something inside me on Sunday told me I wasn’t really going to be getting fitter than I already was, and that I just needed to get it done.

With Arno available to pilot me down the 23 km or grade I river and carry my food for the journey, I had no more excuses. Details were hammered out and at 10 am on Monday I waded into the calm waters of Lake Te Anau for the first 3 km lake crossing.

One of the benefits of a spur of the moment decision to take on something somewhat epic is that you have less time to really worry about it.  Sure, there was still plenty of worrying between the time Arno committed and when I started swimming, but there was only a 12 hour window for that worrying to happen in and at least some of that time was spent sleeping.  

I worried about being too cold mostly. While the water temps have warmed up nicely from what they were this winter (15-ish degrees celsius vs 8!), my longest swim in ‘training’ had been roughly an hour–far short of how long I’d be immersed if I was to cover the 35 km of lake and river that lay between the towns.

I was full of nerves moments before starting the swim

I was full of nerves moments before starting the swim

Which brings me to lesson one: Most of what we worry about never happens.  Depending on your source, social and psychological sciences place the ‘needless’ worry at between 85 and 92% (or thereabouts).  Which means that an awful lot of mental energy is wasted on worrying about things that either we can’t control, cannot change, or that will never actually happen.  In this case, most of my worry, and my pre-swim’s fitful night’s rest, were the result of such a worry. Thankfully, there was a limit in my case, temporally speaking, to how much I had to sit with this worry. Once I started my journey it’s mootness became more concrete–I was wearing what I was wearing and I’d either get too cold or I wouldn’t, so worrying about it was pointless. I could just swim.

And swim I did. A bit more than 3 km across lake Te Anau–a good solid pace to start with but nothing too ambitious. My goal was to finish first, and push second.  I was feeling pretty good as I jogged the half kilometer gravel path around the control gates at the head of the river.  I was an hour in and took the opportunity to grab my first fuel, some gummy powergel snacks and a couple of swigs of Raro (a New Zealand version of Tang).

The river was awesome. I’d swum the first half of its 22 km length a number of times recently and so knew it well–it’s rocks and chutes and corners.  It was fast and exciting, especially the second half which I’d only swum once.  I had a bit more apprehension here–this section has a few tree choked braided sections where collision with something is a real possibility and there are frequent spooky moments where carcasses of ancient trunks reach up like claws from the abyss–the river carrying you relentlessly forward over their outstretched fingers.  But I had Arno as my guide (he really is a guide–regularly leading commercial packrafting trips down this section of water).

Perfect swimming conditions, nothing to worry about!

Perfect swimming conditions, nothing to worry about!

So I tried to relax and embody lesson two: go with the flow. There is simply no activity I have engaged in during my rather storied life where this lesson becomes so obvious as when I’ve been swimming down this river.  Any form of resistance to the literal flow is immediately felt.  The experience is visceral.  The more I was able to be at ease with what was happening and save my ‘reactions’ for what was genuinely occurring, the more relaxed I was both mentally and physically.  Awareness was a big part of this–in the section of the river that I knew well it meant planning ahead, understanding the nature of the flow from experience, and working with it. I lined up for the corners, allowed the current to sweep me towards the outside knowing that I wouldn’t get pushed too far, and enjoyed the speed.  I didn’t fight the rapids on the surface, gasping for breath against the chaotic waves, but dove down and rode the under currents for a smoother ride.  I saved my energy by stroking it out when the river turned placid and I could swim efficiently. I fought the flow only when it was absolutely necessary, when the consequences for not doing so were both unimagined and negative.  

And for the part of the river where I felt uncertain, I practiced lesson three: commit to trust.  While it is important to decide carefully who you are going to trust, when you’ve made a decision, commit to it.  I was lucky to have Arno with me as our relationship and his water reading skills made it easy to trust him.  Whenever I’d considered this section of the swim previously, even without a committed date, I’d been anxious about this section of the river. But with Arno as chaperone, I was able to relinquish that anxiety by knowing that he had my best interests at heart, would be attentive to those interests, and that as a result I could ‘let go’ of my need to control a situation that would otherwise have been very stressful.  The act of trusting is linked to the ability to take risks as well–those more likely to trust in general tend to be more likely to accept a certain level of risk in their lives. And at least in my opinion, the acceptance of risk (and the inevitably resulting failures) is a key factor in a robust life. And as I finally swam out of the river mouth and into Lake Manapouri, my life certainly felt very robust.

