Helicopter to Venus

For the last six weeks, as I’ve stood chained to the coffee machine, beans grinding in one ear, blenders blending in the other, microwaves beeping, extractor fan extracting, tourists trying to get my attention to ask me where the toilet/bus stop/start of the track is, where can they fill their water bottle, where can they put their rubbish… Through all this I’ve maintained a shaky hold on sanity by visualising myself walking in nature, pack on my back, not a care in the world other than making it to the next hut.

Last week I finally got to live out my fantasy. I went tramping for six days, by myself, in the Kahurangi National Park. My last day at work was a Sunday, and by Monday lunchtime I was walking along the Wangapeka River, revelling in the beauty of my surroundings, with only blue ducks for company. Not only did my tramp mark the timely completion of my job but it marked the end of the season as well. Taking a week out to just walk and think seemed like a symbolic way to shelve the summer that was, before blowing the dust off autumn and delving in.

I made a rookie error on this tramp: I didn’t take any tape or plasters in case I got blisters. I’ve had the same tramping boots for over 10 years and I’ve never got a single blister in all that time, even when they were brand new. But after my last tramp I let my boots dry out for too long before waxing them and I think they must have shrunk a little. By the time I cottoned on to what was happening it was too late and the blisters turned into raw, weeping sores that grated with every step. This certainly put a bit of a dampener on things but I managed to procure some second skin and then some tape from other trampers along the way. By the end, one of them was starting to get infected, but it’s come right now.

I covered about 100 kilometres in the six days. I travelled up the Wangapeka River, over the saddle and down into the headwaters of the Karamea River, then cut through the Lost Valley before reconnecting with the Karamea River and following it for two whole sun-soaked days. I then headed up the Leslie River to the Tablelands, over Gordon’s Pyramid and down to Flora car park where my guy met me with Baileys and ice cream.

Whoever named the creeks that flow into the Karamea River had gods and galaxies on their mind. After Moonstone Lake, the creeks of Orbit, Apollo, Mars, Thor, Atlas, Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and Silvermine join the mighty Karamea on its true left, while Lunik, Star, Comet, Satellite, Apogee, Perigee and Sputnik Creeks join on the true right. Maybe the name-giver was just buzzing out on nature as much as I was, and getting a bit cosmic on it.

All in all, it was a fantastic, although challenging, tramp. Sometimes I just had to stop and gaze in wonder at the sheer beauty that was all around me: the endless expanse of bush bisected by that stunning river. A river which spoke to me in a language that I couldn’t fully understand but could generally catch the gist of – a language of time and seasons, floods and droughts, landslides and earthquakes. Sometimes the river gurgled merrily, carefree, over and around rocks, other times she flowed sullen and silent, pouring herself lazily into huge, deep emerald-green pools, wrapping herself around her hidden treasures and secrets.

Other times, I couldn’t care less about the scenery and just had to focus on putting one foot in front of the other, like during the three hour climb up out of the Leslie Valley. I tried to steer my thoughts away from the heaviness of my pack and the discomfort in various parts of my body. When I found myself cursing that damn hill for its steepness and endlessness I distracted myself with happy thoughts: I reminded myself of all the good things in my life, everything I’m grateful for and everything that I have to look forward to.

Finally, just when I thought that I couldn’t go on any longer, I emerged out of the bush into the expansive, open wilderness that is the Tablelands. Suddenly I recognise my surroundings: Mt Arthur and Gordon’s Pyramid, and all at once I feel very close to home. Gordon’s Pyramid sits squat and fat like a Buddha, teasing me, challenging me to climb its slopes. How could I say no?

Sitting on top of Gordon’s Pyramid I literally felt like I was on top of the world. A vast panorama of pristine wilderness stretched out in every direction before me, extending as far as the eye could see. I looked back in the direction I’d come, sometimes hobbling, other times galloping, but it was just me that got me here – no cars, helicopters, boats or aeroplanes, just me and my trusty legs.

There’s a very simple satisfaction that comes from getting somewhere under your own steam. Carrying everything you need on your back, leaving all of life’s trivial little stresses by the wayside. Walk, eat, sleep, walk, eat, sleep; life becomes very simple.

This post is named after two of the huts on the track: Helicopter Flat Hut and Venus Hut. I think I’ll do this tramp again, in another 10 years or maybe sooner; it was just so beautiful! The following photos are displayed in the order that I took them. I hope they will give you some appreciation of the landscapes I was travelling through.

