Train to Maintain (an Ode to the Plateau)

Ongoing...now, and for the next sixty odd years...

Ongoing…now, and for the next sixty odd years…

I’m getting older. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve still got many decades of adventuring and races left in me–thousands of kilometers yet to run, bike, paddle, swim and climb. But the full ‘weight’ of my life and all it’s glory is on my shoulders–a family including two boys, several jobs (grassroots entrepreneurship ain’t easy), and cumulative injuries. All of this makes trying to achieve greater fitness in all of the disciplines my myriad ambitions demand little more than wishful thinking.

Thankfully, this last year I’ve worked hard on letting go of the idea of ‘getting better’ at things, which is a good thing because in truth I just can’t figure out how to make it happen. Sure, I could certainly get faster in something–running or biking for example–but the only way to do this, as far as I can tell, is to sacrifice the level of general proficiency I’ve developed in something else. I’ve long said (here and elsewhere) that my ultimate goal is to be able to ‘do it all’ at as high a level as possible, even if this means being less fit in a single discipline than I would be if I focused my efforts more.

And as I’ve taken this journey, I’ve realized that very little is written about the idea of maintenance in terms of fitness. Everyone (who’s writing at least) seems focused on how to improve–to run further, bike faster, lift more. This, I think, is terrible.

Because, as I see it, if we’re doing this right–if I’m doing this right–so little of our time should be spent seeking these aims. After all, I’m not a professional athlete. I just want to be fit enough to do what I want to do. How long (really?) should it take me to get to that stage?

Based on the overwhelming sense I get from the internet, it seems like it should take forever. The message boards and forums and blog posts appearing in my feed seem to be telling me that I can always get faster, go further, and be stronger–that I should always (and can always) be improving.

It’s a lie though.

To be honest, I’ve been there–here, at my ‘peak’–for years. Now I’m not saying that I couldn’t get faster if I wanted to, or be stronger, but as I mentioned, I’ve realized that–more or less–my life is, and has been for some time, in relative balance. I’ve long since achieved a level of fitness that I’m happy with–more or less–and one that enables me to do pretty much whatever little ambitious thing I desire. It’s a great place to be.

balanceBut the growth culture is pervasive. So do we somehow feed off these ideas of improvement, feeling like we’re better people when we’re actually getting better at things? Maybe that is the catch. Nobody is writing about maintaining fitness because we are creatures who are programmed by culture to want more, no matter how much we actually have. We become satisfied by achieving our fitness goals, but that satisfaction disappears quickly, and either we slide back to a state of lesser fitness so that the same goal can be achieved (and satisfy) again, or we aim to achieve more, at greater and greater personal sacrifice, until we finally can take no more and resort back to the first option. This is fitness’s version of the Hedonic treadmill. Perhaps. I’ll admit that it was hard to let go of constant attempts to improve myself. It was hard to be o.k. with the idea that I’m not going to get 11 of those slow chins* anytime soon. Ok, maybe ever. My weekly set is just going to stay right between almost getting 10 and deciding that I wouldn’t get the 11th one even if I wanted too. And to be fair–that is a pretty good effort. I’ve similarly come to terms with my mile time trial hovering between 5:35 and 5:50. My swim times are unlikely to come down much either.

It’s probable that I will train harder and more and improve my fitness in some respects leading up to events, but this sort of improvement seeking is more pointed–it has a specific goal.

The truth is that we can’t always improve. There comes a time where the amount of effort that we put towards something in a sustainable manner reaches an equilibrium with the outcome of that effort. This is the dreaded plateau that for years I struggled to get past–along with almost everyone else according to the magazines. And a problem with most mainstream training protocols is that they aim for improvement–to avoid or climb beyond the plateau. But it can’t be avoided. And once we reach it, the programs that will lead us off of it are never really sustainable and thus are doomed to fail eventually. Yes, you can get super fit following any number of high level training programs. Super strong too. But if they don’t actually fit into your ever changing life, then eventually you will give them up. I tried to overcome this fact, trust me. I mixed things up, added volume, added weight, added supplements. It only ever works temporarily.

