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Notes From The Elk Mountain Grand Traverse

by Ethan Linck and Peter Innes

Two weeks ago, we had the privilege of lining up to race the 20th annual Elk Mountain Grand Traverse. The “GT,” as it’s commonly known, is a 40 mile point-to-point backcountry ski race from Crested Butte to Aspen. Because of the stunning tableau of mountains en route, the unpredictable weather, and its midnight start, it’s hard to think of a more iconic ski mountaineering event in North America. As both of us have served as winter caretakers at the nearby Rocky Mountain Biological Lab, where daily life provides ample preparation for a long day of low-angle mountain travel at high elevation, the GT is near and dear to our hearts as a celebration of one of Colorado’s more beautiful landscapes.

Gothic Mountain and the East River Valley: home to the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab and yours truly, team Rocky Mountain Ski Lab. Photo (c) Ethan Linck

Read on →

Living, Working, and Running at 9,500′

I’ve been spending the summer living and working at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL, pronounced “rumble”) in Gothic, CO. Life is good. First of all, I get to pursue my love for ecology while being immersed in an inspiring community of scientists and students. Also, I get to run in the mountains every day. Read on →

Putting It On Paper

There’s just something about sitting down in front of a calendar and penning out a training schedule that signals the start of not just a new season but a new attitude. The training schedule is first a dream about what might be possible, the writer imagining each written activity as if it had already happened. Months of running transpire without effort, the benefits of work magically accruing without discipline or suffering.

Then, when the schedule is completed and laid out on the calendar, the daydreaming ends. The bastard stares up at you, a 31-eyed beast of a thing. It asks whether I have the patience, the discipline, the body, and the mind to complete it. It wonders if I know myself well enough, or if I’ve bitten off too much. It wonders if I can make the necessary sacrifices.

Blind enthusiasm takes its toll.

Blind enthusiasm takes its toll.

Just this afternoon, I laid out a three month calendar of miles and hills, with the help of Siggi, who has been training for a few week yet in Iceland. At the beginning of this month, the weather turned warm and I jumped on the trails too fast and too hard, my knee flaring in warning and quickly quelling my blind enthusiasm.

I decided that I would not be such a fool this year, and immediately stopped running. I sent out the feelers for a good physical therapist and found Annalisa Fish at Endurance PDX.* She poked and prodded and helped me to come up with a plan. In light of her observations, I’ve redefined my approach to training and my season goals; instead of thinking of the Summer season in isolation, with a peak in the early fall and a strong beer-taper into ski season, I want to run this season as if it is a stepping stone to a life of running better, pain free and stronger by the year.

So with that, I have a few goals for the season. I share them here because it’s committing, and because I hope that it will give you some insight into how I think and approach a season of running or skiing. You might even be inspired to make your own, which would be ideal.

1. Treat recovery like training. Be smart. Stretching, nutrition, sleep, prehab, and off days are more important than on days. I want to cut it short when it hurts, and attack problems as they arise. Tools: prescribed PT and stretching plan. Voodoo floss to attack hot spots. Subscribe to a CSA and eat the hell out of some veggies.

2. Build volume in a way that makes sense. I have a plan and I want to stick to it. No jumping 30% in volume because I watch a cool race video or dream up a cool objective. I racka’ diciprine.

3. Run alone less. I like people and need to spend more time with them. I want to run more with Taylor on my easier days, and find partners for the more punishing efforts. Community is where it’s at.

4. The Enchantments Loop: Beautiful mountains, gotta run through them. Completing the loop on the road is contrived and masochistic– I’ll add some peaks instead.

5. Mt St Helens Circumnavigation: Mt Hood’s ugly sister. Shorter, vaguer, lonlier, and lower-quality trail. What’s else could you want?

6. Speedbag in the Stuart range. Maybe Stuart itself. Combine running with mountaintops.

7. Get after it in Iceland. Enough said.

8. Build rather than taper into Winter. This contributes to the 5-year Big-Goal™ (top secret). If I work hard to earn fitness and a resting HR of 40, theres no point in giving it away for nothing.

Fun.

Fun.

9. If it’s not fun, it’s not worth it.

That’s all for now. I need to go hit the foam roller, stretch, and shower off today’s training time. Is this the summer you’ll join me in getting serious?

