27 March 2008

Tucson Training

Above you have Mat Steinmetz, Mike Alvarez, Sean Fenner and Mark Cook -- my ride buddies from yesterday's 50 mile effort.

I have been in the desert for the last week attending our Endurance Corner Spring Camp in Tucson, Arizona. The camp has been a reminder of a few topics that I will cover in this week's letter.

What's possible // Everyone here is a real athlete, but not everyone realizes it. Justin and I were commenting to each other that everyone is strong, durable and able to log the miles. It is tough to be one of the slower athletes in a group as high powered as this one. Interestingly, I have found that the slower athletes are the least likely to experience mental stress at a camp. Camp is challenging and they expected that!

Attitude & Fatigue // Similar to Epic Camp (where everyone is a bad ass "back home"), the faster agegroup athletes are used to being able to dominate in training _and_ dictate the nature of their training. Most specifically, swim volume and peak power required when group riding. JD warned us all pre-camp... "Don't go looking for work, let the work come to you". That is good advice when riding with a couple of Ultraman Champs. Fortunately, Jonas and I have been feeling gentlemanly -- I did big ring Gates Pass on Tuesday but Mat made me (and the rest of the ride) pay later.

Something that I have noticed across the years is that athletes that are unable to adjust self-expectations in the face of high powered competition are the ones that have the greatest gap between actual, and potential, performance.

Specifically, they convince themselves that they are training easier than reality. Training camps, long races, and descending main sets, are an effective way to benchmark one's reality. It's why I love Epic Camp for my own training -- not that I always listen to what the group is 'telling' me!

Setting one's mind // We've seen some stand out performances this week. Personally, I have been most impressed by the swim training that the campers have done. Scott taught me that (most) athletes will rise to the expectations of their peer group. We have been putting up a "real" swim workout most days. I have been sharing some of the workouts that Monica used to turn me into a low-50s IMer.

Limits // Today at lunch Sean Fenner told me that he wished that he could really hit it a few days and see what's possible. I passed along my experience that even when you think you are holding back... you are likely hitting it quite hard! The camp environment takes us far beyond where we could get ourselves. I probably would have taken a light day yesterday if I was at home. Instead... 10K steady run, 5500 yard solid swim and 50 mile aerobic maintenance bike. Jonas spent the early part of the camp trying to get us to sleep in // then gave up and started training! Even the fastest guy at the camp benefits from the group dynamic.

Ultra Speed // The differentiator between good and great ultradistance athletes is NOT their 20-60 minute power. At a camp like this, you don't see the best from the fittest athletes -- they have tons in reserve. What we do see (but might not realize) is the difference between an elite athlete's easy/steady pace and an agegrouper's mod-hard/threshold pace. Look at Sindballe's heart data BEFORE you look at the power. How many people racing 2-5 hours LONGER than him are able to ride that "easy" in an Ironman Distance race? Thorbjorn held off Tim deBoom -- one of the greatest runners in the history of Hawaii -- he did that on the marathon.

We did a test set within our 5500 yard swim...
5x500 then 4x400 with one goal -- faster each 400, leave 10s after the person in front of you (non-drafting). This is a tough swim for an athlete to get "right" in a group situation. Most people swim them as mod-hard; threshold; threshold; very hard with the last three swims within 6-8s of each other.

In case you are wondering... I went something like 5:10/4:58/4:51/4:41 and tried quite hard on the last one -- my 400 yard PB is 4:20 so I have some work to do! We were leaving on 5:45. Big J dropped a 4:08 on the last one. Bit of a gap.. that's why he's The Man.

The inability to descend is a result of lack of practice (and confidence), not lack of potential. Lacking this critical ability means that the athlete is likely training one intensity zone higher than they think -- all-the-time. Within most AG programs this doesn't show as excessive fatigue -- it tends to show as: (a) late race fading; (b) stagnant aerobic development (especially around AeT); and (c) an inability to really hit the toughest sessions.

Same deal on the bike -- in a group situation, you can pretty much always count on a highly motivated athlete to come to the front and start riding "easy to steady" by siting on their Half Ironman wattage. I comfort myself that the draft is outstanding and it will only be a half hour or so before the pace slows down. Even with the advent of powermeters, most athletes cannot wait to show their strength.

