Man vs Self: Running Through Death Valley #Uberman #Triathlon

If you missed any of my previous Uberman posts, check out the complete list of them here.

For event-specific posts that chronicle the swim and bike segments, check out “Man vs Nature: Swimming Across Catalina Channel ” and “Man vs Road: Cycling Through the Mojave Desert to Death Valley.”

T2: Bike-to-Run

After packing up the bike atop Town Pass, the drive to Furnace Creek took a little less than an hour. With all of the focus on the bike segment that day, I had nearly forgotten that this is where Tim Phebus would to join the crew for the run starting in the morning.

After the usual transaction cost of getting settled – figuring where to go, checking in, parking, locating a dinner spot – we parked The Beast in the bus lot where instructed. Lena, Tbone and Benjamin headed to the restaurant while I showered.

At dinner, everyone seemed relieved to be finished with the bike and sitting for dinner at a reasonable hour. (“Reasonable” defined as 8:00pm…) The food arrived cold and we joked – “Oh your food is cold? Let me hold it outside the window to warm it up…”  This was immensely funny for all of us. Yes, had to be there. We were all a little punch drunk now.

After dinner, Lena and Tbone unpacked what they needed from The Beast. It was nearly 9:00pm by now and I was ready to put together tomorrow’s plan and get to sleep. I looked at my phone and saw both a missed call and text from Tim – he made it to Furnace Creek! Tbone and I met him and showed him to The Beast where he and I would crash.

When I put together my race plan weeks ago, I had intended to be on run course by 5:00am  That plan also called for me to run the 135 miles in 36 hours – a 16:00/mile pace. I’d reach Panamint Springs late Saturday night, run through the night over the second big climb, then reach the Mt. Whitney portal at 5:00pm on Sunday. That plan wasn’t going to happen. Instead, Tbone would head out to The Beast 7:00am to drive me to the run start at Badwater Basin for a 7:30am run start, and we’d take the day from there.

As Tim and I settled in, I recapped for him the past couple of days and how I was feeling. We talked about fatherhood and life for a few minutes before finally sliding off into a nice deep sleep. Until 2:00am, that is…

Whack! Whack! Whack! A bright white light shone directly into my eyes from the windshield.

“There’s no camping here!” A security guard was out to inspect why an RV was parked in the bus lot. I climbed to the front of the cabin and opened the door.

“There’s no camping here,” he repeated.

My initial thought was – “Dude, we’re not camping. We’re sleeping.” Instead I told him – “We have a room here and they told us to park here in the bus lot.”

“Who told you?”

“The woman that checked us in.”

“Do you remember who she was?”

“No. I think she had short hair.”

“Look. This is for bus parking, You’re gonna get towed if you park here. What’s your room number and name?” I told him and, if necessary, I was ready to share the details of what I’d done so far, and what I was about to attempt tomorrow, hoping that the ridiculousness of the situation would sway him to leniency.

He told me he’d check with the front desk and come back and leave a note so we wouldn’t get towed. It took my a while to get back to sleep because I was worried about be woken up again and having to figure out where to move The Beast, but he never came back, and I eventually got back to sleep.

THE RUN

The 6:00am alarm sounded – I pulled together my gear, food, nutrition and self, Tbone arrived promptly at 7:00am, we secured the cabin, revved up The Beast, said “See you later!” to Benjamin and Lena, and off we headed 17 miles to Badwater Basin for the the next, and last, phase of the adventure.

Cranking up before the run

Cranking up before the run. Click here to watch.

The road down to Badwater was much hillier than I expected – constant undulations and a net downhill from Furnace Creek. (Duh – we were were headed 277′ below sea level…) My initial run strategy was to run four miles, walk one mile throughout the 135 miles. (I took this from Rich Roll’s book “Finding Ultra.”) That wouldn’t work here because of the rolling hills. Instead, I would run the flats and downhills and walk the uphills. Have a plan, be willing to change or adapt it.

Once at Badwater, Tbone and Tim explored the park a bit – reading signs and sightseeing while I stayed in The Beast for my final prep.

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Best sister-in-law EVER!

“Hey Tbone!” I called. “We’re gonna have to Superglue my feet.” This seemed completely normal.

Superglue in tact, I started the run at exactly 8:00am. It felt immensely satisfying to set even one foot on the run course. It’d been a long journey to this point, and while I was thankful, I  already felt melancholy to know this was it – the last segment of this fantastic adventure. If not for the cuts on my feet and achy right foot, I might not have believed I just swam across the Catalina Channel Swim just three days ago.

With 17 miles to get back to Furnace Creek, I considered this first segment as “warm-up.” Just chug through the first stretch here, then worry about the rest of the run once I was out of the basin.

Heading to Mt. Whitney

Heading to Mt. Whitney

Heading back to Furnace Creek felt like backtracking – as if Furnace Creek was the real starting point and these 17 miles were a necessary evil. I took it slow with Tim and Tbone leapfrogged me for the first 5-6 miles. After we got into a support rhythm, Tim ran with me for about mile. I was running at 10:15-10:30/minute pace, and with the walking stretches, stayed around 12:15-12:30/minute total pace even with the short rests for water and fuel.

I felt a certain resignation here, even at the run’s onset, that I might consider that I wouldn’t to finish the entire 135-mile run course. I felt some sadness and disappointment, because if anything, I wanted to complete both the swim and run portions of the course after cutting the bike short. I decided to just focus on each mile and let the day unfold.

Around mile ten, Tim and Tbone hightailed it back to Furnace Creek so Tbone could help Lena pack up the hotel room. Tim returned in his Jeep after a short time, now dubbed “Support Vehicle #2,” and we arrived Furnace Creek around 11:30am.

I found Lena on the side of the road, emptying the tanks of the The Beast at an RV park. I walked up as if I just got back from a short jog- “Hi! How are you? Good? Me too. Okay. I’m going to keep moving. See you soon. Love you.” A quarter mile later, I was out of Furnace Creek and on the path to Mt. Whitney with just another 120 miles to go…

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The Beast & Support Vehicle #2 (a.k.a Tim’s Jeep)

Our next milestone was Stovepipe Wells, about 23 miles from Furnace Creek. Tim continued as my support vehicle while Lena and Tbone managed The Beast and eventually caught up. We got about five miles out of town and at a rest stop, I told Tim – “This is when it starts to get hard.” He asked – “If it wasn’t for the cuts on your feet and your ankle, this would be a totally different experience for you, wouldn’t it?” Yeah, maybe.

The swelling on my right ankle and foot was a bit annoying. We found eventually wrapped it with a compression sleeve.

The swelling on my right ankle and foot was a bit annoying. We found eventually wrapped it with a compression sleeve.

My pace crept into the 13:00+ minute range because of rests and breaks, but still well ahead of my planned 16:00 pace to get to Mt Whitney Portal in 36 hours. The goal was to reach Panamint Springs (72 miles from Badwater) late in the night, then figure out how to push through the night to cover long climb coming out of Panamint headed to Lone Pine. If I could work through the night to summit this second climb, I’d have 40 miles of downhill and flat in on Sunday morning before the last 10-mile ascent to the finish.

badwater-elevation

The run course elevation profile

Because started we started the run three hours later than planned, we’d now be arriving to Panamint Springs at 2:00am, assuming I stayed on pace. I pretty quickly knew I’d need to adjust how far I’d be able to go that day. It’d be dangerous descending down Town Pass to Panamint (the same climb I did the day prior on the bike), though at least reaching the Town Pass peak today seemed reasonable – about 60 total miles and summiting at 11:00pm – about 15 hours moving at a 15:00 pace.

As I moved along CA-160, I earned a few “thumbs up” and “hang ten” gestures stuck outside of open car windows. One women snapped a picture she sped by. Lena ran with me for a mile, the conversation and her smile was a big lift from the monotony of brown desert rocks and the white stripe adorning the highway.

Sunscreen & Pedialyte: Two must-haves for the desert

Sunscreen & Pedialyte: Two must-haves for the desert

The 20s are always tough miles for me. As I ran, I worked on the mathematics of my pace and what lay ahead. Reaching Town Pass at 11:00pm seemed physically possible – my pace was consistent and my strides felt smooth. I was keeping my hydration and weight in check, the day was hot but far from intolerable and it would soon begin to cool.

But… even though I could go that far, I wasn’t sure I wanted to. I was certain now that knocking out the 72 miles to Panamint Springs was unlikely. And while I imagined a photo atop Town Pass there at the same place I finished my bike segment, conquering that climb seemed very far away in both time and distance. The crew had been remarkable in every way, and reaching just Town Pass would make for a very late night for all of us.

I slogged through mile 22. 23. 24. 25. Finally hitting 26.2 – a full marathon – somewhere between rest stops. It felt like a minor achievement though no one announced my name to the crowd at a finished gate or draped a medal around my neck.

Dr. Livingston, I presume?

Dr. Livingston, I presume?

Somewhere around here, I crossed paths with Giorgio, the other competitor who set out to complete the entire Uberman course individually. He was on Day 3 of his bike. (He eventually went on to successfully complete the course, taking eight days to do it.)

Once I reached mile 30 though, my demeanor changed for the better. The hilarity of the running through the desert finally set in:

I had a long climb from mile 31-34 ahed, then a nice descent from 34 to 37. Coming out of Furnace Creek 15 miles ago, I could see ahead this very section I was now on. I looked back behind me – now barely able to see where the mountains fell into Badwater Basin. We’d covered a lot of ground so far.

