It’s the Weight, Stupid: High-Altitude Backpacking AAR (Pt. 2)

Photo by Lean Solid Girl

Find part 1 of my misadventure here.

When you’re rucking with a group and you lag behind like a boat anchor, worse than the physical burning of sucking wind in white-hot lungs is the embarrassment of being the weak sister. No one says anything, of course, and probably few people are even thinking anything, but it is dispiriting.

When the ego is hurting, the mind searches for reasons, and I was forming a theory. A couple months earlier, I had attended our team PT qualification, an 8-mile hike on rocky terrain with 20# (dry) as fast as possible. As an experiment, I added an extra 15# to see how far it would slow me, and the result was unexpected: I finished in the usual time of about 120 minutes–pride wouldn’t let me fall behind–but it escalated the effort more than I anticipated, from a literal walk in the park to a gasping, sweaty, painful struggle.

Now, as my throat tasted that hated anaerobic burn, like rancid hot butter coating my trachea, I was forming an educated guess.

“How much water do you have?” I asked The Spider, a rangy veteran climber. He pursed his lips. “Probably too much. A couple of liters.” I asked the same question to Bonanza, a SAR prodigy with energy levels that an ordinary man could only get from cocaine. His answer? “About a liter. But keep in mind, I’m kind of a camel. I really should have a liter and a half.”

Mystery solved! I’d made a classic intellectual’s mistake, seizing upon something I once heard in a lecture and clinging to it like gospel. In my case, the decontextualized nostrum was, “Hydrate in cold weather just as you would in hot weather.” And so I packed 8.5L of water. That is my standard intake for a day’s backpacking in triple-digit heat, so being a dutiful student, among my snow gear I packed a plus-sized water bladder and five canteens. 

That’s almost 19 pounds of water. Instead of three. 

On top of that, I’d gotten blubbery too. My best rucking weight is a maximum of 170# and 10% bodyfat, but on this day I was carrying an extra ten pounds of fat.  All told, I was hauling 25 unnecessary pounds.

On the spot I dumped out the two canteens I could reach, and that helped somewhat, jettisoning close to 5 pounds on the spot. But down in the recesses of my bag, I still had six more liters (13+ lbs.) squirreled away, and there was no getting rid of those til we made camp.

By that time, I had vowed in three different languages that I would form a new relationship to pack weight. Sure, it’s fun to do things the hard way when I’m romping around on my own, but not when I have a group to keep up with and some group mission to serve.

Other Useless Weight

Food: I had zero interest in food. I was in ketosis (and drinking extra ketones in my water too), and when I exercise in ketosis I almost forget about hunger and food. There was close to a pound of nuts ready to hand, but I barely touched them. For dinner I also brought a mess tin with riced cauliflower, salmon groats, and pine nuts, and though I forced myself to heat it and eat it, it was pretty vile. For trips of just 24 hours, I think all I want is ketones and nuts, and some chaga and coffee for drinking. And by leaving the mess tin and the cauliflower and salmon, I’ll save a full kilo. 

Poncho: I brought a Bundeswehr rain poncho (1000g!), but I only used it as a kneeling pad. Since we weren’t expecting rain, I should have left it. (I still had my usual kneeling pad anyway.) That would have saved another full kilo. 

Hip belt: The Swedes who made the LK-70 only gave it a minimal, 1960s canvas hip belt. For looooooong hikes, I substituted an enormous padded one. It’s extremely comfortable for walking all day under heavy load because I can alternate miles supporting the load on my shoulder straps and on the plush belt. But for this relatively short hike of just a few hours, the belt was a waste. I could have saved about another kilo here by replacing it with the original, simple canvas belt.

Suppose I had left those items behind, and carried a reasonable 2L of water instead of my actual truckload of bladders and canteens: I would have saved 20 pounds.

What Worked Great

Ketones! I should keep these in my regular SAR pack too for long night searches when I get “hangry.” Better just to plunge into ketosis, live off body fat, and forget about hunger.

Lean Solid Girl cooks up the chaga in my $5 Esbit stove.

Esbit stove: This little thing was a champ. I carry mine with half of a coffee can that I sawed apart and perforated, so it shields the stove from wind, contains the heat, and improves fuel efficiency. At sea level I need six Coghlin fuel tablets to boil a pot (750mL) of water, and up at our campsite I needed almost double that. 

As it happened, I guessed my fuel consumption just right: at 9000 feet I used twelve tablets (half a box) each at dinner and in the morning, and had another box in reserve. At 125g, that’s cheap insurance.

Chaga: I don’t exactly love the taste of chaga, but it’s nourishing and it’s something warm to drink in the evening that won’t spoil my ketosis. This was a winner.  

These are either the Swedish M39 pattern or something very close. Can anyone identify them for sure? Send me a message or comment.

