Lessons From the Water

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was full of nerves moments before starting the swim

I was full of nerves moments before starting the swim

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

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

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

Perfect swimming conditions, nothing to worry about!

Perfect swimming conditions, nothing to worry about!

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

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

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

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

The final leg...9 km to go!

The final leg…9 km to go!

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

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

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

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

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

 

Practicing Suffering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hardship Sessions

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Subjective Suffering

I just gotten back from another two days working for Adrian.  Now I’ve had some great days working for him in the past–sunny days walking through spectacular bush, jogging up the Milford track while eyeing the rapids above the Clinton Forks and planning a never-going-to-happen-because-it-is-against-the-rules pack-rafting trip, and eating ‘hut sushi’ in the evenings next to a roaring fire in the wood-stove.  But these last two days?  Well, at least the sushi was still good.

I suffered. A lot.  I hesitate to write this because I worry that Adrian will read this and think me soft and start to second guess his decision to tow me through the GodZone course in April. But I also want to share my thoughts on these couple of days, after all, writing bits of this in my head while I shivered, soaked to the bone, for hours, was part of what got me through. And of course, suffering, at least according to my UltraMental philosophy, is one of three key elements that are critical to achieving success.

And these are actually my good shoes...

And these are actually my good shoes…

The truth is, I could suffer a lot less. I could get a better jacket–one that actually keeps me dry and warm. Although there is no question that most jackets (even so called waterproof ones) aren’t up to the task of ‘Fiordland bush’, apparently garments do exist that actually are. I could also get a good pair of boots and gaiters which, even if they didn’t keep my feet dry, would improve both my confidence and speed while following the trails of blue tape that leads to the possum traps (trails, I might add with classic kiwi understatement, that sometimes encounter terrain that is ‘slightly hard going’).  But despite the decent wage I’m earning, I don’t.  Instead, trip after trip, I show up with the same gear and the same shoes and so, when the weather decides to be gloomy, I knowingly enter into rather long periods of reflective unhappiness.  And this is how it was those last two days–boarding the helicopter as rain splashed the windscreen, headed into the wilderness, destined to dance a miserable dance for 8-10 hours at a time.

So why do I do it?  Other than the fact that I’m cheap and new jackets and boots are expensive in New Zealand, I also, paradoxically perhaps, get something out of it.  In fact, on reflection, I probably get quite a bit out of it.  Of course there is the fitness–walking through difficult terrain with a pack for two days certainly burns the calories. But I’d get this benefit even if I checked the weather first and feigned illness (don’t think I haven’t thought about it Adrian!) when the forecast was for 5 cm of rain throughout the day (the idea of being a fair-weather contractor even has it’s merits because there isn’t a bad weather bonus). But when the rain and temperatures come down and the rivers come up, when the rocks and roots are as slick as ice and the impenetrable ferns covered in frost, that is when the real benefits kick in.

Right from the moment go–the moment I step off the skid of the helicopter and my feet touch the soggy ground–I’m already into it mentally.  I’m already negotiating, using tactics and strategies, practicing ways to stay motivated and get through the task ahead effectively and efficiently despite the fact that I wish so much I had just stayed in bed.  Being cold and wet and miserable for 10 hours in a survival situation is one thing.  Being cold and wet and miserable for 10 hours on purpose is quite another.  In many ways it is the perfect ‘training’ for the mental side of adventure racing.  The psychological idea that things change and when they are bad they will eventually get better, the idea that if you keep moving/working/advancing towards a goal you will eventually get there, these are all nice when you’re reading about them in an adventure or sports psychology book sitting in the sun with your second cup of coffee.  But these ideas can be very difficult to actually move beyond the realm of ‘theory’ and into the realm of reality.  To actually have them be useful ideas–ideas that form the basis of tools that can help achieve a goal–takes, like everything else, practice.  And working for Adrian, especially when mother nature is in one of her dour moods, is excellent practice. Here are three of my favorite tools and how they played a role in getting me through last weekend:

  1. Small goals.  In any prolonged difficult situation, or when any task looms too large, taking things one (small) step at a time is one of the things you are ‘supposed’ to do.  Sometimes this is easier said than done–if the mind is allowed to grab on to the enormity of the task, it can be hard to deal with the resulting sense of despair.  Working on the trap lines offers a perfect opportunity to focus on the small on various scales.  Traps come every 100-200 meters (depending on the trap type) which means my concentration is taken off of any negative thoughts and on to a specific and accomplishable goal every 3-5 minutes.  Even though early in the day the number of traps seems to be super daunting (OMG! I have 80 traps to go! I’m never going to make it!) I never get to dwell on this for long.  I also choose to focus on intermediate results–finishing an egg tray (12 traps)– rather than the day.  Using a variety of ‘scales’ with which to measure progress towards an end is essential when facing a long day of suffering.
  2. Envision the end.  While I was picking my way along through the soaking bush or crossing rivers of icy water above my waist, or tripping and slipping my way up and down and around treacherous bluffs, I would often remind myself of what lay ahead at the end of my ‘suffering’–a plate of sushi and dry clothes, a warm boat with free coffee, a hot shower, dinner with my family, etc.  Rather than looking at the rather ‘unpleasant’ hours that lay between the present moment and these blissful ones, I’d simply remind myself that “in X hours, I’ll be enjoying Y, and all this will be over.” I didn’t dwell on how it was going to happen, but simply that it would.  By asserting confidently and unequivocally my future warmth and comfort, what might have felt unendurable and impossibly long lasting in a different frame of mind become both temporary and quite manageable.
  3. Lie to yourself.  Adventure racing and Working for Adrian have something else in common.  When participating in either I routinely tell myself ‘never again!’  And in both cases I’m usually either researching the next race or readily accepting the next job within 24 hours (sometimes much less) of being ‘comfortable’ again.  For me, this is a natural response when doing really hard things.  Maybe it is because I’m not actually that tough–maybe some folks are able to be deep in the midst of the least enjoyable of the suffering and actively loving it–but for me at least whenever I approach situations where the word ‘misery’ is truly an accurate description of my state of being, my impulse is to turn tail and run (mentally at least) in the opposite direction.

So there you go.  Have at it.  And if you need more practice, I hear Adrian might suddenly be a man short next time he decides to schedule a trap check during ‘periods of rain with some heavy falls’.  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…

Feeling Bad: the dark side of high intensity training

darthHigh intensity training for endurance has a dark side.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Training.

Waypoints

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

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

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

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

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

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

Success…well almost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Hollyday

Martins Bay

Martins Bay

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

The Route!

The Route!

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

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

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

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

The Pyke river

The Pyke river