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The nine day challenge that didn’t end

By the end of my last six weeks with no no-drinking rules I felt decidedly disgusting. I was bloated and lethargic and exercise had somehow crept right off my agenda. Sure, I move around at a moderate pace for most of my waking hours, and I train with my clients, but that’s at an intensity that’s right for them, not me. Plus, my last drinking day had been a doozie – Baileys, red wine and white wine all in one day. I needed to snap myself out of my stupor; a physical challenge was in order!

I’ve talked about Mike Chang’s workouts before, they’re fairly high intensity, 20 minute sessions made up of a variety of bodyweight resistance exercises, something that anyone can fit into an already busy schedule and do in the comfort of their own homes. You watch the video and you do what you’re told – easy. The first one is a fitness test where you do a series of six exercises, each for 45 seconds, for a maximum number of reps. Watch this video for the demonstrations. The next eight workouts alternate between working the upper body and lower body, and once you’ve made your way through them all you do the fitness test again.

Unexpected things started happening once I adopted a daily exercise habit. I thought it would be a real drag fitting the workouts in, especially on the three days where I work from 7:00 AM until 3 or 4:00PM, but I found myself diligently getting up at 4:44 AM (because it looked cooler than 4:45) and getting them done early. Within a few days it felt more normal to do them than not to do them – which is all a habit is really. Then I found myself wanting to do more exercise; it is only 20 minutes a day after all. One day I went for a run, another I went to Mum’s yoga class, and then the other morning I found myself casually picking up my kettle bell and giving it 50 swings in between my sun salutes and spinal rolls.

But this is the best part: once I got through all the workouts and did the fitness test for the second time (results are in the table below) it seemed silly to stop, so I just kept going. In the last 15 days I’ve only missed one day – I was tired and in need of a break so I met a friend at the beach instead of being a slave to my workouts.

Exercise 05/02/14 13/02/14 24/02/14
Push ups 22 37 33
Jumping squats 27 33 40
Mountain climbers 75 90 96
Burpees 13 13 16
Butterfly 23 31 31
Prone knee to elbow 20 28 38

I’ll keep going until it’s time to do the fitness test a third time, then I’ll decide if I want to carry on. This is what my back looks like at the moment, the light is in my favour, but the muscles are all mine.

I did the fitness test for the third time this morning – a pretty good result. I would’ve liked to have done more push ups but my triceps were still sore from doing a Muay Thai session with teenage boys a few days ago. At least I improved on the blasted burpees!

700 reps

Seven hundred may sound like a lot, but before you get carried away thinking I’m some kind of exercise freak let me assure you that it’s not and I’m not! This workout consisted of four exercises:  50 squat-plough-squat-jumps, 50 don’t spill the bubbles, 500 mountain climbers, and 100 military squats – watch the video to see me demonstrate each exercise, as the names may well have you puzzled.

I’ve done this workout twice now; the first time was back in October when I chose the exercises as a reflection of my desire to tighten my front and loosen my back (i.e. I wanted to tighten and strengthen my tummy muscles while stretching out my lower back and hamstrings). I focussed on taking my time the first time round in order to make it easier on myself the second time round when I thought I would smash my initial time to pieces.

However, the second time round happened to be the Monday after the Saturday which marked the breaking of my six week alcohol fast. Not too surprisingly, I drank a little too much and was still feeling pretty rough around the edges on Monday. I was actually pissed off with myself for overdoing it and pissed off with the fact that I felt yuck, and thought a good blast of exercise might help alleviate my undesirable disposition. While I was doing the workout I honestly felt like I was going hell for leather and I was confident that I would indeed smash my initial time. Turns out I only scraped a measly 18 seconds off. The breakdown of the reps for this workout was more or less the same each time, as it was with 230 reps.

I don’t feel that the time the workout took or how easy or hard it felt at the time is a reflection on anything other than the conditions on the day – my level of fitness is pretty stable; it’s my energy that fluctuates wildly from day to day. Thus, fitness testing only works if the conditions are the same each time, which is actually pretty hard to achieve unless you live in a vacuum. Ideally you’d retest at the same time of day, day of week, having had the same quality and number of hours of sleep the night before, having eaten and drunk the same foods at the same times, and that doesn’t even begin to touch on the non-physical stuff – relationships, friendships, work, money, and other external stressors that surround us all every day.

I’ll do this workout again when I’m not on a two-day hangover and hopefully I can keep improving my time.