Wool pants: I prefer wool pants to synthetic. Though a low-tech traditionalist by temperament, I’m also following the advice of two influences who have massive “snow cred.” My friend and mentor Sgt. Šileika knows cold–in Canada, Kandahar, and Lithuania–and he insists on wool and won’t touch synthetics. Then there’s Lars Grebnev, a Dane who became a homesteader in Siberia (!!), whose rule of thumb is to default to Scandinavian wool army surplus from during/before the Sixties. Those armies lived in the field for months at a time as a matter of routine, in sub-Arctic conditions, and the clothing they used was optimized for warmth and durability..

On their advice, I combed the best brick and mortar surplus store I’ve ever seen for a surplus pair of THICK wool Swedish army trousers from some time in the ancient past: as best I can tell, these were made in the 1940s or 50s. They were divine for wearing in camp. Other parts of my body got cold at times—my upper half, my feet, my hands—but never for a second were my legs or butt chilly, even when kneeling in snow. 

And for that matter, they kept my midsection pretty warm too, since they come up almost to my ribs. Sgt. Šileika has pointed out that these old-time trousers take suspenders, which is wonderful when carrying a pack so it doesn’t pinch skin at your belt line. The only downsides are that they can get too warm if I’m hiking in full sun—I actually had to strip them off for the climb up.

The Danish mesh shirt with the thin Brit t-shirt over it is plenty of warmth as long I’m moving.

Running tights: Speaking of stripping off my pants, I sure was glad I had running tights underneath! They keep the wool pants from itching too.

Base layer: I wore an Underarmor type of shirt (the British ones are good) and over that I had the Danish mesh shirt that is becoming a huge favorite of mine because it keeps me dry and insulates me too. Singly or together, I like these as base layers. They’re keepers. 

Gloves: In my pockets I kept one pair of Bundeswehr gloves and one pair of cheap OD wool glove liners (which are incredibly warm). And in my pack I had a backup pair of the glove liners. This setup was perfect.

Photo by Lean Solid Girl

Portyanki and socks: Despite wearing thin boots (see below), I got by great with just a pair of flannel foot wraps (portyanki) and underneath them a pair of the awesome Finnish M05 sock liners (the all-purpose, all-weather supersock—I wear them with a suit and wingtips, I wear them on hundred-degree romps, and I wear them in the snow). 

Two spare pair of socks was enough. At night I wore all the socks and footwraps over them, and my feet stayed toasty warm.

What Was a Disaster

I should have brought mini-spikes. I own a pair and they would have provided cheap insurance.

My matches weren’t working well at altitude. I finally succeeded by placing one match among a pile of fuel tablets, shielded from the wind, and then lighting it with a little electric cigarette lighter. But Charlie Rock has got the right idea: Zippo typhoon matches.

Inflatable mattress: I needed much, much better insulation. Next time I’ll need a proper four-season sleeping pad.

What to Replace

I used the Belgian surplus fleece plenty as a mid-layer, but it wasn’t warm enough to justify its weight (600g). Not when you can get the surplus Italian merino quarter-zips (275g) for cheap and those warm wool British service shirts (500g) even cheaper. Hell, I have this surplus wool Ike jacket from Finland that looks like it belongs on a gay merchant seaman or Kim Jong Il, but it’s warm AF and only weighs 1000g.

The $20 jackboots from East Germany were fine. I greased the bejeezus out of them and they kept my feet dry and remain my best all-round boot. However, for snow antics, I’ll upgrade to modern, insulated boots.

I love my Miltec bivvy sack, which is a cheap clone of the US Army one, but it’s not Goretex and doesn’t vent moisture from your breath, so it collected some condensation inside. That’s not OK for these conditions. I love it for warmer temperatures, but for winter camping I need a better sleep system. 

Anabasis: A High-Altitude Backpacking AAR (Pt. 1)

Xenophon of Athens was a philosopher but no soft-handed coffeehouse bloviator. A student of Socrates, in 401 BC Xenophon enlisted in a mercenary army setting out to topple the sovereign of the Persian Empire. After their commander was killed, the fighting philosopher held the routed army together and led them into the Caucusus Mountains on a bitter campaign to fight their way back to their homes in Greece. Xenophon survived to record the story read by schoolboys ever since, the Anabasis. Roughly, it means “The Ascent” or “The March Up.”

I have a man-crush on Xenophon. When I was a student on winter break, I loved to cozy up by the fire and struggle through the Anabasis. I guess Xenophon is my fantasy alter-ego: the philosopher-survivalist. True, I am more Walter Mitty than Xenophon—I will not be remembered as either a great philosopher or a great adventurer and my tombstone will not say anything as cool as “Scholar and Mercenary”—but a man can have heroes to emulate, can’t he? I have at least earned a parchment declaring me Philosophiae Doctor and a lot of callouses and GORUCK patches, and with luck my tombstone won’t say “Ill-read and credulous, he was addicted to video games and porn.”

The nicest book I own: a schoolboy’s edition of the Anabasis from 1895, when “going to school” meant “learning Latin and Greek” and the curriculum was heavy on texts that appealed to nine-year-old boys, with a lot of daring-do and spears and chariots.

