25 February 2008

My Southern Retreat


I have been off-the-grid for the last two weeks and staying up at Snow Farm in New Zealand. I am happy to report that the world didn't end and I wasn't fired by my clients. In fact, everything seems exactly the same as when I left the world of connectivity. Makes me wonder how long I could pull the plug before something material happened. I bet one month.

Aside from the President, I can't think of many occupations where we have to be in constant contact. In fact, there are a few (banker, accountant, CFO, CEO) where best practice forces you to leave for two weeks in a row. A two week holiday reduces our ability to perpetrate a fraud on our employers.

This piece is a recollection of thoughts that I had across the retreat, when the stimuli of constant outside influences was removed.

The first thing that I noticed was my mind calmed very quickly. Within 24-hours I was grateful that I had made the fortnight's commitment to stay off-line. Monica offered to clean my email server but I was worried that she might see something and mention it to me. So we waited. The grand total of spam, and real, messages was 8,500 when I 'mailwashed' the server last Thursday. If you are waiting for a reply then I'll need a bit more time... I'm making good progress, should be back to you by the 1st of March.

The next thing that I noticed was my sleep improved in all areas. The speed that I fell asleep was faster, the number of times that I woke up during the night was reduced and my ability to wake up (refreshed) before my alarm increased. All this while living at altitude and undertaking challenging training with elite short course athletes.

Pretty much everything improved. So I wonder... does technology and the media serve us? Or do we serve it?

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When I stop writing, I miss the release, and learning. Even on retreat, I kept my writing going. You will find my complete Snow Farm Daily Diary below, all 14 pages of it. Worth a read if you are interested in athletic performance -- we had excellent speakers.

So I miss writing but I don't miss TV, movies, newspapers, email... one of my goals for the next 12 months will be to do a better job at restricting my input (even more) and see if I can outsource a few more of the items that clutter my mind.

What about clients? Over the last three years, I have been shifting to a model that is based on high value interaction with my clients. I noticed that I am most effective when I work shoulder-to-shoulder with clients -- our Tucson Camps are an experiment with "doing more" of that work.

I am effective remotely but that sort of work doesn't appear to build me up. Instead, it clutters my inbox with low-value chatter than doesn't address the key issues facing the client. Email can be useful but, overall, it is low value communication.

To get to the core of performance requires trust -- and trust requires spending time with people. Another paradox is that a large impact, need not require a large amount of time. Spending a few days with John Hellemans reminded me of that. More than anyone I've met, his life is an example of the impact one man's high standards can have on the world around him. PodCast Here -- sound is mixed in terms of quality.

We were talking about Tibet and John noted that it was difficult for one man to make a difference. I shared an observation that one man can make a huge difference and that his work in NZ has made a massive difference in the lives of thousands of people. He started triathlon at the same age as I did (30). John's life shows what combining passion, talent and work ethic over 25 years can achieve -- a lot!

Up there at Snow Farm, I asked myself a few questions:
  • What am I good at?
  • What do I enjoy doing?
  • Where do I spend my time?
I do a decent job at spending my time at things that I am both good at, and enjoy doing. However, I have identified a few items where I am spending time, not enjoying it and not being particularly effective. I also sense that I've placed a few of my team members in situations where they aren't particularly good and aren't enjoying it. There could be a way to make those around me more effective. I'll need to ask them when we are together.

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So that's the Big Picture items that came into my head. Here are a few detailed items from the specific of the camp, and my time with Hellemans.

Choices -- most of us will reach a point in our lives when performance deteriorates, or ceases to improve. At that stage, we have a choice to make: Quit, Change or Hang On. Most people Quit or grind themselves into the ground by Hanging On. Only the select few learn to manage themselves through continuous change.

Tightness -- tight muscles are weak muscles. Rehabilitate your personal weak spots by trigger point release, muscle activation and strengthening. If the muscles are small then they need small exercises, done gently.

Authenticity -- I read a book by the title of this bullet point. Perhaps that is the attraction of the South Island. It's weather, wind, people and topography are deeply authentic. Not always comfortable, but real and full of power.

Kiwi Real Estate -- With gross yields at 3% and mortgage finance at 10%, I'm bearish on the Kiwi property market. I don't see the room for yields to come up and I see speculative buying in many markets. However, given interest rates, the liquidity position of the local economy looks like it will stay buoyant (unlike most other markets). My personal rent-or-buy decision would be rent.