The sun edged towards the horizon, turning from the bright white and pale yellow color to a more definite orange – signaling that sunset was near. I sensed a permanence in this – an infallibility that I’d need to transition into night running soon. Just a three days ago, I watched the same sun rise and set over the ocean. Now I was watching it from the middle of the desert hundreds of miles away. Oh the places you’ll go…

My hip joints were a normal amount of achy, and my muscles felt strong – barely any soreness.The Superglue on my feet was holding. The swelling in my right foot was bothersome but not worsening. (We wrapped it was a compression sleeve a few miles back which helped.) My longest training run was only 12 miles, and here I was well into the 30s with an engine I could trust to get me to 50 miles and beyond. I was maintaining my energy and hydration. It was satisfying to know that my training program worked.

With less than three hours of light, I wouldn’t reach Town Pass before dark. Stovepipe was less than ten miles ahead, then it was ten more miles past there to the start of the ten-mile Town Pass climb. Once I started the climb, I’d have 3-4 hours of walking to reach the top.

I was grappling with boredom and asked myself – “”Ok, so now what? If not to Town Pass, then should I at least get 50 miles? That’s a nice, round number. Or maybe 51 to say I knocked off 50+1 miles? Or 52 to say I did a double marathon? Was that a good enough story?” The numbers began to feel arbitrary. Every reason I considered was extrinsic – to have a good story, to hit a round number, to say I’ve done this or that distance. None of them were good reasons.

Would it really matter if the journey ended at 72 miles or 50 miles or 42 miles? I’d already covered 30+ miles today. After 140-mile bike ride through the Mojave Desert. After a 23.76-mile swim across the Catalina Channel. This morning, I woke up this morning ready to start and fully expecting to cover 135 miles by foot in 36 hours. That mentality alone was a feat.

If I stopped here, then what? Drive to Panamint Springs? Sleep for the night and start again in the morning? Start from where I stopped, or just skip the Town Pass climb and to see how far I could get just to log more miles?

I spotted the Jeep and The Beast din the distance at the nadir of the long decline. As I moved down the decline, I looked my Garmin. It showed that I was pushing a 9:35 pace.

I thought – “Okay… if I feel this good right now, I can push hard for the next 12-13 miles to get to 50 in under three hours and then be done. Or I can be sure to get to Stovepipe Wells in about an hour then call it a day at 42 miles.”

But why? What good reason did I have? Was 50 or 42 really any better than 37?Somehow I knew I wouldn’t want to run tomorrow, so whatever I decided would be the terminal point in this journey. The bend and eventual incline up ahead looked like a road to nowhere. This was enough.

Just before sharing my decision with the team that we'd finish here

Just before sharing my decision with the team that we’d finish here

I crossed the highway to the support vehicles. Tim was sitting in the Jeep eating pretzels. Benjamin was playing in the dirt. Lena and Tbone were standing to see what I needed. I asked everyone to come together.

“Here’s the deal guys…. I’m bored.”

“What was that?” Lena said, laughing. “Here’s the thing… We’ve now covered 37.72 miles in the last 8+ hours…”

So that was it – my finish to Uberman. We packed up and headed to Panamint Springs for one of the best dinners I’ve ever had.

Run Epilogue: Driving Home & My Trip to the ER

My visions of a Panamint Springs steakhouse were unfounded, but not terribly inaccurate. The town consists of a General Store with a gas station, a campground, the Panamint Springs Resort Hotel, various undefined residential structures, and a bar and restaurant – a metropolis compared to desolation between Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells.

Checking into the hotel at the General Store, the attendant informed me the restaurant was open until 9pm.

“Do they serve beer and wine?” I asked.

“They have 180 beers on tap and in bottles.”

“That’ll work.”

We showered and headed for dinner. I enjoyed a Cardiac Burger and fried jalapeño poppers. We talked about the journey and laughed at the absurdity of it all. It was everything that I hoped that dinner. I felt satisfaction, fulfillment and love.

Sleep was tough that night. My neck abrasions burned all night long. The cuts on my feet ached and my right foot throbbed. The room was too drafty with the ceiling fan on, and too stuffy with if off. My nasal passages were dry and clogged with bloody snot. I hobbled to the bathroom in the middle of the night, barely able to put weight on either foot.

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Tbone & Tim outside of our “resort” hotel in Panamint Springs

We awoke the next morning to discover the $10 all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet at the restaurant. I gobbled down three bowls of Frosted Flakes, two stacks of pancakes and a croissant stuffed with Nutella – more carbs and sugar than I had eaten in the past month. And richly deserved…

I saw Tim off as he headed out on his 3.5 hour drive back to Las Vegas. Lena, Tbone and I loaded up The Beast and backtracked south through Trona, then to Ridgecrest, over to Bakersfield and eventually north on I-5 towards home.

Recapping my Uberman finish at a rest stop, heading home. Click here to watch.

Recapping my Uberman finish at a rest stop, heading home. Click here to watch.

The drive home took nearly nine hours, even with minimal stopping. My right foot swelled even more and I spent most of the ride icing and elevating my legs while hanging out with Benjamin. My right wrist worsened – I think my body finally realized I was done with the insanity and relieved itself of the it’s short-term defenses.

I thought I might have a hairline fracture in both my foot and wrist, thinking that both injuries came from getting slammed into the rocks on the swim. Once home, I headed to the ER because it was the only place open at 8pm.

I must say… it was entertaining to explain to the doctor what brought me there. He first poked and prodded at my foot. In checking my wrist, he could both feel and hear the tendons moving – they squeaked when I moved my hand up and down. Then he started with the questions.

“How did all this happen?”

“Mostly from swimming.”

“Where were you swimming? Were you surfing?”

“Ocean swimming near LA.”

“What about the cuts on your neck?” I sensed that he was now prodding…

“Those are from the wetsuit. I was out there swimming for a while.”

[Puzzled look on the doctor’s face…] “How long?”

“About 14 hours,” I answered, followed by a long pause. “So here’s the thing – I swam from Catalina Island to shore.”

“That’s pretty far, isn’t it?”

“About 23 miles.”

“When was this?”

“On Wednesday. Then on Friday, I rode on a bike from Mojave to Death Valley,. Then yesterday ran 38 miles in the desert as part of an endurance event. I think I aggravated my foot on the bike and run because it was bothering me whole time.”

I caught a glimpse of the medical assistant taking notes on her mobile laptop station. Her eyes widened. Now she’s got a good story to tell around the Thanksgiving table – “So we had this guy about a month ago that came in with a swollen foot, two gashes in the other foot and cuts around his neck that made him look like he got strangled… The idiot decided to swim across the Catalina Channel. And if that wasn’t enough…”

The doctor replied – “My partner does medical care for the Western States 100. She sees this stuff all the time. I don’t get it very often. You’ve got tendonitis in both your foot and wrist. We’ll take some soft tissue x-rays of the cuts on your foot to make sure there aren’t any foreign bodies in there. And the same for your wrist, because I’ve never seen anything like this before and I’m just curious. I’m more worried about the abrasions on your neck – those are pretty nasty.”

After the X-rays and verification of the diagnosis, I was done. Sleep was moderately better that night, but still fraught with throbbing and discomfort.

The next morning, Lena took the lead cleaning out The Beast. I helped however feebly that I could. I drove The Beast back to El Monte RV in Dublin with Lena trailing behind. We got back home to Davis mid-afternoon and the adventure was officially over.

Man vs Road: Cycling Through the Mojave Desert #Uberman #Triathlon

Back on the boat - safe, dry & happy

Back on the boat – safe, dry & happy

After finishing my swim across the Catalina Channel, I was ecstatic and completely thrashed.

Now it was on to the bike…

T1: Swim-to-Bike

We got back to Marina del Rey in about 90 minutes where Paul (my father in law) was waiting. We unloaded the boxes and cargo and everything else to his car and headed back to our rented apartment in Venice. Benjamin was already asleep for the night and Nina (my mother-in-law) just looked at me in disbelief. I think she fully expected me to get eaten by sharks and was honestly surprised that we all made it home successfully. Admittedly, the fear of sharks was VERY real for me throughout the swim, so I’d be insincere if I didn’t admit a certain amount of astonishment myself for being back at the apartment safely. There was something surreal about it having that massive effort successfully behind me.

Lena and I shared pizza and as much of the adventure as we could, though I found myself mostly unable or unwilling to recount the day because of fatigue and a sense of relief for arriving home safely.

My sleep that night was terrible. My shoulders and lacerations on my feet throbbed. My nasal passages were swollen from the salt water. The abrasions on my neck stung. and the cuts on my feet stung. I hobbled to the kitchen in the middle of the night for a midnight snack of  ibuprofen, bananas and ice cream.

The next morning, I couldn’t lift either arm more than a few inches above my waist without a sharp pain, especially my left unless I swung my right arm to push it higher.  I texted Brian MacKenzie. He suggested Voodoo Floss (which we had because Tbone and Lena are awesome) and mobility work – even some pushups and shoulder presses if possible (which they were not). I tried leaning against a lacrosse ball pinned against a wall which was intensely unpleasant.

Next stop: The Mojave Desert

Next stop: The Mojave Desert

We cleaned up the apartment and packed up The Beast, shared leftover birthday cake (it was Paul’s birthday was the day of the swim), and said our goodbyes. Paul and Nina headed back to Boise while Lena, Tbone, Benjamin and I proceeded to Mojave. With any luck, we’d be there by early afternoon to start prepping for tomorrow’s bike segment. I’d pick up with the other competitors there and start the second 200-mile segment on Friday. On the way, I texted my chiropractor – Michelle Chu – she’s awesome and is trained in ART and also works with the Sacramento Kings – who phoned me right away with advice to massage lightly and slowly get them moving. We’d find out later today if tomorrow’s bike segment was a possibility.