On that reduced scale, this weekend was my Anabasis. I did not swing a sword or run from angry Kurds, but I went up into some mountains, and holy crap was I tested.

For most of us, this trip was essentially a way to audition for the team’s Mountain Search & Rescue (MSR) unit. For me, it offered a hope of maybe finding a niche. In Search & Rescue (SAR) as a whole, I am still a back-of-the-pack performer and something of a late bloomer, lacking aptitude with technology and comms, vehicles and motor sports, or climbing or diving. 

“But at least I can carry things!” I have consoled myself. “In austere environments, when there’s no truck or Sno Cat or helicopter to haul in the gear, I can prove my worth as the guy who can carry the medical bag, the extra ropes, the Pelican light—as much as they can pile on top of me, all night and all day!” 

The plan for the weekend was simple. Charlie Rock, a granite-jawed old-timer whose demeanor marks him as surely as a facial tattoo reading “retired NCO,” would lead our merry band up to 9000 feet in two groups, day hikers and overnight campers. We would run rescue scenarios and gain some experience operating with improvised equipment at a height that you can begin to legitimately call “high altitude.” 

The day hikers only planned to be out for a few hours and needed only light packs. They pranced up the mountain like fauns and snow nymphs. But I was there to camp overnight at altitude with Sgt. Rock, so I carried a tiny household on my back: snow shovel, tarp, tent, bivvy sack, sleeping bag, inflatable pads, field stove, mess kit, food, water, knife, and enough layers (I hoped) to keep me warm at night when the winds rose. My beloved Swedish rucksack, the tough old LC-70, could barely fit all my gear, so I MOLLE’ed on four extra canteen pouches. Last of all, on the shoulder straps I slotted two surplus grenade pouches (which are exactly the size of a GPS unit or a C-A-T tourniquet and a sunglasses case). I was ready to ruck!

At the staging point, it appeared that maybe I was packing more than the other campers, and this worried me a little. I inventoried my stuff against Charlie Rock’s packing list and, no, I’d brought almost nothing extra. In fact, I should have had less bulk than the others, because they all carried big sleeping pads lashed to the outside of their packs. I was the only one who had gone with inflatables. 

I dismissed the apparently bigger size of my pack as probably just a visual trick of geometry. The others all had stretchy nylon packs that swell up into rounded lozenge shapes, I reasoned, but my LC-70 is a boxy, old-fashioned pack, a big canvas oblong on a rectangular metal frame, with a huge padded hip belt I’ve added for ultra distances. And then I’d added all the extra canteen pouches and covered the whole thing in a huge, oversized nylon ruck cover, light as a feather but almost big enough for a fitted sheet on a twin bed. That must be the difference, I supposed. My pack was angular and irregularly shaped. It just looked bigger. Right?

As soon as we stepped off, equipment started breaking and falling off me like jetsam from the space shuttle Challenger. I snapped the binding right off one snow shoe within the first 100 feet. See, my feet turn way out like a duck’s, straining any binding’s ability to hold onto my heels, and it seems that the more “teeth” a snowshoe has on bottom, the harder my duck feet torque them. Luckily, a good-natured fellow in the day hiking group lent me his, and I at least managed not to savage those.

However, I shortly broke my telescoping poles in two, and I missed them badly on steep, icy sections. We were ascending slopes with an average 10% grade, which slows you by a third to a half. Worse still was the ground surface, which army researchers studying march speed found to be the biggest factor. Sand slows you down appreciably, but snow is the worst. In 10 inches (25cm) of soft snow, they found that march time almost doubles. In our case, soft snow would have been a luxury. Since it’s been a dry winter, we were walking up icy, frozen slopes instead of soft powder. Only a couple guys had the foresight to bring mini-spikes, and under these conditions, snow shoes were almost worse than nothing.

As our footing got steeper and clumsier, I was amazed to find that I was gassing out. I’ve done romps up the Rock of Faeries in circumstances like these: no ninnyish trekking poles, just two feet on a narrow, washed out track on a hillside, with a backpack and a bonus item like a log or a 5-gallon water can. My trick is simply to go slowly, if necessary just one step at a time, and only breathe through my nose. If I have to breathe through my mouth, that’s the sign to throttle back, because mouth-breathing means you’re using emergency power. But I’d started mouth-breathing the moment the ground began rising, and the entire group was waiting for me. 

This was not supposed to happen! In my self-conception, I am a mountain goat. I have little grace, athletic talent, or specialized SAR skill. “But at least,” I always consoled myself, “I can be Old Reliable, the never-quit guy who can schlep heavy gear cheerfully all day.”  So it was a bitter pill that I now sucked, in public, at even the one small thing that I clung to as “my thing.”

Altitude was an issue, of course. I’d never experienced it and wasn’t expecting it to make a difference in a tame little national park so close to home. I figured altitude was only a factor if you were climbing Mt. McKinley or trekking in the Himalayas. So now I learned I’d been wrong. 