Finishing strong is a very satisfying form of delayed gratification.

We will race the way we train.

Choose wisely,

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23 March 2008

Teachers and Students

The Endurance Corner team is in Tucson, Arizona this week for our first of two spring training camps. I love the desert -- no bugs, cool at night and plenty of sunshine.

Coach KP and I were swapping ideas about learning and teaching this past week. We shared a few observations that came from thinking about how open (or closed) I have been to new ideas across my triathlon career.

Being open to new ideas, means being open to change. Change is uncomfortable. As an adviser, most of my clients come to me seeking reassurance that there is no need for change (a lot of time that motivates me as well). We are open to guidance, so long as it consists of digging deeper into our existing patterns.

How often do we say to a teacher, "I hope you are not trying to tell me there is a problem."

Most often we see the need to change as a problem when it is an opportunity for success.


A few years back, I read that Tiger Woods decided to change his golf swing. At the time he was the best golfer on the circuit, yet he saw the need to change. I know very few experts that would be willing to completely learn a skill that is fundamental to their identity. The true master's commitment is to excellence, not the current way of doing things.

It is the rare expert that is open to change -- not only did Tiger see the need to change but he had the self-awareness to figure this out on his own. Most of us require stress, failure or some other external input to indicate that change might be required.

The trap of expert knowledge. Of being smart enough, good enough, fast enough -- it can be useful (but painful) to get outside of the familiar from time to time.

Here at our Tucson camp, the group environment takes all of us outside of the familiar, it can be uncomfortable at times. At our first dinner KP spoke of his experience at being the strongest athlete at a camp, as well as, the weakest athlete at a camp. He says that it can be emotionally uncomfortable when we are out-gunned. However, in getting through those situations, we can emerge stronger.


Early in my career, I remember thinking that simplicity was a sign of ignorance -- and -- having a strong desire to constantly demonstrate my complex knowledge to my teachers and the world at large. My coaches found my intensity entertaining -- I was fortunate for their patience!

The master teachers that I have worked with make the complex simple -- they help their students focus on the key elements. As the student becomes an expert, he sees more and more complexity. One of my drivers for simplification is to make sense of all the options that are available. Another is seeing that there are a few themes that underpin the wide range of protocols that are applied by successful people.


History tells me that I know less than I think
We each need to live our own experience
Remain open so my students can remind me what I don't know
Remember that my goal is to help my students not live for them


This blog is a few days late (we've been training) so that is enough for now.

Until next week,


14 March 2008

Happy As Stu

A little over ten years ago, my good friend Stuart was run over after a big night on the town. This past week, a friend of mine (Kristy Gough) was killed while enjoying a Sunday morning bike ride.

When I heard that Kristy had died, my thoughts turned to three people: my buddy Clas, my dead pal Stuart and my wife Monica. At some level, I realized that I ought to be thinking about Kristy but that didn’t happen. Instead, my first thought was for the survivors, most specifically, my friend Clas. Kristy was the first young person close to Clas that died unexpectedly. Stuart was the first young person close to me that died.

I was able to speak with Clas this week and he reminded me that it is wise to live _every_ day. Clas noted that it is often tempting to live for a future day (world championships, a key race, or even retirement). The death of someone close to us can be a trigger for considering a wider view of personal success.

I think about death a lot – some days when I am riding, I wonder about each truck that rolls up behind me. Out on my run last Tuesday, I reflected on Stuart’s death and asked if I had been wise with my extra time – 127 months and counting… I wondered if I had any obligation to Stuart, or Kristy, and what they would have wanted for me, for us. If anything good comes from a death then it is likely the fact that the survivors take a moment to consider the daily choices we make. Stuart’s death didn’t trigger any changes in my attitude (my divorce had a more powerful effect) but reflecting on his death (weekly/monthly) helps me focus on my limited time.

Ten years on, I am certain about two things: we got Stuart’s funeral right and my extra time was well spent.

As I ran in the rain last Tuesday, I said a prayer that Kristy’s spirit, and the people around her, find peace in the weeks to come. I tapped my prayer into the road and felt the vibration in my heart.

Thanks for the memories.


