I’ve long preached that you should do workouts that you enjoy. It’s actually pretty easy to make progress, and if you’re consistent about doing those easy things, you’ll soon be achieving milestones that put you far, far, far ahead of the general population.
And how do you know if you’re continuing to make progress with your easy, enjoyable training? You just keep track of some key benchmarks over time, including some standard workouts. If you keep improving in those numbers, you’re doing something right!
For example, easy running guru Maffetone has his athletes run a standard test workout periodically. They run three miles at a pre-determined, low heart rate: if their time improves, they know their aerobic base is improving.
One of my benchmarking workouts is the hike to my favorite camping spot in the Marijuana Highlands. It’s 15 miles of bad, steep terrain. On my first romp out there in 21 months ago, I took a pack weighing 45# (wet) and needed 7 hours to arrive in camp. When I got there I was delirious and sore all over, my feet looked like raw chicken breasts, and it took a long, painful time just to strip off my clothes and boots. On future trips I cut the hike down to 5.5 hours and didn’t wreck myself getting to camp, but it was still a substantial hike.
So I was blown away by my last trip. Despite taking it very easy, I arrived in camp an hour faster than ever before and fresh as a bowl of strawberries. This being my first big romp of the year, I assumed I would be tired and slow, but on the contrary it was barely lunch time and I was sitting in camp with hours of daylight left, tons of pep, and nothing to do.
So I packed up and did the whole thing in reverse! I spent 95 minutes eating nuts, swimming in the stream, and having coffee, and then I rucked up and marched all the way back. It was a joy! I didn’t push myself on the return march (and in fact had to slow down several times to keep my heart rate under control), but without trying I ended up equaling my best-ever time of 5.5 hours.
This was a huge surprise. I figured it would be possible to hike straight back, to save someone’s life or as a stupid stunt, but I supposed you’d have to do it on pure gumption and willpower.
But now I know better because I just did it, out of boredom and with a smile on my face!
In the snatch, if you’re going to last the full 10 minutes, you must spare your grip. How? Use your legs. After you “pull” the bell up, bend at the knees and dip down. That way you won’t have to pull as high. Even more importantly, when you drop the bell back down, rise up on your toes and use your legs as shock absorbers. Tip your body back from the knees so that your arm falls across your chest and belly early in the drop—that will absorb more shock and slow down the bell’s fall.
As the bell falls to the bottom of its arc, “give” at the knees a little to spare your grip muscles from sudden, abrupt wrenching. Then straighten your legs. When the bell pendulums forward again, bend your legs a second time so they can help “alley-oop” the bell upward. You’ll accelerate the bell more smoothly, and that way you’ll spare your grip even more.
You can spare your grip further by how you hold the bell’s handle. When holding it overhead, let the handle rest diagonally down your palm. Go ahead and insert your hand as deep as you can. That way you can relax your grip. (Expect some growing pains as you get accustomed to steel pressing against unyielding, bony places. That only lasts a few weeks.)
When dropping the bell, do your best to hold it with just the first two fingers and thumb. Try not to grip the handle tightly. Just make a firm ring with those three fingers and let the handle rotate somewhat loosely within it. We don’t want a lot of muscle tension from over-gripping the bell, nor do we want torn callouses. This is one of the reasons that you will progress faster if you err on the side of lighter weights for higher (50+) reps. Master that, and you will progress to heavier bells naturally and swiftly.
Over-gripping is also a reason that you should use competition-style bells if possible, rather than the cast-iron ones. With their more slender handles, you can snatch them for much higher reps without a death-grip that will tear up your palms and cost you training time. Nor are they so very expensive, and since you will have these for the rest of your life (hell, your grandchildren’s lives!), you might as well get the good ones.
With some experimenting, you’ll feel most comfortable and efficient when dropping the bell if you hold the handle at the corner, not the middle. (See picture above.) And on the backswing, when you relax your arm, the bell will rotate on its own so that your thumb is pointing back (or at your bottom). Let it do that.
And if you’ll permit me a moment’s snobbery, for heaven’s sake, don’t pay more for “chip-resistant enamel coating.” Kettlebells are not fine china or ladies’ silk undergarments. They are like blue jeans—when new they look weird and a little embarrassing; when battered and worn, they look legit.