The Mojave Airport

The Mojave Airport

2016-10-20-17-40-19After checking into our hotel in Mojave and unpacking, the team vibe was discernibly lacking enthusiasm. Yesterday had tapped all of us and Benjamin was getting a bit stir crazy. Lena and Tanya took Benjamin for a drive to check the Mojave airport while I stayed back at the hotel. To get myself back into a positive mindset, I did deep breathing exercises I learned from the Wim Hof Method, then allowed myself relax and fall into a comfortable nap. I slept for about 30 minutes and felt revived and excited for the prospect of tomorrow’s bike segment. It was time to test out my shoulders.

First I tried George, my TT bike. Not bad, but I definitely felt pressure especially when turning to my left to check oncoming traffic, or steering with any significant turning. A bit disconcerting given the descents on the tomorrow’s course. I returned to the hotel and switched to Pedro, my road bike. Ahhh….. much, much better! Almost no pain because I was sitting upright!

I decided I’d start the bike on Pedro. Then once my body warmed up after a couple of hours, I’d switch to George until I got to the Town Pass climb at mile 130. From there, I’d switch back to Pedro for the ascent, then knock out the last 50 miles on George.

Tbone and Lena used the Voodoo Floss on my shoulders. It worked surprisingly well. I prepped Pedro and my cycling gear for the next morning, and met the team for dinner downstairs at the hotel restaurant. Spirits were much higher now from the breathing exercises, nap, and now the excitement knowing that in the morning, I’d be cycling across the desert in the early morning dark and chill. For Lena and Tbone, I think the wine at dinner helped a little too… Mostly, we all started to embrace the ridiculousness of the journey, and that the effort was as much about the adventure as anything.

Benjamin was predictably finicky at dinner but we got back to the room for bath time and bed, and he fell asleep quickly. I followed soon after with my alarm set for 5am, preparing for a 6am departure to tackle tomorrow’s 200 mile segment from Mojave to Death Valley, finishing at Badwater Basin.

Sunrise in the Desert

I woke up Friday excited. My shoulders were definitely better, though still far from 100%. I felt confident that I’d be okay on the bike based on yesterday’s test ride, and I was ready to hit the road. After a breakfast of nuts, a banana and some coffee-flavored, caffeine-infused nutrition mix, I was ready to go.

Lena and I headed out to The Beast where Tbone slept that night. With my head covering on because of the chilly desert morning, I needed to adjust the strap on my borrowed aero helmet.

Snap. F*ck. The strap broke. Oh well. Two is one, one is none. I had brought my regular cycling helmet, strapped it on, and off I went.

Anyone up for 200 miles through the Mojave Desert?

Anyone up for 200 miles through the Mojave Desert?

I felt great muscularly – refreshed by the cool morning air and thrilled to be on the bike after how I felt just 36 hours on the Terranea rocks. Just hopping on the saddle for mile one felt like a victory.

I planned to go ride at an average pace of 15mph, including stops, as this was my pace at the recent Levi’s Gran Fondo Century ride. That ride had nearly 10,000′ of climbing over 100 miles. Today’s bike segment would be just under 10,000’ of climbing over twice the distance so I felt the 15mph pace was a solid estimate, putting me on a 13-14 hour day to finish the 200 miles – arriving at Badwater Basin between 8:00-9:00pm that night.

Watching the sun rise over the desert

Watching the sun rise over the desert

The first couple of hours were just plain fun. I watched the sun rise over the desert and had my first taste of long, straight quiet desert roads – miles and miles of space to myself. While I felt alone, I never felt lonely. There was a tranquility to the landscape and roads.

A whole lotta nothing out there...

A whole lotta nothing out there…

Our first rest stop, an impromptu break before Randsburg

Our first rest stop – an impromptu break before Randsburg

 

After about two hours, I turned onto Redrock-Randsburg Road and felt something behind me. It was The Beast! We did an impromptu rest stop where I stripped off my head covering and arm sleeves and started the first climb of the ride towards Randsburg. At Randsburg, I switched from Pedro to George for a two-hour stretch including some magnificent descents where I picked up some time by regularly hitting more than 25mph. We met up again for another rest stop in Trona where I decided to switch back to Pedro because of the long inclines ahead between here and the day’s midway point to Death Valley before the Town Pass climb. Those two hours turned out to be my only two hours on George…

Rest stop at Trona. Just one of a hundred examples of the awesomeness of my crew.

Rest stop at Trona. Just one of a hundred examples of the awesomeness of my crew.

Climbing out of Trona, boredom really kicked in. While the road wasn’t an out-and-out climb, it was a long slow incline that pushed me down to my small ring where I spun at about 8-10 mph. After being on the bike for 6-7 hours, this was starting to get pretty old. I was okay with the ride and the environment – it was just the slow progress that got to me.

I reached The Beast again at the top of a climb to Ballarat where I planned to hop back on George. After reviewing the course elevation profile and looking at the descent in front of me, I decided to stick with Pedro and I’m glad I did.

Dan Bercu caught up with us here. While it’s odd to meet people you know in the middle of the desert, it also shows that it actually pretty tough to get lost out here. I commented to him how the roads had been great so far. Surprisingly good.  Dan offered to drive ahead to the top of Town Pass, ride his bike down and climb back up with me. Even though I’d been riding for so long alone, I did consider whether I wanted company or not, then decided that it’d be better to have company than not and accepted his generous offer.

Seems I spoke too soon about the road conditions. After the descent from Ballarat, the roads were plagued with bumps and ruts. At one point, the strap on my bike bag beneath my seat broke and I pulled over. An SUV stopped to ask if I needed anything.

“Got a rubber band by chance?” He hunted around and found an orange construction ribbon. Bingo!

“You’re a long way from anything. What are you doing out here?” he asked.

“I started in Mojave and I’m headed to Badwater.”

“You’ve got a ways to go. Good luck.”

I asked him the same question. He was a government employee out to see if they had started the road construction on the road up ahead. Floods a few years ago washed out parts of the highway, explaining the road conditions I was experiencing.

He drove on and about 20 minutes later, I caught up with the construction site and The Beast. The road was completely torn out  for two miles and only a dirt passage was available, so I happily climbed into the belly of The Beast for another impromptu break and shoved PBJ sandwiches down my throat at a pace that would make Joey Chestnut proud.

Hitching a ride in the belly of The Beast

Hitching a ride through the construction in the belly of The Beast

The crew dropped me off past the construction and more long slow desert miles lay ahead.

After about 30 minutes, I reached The Beast again at the entrance to Death Valley National Park. It was getting later in the afternoon – about 4pm, so I’d been riding more than ten hours. More importantly, we had only 2.5 hours of daylight with ten-mile, 4000’ climb up ahead, and I was only 130 miles into the trip, well off my planned 15mph pace. I wanted to get to the top before dark so I could descend with some daylight and finish the rest of the ride in quick order on George fitted with lights and glowsticks.

Made it to Death Valley!

Made it to Death Valley!

I refueled headed to the Town Pass climb. Dan was waiting about a mile up the road and off we went. The first 2-3 miles were flat and we chatted. Then the incline started.

“Once we start climbing, I’m not going to much for conversation,” I said. Dan was very understanding and we settled into a quiet, slow pace.

The Climb. Was. Long. It starts at 1000’ on the edge of Death Valley National Park and peaks at nearly 5000.’ After climbing for what I thought was a while, we hit the 2000’ elevation sign. Ugh. Then later, the 3000’ foot sign about six miles into the ten-mile climb.

Somewhere on the Town Pass Climb

Somewhere on the Town Pass Climb

Dan optimistically called from behind me – “We’re about halfway in terms of elevation.”

Of course I replied pessimistically  – “Yeah, and we’re six miles in so that means the grade is going to get steeper for the last 2000 feet.” Poor Dan – I kept dousing his upbeat nature. I promise I’m not a negative person – just realistic about what’s ahead. It was late, I was tired and I could see daylight fading behind the mountains behind us. Just getting to the top before dark would be an accomplishment now, let alone figuring out how to descend and polish off the last 50+ miles.

The Beast leapfrogged us along the way, parking at turnouts and cheering us on. Each time, I quickly exchanged water bottles and nutrition and kept climbing. I unclipped three times during the climb – once about 30% into the climb to cool down where the mountain contours cast shade on the road, and to do a round of breathing exercises. My back was aching more than anything. I felt strong in my legs and my heart rate stayed in check around 120 bpm. The second time I unclipped was to shed some weight from the bike – I dropped off my second water bottle and front-mount bike bag. The third time, I shed my bike pump, rear big bag and anything else resembling weight.

To pass the time, I found a rhythmic counting cadence: I counted pedal strokes in sets of ten – 100 strokes, then 90, then 80, then 70, down to 10, then I would upshift my gears a click or two, stand up and push for 30-50 strokes, then back down and start the counting over again. It was a way to make progress and focus on sets of 500 pedal strokes at a time.

The sun set behind us and I reached a false peak at dusk. The Beast was pulled over, and they saw as I did there was still a bit of climbing left left. Plus Dan’s truck was no where in sight, so that meant we had some more work to do.

I pushed hard for the last 1/2 mile where the grade evened out a bit and reached the peak of Town Pass at dusk. As I pulled up to The Beast, Lena had George out and was pulling out the lights.

