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/


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.


I prefer really big waypoints that I don't have to build as often...

I prefer really big waypoints that I don’t have to build as often…

Every so often I feel the need to build a waypoint.  For me, these are points that serve to let me know where I am fitness wise in the larger ultra-endurance landscape–not necessarily compared to other people, but compared to past iterations of myself.  Waypoints ground me and give me confidence in where I am, and that what I’m doing (my training), is keeping me moving in the right direction (capable of doing anything).

I usually get antsy after a couple months of not doing anything big enough to make me want to lie in bed and not move for a few days, and it has pretty much been since John and I’s mission on the Hollyford back in January.  I’ve been busy, but busy isn’t really and excuse.  My original plan had been an epic swim, trialing a course for a possible swim event in future years, but I kept putting it off and now the water is so cold that it wouldn’t be as much a test of fitness as a ‘how long will it take until my body shuts down and I die’ sort of mission, so I’m going to be forced to put it on the back burner for now.

That leaves me wondering what to do–or rather trying to decide between the available choices.  On the one had I’ve got a list of adventures ranging from long days to multi-days that are all within a few hours drive, but that will likely require a partner.  On the other hand, I’ve just learned of a local 6 hour lap race happening this weekend.  I’m tempted by the latter, both because it’s only 6 hours (and apparently has bouncy castles for the kids) and because it would be an interesting experiment, considering my weekly running mileage has been hovering right under 3 km (less than 2 miles) for the past couple of months.  That twisted part of my brain that I serve when I suffer is definitely keen to see what happens were I to tackle this challenge.

I feel far fitter for wood chopping these days (I spend more time chopping wood than running, biking, and swimming combined), but unfortunately my google search for ‘ultra wood chopping competitions’ returned a null result. Whatever I end up deciding, I’m going to need to get out there soon and get building.

Mission #1: Getting one under the belt

A week ago I managed to get away for the day with local Te Anauian, Jarod, for an adventure.  It was great to finally be out in the bush and not just looking at maps.

Then plan was to hike up Mistake Creek (in the Eglington Valley), around the North end of Consolation peak, down the Melita valley, then pack-raft to the Southern end of lake Gunn and down the Eglington river back to the car.

View Larger Topographic Map

In my head the whole thing should have taken 6-8 hours, and this is without running.  Ha!

I learned some valuable lessons on this trip.

  1. A trail on a map in NZ means nothing.  In my head I see a trail and think it is ‘runnable’.  I’m used to being able to cover at least 8K (5 miles) an hour on even ‘tough’ trails.  The Mistake Creek trail was not even thought of as a particularly tough trail and it seemed to take ages!

    Jarod enjoying off track travel

    Jarod enjoying off track travel

  2. No trail on a map in NZ can mean anything.  Sometimes we were able to move down a boulder bed stream at 3K and hour.  Other times we were reduced to crawling through bush at less than 500 meters per hour.
  3. Don’t second guess the locals. Looking at the contour lines around Consolation peak, I was sure it would be a walk in the park getting to the Melita valley.  It wasn’t.  We managed, but there was some seriously steep ground in a few places and I was very very glad to have decades of climbing experience under my belt.

    Jarod enjoying easy ledges on the sidle around Consolation peak

    Jarod enjoying easy ledges on the sidle around Consolation peak

  4. Things are hidden in the bush!  Maybe the topo maps here are often based off of the top of the canopy (because the canopy is so thick).  Whatever the reason, we stumbled across some creek gorges that were 30-50 meters deep and only a few meters wide on our descent of Melita creek–stuff I’d have expected to show up on a topo with 20 meter contour intervals.  Invisible.
  5. It rains a lot up here.  Although our day out was perfect weather, much of the forest was covered with moss up to 30 cm thick.  Sloped tussock drainages were sopping wet even after 48 hours without rain.  There is water to spare in fiordland.

    the moss in Melita Valley

    the moss in Melita Valley

It was a good, long day out that ended up taking about 11 ours to get to the end of the lake.  The river turned out to be too low for pack-rafting, but that turned out to be a good thing, as we were already an hour overdue.

About to put in on Gunn's Lake

About to put in on Gunn’s Lake

Tomorrow John Kenny and I tackle Mission #2, the previously mentioned Big-Hollyday! (see last post)


Big Hollyday

Martins Bay

Martins Bay

If all goes as planned, my next big mission is on it’s way.  John Kenny, a friend and racing partner from Canada, is visiting me in NZ as part of hisyear long world cycling tour.  I’ve twisted his arm to accompany me (fingers crossed) on what was atop my list 8 years ago when I was last in this glorious country–my ‘big hollyday’. Although I could get heaps of partners up here in NZ to tackle this route with me,  I’m finding I’m still a bit of a rare bird in that I like to do not only difficult things, but that I like to do them as fast as I can do them.  Even a 12 hour day, super long for most trampers, is only a half day in my mind.  Not many people share this penchant for suffering, which is why when I find someone who does, like John, I plan trips around him!

The Route!

The Route!

The Hollyford Track is a one way tramping route that runs along the Hollyford river to the remote Martin’s Bay. Most people do it as an out and back.  Some intrepid and experienced parties, continue past Martin’s bay, through Big Bay, overland to the Pyke river, and back to the Hollyford Track, forming a sort of lolli-pop route.  [link to route description, only in reverse]

The total distance via the track is roughly 144 km and is ‘normally’ done in 9 days.  Our goal is to knock the whole thing out as quickly as we can, without sleep.  While this might seem doable based on numbers and elevation data alone, many of these km’s are through trackless wilderness (what they call a ‘route’ in New Zealand) or along tracks that are ‘tracks’ in name only.  When sections of the trail are named things like ‘the demon trail’, you know it’s going to be fun.  Other sections involve serious river crossings, soul sucking mud, and an occasional 3 wire bridge.  Awesome.

But John and I have a secret weapon…an Alpacka Gnu!  This is their latest line of boats and quite possibly the coolest thing I have ever owned–a two person packraft with nearly a 4 mph cruising hull-speed (when we put our minds to it!).  So our plan is to use this boat to paddle, not walk, down the hollyford valley via the river rather than the track, hopefully getting wind at our back (a rare SE wind is in the forecast if it holds!) for a long lake crossing to avoid the demon trail, pack up the boat for the crossing to the Pyke river, and then paddle back downstream avoiding the worst of the trail. This route entails about 52K of running and 92K of padding.  Assuming we can average 6K and hour on the water and 7K on foot, and with an hour or so thrown in for unloading and loading the boat, getting lost, etc, it seems a reasonable to assume the mission is possible in our timeframe [92/6=15+ and 52/7=7+ and 1+ for mucking around=24 hours!].

Yeah, I know I’m crazy, and I know that I’m only very rarely right on these things (I prefer to only plan optimistically!), but an adventure is sure to be had.  Our planned attempt should come sometime end of next week. Stay tuned for details!  Don’t worry, I’ve been training too–had a good mile sprint workout yesterday!

The Pyke river

The Pyke river