*A note on physical therapists: few are worth anything to an athlete. The profession is so concerned with the treatment of chronic back pain in fat people that the average physical therapist finds it remarkable that you can even navigate stairs without pain, let alone execute a single air squat. If you need a PT, and this year 70% of you runners will, find one by recommendation of other athletes. If your PT is not used to working with endurance athletes, they will not understand your quest to build a body that is capable of not just daily activities but of great things. Hiding out there under the radar is a cadre of well-educated PTs able to understand you and possessed of the persistence and knowledge to ferret out the subtle movement flaws that become big problems over great distance and efforts./font size>


In time, I’ll be writing a piece on shoes, because I love running in them and I destroy a few pairs every season. This year I’m a convert of the S-Lab. The hype is true. Check it out for yourself and support MountainLessons in the process:

RACREDRD

Training Cadence for Skimo Racing

What separates fast skimo racers from slow skimo racers? Certainly equipment, technique, transitions, and fueling are all important considerations, but I propose that one simple metric sets fast racers apart from the rest: cadence.

In short, cadence is how many strides a racer takes per minute. It makes no measure of how long those strides might be. Cadence is a measure of pure turnover, and interestingly, one thing in common among all of the fastest racers is a fast cadence.

The fastest world cup skimo racers have a cadence of around 110-115 strides per minute. To make that more intuitive, they stride along to the snare-beats of The Clash’s “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” at 113 bpm.

(If The Clash annoys you too, try some Pretty Lights).

I’ve heard a few theories about why a faster cadence is good for you, but I can’t say that I agree with them. The easiest argument to make is that if I’m taking 10 more steps per minute, then over an hour, I’m 600 steps ahead. The problem is, this assumes that when you change your turnover, your stride length stays the same. It doesn’t; your stride gets shorter. If it stayed the same length, then the advice that I’m giving you now would be equivalent to saying if you just go faster, then you’ll go faster. Duh.

It's all about the stride length.

It’s all about the stride length.

It’s the change in stride length that is the important result of a faster cadence. Whether you shorten your stride and take more steps to maintain the same speed, or if you increase your cadence and have to modify to a shorter stride to avoid exploding, the result is the same: more steps, shorter steps. Read on →

Ueli Steck Is Just A Dude.

Up at Mt Hood on Saturday evening, Taylor got a text from a connected friend: “Do you guys want to climb with Ueli Steck tomorrow?”

ueli steck signs belay card

Even if you climb thousands of meters ropeless, you still need to sign the belay card.

For those of you less familiar with Ueli: he is a Swiss alpinist best known for speed soloing the North face of the Eiger in 2 hours and 47 minutes. The film about the climb earned him the nickname “The Swiss Machine” for his relentless organization, drive, and power output. He is a two-time winner of the highest honor in climbing, and he recently completed a long-time project, making a first ascent on Annapurna and down-climbing the route solo in 28 hours.

Late Sunday morning, the climbing gym was busy, but not packed. Taylor and I threw on our harnesses and started to climb around, glancing with anticipation towards the door. Midway through a pitch, I heard Taylor call up to me: “He’s here!”

When I lowered off, sure enough, there was the guy I’ve seen in movies, in ads, and across the climbing internet. He was stooped over the iPad at the desk, filling out a waiver. Ushered by Heidi from the local American Alpine Club chapter, he headed to the locker room. He’s short. He’s not duck-footed, as I’d heard, but he does have bowlegs that would make a cowboy jealous. Returning from the locker room, he smiled his way through a perfunctory top-rope belay test with nervous laughter before tying in with the assistant manager, JB Graham, to take a lead test.

JB took a whipper onto Ueli’s belay while a gym member shyly backed-up the Swiss legend. After lowering JB, Ueli tied in and hiked an 11b as a warmup. Not one to miss out on the action, I walked over and started chatting with JB as Ueli lowered. Perfect timing: next thing I know, I’m making small talk with the man who speed soloed the Eiger in under three hours.

ueli steck belaying

JB takes Ueli and his flip-flops for a ride.

Read on →

GoreTex Grand Traverse: Q&A with Team Crested Butte’s Jon Brown

GoreTex Grand Traverse Logo

The GoreTex Grand Traverse (formerly the Elk Mountains Grand Traverse) is the grand-daddy of North American ski traverses.  Departing Crested Butte at midnight, the unsupported course climbs roughly 40 miles past two checkpoints before finishing down Aspen Mountain into the town of Aspen. Because the race takes place on an unmarked and largely unsupported course through the Colorado backcountry, the race is completed as a team of two, and racers are required to carry the equipment necessary to make an emergency 24 hour bivouac.


The night start, huge mileage, variable terrain, and historically varied weather make this a race to be reckoned with. Racers need to keep themselves warm, hydrated, fueled and, well, racing for 8-14 hours. Compared to the Wasatch Powderkeg or other North American SkiMo races, it is logistically complex.