“Let’s have a meeting,” I said. “I think this is it for the bike. The descent is pretty tricky and it’s getting dark. I think this is enough. Even I make it, I’ve got three hours to go and that’s going to make for a late night and early morning. I’d rather get to the hotel and eat and be ready for the run tomorrow.”

Atop Town Pass after more than 140 miles and 9000' of climbing over 12+ hours

Atop Town Pass after more than 140 miles and 9000′ of climbing over 12+ hours, feeling great and wishing for more daylight to finish the bike.

No arguments from Lena, so we snapped a picture and loaded up The Beast for Furnace Creek about 35 miles down the road. Dan caught up after a few minutes, reaching the top in the dark. I told him my plan to end the bike segment here and hightail it to Furnace Creek to prep for tomorrow’s run.

Now onto the run…

Man vs Nature: Swimming Across Catalina Channel #Uberman #Triathlon

This is one of a series of posts chronicling my attempt at Uberman – The World’s Toughest Triathlon. Check out all of the related posts on the Uberman 2016 page here.

Departing from the Mainland

We departed Marina del Rey late morning on Tuesday and arrived to Catalina in the early afternoon with the crew –  Mike (boat captain), Nicki (my kayaker), Dan (Uberman race director), Lena (my wife) and Samson (kayaker for a second swimmer slated to leave Catalina that night on at 6pm with a different boat.)

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The swim crew

Pulling into Two Harbors

Pulling into Two Harbors

The weather was GORGEOUS! We departed  around 11am for a 2.5 hour boat ride to Catalina Island under beautiful blue skies and nearly perfect conditions. Despite some queasiness on the ride over, I arrived to Catalina in good shape and excited for what was ahead.

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Quick tour of Two Harbors

Our plan was to hit the water at 4am on Wednesday, October 19th.

Sidenote… Most swimmers opt for either a night crossing, or to start at midnight to finish the swim by midday to avoid currents, wind and chop that arise each day. We instead opted for the 4am swim to avoid swimming across the shipping lanes at night.While the huge freighters are easy to spot, distance and speed can be difficult to tabulate at night. Additionally, while Mike was an experienced boat captain that guided paddle boarders across the Channel, he hadn’t guided a swimmer doing the crossing in a single effort. I had done a TON of research on this and discussed our start time in multiple conversations with Mike, Dan and Lena and all variables considered, we felt the 4am start time, despite setting ourselves up for a more difficult swim, was better for safety purposes.

Feeling Scared

We docked, then Lena and I enjoyed a hefty lunch of burgers and fries at an outdoor cafe at Two Harbors. After lunch, we walked to the other side of the island to check out the second harbor and on the way, I admitted to Lean that I was scared. Really scared. Before that, I had always hedged how I felt when asked about Uberman by saying – “I’m somewhere between excited and scared.” Now I was just plain scared.

Lena gave me some great advice – “Scared is just one emotion you’re feeling. You probably have others – excitement, anticipation.” Of course she was right, but scared was the 1000 lb gorilla in my mind right now.

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Captain Mike determining our course for the morning

Around 4:30pm, we made our way back to the boat to prep nutrition and food before nightfall a couple hours later. I spent an hour in the galley mixing my various food and nutrition concoctions – labelling bottles and talking with Mike, Lena, Nicki and Dan about tomorrow’s safety procedures.

After that, there wasn’t much to do except rest, so around 7:30pm I retired to the master stateroom graciously offered to me hoping to get a solid seven hours of sleep. I slept pretty well. The quietness of the night and the subtle rocking of the boat offered some comfort. It was all happening now. Nothing more to do, nothing more the plan, no more logistics. It was time to just do.

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Final preparations

Hitting the water

Alarms beeped at 3am across the boat. The morning air was cool and peaceful. Just past a full moon, stars dotted the early morning sky. Sam and I did our final preparations, reviewed plans with everyone and headed to the Catalina shore. We docked a few hundred feet from the beach, so I hitched a ride from Nicki from the boat docked a couple hundred yards from shore. Why do any more swimming than absolutely necessary, right? 🙂

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Hitching a ride on the kayak

Sam and I stood there on the beach, looked at each other, shook hands and wished each other luck. I yelled “Starting!” and off we went.

Sidenote… 

As I mentioned, Sam was supposed to leave at 6pm the night before with another guide boat and athlete. But….they left without him. On purpose – because the captain of that boat decided having two swimmers and one boat through the night would be too much to handle. Perhaps true. And perhaps would have been nice to inform Sam and Samson about that before departing for Catalina rather than by phone to Dan twenty minutes after they left.

Sam had flown from Scotland to Los Angeles that day to do the swim, filling in for another athlete part of a relay team that withdrew at the last minute. Even better, Sam had just successfully crossed the English Channel five days before – the same distance and swim but in colder water on Saturday. Now, here he was halfway across the world to tackle the Catalina Channel. Amazing that he would even agree to this. Astonishing that the boat crew knowingly left without him. 

In the Water: Hours 0-3

Much like my Tahoe swim earlier this summer, the first miles were flowing and smooth. (The Tahoe crossing was immensely valuable, and I don’t think I would have completed the swim without that open water experience.)

The water was calm and soft, and I focused on long, smooth, slow strokes. Every bit of energy and efficiency I could save would mean more in the tank later. We got out to Dinosaur Rock around the time for the first feed.

The “Feed Plan” was every 30 minutes. I alternated between real food – a watery mix of sour cream and avocado for fat and protein, and a nutrition drink mix called 3Fuel that dumps fat into my system to burn for energy instead of relying on short-term carbs. (More on this in my eventual nutrition post).

Nicki and I found a rhythm pretty quickly. She was great from the onset and very comforting throughout the day with her positive attitude and confidence. She maintained a steady pace between one-thirty and two o’clock on my right side so that I could sight on every right-side breath. (I breath bilaterally – right, left, right, breathe. Left, right, left, breathe.)

During these early miles, I felt tiny pin pricks across my face every 10-20 yards as I moved through water – either they were tiny jellyfish stinging my face or I was running into expunged stingers from larger jellyfish covering the water’s surface. Later in the morning as daylight broke, I could see larger jellyfish swimming around 10-20 feet below and around me.

Somewhere between the first and second hour, the boat pulled up and directed me to slow down. My stroke pace was 60-64/minute and I was pulling away from Sam. There too much distance between us this early in the swim. It was still dark and with only glow sticks and headlamps, and now three miles from shore, we needed to stay closer to each other. No worries. Firstly, even though I thought I was swimming at a slow pace, I was probably too amped up and couldn’t keep that stroke pace for the entire swim. Secondly, I knew that every ounce of energy I saved early would payoff later.

We slowed to about 52-56 strokes/minutes for the next hour, and we reached the end of our first three hour segment only to have the boat ask me to slow down again. Even Nicki voiced some frustration because she had my stroke count at 48. I kept the same attitude as before – slower is better. Less energy burned now means more later. This was surprising because he and I talked about our predicted swim times, and they were about the same – 13-14 hours for him and 14-15 hours for me. That said, the guy did just fly halfway across the world after swimming the English Channel a few days ago!

(About the only positive in my swim form is that I get a lot of each stroke. Random swimmers I’ve met at pools have told me how they admire my long strokes. That’s about the only compliment I ever get for my swim form.. :-).

Early morning after sunrise

Early morning after sunrise

Towards the end of the third hour, the sun rose over my right side. The course from Two Harbors to Rancho Palos Verdes runs south to north, so the sunrise in the east was exactly to my right side. The sky turned from black to blue to pale gray, and eventually yellow and gold. Only a few minutes after peeking the horizon, the sun came into full view. It then dawned on me (pun intended…) that I would be following the sun’s ascent on my right, then over my head, then down my left side to sunset throughout the day. With any luck, I’d finish right round sunset to avoid refitting the kayak and myself with another round of glow sticks. There was something peaceful about this. The sun was my timer and marked my progress. As it rose in the sky and eventually we hit midday, it was a a more amiable signal of my progress than any mileage count or time marker.

Hours 3-6: Past the Beginning & Just starting

This segment was just all about early progress. At the end of the third hour, we swapped nutrition bags. I had eight water bottles prepped at a time – two were freshwater and the remaining six were filled with nutrition mix and the sour cream/avocado mix. We also had cooked sweet potatoes and white rice in ziplock bags for me to eat throughout the day. With the 30-minute feed cycles, each batch lasted three hours.

Smooth as glass

Smooth as glass. Far from land.

The water remained incredibly blue and smooth – even softer and smoother than Lake Tahoe. I felt like I was gliding and after the six hour mark, we stopped for a feed and to swap out the nutrition bags again. Dan told me I was already six miles into the swim and making huge progress. “You’re a third of the way there!”

“Well, not quite,” I said in a way to reserve any excitement. I felt satisfied knowing that I “only” had 15 miles to go. This was my plan going into the swim – I didn’t want to know distance or mileage until I had 15-16 miles to go because from there, I could psychologically get myself to think that 15 miles wasn’t that far… But I knew I had 15 miles to go and while getting six miles from the start was a checkbox, the real swimming wouldn’t start for many miles ahead.

“Well, almost…” replied Dan.

I appreciated Dan’s demeanor even if I didn’t express it throughout the swim and the entire experience. He was positive and a constant cheerleader for me and everyone. I felt a little badly about dousing his enthusiasm. Sorry, Dan…

Seasickness hit Lean, and I needed Dan to fill in to complete the nutrition plan. While treading water six miles from shore, I was shouting directions to him on what to put in each of the eight water bottles then made him repeat it back to make sure he got it right. I’m a stickler for my plan on this and I didn’t want any surprises. The exchange was made and off Nicki and I went for the next three hours.

