The Art of the Workaround, Part 1

New cardio hack! You’ve heard runners say, “An ounce on the foot is like a pound in the pack?” Well according to some researchers the ratio is more like 1:5, but that’s still useful. 

So to work around some shoulder and hand injuries, today’s game was to hike the Faeriemount with ankle weights. That way, even with just a light pack and club, your heart and lungs still think you’re hauling a lot of weight. 

In some sports, you specialize in a very few attributes, like pure strength or aerobic endurance. For example, in deadlift-only competition, you focus on absolute strength only, in just one movement. That’s about as specialized as you can get. At the opposite pole are events where you depend on a dozen or so attributes, or at any rate so many that you can’t afford to specialize much in any of them. That’s the case with obstacle course races and GORUCK challenges. You’ll need to run, climb, crawl, jump, press, pull, squat, carry, swing, and grip, at sprint speeds and at an endurance pace. You can’t afford to specialize much.

More than five thousand participants compete in the Spartan Race, a four-mile long extreme obstacle course, held at the Washougal MX Park, Saturday, June 16, 2012. (Steven Lane/The Columbian)

That’s a lot to worry about, but I’m luxuriating in the variety! Don’t feel like rucking today? Fine, lift weights–you need the strength work. Or go for a run or ride: you can get in some aerobic work and rest the rucking muscles. Or go to yoga. Tweaked your shoulder? No problem, rest it and work on something else. Don’t have access to any equipment or workout clothes today? Fine, load up a bag with books or groceries and suitcase-carry it around for half an hour. You will benefit a lot.

Bottom line: For almost any limitation, you can make a game of working around it. And the less your specialized your sport, the broader the menu of useful games and workarounds.

No Sandman Left Behind

We will resume our series “Twenty Years of Pavel Tsatsouline” shortly.

For today’s game, I trudged up the Rock of Faeries carrying “the Sandman,” a person-sized bag of sand. I feared I might get stuck and abandon it in the field, which would be an unprecedented dishonor. But here at Lean, Solid Dogs we leave no (wo)man behind, not even an anthropomorphized duffle bag of loose, shifting sand!

The omens were bad, with me accidentally tearing the bag as I wrenched it from the car. A lesser blogger might have quit then and there, but inspired by your lofty expectations, dear reader, I patched it up and started trekking.

This is how it feels to lift the sandbag from the middle. It’s floppy, uncooperative, and wriggling, like a huge, rebellious slinky.

The real nightmare was simply to shoulder the bag. There is no easy way to hoist a load that size off the ground and up to head height when it’s so loose that it can flop and flow. If you bend down and clasp hands around the middle of the bag, once you lift, the sand shifts to the ends of the bag and stays on the floor. If you grab the ends and stand upright, it flows to the middle and pins it to the ground. You can reach down and grab handfuls of canvas with the 120# of sand sagging between them, but you now have two problems. Your finger strength is one of them, and even worse is how to lift the bag more than a couple inches from the ground.

I tried putting my feet together and squatting down so that I could wrestle the blob of sand inch by inch up my shins and rest it on my knees. That works, but it takes most of the fight out of your arms, which after all are small, weak limbs made for mobility, not strength and endurance. At this point I was stuck in a full, ass-to-ground-and-heels-together squat and, though I could rest there and gather my strength with the bag balanced on my legs, I had zero leverage for moving all that still-shifting sand onto my shoulder. So I spent a few minutes trying to squeeze my shoulder down to knee level and then shake and jerk the bag around until I’d “poured” half the sand, still in the loose bag, over my shoulder and down my back. The final step, standing up under the bag, turned out to be one of the hardest lifts I’ve ever made: a sort of round-backed front squat that took such a hard ab contraction and Valsalva maneuver (the thing where you close your throat and let the air hiss out at high pressure) that it gave me a sore throat. 

And that was before I’d taken my first step! Thankfully, once you get the bag to your shoulder, it’s not so hard to carry. In fact, you can heave and flop the Sandman in different ways around your neck and shoulders to milk more endurance from your muscles. When your low back tires, you can shift the work to your upper back and obliques and abs, neck, quads, and arms in different combinations. And luckily I wore a tough cotton jacket, so in some positions I could grab my own sleeve or lapel, like a jiu-jitsu player, and relax my biceps and shoulders for a while.