Want to learn more? Start ransacking the archives at Dr. Smet’s site, Girevoy Sport After 40. He’s been experimenting for years and translating materials from his native Russian about the evolving state of the sport. Girevoy sport is still fairly young and people are still making advances in technique and training methods. (If you follow martial arts, just compare the karate of the 80s with the early UFC of the 90s and then the far more advanced state of MMA today. It’s like three different geological ages.)
In particular, check out of two of Smet’s recent translations with commentary of snatch tutorials by Sergey Rudnev, five-time champion of the world. A small-framed man, Rudnev was competing with bells that weighed half his own bodyweight (!), and he developed a snatch technique that is exquisitely efficient. As Rudnev and other champs advise, whatever care and attention you invest in efficient technique, you will be repaid for amply.
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.
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.
Guest author “Dr. Smet” finishes his insider’s tour of the Russian sports science underlying Pavel Tsatsouline’s long-awaited endurance training manifesto, The Quick and the Dead. I follow Dr. Smet’s blog Girevoy Sport After 40to read about top-dog Russian coaching and research from a medical scientist who also practices what he reports on.
Before we start I have to make a disclaimer of sorts. Soviet sport scientists then and Russian scientists now often have fragmented interest and education in the field. Throughout his lectures Selouyanov makes statements that are debatable, to say the least, even though he doesn’t seem to have experience in the subject. For example, his view is tht the only way to increase the strength of the glycolytic muscle fibers is to lift maximal weights to failure. Therefore, if some powerlifters don’t follow that rule and still get strong – that must be steroids, no other explanation is possible. I am not qualified to argue the subject and am only conveying Selouyanov’s work, so take it or leave it.
So let’s get to the most relevant parts of Selouyanov’s teachings.
Muscle fibers Muscle fibers are loosely divided into three types, depending on the activity of the enzymes, in poarticular ATP-ase. Oxydative muscle fibers (type I) have slow ATP-ase, their speed of contraction is slow and they are resistant to fatigue. Glycolytic muscle fibers (type II) have fast ATP-ase, contract quickly and can be either resistant to fatigue (Type IIA) or not (Type IIB). For the purpoose of training muscle fibers can be looked at in the following way: Oxidative fibers – have mitochindrial mass that cannot be developed further. Each myofibril is surrounded by a layer of mitochondria. These fibers use fatty acids in the active state. Intermediate fibers – have lower number of mitochondria. As the result two processes occur during activity: aerobic glycolysis and anaerobic glycolysis. During activity lactate and hydrogen ions are accumulated, so these fibers develiop fatigue, but not as fast as purely glycolytic type. Glycolytic fibers – have no or little motochondria, so that anaerobic glycolysis predominates, with the resulting accumulation of hydrogen ions and lactate.
Factors that determine endurance
According to Selouyanov the difference in endurance can be fully explained by several factors. 1) First, the development of the oxidative muscle fibers. Among well trained endurance athletes oxydative muscle fibers comprise 90 – 100% of the total muscle mass, therefore they don’t produce lactic acid in excessive quantities that cause significant acidosis and the resulting decline oin performance. To the contrary, among untrained individuals 50% of muscle consists of intermediate muscle fibers which, during their progressive recruitment during exercise, accumulate lactate. 2) The second reason for better endurance among trained individuals is that their aerobic system switches on earlier, mostly because they have more oxidative fibers, so that the initial production of lactate is lower. 3) Trained individuals utilize lactate more efficiently. Mitochondria are capable of utilising piruvate, and in the oxidative fibers piruvate is produced from lactate. Fourth reason for better endurance – increased volume of the circulating blood. This, in turn, results in the reduced concentration of produced lactate. The role of the heart. Endurance training leads to the dilatation of cardiac ventricles. This, in turn, makes cardiovascular system more efficient, in the way that the same cardiac output – the amount of blood the heart is capable of pushing though per minute – is achieved by fewer contractions. Training of the heart is a separate topic and will not be discussed here.
Three types of exercises All types of exercises utilised for the training of grapplers can be divided into three types.