Thankfully, those days are over.

These days I celebrate my plateau. After all, the view from up here isn’t too shabby and I’m not always struggling to climb up higher, unless I’ve actually got somewhere higher to go.

*Done with continuous tension in the muscles using an interval timer–5 seconds on the way up, 5 seconds on the way down–without releasing tension in the muscles at the bottom or locking off at the top. Try it!

Making Do vs. The Right Tool

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

Home renovation projects are like multi-sport training…

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

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

Can you guess which school I’m in?

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

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

hammer vs. rock

hammer vs. rock

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons From the Water

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was full of nerves moments before starting the swim

I was full of nerves moments before starting the swim

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

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

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

Perfect swimming conditions, nothing to worry about!

Perfect swimming conditions, nothing to worry about!

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

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

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

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

The final leg...9 km to go!

The final leg…9 km to go!

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

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

 

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.

The Perks of Over (winter) Training.

Over-winter-training back in North Dakota a few years ago--a place that takes the concept to a whole other level.

Taking over-winter-training to another level in North Dakota, 2011.

I typically hate training outdoors in winter, particularly when embracing more high intensity efforts. And particularly when I’ living someplace where it actually gets cold. And since I do live somewhere where it gets cold…

Last winter, I ended up buying a rather expensive gym membership (everything is rather expensive in New Zealand) and gutted it out on treadmills, rowing machines, ellipticals and stationary bikes for five minutes at a time. It was epic. But it was still cold (apparently heat, too, is expensive–so much so that the gym membership didn’t include it).

So when winter rolled around this year I just manned up and stayed outside. Thankfully it was relatively mild and I only occasionally had to face challenging conditions like freezing rain, but it was still cold none-the-less.  Which meant that lungs burned badly, joints ached, and muscles felt sluggish as I raced along the final straight-away on my 4.5 km mountain bike time trial or rounded the last bend on my last 400 track repeat.

But I stuck with it, set reasonable expectations, and low and behold, it is suddenly spring.

Today it was 17 degrees and sunny (about 63 F for all you Americans and Brits) as I shook the legs out in preparation for my mile time trial.  I wasn’t looking forward to it.  It was desperately rushed and last minute. But on the plus side I could run shirtless for the first time since April.

I took it easy on the way out, giving myself time to get into it.  As I passed half way I still felt pretty good.  My lungs weren’t burning.  My skin didn’t sting. I hadn’t once registered an achy joint. I cruised down the finishing straight, happy that it had been relatively painless because I’d really been dreading it.  All winter the time trial was the hardest of my rotating HIIT runs.  It usually felt horrible by a minute in and I’d just hang on for the rest, wanting to dry heave at the end. And I’d always feel the rawness of stretched or dry or  broken alveoli (whatever it is that causes that awesome post HIIT cold weather burning of the lungs) with every deep breath right through until bedtime.

But this time around a combination of low expectations and higher temperatures made for a matching of my personal best, all without what felt like a personal best effort.  And that, in my opinion, is one of the unexpected perks of over (winter) training.

Fragility

ned-stark-970x545I had a good week last week.  It was school holidays which meant my kids had two weeks off, and the first week we’d lucked into a stint as a ‘volunteer hut warden’ up at Luxmore Hut, the first of the Kepler Track’s (one of NZ’s great walks) palatial accommodations.  Not only did I get to refer to myself as ‘Warden of North*’ for a whole week, which has always been a secret fantasy of mine ever since Game of Thrones, but I also got to hang out with my family in an awesome alpine environment.

We took hikes, explored caves, got dumped on by half a meter of snow, built snowmen, had snowball fights, chopped wood, read books, played games, slept in, kept cozy by the fire, cooked good meals, drank lots of coffee and drinking chocolate. It was awesome.  We even improvised ways to do our body-weight training by using a broom handle suspended across two upper bunks.  I even got a good run to the top of the mountain in before the mid-week storm brought the hammer down.

Trails before the storm

Trails before the storm

It was that hammer coming down that planted the seed of fragility, but it was the helicopter ride down–a 90 second trip that covered a distance that would take over half a day by non-motorized means–and the resulting reflection that saw it blossom.

