Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Lazy Saturday...

So here's what I did for "fun" this past Saturday (September 22, 2012) with some friends in Killington, VT at the Spartan Beast race.

Over the course of somewhere between 13 & 14 miles and over a 6000' of vertical ascent (and descent), these are the obstacles we encountered.

I've taken my best guess at weights & distances for the events. Few are likely to be exact, but all are in the ballpark.

Here's a link to my Garmin output of the course.
Here's a link to sign up for a Spartan Race (get a 15% discount with the coupon code EXTOL15)
  1. Ditch jumps -- several of 'em filled with water/mud, about 4-5' wide.
  2. <unnamed obstacle> -- crawling under some heavy screening. This is where I bent my right thumb backwards and sprained the bejeezus out of it. Yes, less than 15 minutes into the race, I hurt myself.
  3. Over unders -- climb over a few 6' walls, through a gap in the walls, and under the walls.
  4. Dirt mounds w/ water pits -- more dirt/mud/water. 
  5. Vertical cargo -- climb over a 10' tall cargo net that was pretty freely rigged/swinging at the top.
  6. Barbed wire high crawl -- strung about 4.5' off the ground for 100' or so in the middle of a single-track trail in the woods.
  7. Double 7 foot walls -- Simple as it sounds; two walls to get over.
  8. Barbed wire crawl #1 -- This should count as two obstacles since you crawled through probably 10 yards of gravel/rock/mud under barbed wire strung about 18" off the ground to a berm which you crested only to see a muddier & rockier 10 yards of the same in front of you. Did I mention they were spraying water over this obstacle.
  9. 2 short walls -- these came within the first 3 miles and were about 6' tall and pretty easily navigated.
  10. Monkey bars -- Just like it sounds, maybe 15' of monkey bars to get through. Saw quite a few burpees done here as the penalty for those who couldn't do it.
  11. Trench crawl - waist-deep water in a 5' deep trench with barbed wire strung overhead. More of a squat-walk than a crawl.
  12. Traverse wall -- 15' of lateral movement on a wall with awkwardly placed blocks for hands and feet. Participants were required to get from one end to the other like a rock climber using only the blocks.
  13. Rope climb #1 -- Wade into a 2' deep pool of water and climb a rope about 15' up to ring a bell, then descend. Lots of burpees seen here, too, and a few impressive back-flops from dudes who got about 10' up before losing it.
  14. 40° water swim -- this & the next one go together and represent the only obstacle I did not attempt. I am a very poor swimmer on a good day. The Racer's Guide said they would have PFDs on the shore for those who were poor swimmers. They didn't have on shore when I got there, so I burpeed out.
  15. Tarzan swing -- After swimming maybe 200' in 41° F water, you climbed a rope ladder about 10', and then were expected to swing from rope-to-rope for about 10' (5-6 ropes), ring a bell, drop into the water, and swim 200' to shore. If you failed, you swam about 300' to the opposite shore to do burpees. I didn't hear a lot of bell-ringing here!
  16. Water station -- AKA Lemonade Stand. No obstacle, just a re-hydration point. This was about the 4 mile point.
  17. Memorization poster -- Based on the last 2 digits of your bib, you were given a number/phrase to memorize with the expectation you'd have to recite it later. My phrase was India-950-7200. Yes, I remembered it. :)
  18. Herculean hoist - Rope attached to a pulley with a heavy concrete weight on the end (60#?). Pull the rope until the knot hit the pulley about 10' up and return it to the ground under control.
  19. Water station #2 (6 miles) -- covered about 2 miles with only one obstacle.  All trail running/hiking with not a lot of elevation change.
  20. Atlas carry (concrete bucket thing) -- basically they mixed up an 80# bag of concrete in a bucket, let it set, then removed it from the bucket to create an awkward 90# weight. Pick one up, carry it 50', put it down, pick up another one and carry it back to the start.