230 reps

The other evening I was browsing the internet when I happened across a YouTube video of Mike Chang doing one of his workouts. I don’t really get off on guys with no armpit hair doing lots of pull-ups but there were several things that appealed to me about what he was doing. Firstly, he’d chosen several different exercises to do, and the number of repetitions he wanted to do of each exercise without really knowing how it would pan out. Secondly, he didn’t know beforehand how long it was going to take or how many reps of each exercise he’d do each time.

I like this because it introduces an element of unpredictability to a workout. Usually, when I do interval training I’ll set my timer for my work time and rest time, and stop working when the timer tells me to. I like the idea of going until my body tells me to stop, rather than relying on an external influence telling me what to do.

So I thought I’d give it a crack. I chose four exercises: kettle bell swings, kettle bell clean and presses, dumb-bell press-ups, and Swiss ball crunches. Here’s a video I made demonstrating exactly what I was doing.

DSCN2389

I’ve gone through this workout a couple of times now, and the breakdown of reps has been pretty similar each time. Both times, the exercise I’ve found the hardest is the dumb-bell press-up, which is not what I expected. Turns out I can swing a kettle bell until the cows come home, but a modified press up is a real challenge. I guess that’s because the kettle bell swing is all about glutes and quads which are big strong muscle groups, whereas the press-up uses smaller upper body muscles – the pecs, triceps, and front shoulder. Being of the fairer sex, these muscles don’t get strong unless you put in a lot of work.

The first time round I wasn’t really concerned about my time, I was focusing more on good technique. Plus I had no time to try and beat. The second time round I was hoping to do it quicker but I was also trying to compare how I felt exercising in the morning before eating with exercising in the afternoon after a good lunch.

There’s so much scope to play around with this style of workout, the options are pretty much endless!

How I Exercise

To be honest, I’ve been doing bugger all exercise over winter (although my version of bugger all might be a bit different from yours). I’ve had a job that’s been physical enough that it’s left me with very little time or energy or inclination to exercise just for the sake of exercising, which, by the way, I love to do. However, I’ve managed to keep my body well within the parameters of what’s acceptable to me, mainly through the way I eat, which is cleaner now than ever before, and through short bursts of specific exercises.

I’m a fan of the minimum effective dose, which Tim Ferriss talks about in his book The 4-Hour Body. I’m not into thrashing myself or slogging it out for hours on end at the gym, not anymore anyway, and besides, I don’t think it’s necessary. If I can get the results I want through short workouts, and still have all the energy I need to make it through the day, well, it’s a no-brainer really.

Probably the most important piece of exercise equipment I have is my interval timer. I usually do 45 second rounds with a 15 second rest in between. I’ll write down a list of exercises or just make it up as I go along. I do a lot of bodyweight resistance exercises, but I also own three kettle bells, some light dumb bells, an aerobic step, a skipping rope, a rebounder (mini trampoline), and a Swiss ball.

If I can’t be bothered thinking up something to do I’ll do one of Mike Chang’s Insane Home Fat Loss workouts. I like them because they’re all bodyweight exercises (the only prop you might need is a small towel), they’re high intensity, short duration (20 minutes), and work to a 30/15 second work to rest ratio.

I’m also experimenting with Carb Back-Loading, a protocol developed by physicist John Kiefer. The basic principle is that you do your exercise without any glucose in your system, so that your body has no choice but to use fat as its energy source. You then eat simple carbohydrate foods after exercising, which causes insulin to be released, which in turn causes the glucose to be shunted preferentially into your muscle cells via the glucose transporters which have come to the surface of the muscle cells as a result of doing resistance training. Essentially it means you can get your muscle cells to fill with glucose (ready for the next workout) without your fat cells doing the same. Sounds pretty good, right?

I’ve also been practicing Muay Thai on and off for almost 10 years. If you want to truly get fit, this is what I’d recommend over and above anything else (if you just want to get in shape I’d recommend kettle bell swings and squats). Muay Thai is awesome. ‘Muay’ means ‘the way’ in Thai; so Muay Thai is ‘the Thai way’. It’s their national sport and a big part of the culture of Thailand. You may have heard of the ‘eight limbs’ of Muay Thai: two fists, two elbows, two knees, and two shins/feet. Kick boxing is the Western version of this. I love it because it’s cardio and resistance combined, it’s high intensity, it requires balance, coordination and flexibility, and you’re learning a useful skill as well. Despite it being a fairly brutal sport, the culture in Muay Thai gyms is often surprisingly welcoming and supportive.