As an athlete, I occasionally feel very powerful.  And when I look at images of other athletes–top mountain runners for example, churning their way along knife ridges, visions of sinew and sweat and efficiency I feel their power.  I quietly cultivated the feeling on the day before the snow as I ground my way up to Luxmore summit, doggedly running every step despite the steep grade, and then revelled in that sense of power as I charged back down, dancing my way across the rocky sections, slip sliding in the mud, and bending gravity to my will.

After the storm

After the storm

The day after the snow fell I got a bit antsy.  I was up in the mountains.  I wanted to run–to take the opportunity to get a big day in.  Test the machine again.  Feel the power.  So I tried.   Tammy got back from her short hike and gave me the green-light, but warned about how hard going it was.  I put on the gaiters. I decided to head back up the mountain and not take advantage of her footsteps going down.  The wind was blowing.  It was still snowing.  Adventure.  Harsh conditions. I was powerful, I could do it.  Sure, it would take me longer to get there–that was to be expected–but I’d get there.

I didn’t get there.  I didn’t get more than 400 meters from the hut, and even that took 15 minutes.  Snow stung my face.  I couldn’t open my eyes to look ahead without goggles.  The drifts were on occasion waist deep.  It was hard going. I didn’t feel powerful at all.

I felt fragile.

20160711_110942

Our minds and machines may be powerful…but our bodies?

The helicopter ride just cemented these feelings.  Nature is really, really big. The wilderness is unforgiving.  Yes, places exist where the wilderness is negotiable, where you  can run and leap and travel through it with grace and ease.  But those places are the exception, not the rule.  For the most part, for the overwhelming majority of the undeveloped places on this planet, nature/wilderness is harsh, brutal, big, and uncompromising.  We are only the powerful beings, the efficient machines of my earlier conception in these narrow places.  This fraction of a fraction of the world that we have claimed as our own and modified to suit our abilities.  Even places we think of as wilderness–the trail of the Kepler Track traversing it’s mountains, for example, aren’t.  They offer glimpses into the wilderness. They are a degree–a shade perhaps–closer to wilderness, but only just.  Our abilities, this physical power, is felt only on the backs of billions of people and millenia of reshaping the places in which we live and play. There is an arbitrariness to this. We’ve created a closed system, separate from nature, and the judgements we make about ourselves–athletic or otherwise–take place almost entirely within this closed system of human design.  It is a fascinating thought.

20160714_112451A simple act of nature–a dump of snow–took that ribbon of trail where 48 hours before I’d felt myself a powerful being, at home and in control of this breathtaking mountain environment, suited to it’s rough and undulating terrain, up to challenge this ‘wilderness’ presented, and made it beyond me.  Inaccessible. It was not mine. The work and training and experiences I’ve had did not give me power over this place, this ridge, this peak, unless things were just right–unless conditions allowed. A simple act of nature took it all away.  And this wasn’t even ‘real’ wilderness.

I’ve been in real wilderness too, and reflecting of my time there I realize I’ve never felt powerful there. I’ve always felt fragile.  Afraid, humble, slow, tired, and unsuited for the task.  The speed and powerful feelings cultivated in the land of men do not translate. They are a world apart.  Power, fitness, feelings of physical and mental achievement are only relative to our created human environment.  Even in something like adventure racing, so long as we’re feeling powerful, we’re at best dashing through toy-sized sections of wilderness, or connecting areas of human creation by tenuous threads of trail passing through larger chunks.  Occasionally, if ever, we actually move through wilderness/nature (and so few of us probably ever do), then there is only fragility and humility.

Happy Training

*Yes, I know that Luxmore hut isn’t really ‘North’ in any meaningful way (North of lake Manapouri?), but the ‘Warden’ part took me too close to worry about this niggly little detail.

A simple plan (MBF revisited)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy training.

 

Hardship Sessions

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

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

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

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

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

The Weakest Link

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections on an Apprenticeship

Beauty and the Beast. Vaughn (L) and Adrian atop Mount Luxmore.