This year will be my first in the race and I, like many first time racers, had a lot of questions. Jon Brown, from Team Crested Butte, was gracious enough to talk training, gear, and strategy with me.

Team Crested Butte

Old school Team Crested Butte at Grandvalira. LtoR: Jon Brown, Jari Kirkland, Brian Wickenhauser & Eric Sullivan

Jon Brown is a member of Team Crested Butte, and he has raced the Grand Traverse 10 out of the last 12 years. He and his partner Brian Smith won the 2006 traverse by a hair, sneaking across the finish line between another pair of racers.

He started nordic skiing in highschool but since discovering SkiMo skis, his nordic kit has been collecting dust in his garage. Jon began his race career as a mountain bike racer after graduating from Western State Colorado University, paying the bills by working as a raft guide, barista, and snowmobile guide. In his 30s he moved to Gunnison where he started a small publishing company and started adventure racing with Team Crested Butte.

TCB has since evolved from an adventure racing team into one of the strongest SkiMo teams in North America. Read on →

Training for a 50k Trail Run

Forest Park Trail Panorama

(Click to make me big)

For those who don’t know me personally, let me fill you in: I’m too busy these days.  I’m applying to medical school this summer, which means working 20 hours a week in one hospital, volunteering one day in another, studying organic chemistry, studying for the MCAT entrance exam, preparing application materials, and generally just taking on too much.  It’s a passing fad that will start to wind down in June once applications are in and school is done, but for now, I have to suck it up and do less of all of the things that I love to do, like climbing and skiing. It’s sad to say, but they’re just more involved sports that require weather coordination and advanced planning, which makes them hard to fit into an ever-morphing schedule.

LaSportiva Crosslite 1.0

This mind and body though, they rest for no schedule.  I’ve written before about the need to get outside and move.  It’s primal, and necessary, and I’d implode without an outlet.  Moreover, I like to dream big and I like to have trips and such to look forward to so that even in the darkest, busiest days of city gloom, I know that escape is looming. When I ruminated on my schedule with these needs in mind, an idea came to the fore: running.

BORING.  I can hear you say it.  But there’s something undeniably satisfying in the ability to cover run long distances.  Most people think that you’re crazy to run 13 miles, or that this is some superhuman feat.  Thankfully, we’re not most people. With a plan, I think that it’s reasonable for any athletic person to train for and run a 50k.  So that’s what I’m doing. Read on →

10,000 Hours to Mastery

I’ve heard it said from many sources, all stemming from  one study (which I can’t quite track down), that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a subject, skill, or discipline.

True.  And false.

These days, if you want to learn something, you can find a hundred people who offer to teach it to you.  Moreover, they’ll do it in “just ten minutes!” or “three easy sessions!”

Bullshit.

It’s plain to anyone’s common sense that mastering something so quickly is impossible.  The very notion of mastery, of deeply understanding a subject beyond its immediate rational tenets, ought to contradict the idea of rapid acquisition of a skill.  These talents take a lifetime to master.  Or, if we accept the 10,000 hours idea, 10 years of about 3 hours a day.

We succumb to those who propose the quick fix because we want to do everything, and because it’s easier to commit to something that takes only 9 hours.  Nine hours are a lot of time right?  Like, 20 TV shows!  I could be watching American Idol right now, but instead I’m learning something, and the sooner that’s over the better.

But there’s another side to the 10k hours idea that doesn’t get talked about.  It’s not discussed because it’s a poison to our desire for instant gratification.  The idea is this:

When we achieve mastery of a subject through years of practice, this mastery allows us to become an initiate in the next level of our pursuit.  The toil of mastery leads us to become a beginner once again; it leads us to hour zero.

An example:  I’ve skied since I could walk, thanks to my parents and to my grandparents.  They unknowingly started me down a path of 10,000 hours that would allow me a mastery so early in my life, which also brings me great joy.  As some have been given the gift of a second language acquired easily in the their childhood, so do I ski.

In one sense, I have mastered skiing through hours of practice.  Better still, much of the practice wasn’t consciously that, but was joy to undertake.  But as I approach my 10,000 hours of skiing, something more becomes clear:

As I am now able to ski anything that lies within the ropes of a ski area boundary, be it steeps, ice, powder, cliffs, etc., I encounter a drive to move beyond the ropes and into the untamed mountains.  My mastery allows me the skills to become a beginner once more.  One thousand skills remain to be acquired.  The next pursuit requires a new approach to time, terrain, and logistics.  Plug the light sockets; I’m a goddamn toddler out there.

