The Ultimate Personal Challenge

20 Months, training 5 hours per week, to achieve a top 10 finish at the US SURFSKI Champs

The Inspiration

I’m probably a little late  to the game on this one,  but recently I’ve become obsessed with all things Tim Ferriss (of Four Hour Work Week and Four Hour Body fame)  and his concept of minimal effective dose (MED)  as well as his general modus operandi of attempting to defy the odds and conventional wisdom by achieving very challenging feats in minimal time.   Tim subjects himself to some crazy and brutal tactics at times, but the results are pretty amazing.   And whether or not he always achieves exactly his goals,  he certainly proves that training smarter can deliver amazing results.

In addition to my obsession with Tim Ferriss this fall I published a blog that recapped my performance this season and it seemed to spread and resonate well within the surfski community.   This confirmed to me that there is a definite hunger for information on training and technique that the average paddler can relate to.

In the blog I talked about a couple of key interactions with Zsolt Svadovski at the Epic Dealer Conference.   First he pointed out that my posture was horrendous and second he said he believed I could generate 40% more power and speed with better posture and technique.  Considering that I just had my best season ever  and that Zsolt was convinced I had 40% more potential, I started to think about what might be possible with enough time and  a truly organized and focused training effort.

Why 20@5->10 ?

  • 20 months –  enough time but not too much time.  I chose 20 months because I felt that was what it would take based on training just 5 hours per week to gradually transform myself to world class.   I know it is going to take a lot of work across multiple dimensions and this will take time.   Along the way I’ll work to set specific goals to track against and ensure I’m making the necessary progress.
  • 5 hours per week  – This is about the most that I can realistically commit and still keep my job and family, and I think it is also a very achievable training commitment for the vast majority of paddlers who need to balance work, family, and other interests.
  • Top 10  Historically the field at the US SURFSKI champs  is extremely competitive and most would agree that breaking the top 10 at this race puts you at an elite / world class level

My starting baseline /  A Full Disclosure

I have now been paddling a surfski for 10 years.   I didn’t have any previous paddling experience before starting in the surfski.   My first 6 years I had no personal instruction,  I taught myself based on what I could find on-line.    

I’ve now done a Mocke clinic,  two Oscar clinics,  and 3 TC SURFSKI Immersion Camps with Erik Borgnes and Rob Hartman, and of course not to forget the ad-hoc critique by Zsolt.   So I’ve certainly had more exposure / instruction than most,  but have never been part of a paddling club, team, or program with an actual coach.

I completed my first and only  Molokai in 2014 with a time of 5:15.   I have gradually gotten a little faster every year.   This year on a training paddle I did a 5k flat water PR with an average speed of 7.9 mph.    I can pretty easily average 7.5 mph for a 10k,  but have never recorded anything above that pace on flat water.

Downwind is very hard to measure as the conditions are always variable,  but generally with a solid 10-15 mph wind,  I will average in the 8.5 mph range

Life Before Paddling

I started my passion for fitness as more of a  weight lifter / gym guy in my early twenties  and didn’t catch the cardio bug  until my mid/late 20s.   Growing up as a football, basketball and baseball player,  I always regarded cardio as the torture we had to endure to play the sports we really enjoyed.   Although I don’t consider myself built to be a natural endurance athlete, marathon running seemed to be the thing to do in Chicago, and at my wife’s urging, I agreed to run Chicago with her in 2000.    My time was around 4:14,  decent, but certainly no where close to fast.      After getting married and moving up to Traverse City in 2001,  I got heavily into road and mountain biking and then into triathlon.   I quickly learned how to swim with the Total Immersion Program and managed to survive a couple 1/2 IRONMANs and  a full IRONMAN in 2004 (14:25 – so nothing spectacular).     I never managed to develop any bit of speed swimming, so when triathlon’s started to replace swimming with paddling, I dropped the goggles and never looked back.   Leveraging my strengths in biking and paddling I was able to perform competitively in races such as the M22 Challenge, with a top 5 overall placing every year that I competed in the race.

What got me into paddling in the first place was to train for nordic skiing, and I still try to log as many hours nordic skiing as I can in the winter months.       I’ve tried to do one or two cross country ski races each year and have managed one sub 3 hour Birkie  (50k skate race).