Gates Investing

Over the last few months, I have started asking myself the opposite of the answer I am seeking. Sample questions:

What do I know won’t work right now?

What options are clearly the wrong decisions?

What would I do if money was no object?

In my SnowFarm notes (published below a few weeks ago) – you will see that Renzie talks about a disaster cascade – to locate our self-defeating patterns write a list of every action required to turn a situation into a total disaster. Then search for the actions/patterns that you undertake within that list.

In these uncertain financial times, I ask myself the question, “What if capital wasn’t a constraint?” By removing financial return criteria, I find it easier to understand the underlying need that I am seeking to fulfill. Vacation homes, automobiles, property investments, share purchases, clothes… I spend time considering the “why” behind my motivations.

I often catch myself justifying purchases on the grounds that they are “investments”. If you look carefully inside most marketing pitches you will see the underlying message that you are “investing” in something. The rationalization of investment (in fitness, in health, in property, in stocks, in IRAs, in peace-of-mind…) can be alluring.

It is often a trap… the salesman nearly always enjoys more benefit than the purchaser.


Stepping Up

Various ideas on commitment from people that have helped others achieve success:

Joe Friel talks about athletic success arising from the smallest dose of the most specific training required to achieve the goal.

Dick Jochums reflects that people will do the minimum to achieve their goals.

My dad shared his personal investment strategy of the smallest investment required to maximize his personal return from a situation.

We share a common bias to underestimate our workload and overestimate our work capacity.

In private, many of my “successful” friends note that most people don’t seem to work very hard. While some may be lazy, I think that work-drive has a mix of generic and environmental influences. Probably the greatest thing that we can do is surround ourselves with people that are good at what we want to achieve – if we lack ability, or drive, then it will quickly become clear as our peers leave us behind. At this stage, many people will move into denial -- seeking a change in protocol, or coach.

With my aspiring clients, we spend significant time identifying patterns/habits that limit work capacity – it is not until the circle of success is established that we concern ourselves with the workload. In my view, this approach maximizes the achievement each client will achieve relative to themselves.

The other approach is to lay out the training required to be a champion and invite people to “step up”. Our sport is littered with coaches that ruined themselves, and others, with this philosophy.

I wonder if one champion is worth dozens of carcasses.


Shorting Europe

I’m bearish on Europe relative to the US. Having spent two weeks on the far side of the Atlantic, I can not see justification for the relative value differentials between the regions. London, in particular, strikes me as a place that will take a lot of pain as global liquidity unwinds.

I think that we are in the early stages of the liquidity effects that we are going to see over the next three years. The sectors that most benefited from leverage are still in denial.


How Companies Die

Within our property development business, we have not seen any distressed deal flow since the liquidity crisis began last summer. My business partner takes this as a sign of the strength of the prime sector. He could be right. However, I had the opportunity to bend the ear of a senior banker last week with this scenario…

Summer 2007 – Credit crisis hits and the weak companies run into trouble. However, hardly anybody realizes that they are in trouble – things have been too good for too long.

Winter 2007/Spring 2008 – Management can normally hide a poor portfolio for at least a year. They have a strong incentive (their jobs and equity investment) to keep the situation private for as long as possible. Lenders are concerned but the full extent of the trouble within their loan portfolios isn’t apparent to them. All their clients continue to report “business as usual”.

Spring/Summer 2008 – Smart lenders and savvy equity investors notice that they could be in trouble – stakeholders start internal investigations while praying for market conditions to improve.

Summer/Fall 2008 – Crunch time. Weak companies have security called, shareholders in negative equity positions are washed out.

Fall/Winter 2008 – Reality sinks in, prices shift downward to market clearing levels, transaction volume rises.

I am unlikely to have the timing right but that was the pattern that I witnessed in the early 90s.

Only hedge funds and investment banks die fast – in the real economy, companies die slowly.


Right now, I am looking out my window to fresh snow in Boulder, Colorado! Next week I will be writing you from (hopefully) sunny Tucson.

Our triathlon training camp runs March 22-30, we have one slot left and it could be you enjoying the sun alongside us! If you are interested then please drop me a line or send an email to mat @ endurancecorner dot com.