Wanaka vs. Queenstown -- Comparing these two towns, I can see why the internationals like QT but Wanaka has better weather, more sunlight and cheaper housing. Long term, I expect Wanaka to outperform.

PPP -- In US dollar terms, New Zealand real estate is 400% more expensive than seven years ago (22% p.a.). Petrol has shown a similar increase and food is up 17% p.a. in USD terms. New Zealand isn't expensive but it is not cheap any more. For what the visitor gets, it offers fair value. The days of US$110,000, five bedroom houses are long gone!

My final realization was that New Zealand is one of the few things in the world that I miss when it is not in my life. Monica was the first person that I ever placed on that list. Now I have two things.

By "New Zealand", I mean Molina, Hellemans, the wind, the mountains, the weather and the people.
  • Molina because he is a bit nuts, accepts himself and gets on with his life.
  • Hellemans because he is successful by putting others ahead of himself (keep hope alive).
  • The wind because it is so ridiculous that you just have to laugh.
  • The mountains because of their beauty.
  • The weather because you can get snow, hail, heat, cold, rain and wind... all in 24 hours.
  • The people because they work their butts off and have realistic expectations -- they are also loyal and friendly.
You Kiwis have a good thing going down there.

Hope to be back soon,
gordo

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In case you are wondering, Marty and Ben are in a Kiwi Ice Bath in the photo. Chillin' at 5300 feet...

Word File of My SnowFarm Daily Diary

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15 February 2008

Snow Farming

Our photo this week is a post workout shot of Ben Pattle. Ben lives in the Gold Coast and is over in New Zealand for a training camp put on by John Hellemans.

A few months ago, John asked me if I would be interested in giving an evening talk to a U23 Elite Triathlon Camp that he was organizing. I jumped at the opportunity and signed on to attend the camp for two weeks. I am not sure that John realized that he had invited me to attend the camp -- he kept emailing me to confirm my dates and eventually pointed out that there wasn't any funding available for 39-year-old, Canadian, Ironman Athletes at his U23 Short Course Camp...

Lucky for me, we managed to work things out by treating me as a solo athlete that was operating in parallel to the Tri NZ Camp. I have been doing my best to keep my head down, stay out of the way and support the session goals. Good practice for me!

In the first couple of days of the camp, three athletes asked me (separately), "why would you come train with us"? The main reasons: (a) my respect for John Hellemans; and (b) I was sure that I would learn something from spending two weeks with coaches/athletes/experts that differ from my peer group.

Probably the first thing that stands out is the training, nutrition and physiology of the athletes is very "textbook" in nature. Everything about this camp fits what I read in the literature. In this world, sport science and real-world experience operate in harmony.

I suppose that living in a world where the median competitor will be racing for 13 hours tends to skew my perception of what athletes require. As well, the athletes here are a unique population with half the camp coming from a distance swimming background. The former swimmers talk about consistent 70-100,000 meter weeks (plus dry land). That level of volume is simply the 'standard' load to be reasonable. Training camps took some of them up to 120,000 meters per week.

So how does a 20-24 year old elite triathlete train? Pretty much like most people think that they "ought" to train.
  • Something 'hard' six out of seven days -- you and I would find it hard, for them it is mostly moderately-hard (in HR and lactate terms). When they go "very hard" it is off the charts for you and me -- most of us can't get there (and those that do tend to take the rest of the week off or get sick).
  • The faster swimmers turn crimson when they swim at threshold -- their capacity to 'work' in the water is impressive. Capacity to (and enjoyment of) work remains a differentiator between athletes.
  • Limited steady training -- endurance sessions start easy/recovery and finish mod-hard (textbook roadie training). Similar to the eskimos having 12 words for snow -- Ironman Athletes have many ways to describe "steady". In this world, they call it boring!
  • Lots of power spikes on the bike, their event does not require excellence in TT ability. They train to tolerate the demands of their bike leg. Big gaps between average and normalized power. Jumps, bridges, burning matches... all normal and expected.
  • No-nonsense swim sessions, swimming in the 'slow' lane yesterday, I was lapped at the 125m mark of a 200. The fast swimmers could hold 1:15/100 meter pace for close to two hours.
  • 90% of the weekly training volume has a clear purpose and structure.
The implications are what you'd expect -- they swim great, can handle a ton of pace changes (all sports) and perform very well in training sessions that are under 3 hours. In short, they are solid draft-legal short course triathletes (guess that's why they are on the team!).

