A Little Bit  Overambitious

In early 2016, listening to a few too many Tim Ferriss “minimal effective dose” podcasts and looking for a big goal and inspiration in the throws of a Northern Michigan winter, I posted a blog outlining a challenge for myself to achieve a top 10 finish at the US Surfski Champs in 2017.  As several trusted and more realistic fellow paddlers quickly informed me, shooting for top 10 was a dangerous proposition, due to the fact that I have no control over the field of competition. A more statistically relevant challenge would have been to shoot for a percentage off the winning time or something similar. All very true indeed.

Needless to say, I had gone public with the challenge to myself and so had to commit and do my best. I soon found out that the US Champs would not be held in 2017 and refocused my goal on the Gorge Downwind Champs, but also backed off my top 10 ambitions, knowing that the competition would be fierce at the Gorge.

I committed to racing at the Gorge once I signed up in Oct 2016. My goal at that point was to do what I could to finish with a respectable time. I should note first that while I’ve done a lot of racing over the years, I honestly don’t consider myself the “racer type”. Most of my racing has been more focused on participating and finishing, than being on the podium. Along these lines, the primary goal of my training has always been to reduce stress, get fresh air outside, ease the guilt of overindulging in food, and generally keep fit. Biking, running, and flat water paddling I do purely for these reasons, but downwind paddling I do for the pure addiction of play, flow, and adrenaline.   As a result of this, once I committed to the Gorge, I was more inspired than ever to get out and paddle on every single day where surfing runs looked possible.  Which is exactly what I did (It helps that I live 1 minute from the windward side of Lake Michigan). With a mild winter (meaning no icebergs on the shoreline preventing a safe launch or Titanic episode) I managed to catch runs almost every single weekend from October  until July when I left for Hood River. In addition to lots of short out and back paddles through the winter, I ramped up my downwind paddles starting in April. My local downwind run is approximately 11-12 miles, so it served as a great simulation for the Gorge Downwind which is  14 miles.

For extra motivation to get fit, in March I signed up for the M22 Challenge which is a sprint distance run/bike/paddle held in early June. This was an excellent motivator as it forced me to commit to running as part of my training regime.

My standard schedule is flying out very early Monday morning to Philadelphia and back late Thursday night. The very unscientific training routine I fell into around this schedule was the following:

  • Monday: day off  and travel
  • Tuesday: 3 mile (mostly max effort) run on a hilly course outside my hotel
  • Wednesday: A 17 minute strength routine including 200 pushups, 80 single leg reverse lunges, and 40 single leg assisted pistol squats
  • Thursday: day off and travel
  • Fri/Sat/Sun: Downwind if possible – otherwise out and back. If flat then either drills in the surfski or paddling the K1

Netting it out, this routine equated to about 40 minutes of working out Mon-Thurs (when I’m out of town) and about 2.5 – 3 hours of paddling on the weekend, with at least half of that being downwind. Ultimately I don’t think my training exceeded 4 hours per week on average.

In addition to the workout routine, the looming race provided motivation to clean up my diet while traveling.  In the past I’ve been high carb vegan, low carb paleo, and everything in between.  For the past several months I’ve been generally low carb, but not extreme.  I typically skip breakfast and have a salad for lunch.   I now have meat at probably 2-3 meals per week.       I am still somewhat baffled as to how it happened, by the time I got out to the Gorge I had dropped about 10 lbs and was seeing all time lows for my body weight, holding steady just over 200 lbs

Being light, feeling fit, and with lots of downwind under my belt, I felt pretty good heading out to the Gorge, but I also knew it would be an incredibly competitive field.

I missed the race start by at least a minute, but overall paddled a good race and managed to place 45th overall.  Unfortunately my heart rate strap wasn’t connecting to my Garmin so I’m not sure what my average HR and level of effort was.    It wasn’t anywhere close to a top 10 finish, but all things considered, I was pretty happy to be finishing alongside some really strong paddlers. I like to think I would have faired a little better with bigger conditions on race day, but you never know.   I’m sure a lot of other paddlers would have as well.    No doubt that my time spent downwind paddling made a difference. In hindsight the biggest mistake I made was not doing enough intensity on the water. I just could not ramp up and sustain a higher level of intensity and heart rate in the boat.

It is challenging to start surfski paddling in your early 30s with no paddling background, train alone, and get to a level in paddling where you can compete with those who have grown up in clubs with great coaching and training partners to push them.   That said, I refuse to believe it is impossible, just as I believe that training for downwind on the Great Lakes you can become a competitive elite level downwind paddler. I am as committed as ever to continue the journey and to sharpen the limited training that I do to be even more effective. If Oscar is any indication, there is no excuse to slow down and not be highly competitive at least into your mid 50s. At 43, that means I’ve got 12 more years of improvement ahead before I peak. That is pretty exciting to think about!

What I plan to do to prepare for next year:

  • Continue with my running and try to gradually get faster and faster. Running pushes my heart rate more than any other sport and likely leads to the greatest VO2 improvements I can make
  • Maintain strength via mostly body weight exercises – when I do my pushups and pull-ups I try to imagine the last couple of reps as paddling up over that big run mistakenly decided to chase and now have to commit to.  The last few reps always seem very similar.
  • Road biking – my wife Kim is getting back into road biking, so it has become a good activity for us to do together. I finally upgraded my 17 year old steel frame bike to a new carbon, so plan to ride more and use this as a general zone 2/3 cardio workout
  • Nordic / Skate Skiing – This was the sport that got me into surfski in the first place, I absolutely love it, and will plan to train and probably do a few 25k distance races this winter
  • At least once every two weeks, do a 3 or 6 mile flat water time trial, ultimately hoping to see an increased average heart rate, cadence, and speed
  • Commit to doing some downwind runs in “Race Mode” where I am pushing over runs more frequently and generally running a higher heart rate throughout (increase frequency of these as I get closer to the race)
  • Oscar Chalupsky drills for forward stroke technique
  • Paddle in waves every chance I get, focusing on right side bracing, surfing to the right, working angles, finding gaps, and staying on the waves for as long as possible
  • Continue to spend some time in my Epic Legacy K1 to further develop balance, symmetry, and a clean forward stroke

Finding a balance and routine that works is ultimately what it all comes down to.   So far I’m feeling good about the current routine I’ve got and hoping to see slow and steady improvements.

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