Battening down the financial hatches,


08 March 2008

US PPP, UK Property and Sports Knowledge

Check out that photo... Makes me want to ride! In three months time Epic Camp is heading to Italy. Johno and Ian are perfecting the logistics for how we will get up the Stelvio Pass (pictured). If you would like to join us (June 8th to 15th) then drop me a line with your triathlon CV.


Visiting Europe & UK Property
I am currently mid-way through a European business trip and tapping on my computer in Edinburgh, Scotland. The UK is certainly expensive for the dollar-based visitor -- Yesterday I went through $100 and that only included a visit to a health club and some breakfast. Out of all the countries that I visit in the world, the US appears to be offering the best value right now. I have been considering how to take advantage of that point but haven't come up with much (other than telling my European business contacts to diversify away from Euro-based assets).

A few years ago no one in my peer group wanted to hold Euro assets. Now, many talk as if the dollar is heading for a permanent slide. My simple purchasing-power-parity (PPP) analysis from my global journeys is telling me something different.

Here in Scotland, I am the director of a firm that specializes in prime residential development. I work in the Scottish part of the company's portfolio -- they also have projects in London, Boston, New York and Dubai. Generally, the company follows a buy-build-hold strategy but we do sell a portion of the portfolio each year. The sales enable us to 'prove' our valuations to bankers/shareholders and manage the overall composition of the portfolio.

For those of you interested in residential property prices here is what we are seeing -- the prime Scottish sector grew 5% last year and has been flat in the early part of 2008. This is against a backdrop of 10-20% falls in the UK's new build and 'investment' sector.

Up-and-coming market segments and secondary locations are under extreme pressure -- investors, and firms, that bought heavily into the new build sector are going to have a very tough time.

Given our financing strength, we had been hoping to make distressed purchases. We aren't seeing many of these and good deals remain competitively priced. One favorable change is that development margins have expanded back to 2004 levels. Of course, that might be the result of our sales assumptions being more rosy that our competition. UK home buyer sentiment is as bad as I've seen it in the last 15 years but prime prices are stable (paradox #1). It will be interesting to watch how the market moves over the next 12 months.

The credit markets are tight but we have been approached by lenders that are keen to build their loan books in prime residential (paradox #2). While the credit markets are poor (in general), we are being offered loans at attractive prices. Similar to the property markets, there is a lot of variation within the credit markets.

Within our key financial relationships, liquidity is more of an issue than credit -- banks want to do more deals than they can fund with their balance sheet. They are limited by the short-term funding capacity of their balance sheets, not the quality of their deal flow. (Paradox #3) We remain the other way around -- high quality prime property deals are in shorter supply than capital.


Who Controls Knowledge?
Scientific research costs money, takes time and is very difficult to control. Have you ever wondered wondered who funds the research that we take for granted? Have you ever considered if the population studied is an accurate representation of your current position?

I ask these questions because (in ultraendurance) the best athletes appear to do impossible feats -- coping with excessive hydration, dealing with material dehydration, superior fat oxidization, superior carbohydrate metabolism... it can seem that everywhere I look in ultradistance triathlon, there are outliers that don't fit the data.

By definition, the highest athletic performers are outliers but I wonder if industry-funded research on collegiate men (or sedentary adults) is the most accurate representation of my peer group. I'm also aware that, in a market with limited funding, the established players have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, and their position.

Specifically, I've been thinking about how I perform...

***my capacity to process food (huge)
***my performance when dehydrated (just fine, mostly)
***my ability to remove fluids from my gut (massive)
***my capacity to oxidize fat for fuel and/or my ultraeconomy (unable to explain via the literature)
***my power/pace profile when fit (far below average reduction from VO2 down to AeT)

How much of the above is genetic, how much was trained, how much is due to the 'norms' being inaccurate? We may never know for sure and worrying about our profile is likely a waste of time. Focus on enjoying the training and see what happens.

There is a lot of silent evidence that is lost when people that aren't suited to ultradistance athletics retire from the sport. Each year, a BIG segment of long distance triathletes disappear. In most fields, people that underperform relative to effort (low inherent ability) fade into the background. Evidence from people that outperform relative to effort (high inherent ability) is what we cling to. The mind wants to believe that there might be an easy way... if only we had the magic protocol... [motivation, inherent ability, opportunity, time, luck].