Now several hours into the swim and the day, while the sun rose into a perfectly clear and blue sky, the moon persisted above to my left. I could also still see the edge of Catalina Island to my left too. They were my last anchors to the swim start which I think helped me to avoid what otherwise could have been an overwhelming sense of “Oh shit, I’m in the middle of the fu*cking ocean.”

Hours 7-9: The Transition Zone

The anterior of my shoulders near my rotator cuff started to ache with every stroke.

The next distance update from the boated reported that we were nine miles into the swim. I rolled back my wetsuit sleeve to check my Garmin for the first time, and it corroborated that we were indeed nine miles into the swim, though for me, it didn’t matter that I swam one, ten or a hundred miles so far. All that mattered was how much I had left to get to shore. I was solely focused on how much I had left to finish, not how far I’d gone.

I call this “The Transition Zone” because I was moving from the first half to the second half of the swim. While the absolute miles from nice to ten, ten to eleven, eleven to twelve are the same as the first mile or from mile one to mile two, these middle miles felt longer because psychologically I wanted to get down to single digit miles to go so that I could take the swim one mile at a time to the finish.

Worse, the math of the course began to skew. While the swim course is 20.5 miles in a straight line, I knew that because of current, our actual course would be at least 1-2 miles more than the straight line despite our best efforts to course correct along the way. So even while nine miles was a big accomplishment, I also knew I had at least twelve to go, and probably more than that. This is a difficult hurdle to overcome mentally and why these are hard miles.

We went another couple of feeds when I learned that we had about 10.5 to go. I checked my Garmin and saw that I was at 10 ten miles swam so far. I didn’t have the display show decimals, so to see “9” at the last check then swim for an hour and a half and then see “10” the next time I checked was pretty tough. I knew I could have gone from 9.1 to 10.9 in that time, but it was hard to see the raw numbers. I decided that I wouldn’t check my Garmin again for a while. Even here behind me, I could still see the edges of Catalina behind me while starting to see land ahead of me where I would eventually land. When we got to 8 miles to go, I checked again and saw “14” on my Garmin – confirmation that we’d be swimming more than the 20.5 miles of a straight line course.

Somewhere out there, I heard squeaking noises when I dipped my head below the surface and thought they might be dolphins. During a feed, Lena called out from the boat – “There are dolphins EVERYWHERE are you swimming around! It’s so cool!” I only wished I could have seen them. Still a pretty cool experience that I’d read about in other swimmer posts.

A bit of traffic in the shipping lanes that day

“I’ve never seen this much traffic out here…” -Mike, Boat Captain

Now in the middle of the channel, we approached the shipping channels – large ships arriving from some or headed another to port on the other side of the world. These freighters were giants even from several miles away, and later I learned from Lena that Mike, the boat captain, commented – “I’ve never see this much freighter traffic out here…” A couple of months before the race, Lena asked me if they would shut down the shipping lanes for the race (no they can’t…) but right about now sure seemed like a good idea…

2016-10-19-12-47-35Fortunately the timing of the freighters crossing worked out and we pushed through the shippig lanes without incident, save for the 2-3 brown sludge pools left behind for me to swim through.

Somewhere around this point, I decided to drop from 30 minute to 20 minute feeds. The 30-minute intervals became too difficult to maintain, the time and distance was taking it’s toll on my psyche. In seeing land ahead of me, I was again glad for my Tahoe swim this summer – knowing that distances were deceiving in the water and to just focus on the next mile. Lena had recovered from her seasickness, and it was very, very motivating to see her standing on the boat watching me. She took video and asked me to say hello to Benjamin.

To pass the time, I tried counting strokes. Normally I just count – “One, two, three, breathe. One, two, three, breathe.” I read in Lynne Cox’s book “Swimming to Antartica” that she counted 1000 strokes at a time to pass the time and distance. I tried this approach for a couple of 20-minute segments, getting to 800-1000 in sets of 100 strokes. After 2-3 sets, I found it too difficult to think about so many strokes between feeds instead of focusing on each stoke presently. I dropped this approach and went back to “One, two, three, breathe.”

We worked through the next couple of miles and got down to six miles to go. During a break, Mike commented – “You’ve covered a long way so far – really takes a lot of stamina to get this far.”

I replied – “We haven’t gotten to the part where stamina kicks in.”

I know that my retorts to encouragement make me seem awfully surly. I had to do this for myself to retain focus and the feeling that while I had made a significant effort to get to any one part of the course, that within my mind, I still had plenty in reserve left for the work that lay before me.

With six miles to go, the current and wind picked up noticeably. I could see the swells rising and falling each time I turned to breathe. I’d breath and see the horizon, and the next time on that side I’d see only the peak of a swell a hundred yards off. Ripples formed on the top of the water. I could begin to make out the lighthouse we were aiming for and the beach where we’d land. I also knew we still had a long way to go. In the sky, the sun had migrated from my right side to my left side and I begin to wonder if we’d have to reequip the kayak with glow sticks for me to finish.

Hours 10-11: Just. Keep. Swimming

I stopped along the way a few times here for a round of breathing exercises thatI  picked up from Brian Mackenzie – three rounds of ten deep inhales and exhales, then a 20-second hold on inhale #10, then an exhale and a 20-second hold. Three rounds of this to oxygenate my body and reset my brain.  (Check out more here at XPTLife.com)

As I got more tired, I started to wonder if I would make it and shared this with Nicki. She said – “You’re doing great. Trust your motor.” Trust my motor. Solid gold advice. She was right. I did an inventory and aside from my rotator cuffs, the rest of my body was fine. My posterior shoulders were strong and I relied on them to lift my arms out of the water. My legs felt great. My body temperature was warm and mental faculties felt sharp. Trust my motor.

Eventually we worked down to 5.5 miles, then to 4.9 miles. At this rate, I was swimming about mile every 40 minutes, or 1/2 mile for each 20-minute feed segment. While slower than the start of the swim, I was comfortable with this pace and progress and I found it was motivating to knock out a half a mile between each feed.

From 4.9, we got to 4.5 in 20 minutes. From 4.5 to 4.1 over the next 20 minutes. My pace was slowing because of the wind and current. My stroke count was consistent – we were simply facing Mother Nature.

The boat left us again at 4.1 miles to go back to check on Sam, and after two feeds, they returned. I was now down to 3.3 miles – still going 0.4 miles every 20 minutes, or 1.33 mph. Not great, but still okay.

The sun was gaining on the horizon to my left. The whiteness of the daytime sun was fading into a shade of yellow as it crept towards horizon. The blue sky behind it became darker as the afternoon wore on. I considered it a race to reach shore before sunset.

It was also around here that I began thinking about tomorrow’s bike segment, and how I might need to skip it entirely. My shoulders were aching and throbbing. I kept focus on where I hurt and it always came back to my shoulders. My mind felt sharp. From the water, I was lucid and felt like I was still in control. I tried to make a quick joke or conversation with Nicki during feeds, or make a decision to tell the boat to do this or that.

Hours 12-14:25: One Last Push

“3 miles to go!” called Lena. Getting close!

I yelled back – “That’s just a 5000 yard workout. Five by 1000s. I can do that.” On the boat, I saw Sam wrapped in a towel – he had dropped almost two miles behind me and was getting caught in the same current. He went from 4.1 miles to go to 4.8 miles to go. From here, I knew the boat and the day would now 100% focused on me and getting me across.

I slogged my way down 1.8 miles to go, and somewhere in here we dropped to 15-minute feed segments. I didn’t need the feeds so much as I just needed a break to hang on the kayak for a moment or two and reset for the next block.

The water temperature dropped as expected and it felt refreshing on my face and neck. I could see how this temperature drop could be troublesome on a swimmer without a wetsuit. Our pace continued to slow.

At 1.8 miles to go, the boat did a check on us then sped off towards shore. That was disconcerting.

“Where the f*ck are they going!?” I yelled to Nicki. “This is the most important part of the swim when I need them the most and they’re f*cking taking off and leaving us here. We have no radio and no way to communicate and they’re fucking leaving us. What the f*ck?!” yeah, I was losing it a little… Not my best moment.

From 1.8 miles to go, we got to 1.6 miles to go in 15 minutes, then to 1.4 miles to go over the next 15 minutes after that. My speed had dropped to 0.8 mph. A friend of mine did the English Channel a few years ago, and when his speed dropped to below 1.0 mph because of current, they considered pulling him from the water. I didn’t think I was in jeopardy of getting pulled because the crew was new for this swim crossing, so as long as I said I could keep going and stay warm, I knew I’d be able to stay in the water. It was just tedious to know I was swimming less than 1 mph.

My bigger concern was that the current would continue to increase to the point where I wouldn’t be able to make any progress at all. Low tide that day was 7:09pm, so not only was I fighting the current, but also the tidal flow out  from the mainland.

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Current direction in the Catalina Channel (October 19, 2016)

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Low tide was 7:09pm on October 19, 2016

I understood now how a swimmer could reach this point only to be forced to call it quits. Land was getting closer. It changed from a haze ahead to where I could begin to make out individual rocks and trees.

Looking back up onto the boat, I noticed everyone outside watching me. From Lena’s body language, she was watching closely and getting concerned. Aside from my shoulders and the fatigue, I felt fine.