My body, on the other hand, did not. As the adrenaline response from river section slowly faded, I became more acutely aware of how shattered I felt, and the BIG question as to how my body would hold up over the next 9 km of lake.  A year ago I’d had some issues with my right shoulder that required physical therapy and it continued to bug me when I pushed too hard, even on shorter swims.  By the end of the river it was already feeling pretty wrecked–would it last another hour?  Three?  Although I’ve got plenty of experience in land based endurance efforts, my longest swim ever was a 10 mile affair, took just over 4 hours to finish, and happened 15 years ago.  It was a rather outdated litmus test from which to draw strength for what remained ahead, especially considering at the time I’d been healthier (shoulder wise), fitter (swimming wise), and even then been plagued by such severe cramping in my left elbow by the end that I swam the entire last mile with on arm.

Thankfully, all that being said, I have learned a thing or two in the intervening year, one of which I’d been reminded reminded of via a FB post recently.

The final leg...9 km to go!

The final leg…9 km to go!

Lesson four: fatigue is all in your head.  Ok, maybe not all, but certainly the point when you decide that you’ve reached your limit is. When I started to really feel broken only a short distance into the final lake swim, I relied heavily on this idea.  I knew from all my big adventures on terra-firma that the general pain that I was enduring was self-limiting. If I was broken it was almost certainly in a way that was repairable.  The pain caused by low-impact repetitive joint use, on a single occasion (not chronic overuse such as in high volume training)–hardly ever leads to actual acute injuries.  And so although the pain was great enough that I would have traded my little finger for some ibuprofen, I didn’t allow myself to listen to the part my brain that tried to tell me I should stop because I was causing permanent damage.  But it wasn’t easy.  The 30 minutes in between feeds seemed to stretch for hours so that I was continually convinced that Arno wasn’t keeping track of the time. One of my achilles started to cramp.  Both hip-flexors threatened to join it. I altered my stroke in turns–windmilling arms to keep them straight for a while, then shortening my stroke dramatically to keep them bent.  I’m not sure whether the pain even got better, but I was able to keep going.  Eventually, I rounded the headland of Supply Bay and could see the finishing beach. It was still nearly an hour away, but that sight was all it took to let my head know I was going to make it.  After my last feed I was close enough to make out the car my wife had dropped for us.  Despite having stroked continuously for over six hours at this point, the fatigue (almost) disappeared and I felt as though I was finishing the last kilometer of a 2 km swim, not a 35 km one.

All in all, my shoulders (which I am having trouble moving today) carried me for 6 hours and 45 minutes of more or less continuous freestyle. It was an incredible experience and one I hope to offer to the public next year as a marathon swim event  (www.koharacing.com). Happy training.

PostScript: In addition to the above more profound lessons, I also learned a couple of other things that bear mentioning.

The first of these is why distance swimmers almost always rely on liquid diets.  I learned this the hard way as I nearly choked on my first water based feed that consisted of PowerBar energy blasts, a brand of gummy sports chew.  I almost choked! Swallowing food is so much harder than swallowing liquid and the act of chewing and swallowing while swimming proved almost impossible.  Thankfully, I had a couple emergency Gu’s that proved more easily consumable, and some sugared drink mix I was able to fall back on (I’d planned on primarily consuming the blasts), and it saw me through.  