One benefit that we have within our Boulder team is a wide range of physiological baselines. Alan is the most science-savvy team member and he faces the greatest physiological hurdles for going long. If you read his blog then you'll see that (physically) he performs best at 10-30 minute efforts -- one of the toughest zones for me to perform in. Triathlon is the only sport where a sprint takes 60-90 minutes!

Alan and I were talking about motivation for athletics -- performance vs enjoyment. Understanding our motivation is important because it relates to the satisfaction that we receive from our sport.

For example, I am an enjoyment-oriented athlete (that happens to have high inherent ability for ultra-distance triathlon). The least satisfying periods of my athletic 'career' have been when I focused on performance benchmarks. Working within a team, or with a coach, that is highly performance driven totally drains me. Interestingly it took me NINE years to figure this out!

That said, performance-oriented coaches have helped me breakthrough with my racing. Sometimes this was enjoyable, sometimes not!

Knowing what drives you, and your clients, is an important consideration in ALL advisory fields (finance, business, academics, athletics). To be effective teachers, we need to understand the values of our clients, and ourselves.

Coaches can't create motivation but we can certainly kill it.

Back next week,

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01 March 2008

Vision Questing

Our photo this week is Robbie Ventura, one of the most genuine people I have met. We were descending Figueroa on Day Two and he started taking pictures of me at over 30 mph -- suffice to say his bike skills are far, far superior to mine. Robbie is the founder of VisionQuest Coaching. You might have seen him on the Versus Tour coverage the last couple of summers.

Robbie has a really special gift -- when he talks to you, you feel like you are the most important person in the world. Sounds kind of irrational but all you want to do is agree and help him out. There is a special vibe around him (and the VQ Coaches) that leaves you happy. It is a powerful kind of charisma.

Robbie and his team at VisionQuest Coaching were hosting a Solvang Spring Camp and the Boulder team (Mat, Alan, Justin) came across for the experience. This week I will share ideas that flowed out of five days of hammering with the roadies.

First a few announcements:

Spring Employment -- I am doing a personal training camp from April 3rd to 14th (start Tucson, end Santa Fe). We'll drop by the Grand Canyon en route. I need a couple (or two pals) to run sag/support/logistics. Please drop me a line if you are interested in helping out. This is a working, rather than training, position. Pay based on experience -- more if one of the duo has a massage qualification.

eMail -- I am now officially buried. My hopes of taming my inbox faded this week. I'll keep chipping away. Thanks for your patience.

Tucson Camps -- one of our campers noticed that the first weekend of our March 22-30 camp is Easter. As a result, we have an opening for March. Drop me a line if you are interested in joining us. As a reminder, you'll want to be in 13-hour IM shape, or quicker. Both camps have a range of people signed up.


Solvang is beautiful! Great riding, a decent swimming pool at the local "Y" and nice country roads for running (there could be trails, I haven't gone exploring). A wide range of riding terrain from flats, to rollers, to 'beyond category' climbs.

More than the location, what makes the VQ camp special is the VQ team. Robbie has assembled a unique group of folks around himself -- (coaches, staff, mechanics, athletes). Most everyone has a positive, open vibe. Even the cagey, roadie-types are friendly -- they run you off the road with a smile (joking... kinda).

If you are interested in what we've been doing then you can have a look at Petro-World or JD's Blog. Both Mark and Justin have been writing daily updates. As you will see, there has been a period of all-out effort at some stage of EVERY day at the camp. As an athlete, I don't come to a roadie-focused camp and expect anything else.

One of the VQ-Vets (Jim Sauls) took us for a ride the day before the camp. Jim's legs were glowing (they were that white). Jim let me know that the Chicago-based athletes had been off-the-roads for weeks prior to the camp. Sitting on their trainers, waiting to be unleashed in Southern California. Similar to Epic, Robbie started the camp with a TT to enable the stronger athletes to blow off a little steam. See if you spot the difference...

VQ TT Day -- 10 mile warm-up; 5 mile TT with uphill finish then two hour (very) solid group ride // rest up to hammer the tri guys tomorrow.

