For the Love of Training

Brad Miller of Adventures for Action sets out this May to climb the West Buttress of Denali (Mt. McKinley). This “adventure” is to raise awareness about the “action” they’re striving to achieve, which is currently fundraising for the International Health Partners of the United States and Tanzania (IHP-TZ). Read more about both the Adventure and the Action of Adventures for Action on their website. This blog post is the first of a series Brad is writing for Tahoe Mountain Sports, who is helping to gear him up for Denali.

I have never been fond of training and I think it is a safe assumption that I am not alone in this feeling.  I dislike activities that are physical prerequisites to the “real thing” and because of this feeling, most training that I have done has felt joyless and perfunctory.  I have been very fortunate in that much of my life has been actually living the “real thing.”  I have lived in Yosemite, trekked in Nepal and climbed in many countries abroad.  In these places I did not need to train because I was always doing the activities one might train for.  We did not train to climb; we climbed. And I was physically the better for it.

Since childhood I have always hated to practice and loved to play.  My father would tell me that I had to take the good with the bad and that I was not allowed to participate if I did not put in the work. He left the choice up to me, never forcing activities upon me and so I was able to think on my young priorities and decide what was worth sticking with.  Boy scouts was not; I loved camping, canoeing and learning to shoot, but the meetings and merit badges where too much to put up with.  Wrestling was worth the bad, even though practice was brutal and I often found myself close to vomiting due to the effort.

This feeling about practice has remained unshakable into my adult life, and now training equals practice.  It does not matter how or what I am training for—on a hang board for climbing, riding intervals or hills for an upcoming road or cyclocross race—it’s all the same.  I am ashamed to say that I don’t even particularly enjoy skills training, although I recognize it as absolutely necessary and so strive to learn the necessities that help keep my partners and me safe.  Compared to skills training however, physical training has always seemed to me to be like clockwatching.

And so it was, when faced with the challenge of making an attempt on Denali in May 2012, I was presented with another challenge.  A challenge, I dare say, equal to that of the climb itself. . . the dreaded training.  Training for a climb like Denali is a long affair and despite the ability to peak bag that Tahoe affords, inevitably the process turns repetitive and mundane.  These feelings are accentuated for me by those days when I cannot afford the time to get into Desolation Wilderness.  This inevitably leaves me running, which I loathe, or humping weight up a long forest service road still thinly covered by a weak winter’s ice and snow.  These are the types of things that I would never, ever do for fun, and so I see them as the biggest of chores.  That is, until recently.

On December 9th my brother Russ, who by trade is a climber on a tree trimming crew, was crushed by a 1,500-pound log.  The trauma from the accident broke and dislocated his hip, fractured 4 vertebrae, ripped the meniscus from its mount in his knee and tore 40 percent through one of his bicep mounts.  To say that Russ is lucky to be alive is, for him, as true as it is bitter.  Although thankfully not paralyzed from the accident, Russ is an avid climber and runner and the great log squashing with four subsequent surgeries spread across five months has taken away the physical activities he loves for a long time to come.  With lots of future hard work, many months of time and a fair amount of luck, my climbing partner, brother and best friend will make a good recovery.  But for now, his inability to exercise is taking a physical and mental toll.

In late February Russ and I spoke for a long time about what exercise and outdoor activities mean to us.  He talked about his love of running, how he loves to push past the inevitable “bad section” of a long run and move into the part where he feels like everything is right and he could go on forever.  Pre accident Russ would do this often, running 10 or more miles in a session.  He runs not only for the positive physical effects but also for the love of the movement and the way it makes him feel.  Upon being asked how his run is, it is common for him to answer, “It was the best ever.”

Although Russ sometimes runs 5k races and half marathons (a stress fracture prevented him from participating in the Phoenix marathon), he does not run to train.  He runs to run.  For me, exercise as training for the main event is one thing but running to run is another beast entirely.  This idea, if not totally foreign to me was once hard to understand. I would never run for the sake of it, and in training daily to get fit for another activity I find it hard to maintain motivation.  Often when I am out hauling heavy loads in preparation for the physical toll on Denali I find myself wishing I was already done and counting the minutes or steps until I can quit.  Having set out with a specific session goal, I oftentimes have to consciously fight the pull to quit early and I sometimes lose.  After the conversation with my brother in February, however, that all changed.

I have often said that you don’t need to lose something to really appreciate it, you simply need to occasionally meditate on the things you have.  Similarly, when you see someone else go without or lose something dear to them it makes it even easier to appreciate what you maintain.  I experienced this while traveling through India and seeing the poverty and strife that is rampant there.  My brother’s accident and our subsequent conversation also poignantly illustrated this idea.

In our conversation he expressed a worry that because I tend to not want to be training that I miss out on so much while I am doing it—that I am so focused on the end goal that I lose sight of the journey.  This struck a chord which rang true.  Russ made me realize that I should be more in the moment, that I should appreciate every day that I am out there enjoying nature, pushing myself and getting stronger.  That I should not take even one day for granted.  I should remember, he told me, that he can’t get out there and won’t be able to for a long time, and getting after it is all he wants to do.

When I go out to train now I make sure to do whatever it takes to enjoy myself.  Sometimes that means slowing down and appreciating my surroundings; sometimes it means picking up the pace and really pushing.  Mostly, when I start to get down on myself and thoughts of wanting to quit creep in, or thoughts of not wanting to even go out at all arise, all I have to do is think of my brother.  I think about how much he wants to be out there, not training but just moving.  All I have to do is think of him and I am reminded of how lucky I am to even have the opportunity to train and all that negativity goes away.  In a way I am not only training for Denali, I am also training for him.

For over 8 years I have wanted to stand on the summit of Denali, and long ago I asked Russ if he wanted to someday try with me.  Despite his love of rock climbing he is not a mountaineer and knowing the high and inherent dangers he simply replied, half serious, half in jest, “Sorry bro, but I have no desire to walk into a white death with you.”  Accident or not, Russ would have never come to Denali with me in body, which is probably for the best as any long stormbound stint in a small tent would have lead to an inevitable murder.  Mine I suspect, as he is far stronger in both body and mind than I.  He will however come with me in philosophy.  When I find myself up there suffering—cold, tired, hurting and wanting to quit—all I will have to do is think of him and how he just wants to move and all that appreciation for where I am and what I am doing will come flooding back.  At least, I hope it does. . .

We appreciate Brad’s honesty. Training is hard. Do you struggle with training for mountaineering or other sports? Share your story in the comments.

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