We got down to 1.2 miles – just a half-Ironman swim – and I still considered that I might not make it – that I could go all this way only to call off the swim because of conditions. I told myself that as long as we could keep getting closer to shore and that my faculties were in check, I would keep going. There was no clock. Even if I have to breaststroke or crawl my way there little by little, I was determined to get to shore.

Lena asked – “How are you doing?”

“I’m tired but I’m okay. The water’s much colder, but I’m warm and I feel good.”

By now, I switched to two stroke breathing, breathing only on my right side and relying on my right arms to do most of the swimming. I significantly increased my stroke count:

Notice my stroke count increase over the last 90 minutes

Stroke count calculation from my Garmin

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My stroke count increase over the last 90 minutes

From 1.2 to 1.0. Then from 1.0 to 0.8. Still swimming at 0.8 mph, I was making progress, and digging hard. The water turned brown and murky.

Once we hit 0.8 miles to go, I knew that I would finish no matter what, even if it took me until midnight, but I received some interesting news here…

Lena yelled out to me – “When you hit shore, you have to swim back to the boat!”

Huh? That’s not right. The plan was to meet Tbone on shore with The Beast parked nearby. She’d tend to me, get me fed and ready for the bike segment tomorrow. While I had resigned to the fact I’d need to skip tomorrow’s bike, I just wanted to get to a place where I could crash and rest. Tbone could drive us back to Marina del Rey while I slept and we could figure out tomorrow in the morning. The boat ride back to the marina could take up to two hours with current and waves, and after 14+ hours, the last thing I wanted was to spend any more time in or near water.

I yelled back – “No – Tbone’s meeting me on the shore!”

“Change of plans! We got pushed south by the current to another part of the beach. TBone can’t get to you so you have to come back to the boat. After you hit land, you have to swim back to the boat!”

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Why I had to swim back to the boat

Aerial view

Aerial view

“Nicki – There’s no f*cking way I can swim back to the boat – you’re gonna have to give me a ride.”

We dug in for another 15 minute segment, then she told me – “You’re only 0.2 miles!”

“How is that possible?” I asked.

“What do you mean?”

“We went from 0.8 to 0.2 miles in 15 minutes?” I was baffled. I didn’t realize it at the time, but natural land extensions  just to the north blocked the current and made the last segment much easier. I didn’t think about it too long because ahead I could now make out individual rocks and plants on the shore. The finish was right there!

I dug in again – 100 strokes, then a crawled for 20-25. 100 more strokes, then crawled for 20-25.

“200 yards! You’re going to make it!”

Close to shore, I saw the Terranea rocks that many swimmers before me cursed. I climbed over and through a kelp bed closer to rocky shore, looking for a place to land. The waves pushed me into a wall of rocks where I tried to grab hold, then pulled me away again. The rocks were slippery and I couldn’t find a path to shore.

Up against the wall of rocks, I pulled myself over and dropped off into a small pool. I couldn’t touch anything below me – I was caught in a mixing bowl of seawater and foam.

The waves were hammering Nicki’s kayak against the rocks as she tried to stay close to me. The sun had set minutes again and it was dusk, almost dark. The air was brown and gray.

I finally found a pedestal of rocks to the left of me that would disappear and reappear with each wave. With the next wave set, I pulled myself up halfway to my waist, waited from the next wave set to cover and uncover them, then I hoisted my two feet atop the rock to clear the water, yelled “CLEAR!!” then jumped back into the mixing bowl. “Let’s get the f*ck out of here!”

The view from the boat the moment I cleared the water

The view from the boat the moment I cleared the water

“Absolutely!” yelled Nicki. I pulled myself out of the mixing bowl back into the water and told Nicki – “I can’t swim back to the boat – I’m done. You’re gonna have to pull me in.”

She maneuvered the kayak to head back out to sea and I grabbed onto the rear. “Let’s go!”

She paddled while I kicked. “You don’t need to kick.”

“The water temperature is cold and my body temperature is going to drop if I don’t keep moving.” I think this is the most I’ve ever kicked while swimming.

The boat was a good 1/4 mile or more from shore and to the east from our landing spot. “They’re gonna have to come over and meet us.” She pulled and pulled and then boat crawled slowly to meet us. Dan and Sam pulled me up by my arms and shoulders and got me aboard. Then Nicki.

We. Were. Done.

The Beast in waiting, which I never saw... Sorry Tbone!

The Beast in waiting, which I never saw… Sorry Tbone!

Now my options were to either swim back to shore once we got a bit farther West to meet Tbone, or to simply go back to the Marina on a two-hour boat ride. There was no way I’d be able to swim, and the two-person kayak was stowed and was taking on water earlier in the day anyway. It was nighttime now and I could just imagine myself getting lost at sea because of fatigue and darkness. We bagged the meet up option to home and headed back to the Marina.

As I undressed, I discovered two large gashes on the bottom of my left foot. We wrapped them with paper towels, and I didn’t think much of them at the time.I couldn’t lift my arms above sternum height. My neck and shoulders were covered with deep abrasions from my wetsuit. Despite trying to keep the skin lubricated beneath the wetsuit, there was no solution for 14+ hours of the constant rubbing of 20,000 strokes and 40,000 yards.

My Garmin recording of the swim

My Garmin recording of the swim

I had somehow remembered to stop by Garmin at the landing spot to record the time. 23.76 miles in 14:24 – more than 2.5 extra miles compared to the straight line route.

Back on the boat - safe, dry & happy

Back on the boat – safe, dry & happy

The ride home was peaceful and quiet. Almost eerie. As we pulled away from Rancho Palos Verdes, a long white wake formed behind the boat pointed back to our landing spot. Lena and I sat in the stern of the boat, looking back to RPV slowing moving farther and farther from view.

 

We watched the landing pattern of airplanes at LAX. We looked at stars. Aside from the boat engines, it was very, very quiet. I wanted to talk about the swim and take pictures, but I didn’t know what to do or what to say. I know Lena was tired and ready to go home, and ready to just enjoy being on the boat. The stars and moon were out again – the same sky that I saw 15 hours ago from Catalina Island.

Somewhere in this ride, I decided once and for all that I’d need to skip tomorrow’s bike segment. I needed to rest, and more so, I wanted to take the day to celebrate with everyone in Venice what we just accomplished. Right then, in that moment, I felt an enormous sense of accomplishment – that even if my injuries would prevent me from going any farther on the race course, I was happy and content. If I could go farther, every mile from here would be gravy…

COMING SOON: See if I made it onto the bike after all…

[Spoiler alert… Yes, I did.]

 

[VIDEO] The Moment I Finished #Uberman & What I’m Most Proud of Accomplishing

This is the moment that I decided it was time to finish my Uberman experience and attempt to complete “The World’s Toughest Triathlon” – 84 hours from the time I slipped into the water at Catalina Island and swam nearly 24 miles to shore, after 140 miles of desert terrain on my bike, then persisting nearly 38 miles on foot from Badwater Basin along CA-160 towards Mt. Whitney – captured on video, and I’m delighted to share this moment with you:

I’ve chronicled each segment of my Uberman experience in detailed posts here:


I’ve thought about the experience many times since this moment captured above – from the decision on April 1 to start my training to this finish. Looking back, the seven months flew by, yet I know that each training day and week seemed endless at times. I wanted to see how far I could push myself and to know what enough felt like. And I found it, right there, in the middle of Death Valley with my closest friends and family at mile 37.72 of the run.

People have already asked me – “Will you do it again next year?” If I could hop into a time machine and be magically transported to the starting line, then yes. I love personal challenge. I just can’t do the training anymore – scheduling every moment of every day, negotiating time with myself and my family, finding good calories to consume six… seven… eight times a day, waking up at 5:00am to swim 5000 yards or do sets of deadlifts.

I’ll continue to do events – ultra-marathons seem most appealing because of the relatively low training burden and enjoyment of trail running.

Here’s what I’m most proud of accomplishing over these past seven months:

1 – Successful completing the Catalina Channel swim with the best time of any competitor.

This swim was beyond any single endurance event I’ve ever attempted, This include my three Ironman races. In those races, I knew that barring the catastrophe of a bike crash or some kind of freak injury, I would finish the event within the prescribed 17-hour time limit. The same with the 50-mile ultra-marathon I ran last year – I knew I’d finish, it was just a matter of what my finishing time would be.

For the Catalina Channel swim, my finishing time of 14 hours 25 minutes was exactly in the 14-15 hour range I predicted, and was the best of the competitors that attempted it. So technically, I was leading the race after the swim… 🙂

More so, that meant my training and personal expectations were exactly correct.

The Catalina Channel is one of the three marathon swims comprising the Triple Crown of Marathon Swimming. (The English Channel and circumnavigating Manhattan Island are the other two.)

For the Catalina Channel swim, I was very, very scared – scared of the distance, scared of the currents and tides, scared of getting lost at sea, scared of sharks and scared of being ill-prepared because of my training program choices. (More on this later.)

I was scared of not finishing – approaching shore only to get pulled because of body temperature or conditions. I’d read enough blog posts from experienced marathon swimmers who got as close as a mile did not complete the swim. These fears were very real and very true.

We could have packed up here and I would have been happy and excited with my accomplishment. Everything past the swim was just gravy for me.