  21. Barbed wire crawl #2 -- similar to the first crawl except this one wasn't as rocky, but was uphill. I think they just wanted you muddy again.
  22. Double 7 foot wall #2 -- more walls to get over.
  23. Wall climbs w/rope -- These walls were made of big logs with ropes hanging down. You had to grab the rope and use both arms & legs to get up & over these walls.
  24. Tractor pull -- This was about a 30# concrete block attached to a chain. Drag it uphill for about 20 yards, then back the starting point.
  25. Sandbag carry -- There was a pretty long mostly-downhill hike to get from the Tractor Pull to the Sandbag carry.  The sandbags were 50-60# sand filled disks that you had to carry up (and, of course, down) an increasingly steep slope.
  26. Memorization test -- About 5 miles and 2 hours after viewing the Memorization Poster, you had to give your bib # and phrase/number. India-950-7200. PASS!
  27. Sled pull -- The bolted a wooden basket on a pair of skis and put a bucket full of rocks in the basket. They had a nice little 50 yard oval marked off that you dragged the sled around. The first half was remarkably easier than the second!
  28. Water station #3 (10 miles) -- final hydration point.
  29. Tyrolean traverse (and swim) -- At least they had the life jackets at this one!  Rope strung over a pond.  Traverse 50' (either on top of or hanging beneath) on the rope, ring a bell, drop into the water, swim (or get a ride from the nice lady in they kayak who sees you with a life vest and takes pity on you) to shore.  Other than the "Swim/Tarzan Swing" obstacle which looks like the hardest one on the course, this was the most challenging one for me.
  30. Giant dirt mounds with water -- Somehow I had the energy to make the jump across the mudpits for most of these. They'd basically dug 2' deep trenches and piled that + more dirt up to make the mounds & filled the trenches with water (which became mud).
  31. The original list did not have this as an obstacle, but there was about a mile of single-track, over boulders, through the woods bushwhacking up this ridiculously steep mountain slope. This took a LONG TIME because there was little opportunity to get around people who were slower and there were a number of bottlenecks on the trail where progress just ground to a halt and large queues formed.
  32. Rope climb #2 -- similar to the first rope climb, but not as high and climbing out of hay bales, not water (yay!)
  33. Vertical cargo net #2 -- You turn the corner on what you think it the high-point of the mountain only to see that they've managed to string a cargo net over a 10' rock face that you need to ascend.
  34. Double 8 foot wall #3 -- As if you haven't climbed enough (2 miles of straight-up since the Mile 10 water station), they throw a few more walls at you (and taller ones).
  35. Hobie hop -- after about a mile straight down the mountain (about half of which is on more muddy single-track "trail" in the forest) they make you put an elastic band around your ankles and hop over logs and crawl under ropes.
  36. Spear throw -- after about another 10-15 minutes of light hiking on a much smoother grade, you come to the last few obstacles.  The throw-a-spear-in-a-haybale is the only obstacle of all of these that I attempted and failed. The spear had to stick in the haybale and, while my aim and velocity was good, my form put enough of a twist on the spear that it wasn't going straight enough to stick. No food for Grok tonight. 30 burpees were my penalty.
  37. Barbed wire crawl #3 -- short crawl under barbed wire on gravel. No rocks. No water. No mud.
  38. Slippery wall -- ...and now a mud pit in front of a 45° wall (coated in slippery mud) with a rope. Git yourself over the wall.
  39. Fire jump -- once over the wall, you run through a path of pyres and jump over a small bonfire at the end...
  40. Gladiators -- and the run through the finish line and try not to get mauled by the buff dudes with pugil sticks.
FINISH! Get Medal, get banana, get shirt, get beer, get shower (in that order).