The second is how awesome the NoNumb swimming device is.  Typically for me, after an hour of swimming my hands get cold enough for the claw to develop.  I’d toyed with the idea of wearing thermal gloves, but the downside of gloves is that even the best of them take on some water and thus add a non-insignificant amount of  weight the the hands.  Over the course of some 15000 odd strokes, a few extra grams really matters. The NoNumb device is an ingeniously simple piece of silicone (so much so that calling it a device seems silly) that slips around your fingers to keep them together.  The lack of water circulation between fingers keeps your hands warmer, and keeps the claw from making an appearance even when your hands do get cold. I’d tested it in a time trial of my standard training course, a 800 odd lap around a set of buoys, a couple of weeks ago and posted my personal best by nearly 30 seconds, so figured I’d give it a go on the swim.  It worked marvelously–my fingers stayed together, my hands felt warm, and it was so comfortable that I forgot I was wearing it.  Awesome.  Check it out at http://nonumbsurf.com/

 

Practicing Suffering

Suffering, along with confidence and will, is one of the three pillars of the UltraMental Philosophy.  I’ve been thinking quite deeply about suffering lately.  Interestingly enough, these thoughts have typically coincided with pretty significant periods of actually experiencing suffering.  I tell my wife, who wakes up at  6:15 am for a daily dose of meditation and yoga, that my long suffer-filled walks in the bush are just my form of moving meditation and a practice of being ‘present in the moment’. They last alot longer, which is why I don’t need to do it as often.

suffering-occurs-when-your-ideas-about-howI spent the last two days in such a meditation.  It was pretty awful.  I was working for a new contractor putting in tracking tunnels in the Roa Burn.  I won’t go into all the details about what tracking tunnels are or where the Roa Burn is, except to say that it is in the middle of nowhere in the remote wilderness and that the task involved trekking up and down a bush covered mountainside with no trails for 7-8 hours a day.  While this might sound like fun–and on some other trips has almost been–the Roa Burn was definitely not fun.  To begin with, the weather was awful. 10 cm of slushy snow was present on the tops when I stepped out of the chopper, and it was drizzling from the inside of an massive cloud.  It rained all day–a rain that is only a few degrees above freezing.  The hillside was steep and the bush dense.  I crawled a lot.  My gloves were wet through within minutes to the point that I could make a fist every 10 seconds and wring the water out.  I was soaked to the bone within 20 minutes, my clothes weighing more than twice what they did in the chopper (yes, fleece will absorb water…). And I was just getting started.  

Over the next 8-ish hours as I baited the 50 tracking tunnels, I traversed gullies, descended bluffs, crossed thick swamps, and generally negotiated kilometers of horrible, sodden country where the portion of steps I took on easy, open, level ground is most accurately described by ten to the negative two (10-2). Travelling 100 meters could take more than 10 minutes. Seriously.  And then, towards the end of the day, tendonitis in my left elbow (of all places) started flaring up–I’m guessing from using my arm to take weight and/or the near constant grabbing of branches/trees for support.   

It was hard going, but then what choice did I have?  The thoughts came and went.  This is crazy. People could die out here. What do the early stages of hypothermia feel like? It was ugly.  But then there were other thoughts: It’s just an experience.  What ifs don’t matter–right now you can keep going–the goal of camp is still achievable and time will pass and this experience of cold/wet/pain will pass too.  And of course they did.  I made camp, and the experiences changed.

I got to the bottom of the valley and crossed the final river, slipping and falling in up to my waist (which honestly hardly mattered at this point), and finding my overnight bag that had been delivered that morning by the chopper.  I set up the tent in the rain (one of my least favorite things to do) just at dusk.  I stripped out of my wet clothes and was attacked by sandflies.  But then I was in my sleeping bag, and eventually, warm.  It was time to eat.  Unfortunately, the job offer had came at the last minute–Sunday afternoon for Monday morning departure. I’d been spending time with the family so opted not to take my leave to go prepare and just ended up scrounging food from the pantries after the kids were in bed and figuring  I’d make it a ‘hardship’ mission–besides, the boss had made it sound pretty easy on the phone–so I was light on food too.  I’d had a banana in the chopper, carried a  HydroFlask of hot chocolate and licked the peanut butter off the spoon after baiting each tunnel, but otherwise hadn’t stopped to eat.  Thanks to my meager rations I experienced hunger too.