FWIW, after seeing these athletes up-close for a week, I think distance swimming (idealy mixed with a couple years of 400 IM training) is the ideal background for a triathlete. The fitness from distance swimming can be seen in the outstanding recovery in-workout and between-workouts. The stronger athletes have heart rates that drop like stones when the pace backs off.
Nutritionally, due to their age and training intensity zones, their diet is very carb-focused when compared to my own. Just like Epic Camp, some of the folks are experiencing digestive distress when intensity combines with a fair amount of bread/cereal. That said, the food that is offered enables each athlete to choose their own 'style' and it has been easy for me to eat the way I like and maintain high nutritional quality. There is salad and veggies with lunch/dinner and I've been having my scrambled eggs each morning.

We have an experienced sports science team that have been monitoring the athletes inside, and outside, of their training sessions. For the first time in years, I have been formally tracking my morning data (mood, sleep, training, muscle soreness, MRHR, SpO2, weight). The objective data is useful as a crosscheck against subjective perception. Fortunately, my body seems to be working in harmony with the training schedule. Being able to opt-out of sessions and train by myself has probably helped. I'd be pretty smoked if I did the full week that the team completed. The "mod-hard" bike work and "endurance" swim sessions have seen me working quite hard.

As a long course athlete, I wonder if there is upside in addressing their relatively undertrained steady zones on the bike. Here in the Southern Hemisphere, the athletes are in their specific preparation phase for Elite Nationals in three weeks. So, now isn't the time to worry about that. However, at some stage, I expect that improving their steady-state bike/run fitness might benefit their late-race performance.

One of the guest speakers made an interesting point -- there are things that you have to do if you want to be the best. His tone was that these things are non-negotiable, they simply "are". If an athlete chooses not to do them then they will not reach their maximum personal potential. That really rang true to me. How often do we catch ourselves settling for being good enough.

During my talk, I shared KP's advice that the true enemy of great is good. Everyone here is good. Looking around, I expect that a few might become great. Out of the great athletes, one might make the commitment to seek their fullest personal potential. It will be fun to watch the athletes develop and become part of a growing Kiwi tradition of Triathlon Excellence.

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If you click the title of this post then you'll go through to the Snow Farm website. We are over 5,000 feet here, high enough to get an altitude effect (my O-sats have been in the low 90s every morning for a week).

Road bike training requires a 13K drive down to the main road. From Wanaka (45 mins away) there are five different routes available -- all decent.


The run training is excellent due to the nordic ski tracks. As well, you can get close to 7,000 feet by running up the nearby mountains (the campers did just that this week).

Wanaka has pool and open water swimming. The lodge does an all-inclusive deal and has a mix of accommodation standards. I am staying in a nice room with an en suite. Our host (Steve) even gave me the green light to help myself to the industrial espresso machine.

The living is good!

gordo

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PS -- I am half way through a two week cyber-retreat so won't be back on-line until the end of next week. It's been a fantastic break and is providing me a chance to reflect on a number of items.

Every time I pull-the-plug, I am amazed at how my recovery speeds up. There is speed in simplicity.

Word File of my SnowFarm Daily Diary

PowerPoint Presentation to Young Athletes

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24 January 2008

Sweet Home New Zealand


This week, I am going to share some observations about what makes New Zealand a special place. But first a few items.

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There will be at least a ten day gap before my next letter due to Epic Camp New Zealand -- you should find an pre-epic blog over on the Planet-X site next Monday. I have started Epic podcasts on Endurance Corner Radio and hope to continue across the camp.

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A reader sent in a question regarding my curtailing the booze. Here's what I wrote back:

Clarity of thought // I saw this pretty quickly. Once I stopped drinking my mind became a lot more clear. I spotted that in about two weeks.

Emotional hangovers // at some level, I always knew that booze, sugar, toast, cereal, etc... didn't 'work' for me. Not sure if this makes sense but all the changes that you read in my interview -- those are driven by the fact that once I "see" a bad habit, the joy of doing it tends to drain out.

Productivity // I was losing a good chunk of my personal productivity -- I prefer to apply my time productively and enjoy working.