Dynamic, maximal anaerobic power, to failure – facilitate the development of myofibrills in glycolytic and intermediate muscle fibers
Stato-dynamic, of maximal anaerobic power (100%), to failure (pain) – develop myofibrills in the oxidative and intermediate muscle fibers
Dynamic and stato-dynamic, of maximal alactic power, done to less than ½ of the limit, performed the light local muscular fatigue, repeated after normalisation of acidosis – facilitate some increase of the myofibrills and mitochondria in the glycolytic and intermediate muscle fibers
Dynamic exercises of near maximal power (90%), done to less than ½ of the limit, performed till light local muscular fatigue, repeated after the elimination of acidosis – facilitate some increase of the myofibrills and mitochondria in the glycolytic and intermediate muscle fibers
Dynamic exercises of submaximal (60 – 80%) power, done to less than ½ of the limit, performed till light local muscular fatigue and repeated after the elimination of excessive acidosis – facilitate some increase of the myofibrills and mitochondria in the glycolytic and intermediate muscle fibers
All exercises of near or sub-maximal anaerobic power, as well as those of maximal aerobic power performed to the limit and causing excessive acidosis (pH < 7.1, lactate > 15 nMoll/L).
All other types of exercises have little useful effect for the development of endurance among grapplers. According to Selouyanov there are two ways to increase endurance and strength in skeletal muscle: increase the number of myofibrills and increase the number of mitochondria. Both are achieved differently in glycolytic (and intermediate) and oxidative muscle fibers, therefore we are left with four training modalities. In order to increase myofibrillar mass four factors must be present.
Reserve of amino acids in the muscle cell (provided by consuming protein)
Increased concentration of anabolic hormones as the result of mental strain
Increased concentration of free creatine in muscle fibers
Increased concentration of hydrogen ions
Increasing the number of myofibrills in the glycolytic muscle fibers. I suspect this part will make quite a few of us cringe. However, the goal of this post is to convey Selouyanov’s opinion on optimal training, so bear with me here. [Editor’s note: In effect, Selouyanov is about to ignore a core doctrine of Pavel Tsatsouline’s, namely the taboo against training to failure.] Glycolytic muscle fibers are activated when maximal muscular effort is required and no earlier. Therefore (according to the good professor), the growth of glycolytic muscle fibers can be achieved only by utilising weights of of maximal or near maximal intensity. The following conditions have to be present:
Intensity of maximal or near maximal intensity – more than 70% of 1RM
Exercise is performed to failure, i.e. to full exhaustion of CPn and achievement of high concentration of free creatine
Number of repetitions – 8 – 12. Last couple of reps have to be forced (with the help of a partner)
Rest – 5 minutes. Should be active, aerobic activity at HR of 100 – 120/min, this helps to utilise lactic acid
Number of sets: 7 – 9 if the goal is growth, 1 – 4 for tonic effect
Number of training sessions per day – one or two, depending on the intensity and athlete’s condition
Number of sessions per week – synthesis of myofibrills takes about 7 days, this is how long the athlete should rest after a training session done to the limit.
Myofibrillar hyperplasia in the oxidative muscle fibers The method for developing myofibrills in oxidative fibers is similar to that for glycolytic muscle cells. With the exception that exercises are performed without relaxation. In that case the capillaries in the muscle are compressed, limiting circulation and leading to the hypoxia of the muscle fibers and the accumulation of lactate and hydrogen ions. I suspect this works similar to the occlusion (Kaatsu) training that became somewhat popular in the recent years. Selouyanov believes that mostly slow/oxidative muscle fibers grow under these conditions – Smet. To get the idea of this method imagine a barbell squat. Except that it is performed in the way that doesn’t allow for the pause at the top, with incomplete range. This way the muscles are continuously contracted to one degree or another, and after 20 – 30 seconds you get the burn, which is the desired effect. The conditions for the efficiency of this method are as follows:
Intensity – medium: 20 – 40% of 1RM
No relaxation pohase during exercise, the muscles are continupusly contracted
Tempo and duration – slect the weight so that the athlete can perform 25 repetitions in 30 seconds. Last few repetitions should cause significant pain.
Rest – 30 seconds (active)
This exercise is performed in series of 3 – 5 sets. 25 reps in 30 seconds equals one set.