But everyone else was breathing the same air as me. And now I was even lagging behind people in their sixties. WTAF?! Ok, they had poles and I didn’t, and possibly they got better use from their snow shoes. But those mishaps should only be enough to dial up the challenge level from “no biggie” to “interesting,” not enough to make me a wheezing wreck. And though I knew I was off my peak and hadn’t spent many miles under a rucksack lately, I was pretty sure I had more leeway than this between merely “off-peak” and “the fat kid from Goonies.” It’s not like I’d been huffing paint fumes and eating Oreo Burgers. So why me?!

I was beginning to form a guess. Nearby one of our group’s certifiable mountain badasses, The Spider, was flitting lightly around on cross-country skis like he was filled with f***ing helium. I turned and asked, “Dude, how much water do you have?”

To be continued …    

Reset

What I’ve been busy with

Lean, solid dogs, it’s been entirely too long. I’ve missed you! Since I last posted, I went “operational” on the county Search & Rescue team and started climbing a steep learning curve in any number of training courses–K9 search operations, swift water rescue, rope rescue, emergency medical response–and a handful of real searches.

Not easy! Not since the high school cafeteria have I felt so out of my depth. But as Joe Rogan points out, it’s good to go well outside your comfort zone, do things that you suck at, get humbled, and get better. On that score, this has been a valuable period.

But I’ve been sitting on my butt a lot, nursing some accumulated injuries, getting stiff and lethargic and fat.

Bow to your sensei!

At times like this, I go back to the work of Dan John, who’s a giant on a par with Clarence Bass. Both men have changed the way health & fitness nuts train and made themselves living libraries of decades of theoretical and practical research. Dan always takes me back to fundamental movements and attributes, which is exactly what I need right now. Specifically, it’s time to take care of mobility and de-blubbering.

To let my injuries heal, I’ve needed to reacquaint myself with beginner-level “patterning” movements, movement quality, light weights (16kg, 20kg), and low speeds.

And I’ve revived my custom of fasted jogging at first light down to the creek for a polar bear swim, with some bonuses along the way like bear walks and crab walks (all directions), pushups, and sideways and backwards running. In the orchards nearby there are some old stumps and branches that lend themselves to carrying and waiter-walking too. (Today’s trick: walking bottoms-up presses with part of a dead tree limb.) I’m not trying hard on these jogs, just having some fun. These are not even workouts, just jolly romps to play around in fresh, cold air and water.

Later in the morning or afternoon, I’ve taken a page from Dan’s book Intervention and done a series of simple stability and mobility exercises with sets of light kettlebell swings sandwiched in between to get the heart rate up.

So today’s session looked like this, doing 10 or 15 swings before each item and each switch from left to right side:

  • waiter walk (L & R)
  • walking bottoms-up press (L&R)
  • goblet squat
  • hip flexor stretch (L & R)
  • windmill stretch (L & R)
  • goblet squat again
  • hip flexor stretch again (L & R)
  • windmill stretch again (L & R)
  • wrist stretches
  • pigeon pose (L&R)
  • lion pose
  • pushups with a lot of scapular movement and serratus activation
  • downward dog
  • dolphin pose
  • superman pose

That got me 300 swings, and that was quite enough, thank you!

When we return, some reflections on snow camping in the mountains.

Goldilocks Boots

I don’t even buy them anymore, I swear. They’re breeding and multiplying.

After experimenting a lot, I have arrived at some hard-won conclusions about boots for rucking. 

Great for flat roads and short to medium distances, but nothing hairier than that.

As reported earlier, I rejected GORUCK’s own house brand of boots, the MACV-1. Though attractive and wonderfully light, they have so little tread that I kept slipping and falling on down slopes. Unacceptable. They also lack a “shank,” a stiffener in the sole that helps you toe off the ground when your arches are tired.

I also gave an audition to Rocky’s inexpensive RLW or “Rocky light weight” boots, which look like the big brothers of the MACV-1. They are reasonably light, deeply treaded, and tall enough that I can “double lace” them, i.e. lace the instep separately from the ankle. However, being an economy model, they have a seam in the heel that many purchasers complain give them blisters (I did have a bit of that too, but you can counter that with an Engo pad) and their tongues are constructed in a strange way that required a long break-in before they stopped rubbing my instep raw. I could have gotten past both these bugs, but crucially, these boots lack a shank. I wore them for a 42-mile training ruck, and after twenty miles I longed for that stiffened sole. By that point I had used up my foot muscles for the day and, lacking a stiff boot sole, I could not toe off the ground anymore and instead was reduced to short, choppy steps. Never again. Not for a long distances. 

Rocky’s RLW or “commercial lightweight boot.” Basically a MACV-1 with serious treads. But not the crucial shank.
The Glock of boots: ugly, indestructible, affordable, reliable Germanic bricks.

And of course I have plenty of heavy boots that could probably kick through concrete, like my plug-ugly surplus combat boots issued by Germany’s Bundeswehr. If a crocodile masticated and swallowed them, the German giants would just emerge from the other side perfectly serviceable. These are just the thing for search-and-rescue bushwhacking. And shanks, oh, the shanks! You could probably drive a nail with them. But at over a kilo each—only Iron Man has heavier boots—these are not boots you can wear for 50 miles.