I got plenty of sleep–well, rest anyway.  Sleep was difficult as it took significant ‘attention’ to try to settle my mind.  It was raining outside.  My tent leaked a little bit.  I was going to have to put back on cold, wet clothes in the morning and do it all again, only uphill.  My meditation practice changed gears and focused on letting go of tomorrow’s suffering because, well, it didn’t really exist.  I made a pillow out of my HydroFlask, my rather moist fleece hat and a bit of toilet paper in a plastic bag,

I made it through the next day too–using tricks learned over years of racing and adventuring.  Chunk things out–one small goal at a time. Break things down.  When the bush was thick and progress seemed to halt I’d try to remember that there is no permanence.  I will, however slowly, get to better ground.  And then when I had it, I’d practice appreciating the few meters of easy going, knowing it was bound to be temporary as well.  The hours ticked by, surprisingly quickly, something that means my mind was, more or less, where it should be.  It was a pretty good session, considering the circumstances.

helifogWell, until the end–when I heard the chopper heading up the valley towards where I stood, exposed, drenched, shivering, blasted by the wind and rain.  I couldn’t see it because the fog was too dense.  My overnight gear was back at the river mouth, a 4 hour bush bash away in daylight, assuming food, daylight, energy–the former of which was completely gone while the others were severely depleted. Because then, although it sounded like it was right there, the sound started to fade, until it disappeared.  

My wife says if I was truly enlightened I would have accepted such a turn of events, and what they meant, as simply another state of being.  But I basically panicked inside.

Thankfully, the chopper did eventually return, doorless (for visibilities sake) and passengerless (just in case).  I still have some work to do, I suppose, but I think it can wait until after a week of hot showers.

Hardship Sessions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s (never) EASY! It (all) WORKS!

PS – did i get all the “Bros” right?

ONE (really) good session

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feeling Bad: the dark side of high intensity training

darthHigh intensity training for endurance has a dark side.

It never feels easy.  In order to embrace and benefit from true high intensity work, you must first realize and then accept the fact that workouts aren’t going to feel good.  You’re not going to get to the point in the program where you get to go out and run a few miles and pat yourself on the back because ‘hey, that felt great!’

When you do high intensity work, you won’t get the runner’s high…or the cyclists thrill of the open road.  You will get pain, doubt, the taste of blood in the back of your throat, and uncooperative bowels.  You won’t struggle to fathom how you will manage another mile, but how you’ll manage another minute. You won’t feel fast and light and easy.  You’re legs and arms will feel heavy, your lungs too small, and your will inadequate to it’s task.

This dark side will also play tricks on your mind and your mind will challenge you by repeating it’s rhetoric. It will tell you that you failing.  That you are slower than last time.  That you have no hope of making your goal–that your efforts are futile.  These suggestions will be hard to ignore, particularly when you feel awful less than 5 minutes into your workout.

It will be easy to give up.  It will be even easier to slow down–to decide to settle for less speed if it simultaneously means less pain.  There are a million reasons why you might be actually be slower, why you might not meet your goal.  You didn’t get enough sleep, you haven’t eaten well, you’ve got too much on your plate and are stressed.  Your mind will run through the list and try to get you to abandon your attempt because your mind isn’t a big fan of discomfort.  And maybe some of these reasons truly do apply–they’re not just excuses but actual factors that are negatively affecting your performance.  On the other hand…

My experience has been that I always feel lousy.  When I’m totally busting my butt and really going after it I always feel flat, tired, spent.  I never really feel fast.  I just hurt.  So I’ve made my peace with the dark side.  I don’t try to fight it, but I don’t give in either.  I just let the thoughts come in  and listen to their arguments and often even agree with them, believing that indeed I must be going much slower, sometimes pathetically so, than I’d hoped.  But I don’t ease off.  I never ease off.

And in the end, I’m usually not slower after all.  

Happy Training.

Know Thyself

My wife turned me on to a recent blog post from one of her favorites, Mr. Frank Forencich of the Exuberant Animal.  It discusses the ideas of ‘lifestyle intelligence’ and bricolage–an ability to adapt and successfully reach a desired outcome using diverse and available materials. In reading and reflecting on Frank’s piece, I was struck with the importance of being able to assess your strengths and weaknesses as an individual in order to have a shot at achieving your goals.