Monday, August 13, 2012

"Thank You For Being a Friend..." *

As the 2012 London Olympics come to a close, I wanted to jot down a quick post about some thoughts that have come up in the past few weeks.

1) How awesome were our American Women? 29 of our 46 gold medals came from women this Olympics.

2) We need a Women's MLS league in America and we need to do better at supporting a professional level of women's sport in general. There are too many potentially good role models for young girls to only showcase them once every 4 years. Girls of my generation grew up idolizing Jordan and wanting to,  "Be Like Mike."  I want my girls to grow up knowing the names Rapinoe, Morgan, and Wambach. If they choose a not sporty path, that's fine, but dammit I want them to have the option!

3) More on topic with my recent rambling is that all the hoopla about Michael Phelps being the, "Best. Athlete. Ever." started bringing some focus to the topic I've been struggling with of Health vs. Fitness.  Six months ago, if you asked me about the relationship between the two, I'd probably have said that they had a mostly parallel track, meaning that as you increased your fitness, you became healthier.  Today, I don't think that's necessarily the case and Phelps (or any number of other Olympic or Professional athletes) kinda helped clear the fog in my thought process.

Few would argue that Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps weren't in phenomenal shape. Each man is literally more fit that billions of other men. The same applies to Allyson Felix or Missy Franklin with regard to women. But are they healthy and should we strive to be like them? I found myself wondering what horrible, unnatural things must they do to themselves to be able to perform at that level? Humans were not designed to train with such a singular focus to run 100m in under 10 seconds or to swim that same 100m distance in under a minute.

Granted, I'm not even a decent amateur caliber athlete, but I know the toll it takes on my body to be remarkably mediocre. I've never done any real recreational "off-roading" in terms of dietary/training supplements or dietary wonkiness, but a quick look at professional cycling (or baseball... or football... or track...) will return a laundry list of top-level athletes busted for migrating too far out of the grey area of legal supplement into the land of performance-enhancing substances. It's a safe assumption that to play at the top, you need to understand where that line is and get as close to it as possible without crossing the boundary -- if you don't, you can be certain your opponent is.

How healthy can that possibly be? Sure, many professional athletes have physiques envied by billions, but at what cost? How many retired NFL players appear "healthy" a decade after they've left the game? Many, if not most, have chronic ailments that prevent them from living a normal life. Some of that is due to the abuse of the game. Even in the case of Phelps, what the hell does it do a human's system to ingest 4-5 times the normal amount of food that a normal person requires?

What are we, the Normal Folk, doing to ourselves in our attempts to get as close to that Ideal Form as possible? We weren't built for the constant abuse we put ourselves through trying to look better, be faster, and get stronger. It's only our own arrogance in the Superiority of Humanity that convinces us that we are somehow significantly different than the dude chillaxing with his homies around the campfire 20,000 years ago. What I'm coming to believe is that we're not, and that chasing the dream of any PR fitness goal I might have, whether it be a 3:30 Marathon, 1:30 Half, or a 300# squat will not be evidence of my increased level of health, but can only come at its expense.

* Bonus points to anyone who makes the connection between the Blog Title and its content. Your prize is the sad confirmation that you're old.

Friday, August 3, 2012

21st Century Breakdown

21st Century Breakdown
I once was lost but never was found
I think I am losing
What's left of my mind
To the 20th century deadline
                    - Billie Joe Armstrong

What if everything you've been told about nutrition, health, and fitness was wrong? And not just marginally wrong, but almost the polar opposite of what was right? Spoiler alert: maybe it's not. But what if it is?  Hear me out.

The goal I undertook just over 2 years ago was to stop being a sod and get myself into shape, not just for me and not just for my amazing wife (who had already successfully unsodden herself).  I wanted to set a proper example for my then-infant girls. I wanted to set an example of being healthy and active with the hope that they might avoid the plight of the average American who finds themselves inactive, overweight, and unhealthy.

At the time the conventional wisdom was that I needed whip myself into shape with cardio, crank out hours in the gym every week, and support that activity with a whole-grain fueled low-fat diet.  As is the case for many (but certainly not all and many not even most), when I stuck to that plan, I saw pretty solid results. I was blessed with something genetically that kept me from getting fat, so I didn't have weight to lose, but I was certainly not in shape; I had a little belly an even less muscle tone.

