Well it has been almost a month since Marshall and I finished the Endeavor Team Challenge (ETC) I guess it’s time to try to make some sense of it. We have some images here if you are interested. Some fellow Challengers posted this good video of the entire event. Here is a great video of the obstacle course which was my favorite part of the course, well, at least the most fun. My favorite part of the course is shown above. I am going to talk mostly about the experience with some “thinking out loud” about what the experience meant. I am going to let post some more about the details and gear, worked and what didn’t, in the near future.
Here is the first thing to remember, if you do this or an event like this, have someone like Susan to get all the logistics done like driving there and back, cooking us all our meals and, generally, taking care of you when you have very few functioning brain cells. A huge thank you to Susan for making the ETC possible. I am sure we could have done it without her but it would have been much harder and much less fun.
First of all, I was really nervous going into the ETC because I hadn’t really trained that much and the week before I was dealing with the tail end of a cold and I was getting aches and pains all over. My last event, The NorthFace Endurance Challenge in 2012, ended miserably because my knee hurt too much and I had to quit after 8 miles. I wanted to make it through at least the first 20 mile march. I thought after the march I could somehow get through the rest of the events. Obviously, that was really poorly thought out (duh): Things just started getting hard after the march. The following four things allowed me to finish the march:
- I took it really easy, no running, always conversational pace. We missed the time cut-off of 7 hours by 30 minutes but I think that really helped me in my state of training.
- I used the VooDoo Floss Band a few times when my legs were cramping or just getting tight. This band helped so much. I would wrap up and continue walking for a few minutes then take it off. No pain or tightness afterwards. It was a little crazy.
- About 2 days before the event, including on the way up to the event, I started to mobilize my hips and lower legs like crazy and that really helped.
- Salt tablets.
I did a century in Tucson in the late 90s and I gave myself a pretty good case of exercise-associated hyponatremia (EAH) and put myself into the E.R. for a few hours. EAH is actually a pretty serious issue. There are deaths from it every year at major marathons. You can get your salt balance messed up from drinking too much water and not enough electrolytes. EAH starts with headache, nausea, vomiting (and the associated lack of appetite) and confusion and can get much worse from there. I bring salt tablets on almost all long hikes/runs now. When we finished the march and started out on the mountaineering portion I told Susan and Marshall I was feeling nauseous. Marshall suggested I just take a salt tab or two based on this article. I took one pill and Susan noticed a change in my color and attitude after just a few minutes. I started to feel hungry too. In another 20 minutes, I took another capsule. We continued to take salt pills throughout the event when we were feeling bad and/or grumpy. I even had to take a couple after the event. What we learned is that salt (and other associated minerals), like sugar, have a low point in your system that should be avoided. However, the upper limit is really hard to get to especially when exercising. The take-home here is that if you are feeling crappy (both mentally or physically) on a long endurance event, eat some sugar and take a salt pill. If neither help, you’ll know it in just a few minutes and, if it wasn’t the right thing, you won’t mess yourself further. Start with salt first so you’ll know if that is what you need more of, then try sugar of that doesn’t work. I will write a longer post about exactly how much salt you should plan on taking in a few days.
I included this story because as we made our way through the weekend, we came to understand that nutrition is the foundation that training is built upon. Without a good understanding and practice of both training and event nutrition (yes, these are different things), it is really hard to complete something of this duration and intensity. While I think there could be a little more info on how to feed and water yourself on a long event like the ETC (and I will hopefully get to write an article for them on that subject), you have to start with regularly putting food and water with electrolytes in your mouth. Without a steady flow of calories and electrolytes, you start a downward spiral that is hard to get out of. We found out later that two teams had to be extracted during the night navigation. When one of the teams was asked where their water was, they replied “We thought we could tough it out.” In the battle between “toughness” and biology, biology always wins. Start your training with trying to understand exactly what your body requires for optimal feeding and nutrition when it is stressed like it will be in your event. Following that, practice the skills you’ll need, then the for the physical capacity, you’ll need in the event. Only after that, should you try to train for “toughness.” Obviously, these will overlap, but always make sure that nutrition and hydration are re assessed as your skills and physical capacity increase.
