Fighting Gravity for 1 Million Feet

One million feet: 35 trips from sea level to the top of Everest. Fighting gravity to climb that many feet uphill in a year without any motorized assistance is incredible and badass.

Well, my friend Paul did it. Props, kudos, congrats, and a standing ovation, you beast!

On December 31, 2018, Paul wrapped up his year-long goal to log 1,000,000 vertical feet of human-powered ascending. To count, it had to be sweat, commitment and burrito-driven, all performed outdoors. No trainers or treadmills, no ski lifts, no shuttling, just old-fashioned oomph.

Paul’s words:
“The goal was based on a few principles…

  • We are capable of so much more than we think.
  • Spend time in the mountains with good people.
  • We all have life goals in work and life, often imposed by others with no understanding of the individual. This was 100% my goal. Something I knew I could do based on many years of testing the body and mind.
  • It sounded fun!
  • Experience the mountains through a variety of outdoor human-powered adventures while learning how to ski, evolve the mountain biking, rock climb more, and trail run some bigger routes.”

How Tough is 1 Million Feet?

For perspective, 1 million feet of vertical gain equals 3,140’/day (260 flights of stairs!) and 4+ hours with one rest day per week. You know those days when you wake up after a run or bike ride and take a rest day because your legs are tired? Nope. Get up, put on gear, and get out the door. My biggest year is 450,000′ of vertical, a piddly fart of an effort compared to 1,000,000′.

Factor in Paul’s job, injuries, sickness, our climbing trip to Red Rocks (bad for vert because climbing is slow) and what he was staring in the eye was one helluva challenge. I bet you’ve never thought this deeply about the nuances of vert accumulation. I hadn’t!

Since he’s a lunatic and wanted to make it harder, Paul focused on “interesting” vert. He wasn’t just logging big miles on a road bike, Everesting up and down the same climb. Gnarly mountain biking, big trail runs like the Enchantments Traverse, and backcountry skiing (
(hiking up a mountain on your skis before descending) in all kinds of conditions made the challenge even tougher.

His stats: 53% mountain biking, 23% backcountry skiing, 15% road biking, 7% trail running, and 2% rock climbing. Lots of classic cold and wet Pacific NW days riding muddy trails, skiing in stormy conditions at the crack of dawn (often when I slept in) and pushing to make a big goal happen.

Hanging with the Vert-Seeker

I logged many days and 80,000’ uphill with Paul during the challenge and witnessed his willpower and stoke levels fluctuate. The immensity of the goal was sometimes a yoke around his neck and also propelled him to complete tough objectives like running the 40-mile Timberline Trail.

That fire burns for adventure, but Paul can also go deep. Around a campfire in the North Cascades, we talked about creating our personal ideal lives. The next day, we pedaled and pushed through snow on a remote, beautiful ride. As a finale to eight days of outdoor adventure, we dunked in a snow-melt creek, Paul’s favorite post-activity refresher no matter HOW cold temps are.

I saw him depressed and angry about a tweaked knee from a climbing fall in Red Rocks, talked about relationships and the housing market for endless hours (yessss, sell that house and be free, man!) and coached him through (mostly) plant-powered efforts as he strove for the lowest possible inflammation levels during his challenge.

Emotions whipsawed. Hooting and hollering on trail descents, worrying about incoming storms on multi-pitch rock climbs, staring from the tops of mountains at distant vistas, assessing avalanches in the backcountry…

We humans experience a lot in the outdoors: raw emotion from weather, exposure, fear, exhaustion, beauty, friendship. There’s power in pushing physical limits and magic in the simplicity of man vs. gravity in a natural setting.

How the Challenge Affected Me

In the past few years, I haven’t undertaken challenges where finishing was in question. Even the Oregon Timber Trail, the hardest physical journey I’ve done, always felt achievable. Sure, I get tired, bonk, or feel bored and ready to be done, but even at my MOST tired (often with Paul!), I know a granola bar and one last hard push reaches the finish line.