Number of series in one session: 1 – 2 for the tonic effect, 3 and more for growth.
Number of sessions per week – exercise is repeated in 3 – 5 days.
There is no mention of rest between series. I suppose it is several minutes, until the muscles feel relatively fresh. Selouyanov recommends doing exercises aimed at growing muscle fibers at the end of the training session and better in the evening. If other types of training is done after this the reduction of glycogen can negatively interfere with the protein synthesis and impair growth. Development of mitochondria in skeletal muscle Formation of mitochondria is controlled according to the principle of the functional criteria. According to this criterion, mitochondria that cannot properly function are eliminated. One of the natural factors leading to the destructurisation of mitochondria is hypoxia (e.g. being at altitude) and accompanying anaerobic metabolism. Similar processes occur during anaerobic training. Several generalisations can be made in regards to mitochondria:
Mitochondria are energy stations of the cell and supply ATP by aerobic metabolism
Mitochondrial synthesis exceeds the destruction during conditions of their intensive functioning (oxidative phosphorilation)
Mitochondria tend to appear in the areas of the cells where the delivery of ATP is required
Intensive destructurisation of mitochondria occurs when the cell is functioning at high intensity in the presence of anaerobic metabolism which leads to the excessive and prolonged accumulation of ydrogen ions in the cell
Based on the above it is possible to develop methods of aerobic development of the cell. Every skeletal cell contains three types of muscle fibers.
Those that are activated regularly during every day activity (oxidative)
Those activated only during training requiring moderate muscular activity (intermediate fibers)
Those that are seldom activated – only during maximal or near maximal effort, such as jumps, sprints etc. (glycolytic fibers)
In well trained individuals oxidative muscle fibers are maximally adapted. In other words, the number of mitochiondria in these muscles cannot be developed any more. It has been demonstrated that aerobic training at the level below anaerobic threshold in well trained athletes has zero value.
Therefore, in order to increase aerobic potential of the muscle fiber it is necessary to build structural basis – new myofibrills. New mitochondria will then develop around these myofibrills. There is a special methodology which has been tested: interval training using two exercises. For example, pushups and pullups from low bar (unloaded, so that the feet are resting on the ground).
General principles of such training are as follows:
Exercises are performed at low intensity, i.e. 10 – 20% 1RM
Exercise is performed at medium or fast tempo
Full ROM is utilised
Duration – until early signs of local muscular fatigue
The template – 5 – 8 repetition of one exercise is followed by 5 – 8 repetitions of another without rest – that is 1 set
No pauses between sets
Number of sets – 5 – 10 (determined by the degree of fatigue) – that’s 1 circle
Number of circles in a session – 1 – 5 (fatigue and is determined by the glycogen stores in muscle tissue)
Session done at maximal volume can be repeated after 2 – 3 days, after glycogen stores are restored
I only thought about quitting once, when I fell down a storm sewer.
I’d climbed a truly evil hill of densely packed million-dollar crackerbox houses, past homeowners leaving to go to the beach. One of them actually wore a t-shirt saying something like “Rucking is fun!” I didn’t stop to dispute the matter because I was huffing and puffing through my mouth, which is not a good sign, and trying to climb better by pushing my knees down with my hands. Way behind the clock, I couldn’t slow down because I was horrified to think that, after this ordeal that I’d prepared for for months, I might finish my 50 miles only to be disqualified for missing the 20-hour cutoff time.
When I rounded another turn, barely in control of my despair, things got worse: my road dead-ended. I should have been able to continue my wretched climb to yet another steep, God-forsaken road, but instead hit a nearly vertical wall of scrub, blocked 100 feet above by a solid wall of weathered, seven-figure rowhouses. Frantic not to have to descend the hill and try again, I hoped that in the cul-de-sac I’d find one of the staircases that sometimes let you dart from one San Francisco sidewalk straight up a hill to the next one. And indeed, there was a man-sized opening in the trees and a ramp! “A staircase!” I hoped, in a fevered delusion that must have been the navigational equivalent of a mirage where someone is sure he sees a Dr. Pepper machine in the desert.