I started running because it was "cheap cardio" and it was something where I could see weekly progress in both my speed and distance.  About 7 months after I started running, I ran a half-marathon in 1:40. 7 months after that I was training very well toward a 3:30 marathon and, despite blowing up on race day, I ran a sub-4:00 race. I believed that the faster I could run or the more weight I could lift (which has never been that much) had a direct correlation to how HEALTHY a human being I was. As of today, I'm not sure I'll go the grave believing that and that's not my belief as I'm writing today.

I've been bitten (and some would probably say infected) by the Paleo/Primal bug.  There are varying flavors of the concept, but the version I'm embracing is that we (human beings) have deviated too far from our very-recent ancestry in both lifestyle and diet.  As brief lesson in human pre-history, consider that the split in the genetic code we carry (vs. either extinct lineages or apes) occurred about 2 million years ago and the principles of natural selection (evolution) gave us a pretty rockin' person heading out of the Paleolithic into the Meso/Neolithic about 10,000 years ago.

Some anthropologists argue that this was the pinnacle of human health. Few anthropologists disagree that the health of the average human took a nose-dive in the Neolithic. Current studies are projecting that for the first time in recorded history the current generations of Americans are likely to have a shorter average life expectancy than subsequent generations.

I have always been a staunch believer in Science and logic as being able to provide answers to problems. As I have continued to read more about the status quo of our society and compare it to what we know (and in some cases what we presume to know) about what Humans are truly evolved to be/eat/do, I have started taking a hard look at how I'm going to choose to live my life and, with my own personal exceptions that come from living a 21st century life, I'm choosing to pursue a more ancestral path.  My hope is that I can find the time I've had today (yay vacation day!) to go more in-depth about what I'm doing and, more importantly, why I think it's right.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

...and Piggy Makes 8!

"When Pigs Fly" team

To this day, I'm not sure what I did wrong last September.  Maybe I brought a wine for dinner that didn't pair as well with the meal as I'd promised.  Maybe I didn't pledge enough to VPR during their fall fundraising drive. Maybe they're just sadists and I'm that "sucker born every minute."  Whatever the reason, my Bro- and Sis-in-Law felt compelled to talk me into signing up for the New England Tough Mudder at Mt. Snow on 5/5/12.

If you've never heard of the Tough Mudder (or Spartan Race), spend the next 1:45 watching the lead-in video here:

Having run a marathon in 2011 (and not planning on doing THAT again any time soon), I was looking for a good challenge to keep me motivated through the winter going into 2012. So, like a good sucker, I bit. I registered.

I was ready for something new, something that didn't involve following a strict running schedule for months on end. My wife decided she wanted to try P90X2, so we committed to starting that in the New Year.  The workouts looked pretty intense and, at the very least, they would start putting some much needed meat on my upper body. We rocked the first two phases and lost steam (me more so than her) with what really seems like a gimmicky final stage that I plan to blog about in the near future.  Regardless, I actually started getting some upper body strength!

We decided our team name for the event would be "When Pigs Fly!" since for about half of us, that was our response when we were asked if we'd like to do the event. We had a handful of good group training exercises where we'd run up/down, crawl under/over, jump over/on/off, lift, throw, carry, climb and drag various and sundry things around our neighborhoods to whip each other into shape.

In hindsight, we should have met at the bottom of the appropriately-named Cliff St. in Burlington every Saturday, jumped into Lake Champlain, and then simply run up & down that stupid hill until we were on the verge of paralysis.  Then we could jumped back into the lake, find a boat anchor, gnaw through the rope, and carry it up & down Cliff St a few more times just for good measure.

I went into the event knowing I was in the best overall shape I've ever been in, but also knowing that getting my upper body improved came at the expense of running conditioning.  I could still knock out 7 miles without a problem, but the P90X2 program focused only occasionally on the lower body and I knew that I was somewhat down in lower body strength & power from the fall.  My cardio was still strong and I admit now that I overestimated the benefit that cardio conditioning would have for this event.