No, the “Goldilocks” boot is Rocky’s S2V Predator, which is a medium weight (about 800g each) and has the all-important shank. They also scarcely need breaking in. I double lace them, use “ladder lacing” on my left instep (which apparently is bigger than my right), and it’s quick and easy for me to adjust the fit to my level of foot swelling and the terrain. 

These work great with my preferred sock set-up, a FoxRiver liner sock inside a Finnish M05 liner sock. Together with my new, larger and wider boot size, these kept my toes happy, uncrowded, and essentially unblistered for the whole fifty miles of the Star Course. No burgerfeet!

Note that I still love jackboots! I still think of them as my best all-round boots, the ones I’d grab if you said, “Get your boots on, we’re going on a mystery adventure! I won’t tell you any details at all: beaches or woods or mountains or city, wet or dry, rain or snow or sun—it’s all a surprise! Maybe we’ll be gone for a day, maybe for a month.” That would be easy: I would wear my $20 rubberized East German jackboots and bring one extra pair of sliced up bed sheets footwraps.

But jackboots make sense as my ideal general-purpose boot, whereas here we’re talking specifically about walking 50 miles through a city at top speed, which is very specialized indeed.

Town and Country: Seattle Star Course AAR, Pt. 2

Find Part 1 here.

This view leaves out our first point, on W. Highland in Queen Anne, due to limitations in the software.

Real distance athletes don’t precede a race with dry-heaving and M&Ms. But I am not a real distance athlete. I am a special snowflake.

* * * *

Not dead yet! Waxy and stooped, yes, but I’m clutching the M&Ms for dear life.

I flew to Seattle a day early and retired to bed after a dinner of kaplau gai kai dao. That was a fateful choice, because I spent most of the night awake and hurling. Frantic to rehydrate and keep some food down, I bought a bizarre assortment of groceries which, alone among Safeway’s inventory, I could look at without puking. I fed well enough on chocolate milk, coconut water, kombucha, yogurt, and peanut butter M&Ms that, by game time, I no longer looked embalmed.

Rocky S2V Predators + FoxRiver sock liners + Finnish M05 socks + Body Glide = happy feet

With hit list in hand, we adopted a “town and country” strategy, hitting the downtown waypoints first and saving outlying parks for the daytime. That way, we had access to all-night stores while our crew was sleeping. When they started supplying us after dawn, we’d be in residential neighborhoods with no traffic or parking troubles, and we would have ample daylight by which to navigate park trails. And psychologically, it was a bonus not to stare at the ugly industrial blight around Boeing Field in bright sun, and not to be caught downtown without a bathroom in broad daylight.

In the end, it came out to 49 miles and 2900+ feet of climbing.

As we marched through Georgetown, Lean Solid Girl discovered something critical. Prior to the event, I had noticed that Google Maps can flatten your route appreciably if you use Cycling mode instead of Walking mode. With no one supervising me, I would have done that. But I hadn’t reckoned all the shortcuts—pedestrian staircases and stepped foot trails through ravines separating neighborhoods—that were impassable to bikes but usually made for pretty humane climbing, often with handrails to help you “row” your way up.  

Luckily, back at the hotel, Lean Solid Girl couldn’t quite get herself to sleep. She was on her laptop crunching different options and called in the results: we would indeed save ourselves a couple of unnecessary climbs on Cycling mode, but it would cost us seven extra miles of walking. The Jolly Irishman and I gave our reply in unison: “No f—ing way.” 

The reality of our partnership was that Irish was leading, running both nav and Instagram almost by himself, and I was just following. I hadn’t wanted to burden him with both jobs, but we both knew that he was the stronger teammate that night. I remained somewhat pukey and wobbly until 4am, and I suffered a second weakness I’d never experienced before at a GORUCK event: gnawing hunger. For the first time I was nowhere even close to ketosis and felt hollowed. So while Irish drove the bus, I concentrated on keeping up and not being That Guy, and I couldn’t contribute much more to the team effort than lusty singing in Russian and obscene but admiring remarks about our rival teams.

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The French duo’s last stand. Nous vous saluons, mes vieux.

Two of these teams distinguished themselves above our other (playfully) hated adversaries and won my admiration. First were the pair we called simply “The French Guys,” and they were the shadows we couldn’t lose. Twice I thought we passed them for good, only to see them pop out a few miles later in front of us. We seemed to be following the same overall game plan, “town and country,” but walking slightly different roads. Just as we left our foot care stop at the University of Washington, they caught up to us again, but this time without their same calm élan. “Something’s wrong,” said Irish. “The tall one is in trouble.” I glanced over and saw both of The French Guys beholding the one fellow’s unshod foot with the look of an ambulance crew standing around regarding someone they’ve arrived to find irretrievably dead. We called over, asking how they were, and the taller man replied only, “It’s pretty bad,” but with tight lips and a tiny shake of the head that said “C’est fini.” Irish went over with tape and supplies and came back reporting foot trauma of biblical proportions, a blister running nearly the length of the foot. This was almost too much for me to bear. They’d already trooped 30+ miles, and I knew from bitter experience how wretched it felt to endure all that and still fail. 