A number of variables affected the probability of completing the swim:

  • The 4:00am start time. Most swimmers begin at midnight from Catalina to avoid typical late afternoon winds that create chop and a headwind. While I hit headwinds and current as expected, I was very lucky to have had an remarkably smooth first 15-16 miles for the swim. As I saw and felt conditions change with about six miles to go and the final 3-4 miles were extremely tough. [More details here in the Swim Segment chronicle.]
  • Currents. The swim route from Two Harbors to Rancho Palos Verdes is essentially south to north. The currents that day would be moving in a southeasterly direction, meaning that as the current and wind picked up later in the day, I would be swimming “uphill” into a current to reach our planned end point of Terranea Beach. Many swimmers report getting pushed south towards San Pedro because of these currents, forcing them to swim 3-4 miles longer than planned. We chose a straight line route with course corrections throughout the day to swim the shortest possible distance. Even taking this approach, the 21-mile course took me 23.76 miles to complete.
screenshot-2016-11-03-06-47-46

Current direction day of the swim. Source: http://www.sccoos.org/data/hfrnet/

  • Timing of low and high tides that day. On the day of the swim (October 19th), low tides were in the early morning as we started, high tides just past 12noon, and the next low tides again just past 7:00pm. This meant that I’d be reaching the midpoint at high tide and fighting the low tide waters getting shore at my expected finishing time.
  • Tidal flow relative to the moon phases, which affect the severity of the tide. Because we started just past a full moon phase, the tide heights relative to baseline range were high as two meters. Here’s a graph of the variance that day from NOAA:

2 – Being physically & mentally ready. Accomplishing any one of these endurance events on their own – the Catalina Channel swim, a 140+ mile bike ride or a 38-miles desert run – would be a huge personal accomplishment. I did each these in four days’ time and felt muscularly and mentally ready for each day. I owe that all to my programming, training and diet. The only adverse effect I experienced was the thrashing of my rotator cuffs, and I’m not sure any amount of training could have prevented this.

I not only trained very hard, I had the RIGHT training program. (Thanks to my awesome wife and Brian MacKenzie.)

ready-to-go-on-the-bike

I eschewed the typical long, slow distance (LSD) training (more on this in a later post…). Any one of these three segments – the swim, bike or run – would reasonably take six months of dedicated LSD training just to complete that one event. I was training to compete in all three in five days’ time, so LSD simply would not be feasible even if I training as a full-time athlete and had no job or family. More so, I believe that LSD without building muscle tissue strength and tolerance to the extreme physical tests would not have been enough.

After hitting a peak of LSD training in late July to build my endurance engine, I consciously switched to higher intensity, CrossFit-infused training for a month on my own, then followed a training program set up after spending a day training with Brian at my wife’s suggestion.

For context, just 15 months ago, I swam 2.5 miles roundtrip from Aquatic Park to Alcatraz and back. My Catalina swim was 23.76 miles – nearly ten times the distance, and across a challenging body of water and more than doubled my longest distance swim of 10.5 miles across Lake Tahoe.

Then completing the 144 mile bike ride, and then 13.5 hours later starting on the Badwater run mentally ready and excited to claim as much of the 135 miles course as possible. I sincerely felt that I was physically able to complete the entire run course, however long it might take me. To reach that mental and physical state is incredibly satisfying.

The 144 miles on the bike is 30 miles longer than any ride I’ve ever done. I hit the 37.72 mile mark on the run with PLENTY in the tank before stopping.

3 – Making good, rational decisions throughout Uberman to return home safely.

I need to give a huge amount of credit to my wife, Lena. Throughout the event, she allowed me to make decisions on my own even though after making these decisions, she was happy and relieved that I made them. A few examples:

  • Skipping Day 1 of the bike. Because of my physical condition coming out of the swim (shoulders and feet injuries), it would have been unsafe to spend 14-16 hours covering 200 miles on a bike. Not only that, it would not have been fun or joyful.
  • Ending the Day 2 bike segment at 144 miles instead of going the full 200 miles. We reached the peak at Town Pass well past sunset. Navigating the 10 mile descent would have been treacherous and irresponsible from a safety standpoint. While I felt strong and able to cover the last 56 miles, finishing when we did and giving myself an opportunity to start the run the next day relatively fresh was absolutely the right decision.
  • Riding on Pedro (my road bike) for a large chunk of the ride because of road conditions and descents, and because I felt far less strain and pain in my shoulders vs my TT bike (a.k.a. “George”).
  • Doing weigh-ins & doing urine checks during the run. While the heat wasn’t overbearing, I had a hard time forcing myself to eat and consume calories on the run. We did a couple of weigh-ins to make sure I was maintaining my weight. Tim to monitored my urine – color and frequency – to make sure that my mind’s desire to keep going was overriding my body’s operating system.
  • Finishing Uberman at mile 37.72 of the run. I felt completely satisfied and a sense of “enough” for perhaps the first time in my life.

There were a hundred ways to get hurt out there, or even encounter life-threatening situations. We minimized the risk at every turn with planning and discussion and decision-making.

4 – That my son stayed happy and safe. The kid is a trooper. Even his low points with patience and frustration barely scraped typical low points we might hit on any day of any given week. He found entertainment in counting cacti and determining which was the pointiest, throwing dirt on to the highway at rest stops, hiking and looking for rocks, sitting in The Beast and waving to me through the windows. Everyone stayed focused on him throughout the journey and his presence there gave me a sense of calm and perspective.

benajmin-happy

benjamin-desert

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even the on the long drive home from Panamint Springs to Davos on Sunday, he chilled in The Beast with me for nine hours, never complaining or whining or going stir crazy.

I could have done this race alone with Lena and asked my family to stay back in Davis with Benjamin while I was out there. I wanted him there to see the desert and to make this a family adventure, not some crazy thing Scott does on the side.

5 – My team. (I’m saving the best for last here…)

From beginning to end, never did the team hit a point of outward frustration towards each other, the race, the demands of the expedition or me.

I give all of the credit to the team – Lena, Tbone, my in-laws (Nina & Paul), Tim and Benjamin for staying patient and accepting the challenge of supporting me not just on the course, but 24 x 7 throughout the entire event.

2016-10-22-17-37-56

The end of each day was always the most trying. Being out on the course is work, but you’re in the moment and thinking about what needs to happen next – when is the next feed, how many miles to go, where should we meet you next, what does Scott need at the next rest stop. These activities kept the crew focused on a task.

But… at the end of each day, there was a huge transaction cost going from the finishing point to the next morning:

  • Packing up The Beast and getting to the next hotel
  • Finding a place to park The Beast
  • Cleaning The Beast from the day and prepping for the next day
  • Checking into the hotel
  • Finding a place to eat
  • Tending for my injuries
  • Making sure our son is fed, bathed and comfortably to bed each night
  • Deciding who’s sleeping in the hotel and who’s sleeping in the camper
  • Building a plan the next day’s segment – who is getting up early with me to push me on to the course
  • … just to name a few…

I got a sense of what it might be like to be a professional athlete – a team of people that care for every aspect of your self and body. You saw me breakdown in the finishing video because at the end of the run, I felt the overwhelming love and support of everyone that helped me reach this point – from training to planning to executing Uberman. I felt, and always will feel, forever grateful for everyone that helped me along to way to take part in this endeavor.

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If you want to read the details from each segment – the swim, bike, and run – I’ve chronicled each in detail here:

I hope you’ll read them, and understand if you don’t. Most of all, if you found this post or anyone of the posts I’ve done related to Uberman, please share them with a friend.

While I write these posts as much for myself to document and remember the adventure, I’m hopeful that somehow these posts will be useful to someone else considering the same type of adventure, or that they will motivate someone to take the next step towards their own adventure.

I’ll be posting over the coming weeks and months beyond these race reports – sharing a few ideas and experiences around:

  • Nutrition and diet plans during training and Uberman
  • Details about my training program
  • Planning & logistics (lists, checklists, mistakes made)
  • What I’d do differently: Uberman planning and execution
  • Stuff I’ll miss about Uberman
  • Stuff I won’t miss about Uberman
  • The Beast
  • Gratitude to everyone that cheered me on Facebook

Thanks for reading this far. I appreciate it. Please share this post if you found it valuable, or think it will be valuable to a friend.

I’ve also prepared a talk about my Uberman experience for companies, triathlon clubs and teams. Click here to learn more.

One week to go. Shit’s getting real. [Uberman]

A week from today, I’ll be in Los Angeles for final prep before hopping on a boat to head to Catalina Island to kick off my attempt at Uberman.

The boat ride will take about two hours. The swim back to shore will be a bit closer to 15 hours…

I’ve done all the training I can do and now it’s just a matter of whether or I’m able I can put together five days of execution.  I’m well past the physical challenge of the ordeal. It’s become a massive puzzle:

… How to manage a 21-mile swim that starts in the dark and likely ends in the dark

… How I’ll keep myself going while still deploying good judgement after what’s safe and responsible to my family and myself.

… What to do if the current is strong. Or the winds create chop. Or there’s a migration of sea lions causing a shark feeding frenzy. Or that I’m just plain tired and unable to safely continue.

… Then if I finish the swim, how to get on a bike less than 12 hours later to start the first of two, 200-mile cycling segments knowing I’ll have back pain after the first 90 minutes…

… And if I finish the bike, how to start, continue, and complete a 135-mile trek by foot over 36 hours.

 

 

Yep, shit is getting real.

Less than a month to go…[Uberman]

When Uberman comes up in conversation, most people say something to the effect of – “Wow – that’s amazing!”

My reply is usually – “Well it’ll be amazing if I actually do it. Right now it’s all talk.”

I’ve reached the point in training where:

  1. I’m pretty sick of training. The grind is getting to me. I’d really, really like to have some of my life back.
  2. It’s a final push to sharpen and eek out any gains possible for whatever conditions the event or my body throw at me.
  3. Don’t get injured.