Paul’s awesome effort reminds me that aiming for a goal where victory isn’t guaranteed is a primo way to feel alive. That and freezing lake dips!

Looking back, I suspect Paul will remember his 40th year on this planet more than others. Life isn’t just about fun, after all. From Nobel laureate Danny Kahneman: “Happiness is a momentary experience that arises spontaneously and is fleeting. Meanwhile, satisfaction is a long-term feeling, built over time and based on achieving goals and building the kind of life you admire.”

To a satisfaction-building, admirable accomplishment, I say CHEERS. Well done, my friend.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, did Paul sleep in on January 1st and read a book all day on the couch? NAH. After 10 straight days skiing to finish off the challenge, he got up early on New Year’s day and headed out for some more backcountry turns in the snow.

Follow Paul on Instagram. I always enjoy his varied, creative, rambling stream-of-consciousness posts. Plus he’s always in beautiful areas sharing photos to make you dream! Here’s his summary post regarding the vert challenge.

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Investing in Your Body’s 401(k)

Surveyors Ridge Oregon

This post is inspired by a podcast interview I did with The Consummate Athlete. Check it out here! Topics ranged from my daily habits to navigating van life to benchmarks for my personal fitness to why I love ping pong as much as shredding rocky trails on my mountain bike.

I didn’t “exercise” as a kid. Like most people my age, I simply played. Exercise was climbing trees and running around. There wasn’t a routine or plan – it was simply part of my daily lifestyle.

Then came the years of sitting at desks at school and lifting weights so I could smack a baseball over a fence. (And impress the ladies). I could bench 285, but I couldn’t touch my toes without my eyes bugging out.

Zip forward three decades and here I am, recently 34 years old. I’m still very active, but the range of motion in my hips, shoulders, and other joints are closer to a rusty Tin Man than my younger self.

As I head toward the Land of Middle Age, my goal is to stay active in many sports. To achieve this, I’ve realized a haphazard approach to fitness and flexibility won’t suffice. It’s going to take more of a concerted effort.

Exploring Oneonta Gorge in Oregon.

Exploring the Oneonta Gorge in Oregon…with icy toes.

What Are Your Fitness Benchmarks?

The esteemed mountaineer Conrad Anker does two things every year to encourage staying in shape – run a marathon and climb El Capitan in Yosemite. This got me thinking about what my personal fitness barometers might be. I encourage you to do the same.

Rather than a couple big goals, I opted for specific items along the lines of the Presidential Fitness test we did as kids, with some other sports mixed in. My baseline goals – ones I want to be able to do anytime, anywhere – are:

  • 50 pushups
  • 15 pullups (no kipping!)
  • 15 dips
  • Hold a plank for 2 minutes without shaking like a rabid rattlesnake
  • Touch my toes with straight legs
  • Run ten miles
  • Ride a century on a road bike OR 35 miles of gnarly, physical terrain on my mountain bike
  • Swim a mile straight (in a pool)
  • Lead 5.11 climbing routes
  • Beat my friend Jaysun at ping pong (I love the outdoors and adrenaline sports, but for some reason also find a ton of joy in the focused fun of this sport)

While we’ve been landed in Portland, it’s been easy to maintain these. Most can be done while traveling, though it depends. Some will atrophy during long, single-activity trips like bike touring, backpacking, or eating large servings of carrot cake for three months. Others are a starting point – if I’m planning a long climbing trip, I’ll get after it and hopefully be cranking on 5.12s by go time.

I’ve also enjoyed benchmark Crossfit workouts as an excellent way to test overall fitness, not to mention a damn fine workout when I’ve only got time for a short workout. I’m not a Crossfitter and have never been to their gyms, but my favorite test is one called Cindy. It’s 20 minutes to complete as many sets as possible of 5 pullups, 10 pushups, and 15 air squats. If don’t splat on your back in a puddle of sweat afterward, you are a cyborg.