There were definitely high and low points. The obstacle course was the most fun even though it was pretty hard. There was a swim at the end of the obstacle course. While we were side-stoking (thanks for the reminder about the side stroke Dan W. and Kris) we got to see the Rim Fire smoke clouds painted red and orange at sunset. Very beautiful in a scary way. To the organizers’ credit, in the pre-race talk, they were specific about making sure to take a step back and enjoy what we were doing even though you might be a little uncomfortable at that exact moment.
The low point of the event was after we got in from the night navigation at 3 AM, we were told that we had to do the OPT Challenge which was a series of five events. I have been follower of OPT for many years and I really doubt this was the time he anticipated these events would take place. At this point, I felt like the organizers were just making the event hard just to make it hard. I probably should have done the events to the best of my ability but I didn’t and that is a big reason we came in last place.
Just before the low point, about six of us were mule-training our way back to camp from night navigation, I finally figured out something that I guess I had known for a while but never found the words. It was so obvious, it made instant sense. I don’t mind working hard, as long as there is a connection to something larger, to beauty, somewhere along the way. I will work hard to help someone, or to see a beautiful sight or to gain a connection with someone outdoors (check out Mark Twight’s “Kiss or Kill” for some great essays on the subject); however, doing hard things, especially in the mountains, just because it is hard is not fulfilling for me. Throughout the event and afterwards, many people said you should be proud that you were one of the 26 teams (out of 45 teams) that actually finished. I think part of the reason I don’t feel proud is that I just did what the organizers told me to do. We wrote down all the things they told us we had to do. Marshall and I mapped out the training schedule and we did it. The only thing that wasn’t fully obvious was the food. We got help from Coach Kris and Aron M, created a food spreadsheet that we sort of followed, we didn’t eat hardly any of the trail mix, and then went from there. I guess you could make the argument that making a plan is one thing but actually implementing that plan is much more challenging (I read “Steve Jobs” so it wouldn’t take much to convince me of that). More than that, I think it was the lack of connection to something larger that left me with little desire to do the event again, at least as it was implemented the first time. At some point in your athletic career, you have to do something longer and harder than you think you can do, like a marathon, an Ironman or the ETC. But most people will want to focus on something else, quality rather than quantity. Mature athletes will want to consider adding either technique or speed or a different location, but just going longer, staying in the realm of “can I finish” is the mark of an athlete who has stagnated in their development.
Before the ETC started, I told my barber that I was doing an event, and told him a little about it, so I wanted my hair shorter than I usually get it. He told me about the Crucible march (which ironically was the name of the first 20 mile march in the ETC) he went on in Marine bootcamp just before he went to Vietnam as a communication tech with special forces teams. Yeah, I felt pretty stupid after that conversation, but just hold on a sec… it gets better… I think. I figured out during the ETC that many of these paramilitary, team-based events like Tough Mudder, GORUCK and Endeavor Team Challenge, have it backwards or at least we approach them backwards: The “event” is the training, the actual event, i.e. the race/challenge, is the glue that makes the training stick. If you don’t train together, you don’t have anything for the glue to stick to. It occurred to me that an event without training is like dessert for dinner, not a big problem occasionally but not something you want to make a habit of. That realization has fundamentally changed how we are training for the GORUCK Light in October and also spurred Susan and I to start planning some events of our own in 2014. We will have some intro events so that people will have an understanding of the nature event we will do. For instance, if we have an overnight ski trip to the Ostrander Hut we will make attending the training as important, if not more, than fitness or skill.
Both Marshall and I thought the ETC was a well run event, especially for the first time. While it is unlikely that we will do it again, I might be interested in volunteering for the event. I think there are a few people at MDSoF who would really get something out of training for and doing the event. If there was anything I would change is that there be more information about training and race nutrition and hydration. Also we both agreed that although it was fun, the mountaineering portion of the event took more time than it was worth. My personal take home from the event was if I keep doing what I love, being in the mountains, no matter the premise or outcome, I will eventually find a way to seamlessly and gracefully incorporate the beauty of the mountains into my daily life. While it took me a month to figure it out, maybe there was a connection to something larger in the ETC.