In fact, it was an open storm sewer, steep and slippery with wet leaves, and instantly I fell on my ass and jetted to the bottom as if on a water slide. They don’t exactly design these things for convenient egress, and if I didn’t look like a filthy urchin before, in my sandy canvas ruck and piss-soaked tights, I now looked like some paleozoic amphibian in an alluvial marsh. Holding onto saplings for lack of footing, I got back out onto the cul-de-sac, hoping no one was calling the police, and felt very sorry for myself.
In these moments, however, we can feel buoyed by the strangest occurrences. I received a text that the cadres wanted me to check in with them, now that I’d pushed on alone so that they’d know I hadn’t, well, disappeared down a storm sewer.
I texted back, “Last survivor of Team OCRFitClub rucking the motherf*** out of this. Faithful GF is crewing and making sure I don’t get cannibalized by Nancy Pelosi.” Instantly they shot back, “Right on!” and with that tiny spark of encouragement, they reignited my morale like an oil refinery on fire. I was burning up the road again, supercharged by Lean Solid Girl’s supply drops of coffee and bananas, which hit me like angel dust and jet fuel. Something possessed me to belt out the band Lyube’s hard rock version of the Russian national anthem. (It’s a David Rigert thing. Don’t try to make sense of it.) I was flying high and going to make it. I knew that not as a mathematical conclusion—I actually had little idea how many miles still lay ahead—but as a moral certainty. I could not be stopped.
I’ve put this experience in my “cookie jar,” the name Goggins that gives to the container of memories of past ordeals and triumphs that we reach into when demoralized. “Every time I get … the ‘woe is me’ mentality,” he writes, “… I go into my cookie jar and pull out a memory to remind myself that I am a fucking badass. I put it back in the cookie jar and remember who the fuck I really am.” I had climbed Mt. Davidson in despair and self-pity, behind the clock and hopeless, but I got back in the game with not just the hope of victory but the certainty that I would make it happen.
Newly confident, I started to take in the bigger picture. Much bigger. I am one of those people who waxes sentimental and philosophical on airplanes. At 30,000 feet, I am keenly aware that I am vulnerable and kill-able, riding on thin sheets of aluminum that could fail. We are ephemeral creatures, living out a gnat-like life span on a small ball of rock flying through the vacuum of space. Our bodies are soft, hairless, vulnerable, and dependent. Outside a narrow band of temperature and atmosphere with nutrition and hydration every few hours, they die. And I, personally, will die. “Am I preparing for that?” I wondered on Moraga Ave. “Am I doing the right things now so that I can go with an easy heart, sincerely thinking ‘I am glad because I lived well?’” On these long marches, it seems to be a pattern that I take stock of my life, try to get ready for its end, and sometimes have fleeting encounters with the divine in which, as one friend says, “the veil is thin.”
Two Is One, One Is None
By this time, Lean Solid Girl was running the show from inside her Toyota Prius as de facto team leader. At any moment I only knew my next turn, nothing more. I’d relinquished any sense of an overview because I was moving much too fast now (and feeling too loopy) to keep poring over maps. We were coordinating perfectly: Lean Solid Girl would tell me the next waypoint and what to photograph and then I would plot a route and beat feet. Sometimes we leap-frogged each other in traffic, and when I reached the next destination, I would spot the blue Prius somewhere tucked into one of the parking spots that were becoming scarcer as we reached the center of San Francisco. Then I might dart over for a hurried conference and a hit of what I now thought of as “Ruck Meth”—coffee and a banana—and then streak off again like a (stocky, slightly limping) cheetah.
For the first time in over 12 hours I saw another Goruck team and felt terribly pleased with myself as I bulled past them, imagining them thunderstruck by the sonic boom that I must surely be leaving in my wake on my way to victory.
However, if I was a jet plane, at that moment the wings peeled off. As I scorched pridefully past the other team and checked my route, I noticed my screen dimming. I had only 4% battery left!
That morning when I’d said goodbye to the rest of the team, I had no external phone battery of my own and, a newb to smart phones, no grasp of how much power I was burning up using two navigational apps, Instagram, phone, and text non-stop. I should have begged their batteries off them, even if it meant swimming across San Francisco Bay to return them the next day. Because at the very moment that I waved off from them without extra batteries, in reality my race was finished.