So when we say that it takes 10,000 hours to master something, we neglect to say that mastery begets a new sort of beginner.  This idea is worthy of despair if we spend our lives working to arrive at some perfection that provides us with a final satisfaction, but a belief in that place will just lead us back to the Three Easy Sessions!  The reality is that satisfaction that comes from process, from work, from study, and not from arrival.  That gratification is fleeting.

That the ladder we’re climbing has no top isn’t a curse, it’s the greatest blessing a practitioner could ask for.

The Shoulder Season

Training is a funny thing– when the desire to undertake it actually rises inside of us seems to have little relation to when it is most needed.  The desire to train comes, for me, most strongly at the beginning and at the end of a season.  In early spring, though the snow is still fantastic, I find myself dreaming of the heat of summer, and I can’t wait to pull on warm rock in the desert.  Then, come the end of the climbing season in fall, as it is now, there’s a second surge in desire.  The looming cold and poor weather holds the axe over projects that have languished in the luxury of summer hours.  Just one more good try! Just give me one more chance to make it happen, to cap the season in delicious success!  Living in the city, this means climbing in a rock gym during some of the most beautiful days of the year, and begging, hoping and waiting for weather and partners to line up for a weekend trip.

But devotion, too, is powerful, and it can make us train an entire season in advance, knowing that we are banking strength and confidence that will pay great dividends, all while we suffer the joke that is a hangboard in the depths of winter.  The floorboards are cold, and the powder beckons, but the projects that eluded us when the rains came are still there, waiting to judge our constitution come spring.

So, we train.  There is one element that seems consistent in all hard training: pain.  Pain in the body and in the mind are the price that has to be paid to become strong.  Training is either a test of determination, of pain tolerance, or commonly of both.  When the pain of training starts to mount, the insidious voice that calls itself Reason pens essays of impeccable clarity about why the training ought to stop.  “You’ve done enough.  You don’t deserve this.  You’re doing it for the wrong reasons.  Why do you want to punish yourself?  All for a rock? Really?  If you put all of this effort into those things that you’ve always been told mattered, you wouldn’t be living in such a dump.  You might even have a girlfriend.  Is the climbing really more important to you than that? Fine, train hard, live the loneliness and see if I care.”

As we train, the body also tells stories.  The memory of pain may live in the mind, but the story of how we have lived is deeply imprinted in every fiber of our body, for better or for worse.  Ability, that drug of a feeling, is stored in our muscles, banked in the patterns that we’ve woven in our training.  Weakness, persistent as gravity, lives in our muscles, but also lives sewn into our tendons, our ligaments, and our bones.  The fall two years ago that tore my shoulder from its socket, the deep scar from years before where a metal grate scooped at my knee like a tub of ice cream, and the pain in my neck, from upending my mountain bike just last week, these all speak as I train, and ask their own indulgences and accommodations.   It’s an unavoidable physical karma, and without great amounts of time or the miracles of surgery, it’s additive.

But there is a voice within us that can drive this all aside, and that is, I think, the true goal of training– to make a space to cultivate this voice.  It says to the body’s stories, ‘take what you need, but nothing more’, and to the mind it says, well, ‘fuck you’.  This voice, at its best, can cut like a knife through the bullshit that normally we pull tightly around ourselves like a blanket, insulating ourselves against the demanding measures of our ambitions.  This careful preparation of ourselves with the the reducing knife of training hones us so that when we have to call on our strengths to survive in the mountains, or even to be strong for a friend, we are no more than we need to be.  Unobstructed by the unnecessary, our energy can take us far.

The Only Muscle Worth Training

From House of Frieh:

“A very wise man told me recently this:

“Others discuss and even argue about which training method is the ‘best.’ I’ve participated in that conversation. I won’t now though because – the way most people do it – it is only physical training and therefore, for my purposes, one-dimensional and shallow. To me the point is growth, and to be specific: psychological growth. Building strength and endurance is dandy. Hell, it’s an admirable objective and pastime in a society of the mostly indolent and obese. But it’s EASY. The hard part is what comes next. The hard part is using one’s acquired physical capabilities, testing to learn whether those skills are as meaningful or valuable as all the ‘atta boy’ gym patter pretends. And the really tough part is translating physical capability into equivalent mental horsepower and psychological growth. Nice muscles decorating a 4-bit CPU are (like) lipstick on a pig. And in my opinion, if, using whatever means, one develops his own multi-core processor, then the rest, i.e. the decoration or the physical capability will follow as a consequence. Every meaningful physical achievement that has occurred has originated in the mind. And it’s the only muscle worth training.”