All that’s nice, but what about staying limber? That’s where mobility work comes into play.

Oneonta Tunnel Oregon

.Exploring an old tunnel in Oregon.

Mobility Training (Ok, Stretching)

Lately I’ve also incorporated a mobility practice into my life. I don’t want tight hips, shoulders, ankles, and forearms limiting my performance in the activities I enjoy, and this is the ticket for that.

We all know we need to stretch more, warm up better, blah blah blah. Well, it still matters. Paraphrasing an Olympic strength coach: “If world-class power lifters are using their limited training time to stretch EVEN THOUGH their focus is strength, why aren’t you?” Fine.

I’m not the best at regular stretching, but have found that triggers work best for me. (I do one thing, then immediately do the desired activity afterward. e.g. Eat breakfast, brush teeth.) To accomplish this, I integrated a mobility practice into something I already do frequently: reading.

A number of books inspired this, most recently Ready to RunI also drew on an interview with an Olympic gymnastics coach and incorporated his fundamentals program. There’s no magic pill though – it still takes work. Most of us, including me, have so much body memory in the wrong positions that it’s going to take consistent, focused effort to repair the damage.

A great day on the trails of the Columbia Gorge. Photo: Scott Rokis.

Working on tight hamstrings in the Columbia Gorge. Photo: Scott Rokis.

The good news is that many mobility exercises provide entertainment for your partner. Chelsea routinely has laughing fits when I’m struggling through an ape or crab walk. Even with her antics, my mobility is improving after just a month of 10-20 minutes per day and I can actually picture the day when doing the splits won’t put me in the hospital.

If you’re like me and have tight hamstrings, hip flexors, and shoulders from biking/running/hunching over a device, these are my favorite exercises. You may dig them too:

  • Couch stretch – no, it’s not reeeeaching for the T.V. remote from the couch. Do a lunge with your rear knee on the ground, then reach back and lift your foot until it touches your butt. Shriek loudly, then relax until your eyes stop watering. Two-four minutes each side a couple times each day will change your hip flexors from twangy to the envy of all the ballerinas you know.
  • Deep squats – my ankles and hips are both tight. Until a week ago, sitting in a squat with heels on the ground resulted in me toppling over backward. My goal is a full squat with feet flat on the ground, and two minutes a few times a day is moving me forward.
  • Table top/crab pose – great for shoulder flexibility to stretch the pec minor muscle, the one in our chest that is constantly constricting as we hover over our glowing devices. Lots of variations on this – just Google “pec minor stretch”
  • Jefferson Curls – I’d never even heard of this exercise, but it’s the #1 recommendation from Gymnastic Bodies. It’s basically a weighted standing forward curl to bring back curvature and flexibility in your spine. My hamstrings and spine are in love with this stretch.

Do those four exercises consistently and I bet you’ll see great progress. I choose 2-3 each day and do them while I read books or blog posts, prior to a climbing session, or after a bike ride or run.

Mt Hood agrees that June alpine rides are the best. (Surveyors Ridge)

Taking a break during a ride near Mt Hood. June alpine rides are the best.

When I hear about older athletes who are still crushing it, consistency is the dominant theme. By staying on top of mobility and regularly exercising, they avoid injuries that sideline many athletes for big chunks of time and require starting over. Day in, day out, they take a few minutes to bang out some pushups or pullups, stand instead of sit at a desk (standing desks are magic for better posture), or choose stretching on the floor while watching a movie versus sinking into the couch. The small things add up over tie!

I write about this as both an accountability statement for myself and a reminder that it is TOTALLY possible to stay flexible, strong, and active as we age. I see it as an investment similar to saving for retirement. With a few minutes per day sunk into a Body 401(k), hopefully I’ll be pulling out returns for many years.

Zipping along perfect trails at Post Canyon.

Zipping along perfect trails at Post Canyon. Here’s to more of this for a long time!