We had a pretty decent early May day for the event; 50s and mixed sun & clouds with an occasional light breeze.  I'm sure the breeze was lovely for the spectators, but constantly jumping in & out of 38F water and encountering a "gentle breeze" was far from pleasant. The best part about the mud-caking on your clothing was that it was a temporary (but hefty) wind block.

The gist of the event seemed to be to run the participants up & down blue-square ski trails for about 6 miles while occasionally giving you a "rest-break" with an obstacle that would either soak you or cover you in mud. You got to confront many common fears -- heights, drowning/water, claustrophobia/darkness, electrocution, roundworm, fire, hypothermia. Some obstacles incorporated several at once, such as the "Electric Eel," a scramble-on-your-stomach crawl through several inches of water through a myriad of wires, some of which would occasionally deliver 10,000V electric shocks.

Leading in to the event, for over a month I've been fighting a losing battle against calf cramping during some of my longer runs.  It's been something that'll come & go, but they've been pretty mild and have worked themselves out before causing me to stop mid-run to address it.  I fought these cramps in the latter stages of my marathon run, but rarely encountered this at any point in the past. Before we hit mile 2 in the race, I knew I was going to have issues before the event was done.

What I didn't know is that I'd be dealing with various calf & quad issues for about 2/3 of the event. Before Mile 3 (out of 10), my calves were starting cramp whenever I wasn't running/hiking.  This was good incentive to keep moving, but for a while, any obstacle that involved crawling or jumping (i.e. all of them) was done with limited leg assist. Crawling through tubes/mud/water with limited propulsion from your legs sucks, especially when your primary goal is to GET THE HELL OUT OF THIS THING NOW!

The calf knotting was more annoying than painful and more had the effect of trying to move around when your leg has fallen asleep -- you can move around, but the leg is pretty useless and you're a little gimpy-looking.  Somewhere around Mile 6, we were bombing down a steep slope and I felt an all-too familiar twinge in both lower inner quads.  In my first Half Marathon (Fall 2010), I started getting cramps around mile 10 out of 13, but was able to run through it and they went away. A few weeks ago during training, I was doing a lot of leg work and had my left quad completely seize up.

As I continued to bound down the mountain, the trail detoured to the right into the woods on a muddy/rocky/rooty single-track "trail" (and I use that term VERY loosely).  I paused briefly to check where my team was behind me and felt both legs start to lock.  Decision time: stop now & address it or press on and see if, like the calf cramping, the quads would work themselves out. Giddy-up, let's run.  On with the show!

It didn't get any better.  After several minutes of traversing the mountain on this mucky track I found a relatively dry area and pulled off the side and both quads instantly & completely locked.  While squatting, the knots in my quads would quickly subside, but as soon as I stood up, they immediately returned.  I couldn't navigate the terrain on tin-man legs, so we had let the world pass us by while my mind attempted to convince my body to STFU and get on with the program.  My team-mates (I don't even remember who at this point!) tried a bit of deep-tissue massage and suggested some stretches which helpled, but the only thing that got me back up and on the train was a couple minutes of rest, relaxation, and deep, calming breaths.

In many ways, my struggles during the marathon last May was probably the best training experience I had for this event. Knowing how to manage your body when Plan A and Plan B have gone out the window and knowing that you can grit through the pain and discomfort and FINISH is a huge motivator to keep putting one foot in front of the other.  I had an AWESOME team and there wasn't a single person who was going to let any other member fail to get through the course.  While I personally felt like crap that my conditioning fell apart, I couldn't have asked for a better group of people to be with for the day.

At the end of the day, we got our lame orange TOUGH MUDDER headbands and lousy Dos Equis draught to mark our successful completion of the course. At the end of the day, we all were cold, wet, muddy, bruised, scraped, sore, exhausted, and relieved.  At the end of the day, we all faced obstacles, both physical and psychological that we said we'd do willingly, "When Pigs Fly!"  On a lovely Cinco de Mayo in Southern Vermont, for about 4 and half hours, there were seven pigs flying up & down Mount Snow...and Piggy makes 8.