And I’d also been through the lonely trek awaiting his surviving companion, a dark-haired dude whom I imagined hailing from some seaside Mediterranean town. He might have tagged along with us, but he stuck by his friend while they sorted out a ride for him. We saw him once more at Magnusson Park, tailing us by half a mile, but then lost him completely. Later, at the finish line, we found no one with any news of him, but as we finally put down our pizza and beer and began packing up our car, we encountered him trudging up the home stretch, beaten down by his solo trip but well within the time limit.

The other team I held in awe were the ones Irish and I called simply “The Runners.” We saw them only once, at 3am on the 2-mile pedestrian causeway to Mercer Island. They had already hit the waypoint and were returning to the mainland when they passed us. At first they were visible to us only as a trio of headlamps, then as six legs half-illuminated by the causeway’s murky, otherworldly light. “Da f***?” I exclaimed to Irish. “Are they running?” They certainly were. When they passed us, we got only a fleeting glimpse but a memorable one: three men thundered past, pounding the cement hard with music playing, big guys by endurance sport standards. I winced to imagine what was happening inside their poor knees—running with weight is very hard on joints and not recommended except in emergencies—but be that as it may, these guys were awesome to behold.

As it happened, we would be on their tails for the rest of the night. At each waypoint our crew would mention three guys right ahead of us, but Irish and I saw no one. Apparently we were gaining on them, closing the gap from 30 minutes to ten, but never spotted them. It was only at the end point, as we limped across our final intersection into Magnolia Park, that another team  popped out of the side street twenty yards ahead of us. Three big guys—even then I didn’t put it together—and they looked fresh as daisies. I even said to Irish confidently, “These dudes must be doing the 26 mile course. There’s no way they did 50 miles and still look that good.”  But sure enough, they did. They reported to Cadre DS’s table still twenty yards ahead of us, and we claimed third and fourth place respectively. It was only much later that they I pieced it together: these were the The Runners. We’d been shadowing them all night, not as closely as the French team kept on top of us, but one of them had gotten hurt sometime during the morning and so we got on their heels and stayed there. That was an honor: when we’d glimpsed The Runners in the middle of the night, they had seemed more like heroes out of Valhalla than real people. And yet without ever knowing it, we hung with them. 

Less scary in Hawaiian shirts.

The finish line was still sleepy, almost anti-climactic when we got there. It was still much too early. We arrived together with The Runners, both at 16 hours and 48 minutes, to find only four guys lying in the grass drinking beer. The second-place guys had come in 20 minutes before us, our crew told us. Then they pointed us to a pair of normal-looking young dads in Hawaiian shirts. These were the first-place finishers, who had crushed the course in under 15 hours. I’d expected the Night King and a pair of direwolves. Instead, hanging out with their wives, with kids crawling on top of them, they looked like suburban dads who’d just mowed the lawn and come to the park to grill hot dogs with their families. However, when I looked at their Instagram page, I saw Dad #1 in an army uniform with a chest full of decorations, including jump wings and what looked like a Combat Infantry Badge, and in the park someone said something about Rangers. #everyday badasses

*          *          *          *

Redemption was sweet. A week after my second Star Course—my second in three weeks—I am almost back to normal. My ankles took a pounding from walking on concrete, which must be the worst surface possible except for lava, but when I met the semester’s new crop of students on Monday morning, I held onto my lectern and stood stable and upright enough that no one thought I’d had whiskey for breakfast.

And speaking of whiskey, Irish and I are putting out feelers for a new event for the Dream Team. Something where Lean Solid Girl and Lady Irish can do all the thinking and navigating for us leverage their logistical genius to the max. Something without concrete.

Assembling the Dream Team: Seattle GORUCK Star Course AAR, Pt. 1

I met The Jolly Irishman minutes into my first GORUCK event, at kissing distance. We were all told to pair up: one person would bear walk across the beach and tow the other, who lay supine and clutched him around the neck. I ended up as a “top” with Irish as my “bottom.” Not having been in this situation with a muscular man since high school wrestling, I dispelled the awkwardness I felt by promising to buy him dinner and flowers next time. But Irish is a permanently grinning barman and adventurer who could instantly form a bond of friendship with a pit viper or a kraken. No ice breaker was necessary.

Irish proved indestructible and unflappably fun through that long night of smoke sessions and sandbags. After surf torture I was a quivering shambles, but Irish was still chuckling, calmly helping people, and having the time of his life. And the message he broadcast implicitly was, “This sucks, but you’re up to it physically, so let go and laugh at the absurdity! Across the street some lonely financial planner is watching TV in his $2 million living room, and you’ve chosen to fireman carry a Filipino school teacher with sand in your nostrils! Trust me, this is awesome!”