Now, five hours later, I only had time to type “Battery running on fumes” to Lean Solid Girl before the faithful, obsolescent Samsung breathed its last.
You can judge my state of mind by the fact that I did not see this as a huge problem, just one more obstinate barrier that would fall before my determination. Lean Solid Girl was running the whole show anyway—the All-Seeing Eye, I thought of her—and she still had her phone. I would rely on her directions blindly, meet her at the next point and borrow her phone’s camera, and stay in the fight.
Evaluating that objectively now, that was daylight madness. It took only five minutes more for the whole enterprise to crash. Within moments, I had misinterpreted Lean Solid Girl’s directions and rushed hopelessly off course, not even knowing what my next waypoint was (!!), as that information too was entombed inaccessibly in the dead phone.
We were now two people separated in a crowded city with no agreed rally point, and even if a miracle occurred and we found each other, I would never get back on course in time. From the beginning, to have any chance at all I had to average 4 mph, which is a good clip even when you’re fresh, and I would still have had to finish at a dead run to get there in time. No, my race was over now, even if I had Bill Gates’ own phone and a shopping cart full of batteries.
I beseeched friendly-looking passers-by to send an “I’m OK” message to Lean Solid Girl for me, but the good people of Presidio Terrace gave wide berth to the vagabond in the strange ensemble of canvas, camouflage, and running tights smelling of rancid urine.
I can scarcely bear to recount the heartbroken march back to the start point, where I could borrow a phone. I knew roughly where to go—north toward the water—but I could only move my feet so fast, as if I were walking in an ankle-deep mud made of disappointment, self-disgust at my bad planning and the betrayal of months of preparation because I cheaped out on batteries, despair at the futility of coming this far for nothing, the black depression that is natural after multiply compounded exhaustion, and gawping disbelief that I had taken a challenge that is physically not a huge deal and still fucked it up. Even now, words fail me.
There is no happy ending to this story, not yet. I am not interested in self-soothing platitudes about how giving it your best is the true success. It is too late in my life to lie to myself. I failed, period. I have analyzed the failure as honestly as I could stomach. (One lesson: I am frugal, and I chose to cheap out on batteries. If I decide to cheap out on something, I must be able to say to myself, “I am being offered insurance here, and I’m choosing not to buy it.” In this case, I would have bought the ‘insurance.’)
But in lieu of a happy ending, I am proud to report that I am doing it all over again in two weeks, in Seattle, with The Smiling Irishman. Lean Solid Girl is insane, because against my advice but to my very great joy, she is going too, to crew up with Lady Irish in a rental car full of socks, batteries, bananas, and brain power.
And if this doesn’t work, there’s always Dallas. And Nashville. And Philadelphia. And Los Angeles. And Oklahoma City. And Atlanta. And Huntsville. And Chicago. And Cleveland. And Boston. And Charlotte. And Des Moines. And Saint Louis.
“True will power: I’m going to fucking fail, I’m going to fucking fail, I’m going to fucking fail, and I will succeed.”
“Amazing!” I thought. “If you piss yourself in black running tights, it just looks like sweat!” At least to the casual observer. I was hobbling at top speed through a raunchy part of the Mission district that could have been in a documentary called Dirty Harry’s San Francisco, and fully a quarter of the men there also reeked of urine, so why not me?
This was the infamous Star Course, a 50-mile (80km) ruck race. In teams of two to five, athletes find their way on foot to a long list of waypoints in any order they choose and report back to the start point within 20 hours.
At 10am and still only halfway through the course, I was now alone and behind schedule. I had begun the previous night before in a team of four. We had walked through the night down the cliffs and beaches of San Francisco to an old missile base-turned-park 25 miles away, but near first light the team was in trouble. The others had run a half-marathon a couple weeks before and then put their house on the market that very day. They decided to brave the race anyway, but they were starting out on half a tank at best and withdrew once they knew they couldn’t make the 20-hour cutoff time.
I was marching on alone, still energetic but far behind schedule, but that was not my real problem. No, far worse was that I faced a return trip of 25 miles in broad daylight and needed to drink water by the liter with virtually no bathrooms. Well, more accurately, no bathrooms that would be open to me and—now that every single second mattered—without deviating off course every hour, maybe buying something, and waiting in a line.
