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Saturday, March 3, 2012

Another flawed analogy

Sometimes this is what a 'route' looks like.  Photo by Nick Wilder

The challenge presented by ultra-endurance events (UEEs) is kind of like going up and down Mt. Whitney in a day.  Most people have never been to the summit (done anything like a UEE).  Of those that have, the majority took a couple of days to make the 22-mile round-trip hike that ascends nearly 6000 feet (analogous to running a marathon). In the unlikely event you run across someone that did manage the car-to-car-in-a-day feat, I’ll give 100-1 odds that they took the trail. Therefore, in all likelihood, if you were to seek advice from this already rare individual on how best to approach this difficult challenge (a genuine UEE), they would assume that you’d be taking the trail too.  They probably believe that there isn’t any other way. But they are wrong.  There is
In the context of this analogy, the “way” that I’m proposing might better be called a “route”. After all, while a trail can be followed, a route must be forged anew each time – heading cross-country over rough terrain at steep angles. It doesn’t offer company and is described by a few terse sentences rather than by an entire guidebook, when it is described at all. It is much, much tougher than a trail but also much, much shorter - a more or less direct line to the top. Considering their differences, there’s no wonder the trail – the high volume, traditional method of approaching a UEE – gets all the traffic.  You can go online, buy the guidebook/training program and be told just what to expect and how to get ready in a handy day-by-day format. It calls for physical preparation over mental with little mention of the latter, and if you’ve got the time to follow it’s prescription, you’ll have a fair shot at reaching the goal.   

The experience of following a route, however, is fundamentally different. In our Mt. Whitney analogy, the “route” tackles the steep East face directly, requiring deep proficiency in navigational and mountaineering skills. Similarly, the low volume route to UEE demands mental “skills” over any sort of physical conditioning. In fact, there are three in particular are crucial: knowledge of suffering, confidence, and will.  Master these and the “trail” becomes nothing more than a suggested way to reach the summit.  Yeah, you can still follow it (i.e. put in those big hours) and it will still get you to the top, but you now have the option to choose other routes as well - even ones that seem so crazy that most people can’t see them – like doing UEE on only two hours of training a week. 


  1. As a climber you know that many a "route" are well trodden as a trail...
    You seem to be overlooking one huge factor in your belittling of "traditional" training methods, i.e. high volume. The participant may actually enjoy the activity. Think about that the next time your reveling in your profound mental toughness whilst punishing your local treadmill.

  2. Yep, imperfect analogy. but in the context of the chosen trail and route, it makes (at least to me) some sense in the way of comparison. I'm in no way trying to belittle anything though - traditional training methods work for many people and are a great way to that metaphorical summit. But i still contend that there is an overwhelming idea that high volume is needed, when in my experience it clearly isn't, particularly if you have some experience that has provided certain mental fitness, as mentioned. And when i say something to the affect that high volume training is easier - i only mean in terms of the mental commitment required on a per-workout basis. In some ways it is a horse a piece. And the fittest and most capable individuals that i've ever met are those that have the mental toughness and mix the high intensity and more traditional training volumes. And you're absolutely right - lots of people claim to love training. i probably would like it a lot more, or at least be more active outside my 'core' training (though not sure if this would really be called training), if i lived somewhere other than Grand Forks. But honestly - how many people looking at a training program for IM, for example, would find two programs that 'promised' the same end-result - one requiring 10 hours of week and the other 20, and choose to follow the 20 hour one? I think many people that 'train' do so with a goal in mind and are putting in their 'time' towards that end - not just out of sheer love of physical movement. Just my two cents though.