The sandbag is the blue wrestler, only without arms and legs and that bored, “devil may care” expression. You’re the woman in red. Be sure to wear an 80s sweatband, as it will double your strength.

You can always drop the bag and rest, but after every rest you have to shoulder the bag all over again, which almost negates the rest. Eventually I found a good technique that’s a type of Turkish getup. (I hope to post photos shortly. Briefly, the trick is to lie down and roll yourself like a Greco-Roman wrestler under the middle of bag so that half of the sand lies on your chest and half on the ground by your head. From there you get the best leverage possible for sitting up with it.) 

You know you’ve exerted yourself just the right amount if you feel stronger and zestier after your workout, and today was perfect. Despite the wretched beginning, I settled into my favorite state, what I think of as “Buddhist muscular hedonism.” You exert yourself just hard enough to withdraw your awareness into a narrow focus, with enough attention to calmly notice each step and each breath but not enough to think ahead or even lift your gaze very far forward. You have to concentrate to keep your footsteps smooth and efficient and your breaths deep and gentle, because as soon as you start breathing raggedly or through your mouth during exercise, you start draining your emergency reserves of energy, whereas with rich nose breathing in an even rhythm, you’ll feel like a million bucks, like you could go all day. That’s how I felt today, so enraptured that I decided to stay in the Happy Zone and do double the mileage. Even now I’d like to go back out again for light jog. (But I won’t—I’ve learned the lesson the hard way that if I abuse my second wind, I’ll pay.)

Speaking of lessons, for stuff like this I’ve decided I should wear a hockey helmet. It’s just hiking, but there are boulders and rocks around, and if I ever hit one with my head, I’d have to quit the professor business and become a stripper again.

Eight Square Feet of Endorphins


A complete gym in one tidy corner:

  • Kettlebells. One is enough, but in a happy home they multiply.
  • Somebody to swing them. Note the bare feet–that’s how you should do it too.
  • Rucksack and boots. Insert kettlebells and start walking.
  • Pavel Tsatouline’s classic Russian Kettlebell Challenge (1999), still the best book there is on this stuff.
  •  Sledgehammer (optional). Style points for the awesome camo pattern on his pants, too. (Anyone recognize it? British MTP?)
  • An AK (optional), to protect the kettlebells.

If you just add companionship, kombucha, and a dog, you have most of the elements of earthly happiness right here.

Rhomboid Rodeo

Volodya surveys the valley after earning his blue-and-white David Rigert tel’nyashka

To initiate Volodya the 28kg Kettlebell, I suitcase-carried him with the Backpack of Bricks up the summit. Today’s game was that I could set him down when needed, but for the whole hike I had to hold my chest and head upright. No hunched backs.

I had no idea how bad I’d be at that. Sure, in a life full of keyboards and steering wheels we’re all weak in the postural muscles of our upper backs, but I must excel at believing, “Ha, boring universal truths don’t apply to ME!!”


Of Sapogi and Sixguns

“我不下地獄,誰下地獄?” (“If I do not descend into hell, who will?”)

During the Buddhist Backpack Pilgrimage, I acted as your personal bodhisattva, dear readers, and compassionately offered myself as a sacrifice for your welfare. How? By venturing out to do the whole 34 miles in jackboots (sapogi) and footwraps. In our previous field test we’d shown their value in wet conditions, but we still didn’t know how they would compete with hiking boots on hard, dry roads and rocky moonscapes. And who else would be lunatic enough to do so?

Hyperbole aside, I really was a little leery about this. It’s one thing to don strange footwear for a walk in the park, it’s another commit to them irrevocably for two days of hard walking.

Bundeswehr_Knobelbecher_OriginalThe boots I chose were surplus West German “Knobelbecher” (“dice-cups”). They’re heavy (1.1kg each), older than I am, and I bought them for $20.

My feet I wrapped in my homemade Russian-style portyanki. (In the world of footwraps, there is a Russian style and a very different German style called Fußlappen. Don’t worry, we’ll experiment with those too in due time!)