I was seized by the full horror of the problem soon after I gulped down a cup of coffee brought by the angelic Lean Solid Girl. I bottoms-upped a venti breakfast blend without breaking step and felt like a million bucks for about ten minutes, when I understood that I had swallowed a time bomb. In fact, more like a grenade with no pin. In the distance I spotted a baseball diamond and ran for it, but I was much, much too late. There was only time to make sure that the man walking the Boston terrier did not witness my humiliation.
And then it was over. Taking stock of my situation, I found it not all that bad. Yes, I had pissed in my own clothes in public view, but on the plus side, I no longer had to go to the bathroom. Also, I would be walking along I-280, under bridges and into San Francisco, where people defecate on sidewalks so routinely that there is a specialized navigational app to help the discriminating pedestrian avoid human excreta. No one would look twice at a homeless-looking man in a motley ensemble of dirty military surplus and tights soaked with what might or might not be sweat. For sheer human deviance, I might as well have been in the Times Square of the pre-Giuliani years, except that in kindly San Francisco people would be too polite to stare or comment if they suspected my true condition.
And suspect they did. I am certain of it. The elderly Chinese woman walking near the underpass had clearly seen a few things in her time and knew something was up with my tights. The charming French couple at the Moraga Steps seemed to smile a little tensely as I approached. But so what? I would never see any of them again, and now that whole problem was solved. It really is true that once the bounds of decency are first broken and a taboo is ignored, further inhibition collapses swiftly and totally. I would refine my technique a bit, making sure that both legs appeared equally “sweaty” and keeping as much as possible out of my boots, but I was back in the race. I still had to navigate 20 more miles in 5 hours and hit ten more waypoints, but I had moved the dial back down from Completely Hopeless to just Almost Definitely F***ed.
“At GORUCK events, people’s foot care is surprisingly poor,” said the former ultra runner somewhere around Mile 20. I smarted at the comment, but I couldn’t deny it: the inside of my own boot was slowly grating my little toe like parmesan.
You meet a wide rainbow of fellow weirdos at GORUCK challenges with different athletic backgrounds, ranging from Crossfitters (the most numerous) all the way to equestrian gymnast(!). This was the first time I’d encountered a serious distance runner, though, and it became clear that that community was privy to an advanced science of foot health as foreign to the rest of us as architecture was to Visigoths and Huns.
At the moment, neither he nor I had breath for a long tutorial on the subject, but I resolved to study more after our team lost our second member of the night to foot injury and my own foot was being ground up into burger meat.
Here’s part of what I learned, most of it from Jon Vonhof’s Fixing Your Feet and friends like Scott H., Nick F., and Sgt. Šileika:
Your shoes are probably too small. As I’ve related before, I was wearing a 9½ when I should have worn a 10½ Wide. Ideally, get your feet measured by someone at a specialized store, like REI or a running store. And when you take the insoles out of your shoes and stand on them, if any part of your foot overhangs (or even reaches) the edges of the insole, you need bigger shoes.
Your feet get bigger with age, not least of all as they become more muscular with training! That seems strange–I always thought of my shoe size as an immutable given, like my height–but on reflection it’s perfectly intuitive. Feet are made mostly of muscle, and they respond to training like other muscles. If you start doing pull-ups for hours at a time, your back and arms will outgrow your shirts. Likewise, if you backpack for hours at a time, your foot muscles might well outgrow your old shoes.
Keep your feet dry. I hate this rule because I like charging through streams and doing water PT and I hate halting afterward to change socks, but it’s helped me stop getting Burgerfeet™.
Speaking of dry and happy feet, cotton socks are the devil. Wear wool or one of the new space-age moisture-wicking products. And it seems that most runners wear more than one sock layer.
Socks are like holsters: You have to try a bunch to find the right setup. You’ll end up with a drawer full of rejects–live with it.
And a sock setup that works with one pair of shoes does not necessarily work with another. (See “socks-are-like-holsters” above.)
Moisturize your feet every day. Most of the pros also lubricate their feet before they put on their socks.
Athletic tape from the corner drug store has been superseded by things like Leukotape and ENGO pads.