I’m not talking about recognizing that your swim times aren’t as on par with your bike times compared to other age group athletes or anything like that.  I’m talking about understanding who you are as a person when it comes to following through on workouts, best times of the day for motivation, and being realistic both in setting goals and then in how likely you are to meet the demands of any particular workout program you attempt to follow in order to meet them.

My wife, for example, is a morning person.  She’d rather get up at six A.M. to go for a run in the dark and be back and showered before anyone in the house is up.  She’s more likely to find excuses not to do her workout the longer the day goes on.  Mornings work for her.  Mornings do not work for me on the other hand–not much works actually until after a cup of coffee or two.

I am, however a pressure player–a procrastinator.  I will put off workouts until the moment where if I wait any longer I won’t get it done.  If my wife needs to head to work at 5:15 in the evening (as she did a couple of days ago) I might wait until about 5:00 to start running.  It suits me primarily because most of my workouts are really hard and really short.  The ‘hardness’ makes me put them off as long as possible whereas the shortness means that I can, in fact, squeeze them in at a last minute here or there.

Timing aside, another huge part of knowing thyself has to do with understanding one’s personal capacity for both volume and intensity. So many programs prescribe efforts as though everyone is capable (mentally and phyiscally) of any combination of these elements, assuming they can decide to commit the time.  Of course this is anything but true.  While it may be the case that committing time is all that is required to meet the volume side of the equation, meeting intensity is another thing.  Some people just can’t do, or won’t do, intensity. For most of us, however, it’s more a matter of how much and how often.  All out sprints or proper Tabata protocol might be a once a week thing for some or a once a month thing for others (just long enough to forget the taste of blood and/or bile in the back of the mouth).

My training has been modified over the years based on my changing circumstances and my diligence in understanding what these changes mean in terms of what I can/will realistically do.  I was able to manage three true high intensity workouts a week during winters in North Dakota when I was a member of a gym, had a great range of high end cardio equipment, solid race goals, and spent most of my day sitting in front of a computer.  Now-a-days, living in New Zealand with no gym access, adventure rather than race goals, and a daily routine that involves more general activity than I’ve had in a while, the mental demands of putting up more than one or two true high intensity efforts a week are beyond me.

Training programs in and of themselves aren’t bad things of course–following a plan that someone else has put together can certainly seem to take some of the pressure off and even allow you to benefit from someone elses (hopefully sound) knowledge about training and fitness.  But it is important to remember that the biggest factor in success or failure is probably not the viability of the program itself, but in how well it is matched to your actual abilities and how well it fits itself in with your other life needs.  Just because you think you want to do something doesn’t mean you will actually do it. Take the time to understand realistically who you are in terms of not only what you want, but what you’re willing and more importantly able to do to reach your goal.  And make sure any training program you adopt serves this pragmatism.

Alright, that’s it for this post.  It’s 4:39 and I’ve gotta get changed and get my two mile time trial in and then pick up the kids by 5:00–talk about perfect timing.

Happy training,

Andy

 

Snow Day

Sticking with it isn’t easy. Some days it feels downright impossible.  But that really is the key–if you can master that, you can pretty much do anything.

IMG_20150414_115432622Underneath that simple thought somewhere is the necessity of doing the work to figure yourself out well enough to understand what it is that you can stick to.  Aim to high and you’ll quit (probably sooner than later). Aim to low and you don’t reach your potential.

For me it’s about 5 workouts a week–three short but high intensity ‘cardio’ efforts, and two single set max effort bodweight sets, one of chin-ups and one of push-ups. My total training time varies between 40 and 90 minutes a week, give or take.  It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s enough for me.  In truth, it is about all I can maintain. Occasionally I’ll get more–some sort of longer effort–but I don’t count on it or need it.  I work hard and keep at it and it keeps me pretty darn fit.