Epic TT Day -- 50 min run; 3K swim includes 2K TT; ride 140K with 2 KOMs; 43K dead-flat TT with 10K upwind finish -- limp back to motel wondering about tomorrow.

The strong VQ riders had plenty left for Day Two -- a monster climb that felt a bit like a cyclocross course at times. We rode the back side of Figueroa. The road was washed out in sections and my front fork filled with mud. Felt like I had my brakes on! I have had my TT bike in some unique places; that climb makes the Top 10, for sure.

In the early days of the camp, the roadies thought that we were nuts to place ourselves at such a disadvantage by using our TT bikes. By the end of the camp, some may have changed their minds -- more about that in the Petro-Blog.

Mental Fatigue -- an interesting thing that I noticed with the bike camp is that my desire to "go hard" was fading faster than my physical ability. All the cycling intensity seems to wear down my immune system and my drive -- much more than my body.

Average Workout Watts -- with the entire camp on power, we were able to compare wattage throughout the camp. It was a reminder that you can't tell much by averages (even normalised) -- there was huge variation in the people that rode around me as well as people that went out the back while holding the same average watts as me. Remember that power is most useful to track yourself against yourself.

Lab Testing -- Alan's most recent piece was about the difference between two lab tests. Camper-of-the-week would have to go to Mat Steinmetz (one of the tests analyzed). Mat's lab tests, background and pre-camp performance gave ZERO indication that he was about to ride out of his skin (literally on Day Five). The guy was drilling me on Mt Fig and took over Molina's normal role in my life. Mat's performance was a clear reminder that we only get a snapshot with physiological testing (and tests don't always track the most important aspects of performance).

Benchmarking -- the structure of the camp rides // 5M TT; 1Hr Uphill KOM; Century Ride; 45K Handicap Race // that gave each of us ample opportunity to benchmark our power (and pace) against a wide range of campers. My only regret was a malfunctioning SRM on Gardie Jackson's bike. Gardie is the most complete athlete (body, mind, spirit) that I have met in a long, long while. If you ask me what I aspire to in my athletics then it is the physical power resident in Gardie.

The guys say that a large element of bike racing is leadership -- when I am riding with athletes like Robbie and Gardie, I would gladly toss my entire week away to help them get the job done. True leaders and genuine guys -- very inspirational stuff. It was strange to be in a group of elite athletes that fostered a selfless feeling within myself (not something that anyone close to me would recognize).

As the camp progresses, and we all get tired, it is normal to wonder... "is it optimal to be smashing ourselves day-in day-out for a week?" The triathletes, especially, wonder if it is "OK" to be doing all of the threshold and VO2 efforts. My advice has been to have fun and train lots.
While you don't want to fill your entire program up with high intensity sessions, taking a week in March and really challenging yourself can be useful -- especially, when you've been chained to your trainer for the last few months.

When the campers get home, I recommended an easy week (to absorb/recover) the returning to their normal (sane) program -- hopefully you return at a higher level. The mental challenge that follows camps is not continuing to smash yourself. With the memories of all the hard training fresh in your mind, it can be tempting to pass-along some hurt to your training buddies. In my experience, that is a mistake and will leave you flat when you would rather be fast.

With my own fitness regime... I will be coasting for the next three weeks. I am working in Europe for a fortnight then returning to Boulder. This camp was very, very tough and I need to settle down for a while. Having coached a few athletes that consistently peak in March, I am choosing to lose a bit of fitness to protect myself from myself. I will start to ramp back up beginning with our first Tucson training camp.

One final thought, I think that a lot of triathletes give roadies a bad time because they don't like the way that strong cyclists deal out punishment on the bike. When the VQ-lads are laying down the hurt I remind myself that it is business, nothing personal. There is no way that I could this sort of bike training on my own and really appreciate how they have welcomed us into their world. I would like to offer a special word of thanks to my buddy, Mark Pietrofesa. Mark got the absolute best out of me this week.

Road cycling has a lots of lessons for life -- you can be having your best day and still get spat out the back. Acceptance and non-resistance are worth extra power in that environment -- the Zen of self-shelling.

Lately I have been giving thanks every morning for the chance to enjoy another day. Sitting here on Sunday afternoon, this has been a very special week in my life. Not just for the training -- the full story can wait for another day.