Re: Training…

I spent a day with Brian MacKenzie about a month ago at CrossFit-Costa Mesa. He is the real deal. We put together a Training-Strength & Conditioning-Nutrition-Mobility Plan. What to do every day of the week and I’ve been following nearly to a T since then.

The plan is no joke. Here’s a view of the workouts day-by-day. Every night, I’m doing 15-30 minutes of stretching and mobility:

Monday:

3x Bike (15-20 min)-Run (10 min) Brick. Max effort on all segments with fast transitions. These are basically all-out sprints for the times, so I’m at 22mph bike avg and 6:30-6:45 mile pace.

Swim (my add): 3000-4000 yards with random intervals.

Tuesday:

Long Run – 10-15 miles, with one minute pick-ups every ten minutes. The pick-ups add to the run pretty significantly. A 10-11 mile run with pickups feels like a 15 miler on long slow distance.

Swim (my add) – 2500-4000 yards with random intervals.

Wednesday:

Long Bike – 3+ hours on the bike with with one minute pick-ups every ten minutes.

Thursday:

Strength & Conditioning – Deadlifts & Lunges, followed by a Cross-Fit workout –> 6-10 rounds of 200 yard sprint, 5 pull-ups, 5 push-ups. I usually go 6-7 rounds on this over 13-17 minutes.

Long Interval Swims – 500-1000 yard intervals with 250 yard rest between. I can go 4-5 rounds of this totally 4000 yards and I’m completely spent after.

Friday:

Strength & Conditioning – Shoulder Presses, then Cross-Fit movements for time. ie. 100 kettlebell swings, wall balls or box jumps for time.

Long Interval Runs – 800-1200 yard all out, then recover to HR = 99, then go again, and keep going until I’m cooked. That’s about 6-7 miles right now.

Saturday:

Short Interval Swims – 50 yard intervals, going the whole length with minimal breathing (I can go 25 yards end-to-end without breathing now).

Long Interval Bike – 5-10 minutes all out, then recover to HR = 99, then go again. Do this for two hours.

Sunday: Rest


More updates to come as we get closer. Just wanted to share where I am for those interested…

 

Uberman Training Update

NOTE: This post, nor any of my posts, are to be considered medical or training advice. This is only my reports of what I’m doing and what’s working and not working. Use it for informational and educational purposes only. If you’re thinking about endurance training, get some help from a certified coach…

As some of you know, and the rest of you now do, I’m training for Uberman. It’s a multi-day endurance event in October comprised of:

  • 21-mile swim across the Catalina Channel
  • 400-mile bike ride from the coast to Death Valley
  • 135-mile run from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney (the Badwater course)

The race is now three months away, which gives me less than three months of training to go…

I spent April, May, and June ramping up my general baseline fitness – getting myself into general Ironman shape and focusing heaving on ramping up swim mileage each week.

Last week was a bit of a personal test to see how much volume my body could take in a single week, while still working, sleeping, and otherwise functioning as a husband and father. I think I passed the test. Now the hard stuff ahead…

TRAINING TOTALS FOR THE WEEK:

  • Swim: 32,000 yards (18.35 miles)
  • Bike: 151.5 miles
  • Run: 20 miles
  • Weightlifting: Two (2) short sessions focused on posterior chain and stability

THE DETAILS:

Sunday: 5000 yard swim, Weightlifting

Notes:

  • I planned to go longer – as much as 7500 or 10k yards, but just didn’t have the energy. At least I got in the pool after two weeks away from regular training.
  • We spent two weeks in Portland where I worked in frequent open water swimming, but my total mileage dropped way down and I paid the price on this first day back in the pool.
  • Deadlifts and kettle bell swings after the swim to work on posterior chain and stability.

Monday: 35 mile bike, 6 mile run

Notes:

  • I planned to do 50 miles on my Tri-Bike (aka “George”) but had some mechanical issues and instead did a shorter ride on my road bike (“Pedro”), using the wind as a workout.
  • I had a pretty solid crosswind and headwind the entire ride, so I put Pedro in a heavy gear and focused on heart rate. The ride felt like a long incline most of the way, giving my legs a very solid workout.
  • With temperatures in the low 90s, the run was a chance to see how I’d do in the heat with pace and heart rate. Overall, I’m pleased.
  • My baseline running heart rate is 135 bpm for long runs, and I started there, with it slowly climbing throughout the run.
  • By the last couple of miles, I was into the 145 range, and I practiced a run-walk strategy to make sure my HR would drop when I walked, and it did quickly, which is a positive sign that I have it under control in the heat.
  • I purposely didn’t take any water or cold packs with me to reduce variables contributing to my heart rate test.

Tuesday: 7500-yard swim, 2.75 mile run

Notes:

  • Back in the pool for real yardage by doing 7 x 1000, then a 500-yard cool down. It felt forced and lacked rhythm which I further attribute to my lack of pool swimming the last couple of weeks.
  • By 4000, it got a little better when my arms fatigued and I was forced into a longer, slower stroke more representative of what I’ll need to do in the race swim.
  • I was able to keep a 15:30 to 15:45 per 1000-yard pace, which is a good indicator for me. That’s roughly a 2.0 mph pace, and about what I’ve swam in my Ironman races.
  • The run was a simple jaunt around the neighborhood in the evening to get my legs moving and find a few extra miles for the week.

Wednesday: 2000-yard swim, Light weightlifting, 51.5 mile-bike

Notes:

  • The swim was a bonus – I found an extra 45 minutes in the day so I hopped in the pool and did 500 yards to warm up, then 10 x 100 intervals at an 7-8 RPE, then 500 cool down. I mostly just wanted to get in a little intensity for the swim and force myself to sharpen my stroke with the faster pace. Mission accomplished.
  • Weightlifting – overhead squats with dumbbells and kettle bell swings. Focusing on posterior chain to strengthen my cycling and climbing, and the kettle bells for core strengthen and overall stability.
  • Cycling was very, very hard. It was 99 degrees and no joke. The first hour was generally okay and smooth, though I was feeling Monday’s ride in my quads.
  • Hour two included some basic climbs that I’ve done a hundred times, and I knew I was fatigued based on the gears I needed and the amount of time I spent out of the saddle trying to work up the Steiger and Cantelow climbs. These are pretty modest climbs that I usually do in the saddle and at a controlled heart rate. Today? Not so much… I thought about turning around and going home a couple of times, and kept going, and was glad I did.
  • For the final stretch on Putah Creek Road, my butt was burning in the saddle and I turned to meditating while riding and simply facing the sensation until it was over. Good practice for Uberman.

Thursday: 7500-yard swim, 3.25 mile run

Notes:

  • Swim Ladder workout in the pool: 500-1000-1500-2000-1500-500-500
  • The second 1500 was the toughest. I was VERY drained after this, and at home laid on the floor staring at the ceiling while Lena made dinner. This never happens. I felt much, much better after eating, and concluding that I’m just not eating enough during the day. More fats please…
  • The run was another quick evening jog to work in some miles and otherwise reset myself to recover from the swim. Then a good stretch at night and felt much better the next morning.

Friday: 10,000-yard swim, 5.35 mile run

Notes:

  • 10 x 1000 yards midday in 99 degree heat. I learned about a new hazard while pool swimming – sunburn. Ugh. Sunscreen next time…
  • The first 3000 yards were smooth, then I dipped a bit until 6000-7000 where I found a nice glide for the first time on my left side. This has long been a struggle for me. It only lasted about 2000 yards, then I was fatigued.
  • 9000 was a bit more tolerable because I knew then I had only one set left. The last 1000 went really well and I pushed hard for a 15:30 pace – a solid indicator.
  • I brought nutrition to drink during the swim to begin thinking about my “feeds” in the open water. I drank my drink mix every 2000 yards (roughly every 30 minutes0 to get some calories and I felt a huge difference between yesterday’s and today’s post-workout. I was far less hungry and drained afterwards, so a positive development there.
  • With the heat as it was, I thought an outside run would be good so I plodded along the miles at a 8:50 pace to feel the heat and see how I’d feel. Wasn’t too bad and I was glad to get in a solid run and a few miles, and to know I had only a bike ride left in the week.

Saturday: 65-mile bike, 2.75 mile run

Notes:

  • Early ride in the cool morning air. Wow – what a difference 30 degrees makes. I felt great the entire ride and did some decent climbing and repeats.
  • But… I had a hard time getting my heart rate UP… I’m usually at a 118-122 HR in my zone 2, and was about 10-12 bpm slower. This is a sign of general fatigue. Even climbing, I couldn’t get above 130-135 bpm.
  • I was glad to experience this for a few reasons. First, I knew that I hit a physical limit for the week, which was kind of the plan anyway. Secondly. despite the signal of physical fatigue, I was able to maintain speed and power throughout the ride, and even the last 10-15 miles home, I felt good and strong and felt I could have gone another 35 miles if needed.
  • Most of all, I used ZERO nutrition on this ride. 3:35 in the saddle and 65 miles while fatigued with nothing but water. Of course I brought drink mix and an energy bar, and was able to go without. Before the ride, I ate an avocado and a banana, and drank black coffee. A good indication that my body can turn to fat for sustained energy.

Sunday: Rest

Notes:

  • I thought about a run, and mostly felt mentally tired from the week and wanted to just spend time doing nothing.
  • I cracked open my new book – “Power Speed Endurance” by Brian MacKenzie. (Thank you, Lena!)
  • The next focus area is mobility and flexibility.
  • Stay tuned…