At every GORUCK event, I’m reminded of a fragment from Heraclitus: “Out of every hundred men, ten shouldn’t even be there, eighty are just targets, and nine are the real fighters … But the one, one is a warrior, and he will bring the others back.” Apparently Heraclitus did a Heavy or two, because late in the game there’s always one person who undertakes the heaviest lifting and also shows irrepressible good cheer. 

Thus it was that when I first contemplated doing the Star Course, my top choice for a battle buddy was The Jolly Irishman. After blowing it in San Francisco three weeks before, I wanted redemption and I would not risk the slightest chance of another failure. There are only two people I could confidently call a 100% certainty for success, and of those two the Irishman was Numero Uno. He’s incapable of quitting and I knew he’d keep walking for just as long as his legs were attached. 

The question was what we would do for logistical support. Unlike other GORUCK Challenges, on a Star Course you can stop to buy food and water whenever you please. But this takes time—it’s more efficient if someone brings it to you. And more fun! It’s also more efficient if you don’t have to carry all of your just-in-case items on your back, things like rain gear, spare batteries, spare socks, baby wipes, and other essentials. And there’s no better feeling than taking out your whole hydration bladder and letting the crew car schlep it to the next waypoint! Three liters of water weighs 6.6 pounds! 

Following my failed Star Course, I anatomized my wrong decisions with Lean Solid Girl, who has Napoleon’s level of logistical mentality. We worked out theories about how best to “crew” (i.e. run a support crew) efficiently and safely, and we theorized that ideally the crew needs two people.

Mile 43. Imagine what I smell like. Now think, “Who would fly to another city, snatch a few hours’ sleep, and then muster at dawn to deliver breakfast burritos and put their arm around a sweaty, malodorous neck?” Case closed.

Irish and I began asking around for one or two jockish college students we could hire to make supply drops. I even briefly contemplated what might happen if we attempted a Grub Hub order for samosas and mango lassis with instructions like “Just leave it in the parking lot at Mercerdale Park. Try to hang it from a tree branch so the racoons don’t get it.” Instead, we got the Dream Team: Lean Solid Girl volunteered to fly to Seattle on the weekend before we started our teaching semester to (wo)man the crew car, and Lady Irish did the same! This illustrates why it makes terrific sense for athletes to couple up with other athletes. Lean Solid Girl did a 50-miler long before I did, and marathons too, and she gets into projects that any “normie” would dismiss as a quixotic death march, and she is actually interested in crewing such a thing, which goes so far above and beyond the call of duty that it deserves some kind of GORUCK Medal of Honor.

Lady Irish, the crew car wheelman, saves us a full mile by getting us through the boat locks. In all, we saved at least 7 miles that day by having a crew who worked the computer and improved our route.

Read Part 2 here.

Selouyanov on Endurance (Pt. 1): A Guest Post by Dr. Smet

Russian training methods and Russian sports science. Raise your hand if you (a) love these things but (b) don’t read Russian. Then you probably owe almost everything you know to Pavel Tsatsouline, THE great interpreter of that subject and almost the most influential voice in American exercise. Pavel created an appetite for English-language popularizations of Russian training research much greater than any one man can satisfy, even a pedagogical genius like Pavel. Today guest author “Dr. Smet,” a Russian-educated physician practicing abroad, takes us behind the curtain of Pavel’s latest book for a direct look at some of its source material. Dr. Smet’s blog Girevoy Sport After 40 is required reading for lean solid dogs, lazy badasses, and grapplers and kettlebell competitors. He has graciously allowed me to cross-post his original piece. -Dog in Chief

Pavel Tsatsouline has finally published his long-awaited book on endurance training, the Quick and the Dead. Despite the hype, in the end I was underwhelmed. Don’t get me wrong: the book has useful information but, as it makes clear on the last page, it is a long infomercial for the StrongFirst Strong Endurance seminar.

Victor Nikolaevich Selouyanov (1946-2017)

The material in the book is based on the research of a few Russian sport scientists and coaches, most notably Victor Selouyanov, previously mentioned in my blog [Girevoy Sport After 40 -ed.] in the post “The Heart is not a Machine.” Selouyanov was a bit of a renegade, and because of disagreements with the science establishment he never completed his doctorate. Nevertheless, his contribution to the understanding of training endurance was invaluable, and Russian sports science is still bitterly divided between his followers and opponents.

Selouyanov wrote several books, among them two that are of interest to me: Physical Preparation of Grapplers and The Development of Local Muscular Endurance in Cyclical Sports. Both deal with endurance, and Selouyanov’s concepts allow a systematic approach to training endurance in pretty much any sport. I will briefly and loosely summarize the most relevant parts of the book for grapplers (my current love).

Muscle fibers

From practical point of view Selouyanov was talking about two distinct groups of muscle fibers: glycolytic and oxidative. Glycolitic muscles are capable of producing great force, but because they are not very good users of oxygen they get tired quickly – in a few seconds – and are not very useful for activity that requires endurance. Oxidative fibers, on the other hand, do not produce as much force, but are virtually impossible to fatigue in aerobic conditions. Their power production drops from maximal to about 80% and stays there for a long time.