What did we learn? First, jackboots are awesome on roads, hardpack, and the forest floor. I’ve remarked before on how they make me walk by swinging my foot from the knee instead of from the hip. For whatever reason, on flat surfaces I sometimes felt like the jackboots were walking me or like I was a Bionic Marching Man. Not for nothing do Germans call them Marschstiefel, “marching boots!”

The jackboots also performed nearly as well as hiking boots on loose gravel and decaying roads. The only time I really wished I could change into hiking boots was on certain stretches of Mad Max-level rubble where your ankle rolled a different way with each step. With hiking boots you can plow straight over the rocks, if the ground is stable, as if you had little ATVs on your feet. With jackboots, you have to do a little extra work with your own foot and leg muscles, and I have to think that over time your knees absorb more torque.

The footwraps were positively delightful. They stayed put on every kind of terrain, and it was nice to refresh my feet by sitting down every few miles, turning the portyanki around, and rewrapping them. I also tried out wearing a pair of wool socks with the footwraps over them, something common in winter, and found that very comfortable too.

You know how I treasure revolvers, but this is too ugly even to be Russian. And yet now I can see the genius of it.

A final thought on trail guns. I’d always wondered why someone would buy the Ruger LCRx, a misshapen 5-shot airweight .357 with a 3” barrel. It seemed like an overpowered pocket rocket that won’t even fit in your pocket! But after my close encounter with the bears, when I’d almost been too lazy to carry a gun at all, I saw the LCRx in a whole different light. It looks like a perfect “just in case” backwoods beater gun for when you’re weighing the annoyance of a real belt gun against the pathos of your family getting your remains back in a wet, 2-quart Ziploc bag.

The Buddhist Backpack, Beads (and Bears!) Pilgrimage

Following an idea from the Manly Monk of Vilnius, I declared this weekend the Great Buddhist Backpack & Beads Pilgrimage. The idea was, one step, one mantra, and in 27 miles that would make fifty-five thousand mantra reps. That’s got to be enough to make you a buddha in this very lifetime (即身成佛), right?

But a meditation retreat is always a hilarious circus of human foibles. My mind took the the last song I heard, “Billy Jean,” and for three miles it composed ribald lyrics.

Then came the bears. A mother and two cubs CHARGED across the trail, 20 yards in front of me, like OJ and his blockers. Thank heaven they kept going and started crashing around in the bush. But I couldn’t tell from the noise where they were going—“Do bears circle around and take people from behind?” I wondered—so I walked the next stretch very quickly and “mindfully,” shall we say, before I took my hand off my gun and remembered anything about a mantra.

Also, without armed Buddhists we wouldn’t have kung-fu movies. Case closed.

Yes, there is a tradition of Buddhist pilgrims with weapons, and we just saw why. Bears eat you alive and screaming, even if you’re Buddhist. Mama Bear begins her meal as soon as you’re pinned down, without so much as a break-your-neck.

Wait,” you ask, you would really shoot a charging bear, Mr. Buddhist?” It’s “Dr. Buddhist,” thank you very much, and HELL YES! Ain’t no precept tells you to yield meekly while The Three Bears eat your liver.

Some wiseacre will now point to folklore where bodhisattvas (superhero-saints) offer their flesh to starving carnivores as an act of compassion. (Sigh.) But those are hyperbolic hero tales, like a Wonder Woman comic, not practical instructions for conducting yourself on a camping trip.

Much gratitude to Remi Warren for his lesson about this, or I’d have been lazy and carried my gun in my pack. As they say, “You almost never need a gun, but when you do, you need it real bad.” This whole thing started and finished in 2 seconds.

Read this book if you’re intrigued by anything I’ve written here, other than the stuff about getting mauled by bears.

For a few miles after the bear encounter, the only mantra I was repeating was “HF!! WTF!!!” which is not officially sanctioned. But after that I settled my breath and my feet back into a happy rhythm, and in 5 miles I almost forgot that it ever happened. Feet, breath, mantra, all thumping along cheerfully in time with each other, far from the proverbial smoke and fire of human settlements (人间烟火)–well, it’s pretty close to heaven.

Between the bears and Billie Jean, I only got in maybe 30,000 good reps in, but I’ll take it! Svaha!