Overall, I would say that from a general cardio standpoint,  I’m a middle of the pack racer,  but through a lot of technique work, I have gotten a bit further toward the front in ski racing and paddling.     When I was biking a lot more, my strength made me  a pretty strong distance and time trial rider.   Generally I would say that my body type, build, and metabolism lends itself more to weight lifting than cardio.

Through all the cardio racing I’ve done over the past 15 years, I’ve never followed a serious and structured training program.   Rather doing whatever sport I’m into during the week as time allows for enjoyment and the occasional race on the weekends.

The reason I share all of the above is really not because I enjoy talking about myself, but more to make the point that overall my background is really pretty average and not unlike many of you out there.

Diet History

Over the years I have done quite a bit of experimentation with my diet going from one extreme to the other.    From 2007 to 2013  I was on a fairly strict vegan diet.    As a vegan I was generally pretty healthy and got down to and stayed at my lowest body weight since high school.    I had good cardio performances in shorter races, but struggled hard in anything approaching 2 hours or more.    I believe this was largely due to the fact that I did very little training long distance training,  but also because as a vegan I followed a very high carbohydrate diet creating a metabolism that was very glucose dependent.

In the late fall of 2014 I made an extreme shift and converted to a very low carbohydrate and keto-genic diet.   I did this largely out of curiosity and the belief that it could improve my endurance stamina more effectively than only doing long training sessions.    On this diet through the winter of 2014 I did a couple long distance ski races as I prepared my endurance base for paddling the Molokai World Championships.   Overall the diet seemed to work extremely well and despite limited long distance training through the winter,  I had a good Molokai race and most importantly felt quite strong all the way through to the finish at around 5 hours 15 minutes.

Shortly after Molokai I started a new job with weekly travel and while I tried to stay low carb,  I suspect the carbohydrate consumption slowly creeped up and with less working out,  I gained 10 lbs pretty quickly,  that I couldn’t shake for over a year.   This past summer I started shifting back toward more vegan and dropped most of the weight I had gained, despite not working out that much or really eating that healthy overall.

My nutrition experiences over the past several years certainly leaves me a bit mixed as to the optimal approach for the next 20 months.   Right now I’m back to reading and studying more on the benefits of ketosis,  so I may start in the low carb and/or intermittent fasting world and go from there.    While I don’t seem to gain weight eating high volumes of carbohydrate,  I just can’t imagine it is good for me, and at a minimum,  I know that my mental clarity is much better on a lower carbohydrate diet.   

Areas I’ll be focusing on:

  1. Balancing my body and posture.   This is a top priority for me now.   I’ve known for a long time that my posture in the surfski has been my weakness,  I’ve just never fully addressed it.   I believe the core issues are much deeper than just being lazy in the boat.   Sitting at a desk for almost 20 years,  logging at least 4-5 hours per week in an airplane seat,  being a tall guy,  and doing 15 years of almost pure cardio and no real weight training,  has all played a part.     The good news is that I’ve got an amazing trainer  (Ian at North Bay Fit in Lake Leelanau)  who is excited and passionate about getting me back to an overall balanced body with the right functional movement capabilities and maximum strength and explosiveness.
  2. Finding the optimal diet for me and achieving sub 10% body fat.  As mentioned above,  I’’ll be experimenting with diet to find what is optimal to get me to a competitive body fat level while also ensuring I can paddle strong for 2 hours at near maximum effort.
  3. Improving my forward stroke technique.   While I feel that I am generating a lot of power in my stroke,  I’m going to believe Zsolt was correct, and conservatively there is still another 20% to gain by correcting posture and tweaking my technique further.
  4. Becoming truly explosive.  Being explosive in the surfski is absolutely critical in all forms of paddling and especially in downwind.   It is  probably something most of us don’t give enough attention to.    I’m interested in learning technique and tricks from the body building world on how  small guys develop the power of guys 2 and 3 times their body weight.   I also want to explore if building general explosive capabilities in the legs and hips will translate to the boat.    I’ll never forget feeling the explosive power of Greg Barton when I had the chance to ride in the back of the tandem with him.    I’m certain there is much to be explored, learned, and gained in this area.
  5. Testing legal performance improvement supplements.   I’ve always had a curiosity and interest in optimizing performance through supplementation  (legal and safe of course).   Throughout this journey I will be seeking to optimize my supplementation to maximize performance.    I’ll plan to expand on all of this in a lot more detail in future blogs, but right now I’m taking fish oil, vitamin D3, ashwaganda, maca, and B12.    Additionally to further enhance the nutritional ketosis diet I’ve been following for over a month, I’m supplementing with an exogenous ketone product called Keto OS from PRUVIT.   Exogenous ketone products are brand new to the market and already showing massive potential as the benefits of burning ketones for fuel are rapidly becoming widely recognized.   On a separate, but related note (as it relates to the benefits of ketones), I just finished a truly fascinating and thought provoking book on the history of cancer research, titled Tripping Over the Truth.   This book clearly demonstrates there is massive opportunity to drive a mindset shift to start recognizing and treating cancer as a metabolic disease rather than a genetic abnormality.   All of us at one time or another  have close friends battling this nasty disease, and IMHO this book is  a must read.
  6. Taking my downwind skills to the next level.   The US SURFSKI Champs is a true downwind race and to break the top 10,  you’ve got to be a world class downwind paddler.    Fortunately I get a lot of downwind opportunities where I live.   My general plan is to continue going out year round in the biggest conditions I can safely go out in.   I will also specifically try to do more long 12-15 mile downwind training paddles to build the mental focus and stamina to paddle straight downwind for that length of time.  In the next 20 months I’m also hopeful that I’ll be able to make it over to Tarifa  for some instruction with Boyan and crew, who have truly taking surfski instruction to a whole new level
  7. Tapping the power of the mind.   I know that diet, supplements, technique, and training will only get me so far.  My last and hopefully secret weapon will be tapping into the power of the mind.   My hope is that by getting better at going deep in the mind,  I’ll have better mental focus and clarity when working on technique (both flat water and downwind), and find an ability to push my body harder.    Right now I’m fascinated by the work of Wim Hof, aka The Iceman   This guy is achieving some serious super human feats which are truly amazing.   He focuses a lot on cold therapy and tolerance which is a great survival skill to have paddling in Northern Michigan.   Not to mention, Laird Hamilton is a devout follower of the Wim Hof Method, which to me validates that this stuff is for real.

Testing and Evaluation

Below are some of the testing / evaluation options I am looking into.    In the continued spirit of full disclosure, I’ll post the results as I get these assessments done.

  1. 23andme  genetic testing to determine pre-disposition and where my natural strengths and weaknesses are.   I’m finding there are some really cool new startups such as Athletigen that specialize in taking the raw data of the genetic testing results and providing guidance to optimize athletic performance.
  2. Dexa-scan – This will provide a baseline for body fat,  metabolism,  RQ, etc..
  3. WellnessFX   blood work to test for vitamin and mineral levels, essentially fatty acids, general internal organ health, and a host of other great metrics.


At the end of the day it is all about the journey, and there is no doubt in my mind this will be one heck of a ride.   In my mind it will pull together everything that TC SURFSKI is about;  being present, being challenged, and being unique.    My ultimate hope is that this challenge is not really about me,  but serves as a platform to inspire both new and experienced surfski paddlers across the globe to do their own self experimentation and even join me in this challenge if desired.  I’m certain everything I say and do won’t be the perfect solution for everyone, but I also know there will be bits and pieces of new and creative thinking that will resonate, open minds, and inspire breakthroughs.

It is a daunting challenge for sure,  and I’ll be the first to admit I’ve finished a couple of ERG and open water paddle sessions lately thinking that this is totally insane and I’ll never get there, but I’ll continue to silence that voice and push forward one day at a time.   20 months is still a long time and if I can make small improvements in at least one dimension every day,  I’ll have a lot of cumulative momentum working for me.

My plan is to blog at least once a month and provide an update and go into much more depth on all the items I’ve mentioned in this introduction.

Here’s to a New Year filled with new challenges and unique learning experiences!

Tagged with →