There is a health benefit but that doesn't seem to carry as much weight in my mind. Perhaps because it is too obvious and I do a lot of other healthy things. I am likely rationalizing that I am "healthy enough".

A friend taught me that the true enemy of "great" is "good". When we see ourselves as good people, we can give ourselves excuses that prevent us from being great. If we see ourselves as "bad" people then our self-destructive tendencies can be tougher to modify -- I would seek help if that was the case.

Heavy drinking (binge eating, fast food, nutrition, etc...) -- all are lifestyle choices -- not much different than being an athlete. Once any of these items become inconsistent with the life that I want to lead, they have to go // OR // I had to accept that I wasn't going to be the man that I was capable of being. The worst sort of "settling".

If you eliminate the booze then you will have a huge amount of time and energy. Time and energy are two of the most valuable things a person can have. Combining them gives us tremendous personal freedom. Freedom and personal responsibility are scary . It is normal to prefer self-imprisonment, or self-medication.

There is a transition required from one life, to another. I'm fortunate to have a supportive wife and great friends -- if you don't have the personal infrastructure then there are plenty of sources of support/assistance/help. It takes unique courage to ask for help in a culture where men struggle to ask for directions!

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Reader feedback on start-up investing...

Things that run counter to our investment instincts:
  • Not doing transactions (buying or selling);
  • Sitting on cash;
  • Declining to accept capital when the climate isn't right for investment; and
  • Returning capital to investors.
Things to remember about start-ups:
  • Starting a small business limits personal freedom;
  • Consider what happens if your staff quit, steal from, or compete with you. All are likely to happen at some stage; and
  • Consider if you have a sustainable competitive advantage -- specifically, what drives your economics and how that might change over time.
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The picture below is Lake Tekapo -- 245KM from our start point on Day Two of Epic. A worthy destination!


Mark Allen taught me the importance of establishing a connection with where we live. As an athlete, Mark felt a connection with both Hawaii and Boulder -- two places where he expended tremendous physical energy. After Scott Molina won the Ironman in 1988, Mark came down to the South Island for a training camp. Mark had a pretty solid 1989.

It has been two years since I spent any material time in New Zealand and, returning, I realized how much I missed the place.

The picture at the top of this letter is Akaroa Harbour, our turnaround point for Day One of Epic Camp. From the hill top you are looking into a volcanic cater that opens to the sea. Along the top of the crater, you will find trails, tracks and roads that enable some seriously challenging training. If you make it to Akaroa then return via Long Bay Road, pack your climbing gears.

In 2005, I sold my house and left New Zealand to take on a substantial consulting assignment. Returning in 2008, it feels like I have new eyes.

Last weekend, Scott and I were riding towards Gebbies Pass (far end of the shot below). We were getting completely drilled by the wind but, for some reason, I am always relaxed on Gebbies Pass Road (had more than a few Zen moments there). Grinding away in my 55-21, I remembered Mark's lesson about the benefits of having a connection with a place. I feel very connected to this part of the World.

Why are there so many great athletes down here? For triathlon, I think it is a combination of factors.

Attitude -- Kiwis expect to work hard, for limited financial reward, for their entire lives. This stands apart from my experience in Canada and the US.

In Canada, there is an expectation that the government's role is to take care of its citizens. Down here, you take care of yourself (for the most part).

An aspect of the American Way is an expectation that there will be wealth differences but these are tolerable because upward mobility is available to all. In many ways the Kiwi's are the exact opposite. For successful people to remain popular, one needs to be sincerely humble. Not a lot of "show me the money" happening down here.

Terrain -- The hills are short & steep, the road surface is slow and the wind can be relentless. From the bottom of the island, your next landfall is Antarctica and you can feel that when the wind comes from the South! It is so challenging that I probably couldn't hack it for a Southern Winter.

Expectations -- The swim squad that I train with here is a good example of Kiwi realism. The triathletes that want to improve expect to swim 4-5 times per week 4,000 to 5,500 meters per session. Those are agegroupers, not pros. They do swim squad in the morning, work all day and train again in the evening. They do this every single week, for years.

You will never hear about them because they rarely travel and don't post on the internet. While we debate the finer points of human physiology, they plug away at 1,000 hour training years.

It's good to be back.


The photo above is Karekare Beach in the North Island. I'll be speaking with the Epic Vets to see if there is interest in riding the length of the North Island in January 2009.

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