Beauty and the Beast. Vaughn (L) and Adrian atop Mount Luxmore.

The Kepler Challenge is approaching quick.  Vaughn Filmer is feeling confident.  His most recent long run has helped quite a bit (http://ultramentalapprenticeship.blogspot.co.nz/).

This experiment of assisting with his training using HIIT methods has been a good one and I’ve learned heaps from watching his progress and more importantly reading his blog which gives good insight into what is going on in his head.  Here are a few things I’ve picked up, or that have been reinforced for me as a result–

  1. It works.  Using HIIT to develop fitness, for those that are capable of performing such efforts routinely, works beautifully.  After 16 weeks of training Vaughn’s running (of which he’d done very little previously) was on par with many runners that have been running at much higher volumes for most of their lives.  Focusing on speed/form vs distance during the outset of training seems to have returned very good results.
  2. Doubt is normal.  Wondering whether we will be ‘up for the task’ when using HIIT as a primary tool in preparing for a big endurance event is to be expected.  Reading through Vaughn’s blog you’ll notice that he has lots of doubts about his ability to cover the 62 challenging km of the Kepler Challenge.  He worries about missing workouts, about not running longer, and about a whole host of things.  Keep in mind that he’s taking on this ‘challenge’ with a longest ever casual run of about 10 km, prior to commencing training 4 months before the event.  His recent post, written in the aftermath of his longest run, is the first real glimpse you’ll get of him feeling up to the task.  And he is.  Until you get that first real serious effort in it is hard to believe that doing so little (time wise) might still allow you to do so much.
  3. Doubt is inevitable.  I know, we’ve already covered this, right?  But I’ve realized there is a LOT of doubt.  This additional doubt comes primarily from the the pursuit of something along unconventional lines, particularly when a very strong conventional training climate exists.  For example, Vaughn’s mate Adrian (who will also be my teammate at Godzone) is also running the Kepler and is an animal.  He trains hard and he trains a lot–using a much more traditional volume.  He seems to recover in half or less of the time than other people do.  Going on a run with him means you’re likely left in the dust or pissed off because while you’re suffering he seems to be on cruise control.  This is at turns both motivating and disheartening. It is easy to look at the Adrian’s out there and think that you ‘should’ be doing what they are doing.  But the reality is that the in the spectrum of athletic ability everyone (even Adrian) will fall somewhere between the two extremes.  The tendency for most of us is to only look only towards one end–to gaze ‘uphill’ at those doing more than we are or doing it faster.  And of course, because using HIIT for endurance is so unconventional, it is almost a sure thing that the training methods used by that ‘uphill’ bunch won’t be the training methods you’re using.  So it becomes important to maintain perspective–remember the main motivation for using HIIT for endurance for those of us that choose to do so is because it takes so much less time.  I won’t make the argument that training hard 1 hour a week is better than training hard 6 hours a week.  But training hard 1 hour a week might be better than training more moderately 6 hours a week, which is quite likely what many of those people you’d see if you looked ‘downhill’ or laterally might be doing.  Get confidence in looking at your peer group–what does your training allow you to do?  How much have you sacrificed in terms of time/lifestyle to achieve this.  Don’t take your hard work, however short in duration for granted!  Even though Vaughn might arrive at the finish line behind Adrian, he will arrive ahead of a great many people who’s training commitments were three or four time’s what his was, and be competitive with plenty of serious ‘amateur’ runners who were putting in 60-100 km weeks in preparation.

Remember, if you’re goal is to WIN races, you need devote most of your time/energy to your fitness.  Even extremely low volume approaches for competitive triathletes at the Ironman distance is around 10-12 hours a week (as compared to 20-30 for normal volume).  These folks are certainly focusing on as much HIIT as they can manage, but supplementing it with a healthy diet of more moderate intensities as well.  But for those of us who are happy being personally/recreationally competitive, focusing on HIIT first and cutting out the rest–as I’m hoping Vaughn will realize–can offer a good alternative to prioritizing fitness (and all the resulting complications this has with having an othewise robust life) over everything else.