What gets oxidative muscle fibers at the end is the accumulation of lactic acid and, more precisely, hydrogen ions and the resulting acidosis. It happens if the production of lactate exceeds its elimination, which happens when you demand too much work from your muscles.

Oxidative muscles are good users of oxygen because of large number of mitochondria in them. Mitochondria are “power stations” of the cell where oxidation – the reaction between various substrates and oxygen – occurs, which results in the regeneration of ATP, the fuel that feeds the muscle fiber and allows it to contract.

Therefore, in order to develop endurance you have to do two things: build myofibrills (units of which muscle fibers are composed) and build mitochondria around them.

Classification of training loads based on long term adaptation

Methods of training are aimed at changing the structure of muscle fibers in the skeletal and myocardial muscle, as well as other systems (endocrine, for example). Every method is determined by several parameters that reflect the external features of a given activity: intensity of contraction, intensity of exercise, duration (repetition, series of the actual duration of exercise), rest interval and the number of sets or series (explained later). Each method activates internal processes which reflect immediate biochemical and physiological effects of a given training method. The final result is long term adaptation, which is the actual goal of using a particular training method.

For the sake of brevity I won’t spend much time on the internal processes elicited by each training method. I assume everyone reading this is a practitioner and is more interested in the description of the method and the long term adaptation it causes.

And so the methods are classified as follows.

1. EXERCISES OF MAXIMAL POWER

External features:

  • Intensity of contraction – 90 – 100%
  • Intensity of exercise – 10 – 100%. 

Barbell squats and bench press, for example, are activities with low intensity of exercise, but high intensity of muscle contraction. Throws performed with the wrestling dummy in high tempo and low rest intervals is the example of high intensity of both muscular contraction and exercise. 

  • Duration – usually short
    • Strength exercises are usually done for 1 – 4 repetitions
    • Speed-strength activity – up to 10 reps
    • Speed exercises – 4 – 10 seconds
  • Rest intervals – depends:
    • For strength exercises – 3 – 5 minutes
    • Speed-strength exercises – 2 – 3 minutes
    • Speed exercises – 45 – 60 seconds
  • Number of series/sets depends on the goals. 
    • So called “developing” sessions use 10 – 40 sets
  • Weekly frequency depends on the goals. 
    • If the goal is to develop myofibrills in the muscle fiber the series is performed to failure
    • If the goal is to develop mitochondria the series are performed to light fatigue

You just witnessed a fairly common phenomenon seen in Russian literature: the discordance of content and the title. This is exactly how it is in the text: weekly frequency – to failure or not, depending etc. It doesn’t make sense, I know, but we will have to forgive the good professor. – Smet.

Long term adaptation. 

  • If performed to failure, this method leads to the increase of myofibrills in glycolytic and intermediate muscle fibers
  • If done to mild fatigue – leads to the increased phosphorylation in glycolytic and intermediate fibers, eventually leading to the increase in mitochondria

2. EXERCISES OF NEAR MAXIMAL POWER


External features:

  • intensity of muscular contraction – 70 – 90%
  • intensity of exercise – 10 – 90%
  • Example – barbell squat or bench press done for more than 12 repetitions
  • If you increase the tempo of exercise and reduce the periods of contraction and relaxation of muscles, you turn these exercises into speed-strength type. Examples include jumping and throwing wrestling dummies

Duration:

  • generally 20 – 50 seconds
  • strength exercise are performed for more than 12 reps
  • speed strength exercises – 10 – 20 reps
  • speed exercises – 10 – 50 seconds

Rest intervals:

  • for strength exercises – more than 5 minutes
  • speed-strength activities – 2 – 3 minutes
  • speed activities – 2 – 9 minutes

Weekly frequency:

  • This method is aimed at increasing the power of anaerobic glycolysis
  • Currently there are no publications that demonstrate positive effect of near maximal exercises performed to failure.
  • However, numerous studies show deleterious effects from this type of exercise.

Long term adaptation:

  • most effective for increasing myofibrilles in glycolytic muscle fibers
  • no increase in mitochondria
  • If terminated well before failure or performed with pauses, this method leads to the development of mitochondria in glycolitic and intermediate fibers: there is no excessive acidosis in the muscle cell, and lactic acid is eliminated during rest. 

There is a method used by Russian athletes, called 10×10. An example in the video below:

Grigor Chilingaryan, one of the specialists from the laboratory of sports adaptology that was founded by Prof. Selouyanov. Start at 3:00

The session consists of three exercises: pushups, jumps and pullups, all done for 10 reps in a circuit, for ten rounds, the intensity –  about 80%. As you can see, the athlete never comes close to failure, and each rep is follower by a short rest – which gives the muscles a chance to get rid of lactic acid and avoid acidosis. This is the example of near maximal training without destroying the body. The coach recommends starting with lower rounds and building up gradually. 

To be continued