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.

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/

 

Success?

Success is a tricky thing.  For any goal it can be defined in a way that is objective and arbitrary, or one that is more subjective but meaningful.  If you’re lucky, pursuit of the goal can facilitate both measures of success. But we don’t always get lucky.

Case in point my most recent ‘UltraMental’ mission: an attempted one day circumnavigation of the Hollyford-Big Bay-Pyke route in Fiordland national Park.  The lolli-pop loop follows tracks of mixed difficulty over nearly 150 kilometers and normally takes 10 days, at least according to DOC literature.  I’d been intrigued by the route for more than a decade when the one day attempt appeared on one of my ‘mission’ lists back in 2006 while i spent a year working in Te Anau. With the use of a packraft, I reasoned it would have been possible to paddle nearly 100 km of the journey, including some of the more difficult sections of track, making the sub 24 hour goal attainable.  But I left NZ without making an attempt.

Two years ago I returned for good, relocating to Te Anau with my family permanently.  I was so excited about the opportunity to have a go that I’d had a crack at the mission before I’d even found work. My partner and I, John Kenny, left the road end at 1 pm, paddling a two person packraft.  We returned to the car 26.5 hours later, exhausted, drenched, freezing, and–myself at least–very nearly broken. Close, but not quite.

Jo, Andy, Neville, and Adrian at Martin's bay after seven hours on the go.

Jo, Andy, Neville, and Adrian at Martin’s bay after seven hours on the go.

Then just last weekend, I tried again. This time with three GodZone veterans, Adrian Braaksma, Neville Thorne, and Jo Williams.  The objective measure of success was defined very clearly as a car to car, self-supported effort that took less than 24 hours. Clear, but arbitrary. We lauched our packrafts out of the first eddy at 5am, deep in the grip of nautical twilight, starting the journey as a team of four with a common and audacious goal.

This time, at least based on this arbitrary version, I met with success when I crossed the final swing bridge back over that starting eddy at a minute before 3:30 am, 22.5 hours later.

But it was, as Jo put it, hollow.  Because not everyone crossed that swingbridge with me. Adrian had fallen ill at perhaps the furthest point of the route, somewhere between Big Bay and the upper Pyke.  The audible nature of his multiple vomiting spells were like nothing I’d ever heard–deep and gutteral booms, a sharp contrast to Adrian’s normally very mild mannerisms. His legendary toughness evaporated and stunned us all. Somehow he rallied just enough to get to the banks of the Pyke before collapsing next to the river.  With coaxing we got him on the bow of one of the boats where he lay in the fetal position, hands siezing up, shivering, and talking in slurs.  He couldn’t keep food down. Or water. He was eerily child like–but a drunk and sick child.  

Adrian rallied again during the paddle across lake Wilmot, but his upright stint in the boat lasted only minutes this time.  When we hit the longer lake Alabaster it was nearly dark and we hooked Neville’s boat up to ours so we could stay together and help tow Adrian across the lake.  Finally, we’d seen a faint glow from one of the windows of the hut on the Southern shore of the lake. Before that, we’d smelled the fire.  It had started to rain.  We carried all the gear 50 meters up the path to the shelter of the eaves over the hut’s wide deck. When I returned for Adrian he was on all fours, dry heaving.  He’d wretch violently between his outstretched arms and then flop forward onto his chest to pull himself a half a meter up the beach.  It looked like he was dragging hit torso through his vomit but to be honest I couldn’t tell what, if anything, was coming out of his body as a result of the violent twistings of his stomach.

Adrian, post crash, on the banks of the upper Pyke.

Adrian, post crash, on the banks of the upper Pyke.

I don’t actually remember how he got to the hut–did we help him?  Did he finally get up and walk on his own? It all became a candle-lit blur after that.  I tried to get the fire going and then someone came out of the bunkroom and helped me with a splash of stove fuel.  Another camper asked what we were doing and when we explained the goal she just shook her head and gave us a look equal parts bewilderment and disgust and said, “but why?”

Then there were the decisions.  Would we all remain? Would we leave Adrian on his own?  If some of us pressed on, who would go?  How would we communicate?  How would those who remained get picked up the next day?  What if Adrian couldn’t get out the next day at all? We spent nearly an hour going back and forth, the long day (the alarm had gone off at 2 am the previous morning) taking it’s toll on our collective mental facalties so that we had to repeat the slowly forming plans over and over again.

Finally it was decided that Jo and I would go–it was Jo’s car and she had work on Monday so needed to get back to Wanaka.  Neville had the Delorme tracker and could send texts via satellite to help arrange a pickup.  He was super keen to finish but also, as the youngest and fittest, probably had the least to prove.

After more than an hour in the hut sorting things out, Jo and I set off.  It was lonely, going from four to two like that.  And suddenly being in the dark, and the rain.  We ran for a while until my headlamp got dim. I pulled out my spare but discovered it had been left on and was completely flat.  The terrain grew rocky and so we walked for what seemed like hours. Half way to the road-end we started running again as the track improved, I followed Jo this time trying to take advantage of her brighter light.  But I couldn’t quite keep up and so trailed behind, running and then walking in the soft white bubble of my torch’s lowest setting, the only one it had left.  It was surreal, as it always is in such situations–the world sliding past in a two meter wide tunnel.

As the kilometers ticked by I reflected on the trip–I knew we would make it. We’d left the hut with 5 hours to go 20 kilometers. Plenty of time.  But we’d split up. We’d left Adrian.  And while I knew he’d be fine–or at the very least that he was in capable hands and that us staying wouldn’t have helped him at all, it just felt a little bit wrong.  Yes, it was practical.  It was pragmatic.  There were reasons we left.  Adrian himself wanted someone to keep going, to finish what we’d started.

And we did.  But not really. We’d achieved the objective, arbitrary success, at the expense of the subjective, more meaningful one.  I’m not saying it was the wrong decision. Adrian bounced back after some sleep and was at the road end the next day by 1 pm–no harm done.  But as a result splitting the team and pressing on with Jo through the night, the whole thing, despite the time on the watch face as we stepped off the swing bridge, still felt somehow unfinished.

And I know that had I stayed, it wouldn’t have been perfect either. A piece of me would have nagged with the wonder, even as certain as it seemed, of if I would have made it, and I’d have had to plan another trip to find out.

But now I feel the need to plan another trip anyway, at least with Neville and Adrian, so that we can finish what we (all) started.  Maybe next time, we’ll go even faster, and all cross that bridge in under 20 hours…together.  Maybe next time the arbitrary external goals and the more meaningful internal ones can all be met, and the sense of success will be more complete.  Maybe next time we’ll get lucky.

Helicopters

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

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

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

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

I’d yearn for the illusion. The fantasy.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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!

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

 

Maintaining (humility)

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

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

assushi

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

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

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

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

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

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.