The last couple days were a challenge though–cold and snow and a major hassle just to keep warm (the ‘cottage’ we’re living in doesn’t have heat yet…).  And there are the daily trips to the library for internet (don’t have that at the cottage yet either) to spend a fun couple of hours in front of the computer doing taxes.  Then family dinners before everything gets dark by 6:30 because, you guessed it, the cottage doesn’t have electricity yet either.

IIMG_20150413_085419951‘m not really complaining though–the cold snap also means cozy family cuddles on the couch under heaps of blankets and sleeping bags watching torrented movies on the chromebook (“Trash” was on tap tonight) before a bit of bedtime Harry Potter (just starting book six) for the boys.  La Dolce Vita, really, but not quite ideal for motivating training.

That, though is the challenge.  And whether it’s living in a cottage chock full of good excuses not to go outslde or a long day at the office, it’s all the same.  If you decide you want something, to pursue something, you also have to decide to commit to the journey it’s going to take to get there.  No one else can do it, and most of these goals we opt to go after take pretty long journeys. It’s not the first day on the path that is the hard one.  Or the second.  Or the fine days.  It’s the snowy, cold, miserable ones.

So yesterday, between bouts of sleet, I managed to steal outside and get my hill intervals in (UM training file #7). And tonight–after Harry Potter, after I’d polished off the rather too cold bottle of Gewurstminer that had been sitting with a glass and a half left in it on the dark kitchen counter while watching the movie, after I’d eaten the rest of the sour gummies the kids got to pick out for a ‘it’s cold outside so lets eat candy’ treat, but before brushing my teeth–I did my pushups.

I did the slow ones–one rep every 10 seconds.  I failed on the 13th, a new record for me (six months ago I could barely get 9).  I guess it means I’m improving.  Stick with it–even during the snow days–and whatever your goal might be, you will be too.

 

 

Success…well almost.

nopicIt’s been a couple of weeks since the big holly-day mission and I think I’m mostly recovered.  It was great fun and I ended the day and two hours (it took us about 26.5 hours, car to car) suitably shattered.  The last 10k I suffered from IT band pain that seemed determined to stop me in my tracks–all this in a full on fiordland rainstorm that left even the most expensive gore-tex as effective as a cotton t-shirt.  My partner was stronger than me on the foot sections and this allowed me to really reach my limit which was the plan all along.

The paddling sections were brilliant, the demon trail was epic as expected, and much of the most difficult to find parts of the route were encountered in the darkness.  We got lucky, barely squeaking by around Long Reef Point  just after high tide.  John also got lucky that the massive sea lion that he surprised and who barked and lunged at him as he passed a meter in front of where it lay under a rock overhang was a female and not a more territorial and aggressive male.

We got lost twice–once for about an hour or so looking for the track from the North end of Big Bay heading toward the Pyke Valley.

By the end I had elbow tendonitis, the IT band issue, chaffed nipples, a chaffed butt-crack, a raw lower back from pack-rub, chaffing at the very top of my inner thigh/groin from the hem of my undergarments (to the point of even a bit of bleeding), and size-able blisters on both pinky toes.   All the discomfort was of the self-limiting sort thankfully, but I did have to do some pretty serious mental gymnastics to keep running at all during the last 20K back to the car.   [It’s interesting too to note that ‘running’ at this point was predictably more of a shuffle than a run–perhaps movement speeds shifted from 5 to 7 kph (3 to 4.5 mph)… but over the course of that distance such a seemingly small gain in speed is quite significant.]

The bridge back to the car park finally came, an hour after I started hoping it would.  And after changing into dry clothes in a damp porta-potty and sitting in front of the car heater on full blast to stop the incessant shivering (the result of being soaked to the bone and the inability after such a long day to produce any of my own body heat without voluntary muscle movement–which I no longer wanted to produce!), John and I were even able to split shifts to drive the two hours home in time for dinner.

Sorry – no pictures of the trip.  It was so cutting edge we couldn’t admit the weight of a camera.  Or maybe I just forgot it on the dash.

Battling Grizzlies

Death Race, coming at ya!

Death Race, coming at ya!

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

Wow.  Where to start…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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