So I do interval training, I use weights, I do Muay Thai, I’ve mentioned that I like to run. The other way that I look after my body is by stretching. A lot. My Mum took up yoga when she was pregnant with me, and I used to practise with her when I was a little kid. I haven’t done it my whole life but I have practised regularly over the last 15 years or so. Some people are naturally flexible; I’m not one of those people. I have to work at it, but the results are well worth the effort. I can’t stress enough how important it is to keep your muscles supple, and to have a good range of movement around your joints, especially if you exercise a lot. Stretching is the best injury prevention I know of.

Oh and I’m currently learning the aerial silk; maybe I do a bit more exercise than I give myself credit for. The silk is comprised of two ends of fabric that hang from a high ceiling, and the object is to climb the silk and perform acrobatic tricks by winding it around yourself. After my first class, every single muscle in my arms, shoulders, and back was sore – it was awesome! I’m getting stronger already, and starting to learn some cool tricks.

I think it’s important to give your body a wide variety of exercises to do, otherwise it becomes complacent. Take running as an example: if that’s the only form of exercise you do, your body will become more and more used to it and the benefits will start to diminish because you’re not challenging your body with new and different movements. Plus it gets a bit boring doing the same thing over and over again, don’t you think? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-running, I’m just pro-variety.

How could anyone not want to exercise when you’ve got all these cool toys to play with?

my running shoes

I’ve had these running shoes for four and a half years and counting. Who knows how many kilometres I’ve run in these puppies. They’re on their second set of laces, they’re a bit worn in places, but they’re still going strong.

About a year ago I contemplated buying a new pair of running shoes, but when I asked myself why, I couldn’t come up with a decent answer. I love how comfortable my shoes are – it’s like they were made for my feet and my feet only. Why change a recipe that works? I could go out and buy a brand spanking new pair of high tech running shoes but I’d probably hate them, and I doubt that they’d enable me to run faster or farther or for longer.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that you don’t need lots of fancy and expensive gear to be able to exercise. The shoes are nothing without the wearer. The shoes don’t run. It’s the person who runs, with or without shoes.

Why I Run

I don’t run to build muscle or burn fat. I know enough about exercise to know that running doesn’t really achieve either of these two things. I don’t run to compensate for my poor food choices of the day before, although I have done this in the past. I run because it makes me feel alive. To me, running feels like the most natural, primal movement the body can make. And bodies are designed to move, not to sit at a desk looking at a computer screen.

I don’t meditate, but running is as close as I get to a meditative state. All I need to worry about is breathing and placing one foot in front of the other on the track in front of me. Sometimes, if I have the energy, I’ll open up into a full sprint when I’m nearly at the end of my run. I’m going so fast my feet feel like they’re barely touching the ground; I may as well be flying! This makes me feel invincible.

I always run alone. This is my opportunity to get away from everyone and everything. This is when all my best thoughts come to me. Or sometimes there aren’t any thoughts at all. Sometimes I have conversations in my head, conversations that will one day be had with the person they’re intended for. They’re draft conversations. Sometimes I get so animated that I catch myself gesticulating with my hands while my lips are moving as if in speech. I must look rather odd.

When I run I strike with the ball of my foot first, not my heel. I learnt this from reading the book ‘Born To Run’ by Christopher McDougall. It’s an excellent book and I recommend it to anyone who’s interested in running. Before this book taught me how to run properly I used to strike with my heel first, and it made my hamstrings tight and my joints sore. If I revert back to my old style of running, just to remind myself of how poor my form used to be, it feels heavy and jarring and cumbersome – no wonder it made my body hurt.

I like to run in nature, not on a treadmill. The last time I ran on a treadmill was at a gym in Auckland, about a year ago. I was struck by the realisation that I was running forwards, looking at a brick wall in front of me, but going nowhere. Plus I’d paid $25 to do it – is that crazy or what? When I’m living in Marahau, as I currently am, I run in the Abel Tasman National Park. My standard 5 km run takes me to Tinline, around a loop track, and back out again. I’ve done this run so many times I could probably do it with my eyes closed.

While I was living in Brightwater earlier this year I started experimenting with some longer runs; around 12 km, and was pleasantly surprised by how do-able they were. Over summer I’m planning to do some longer runs in the Park. I’ll decide how many kilometres I want to run, catch a ride into the Park with a water taxi, then it’ll be up to my trusty legs to get me back out again. I can’t wait!

This is the track I run on when I’m in Marahau

And this is the view! Better than a brick wall, right?