01 June, 2013

A Lesson In Pain - Burning Out

The mountains are brutally hard, beautifully brutal.  They are merely as hard as we make them, as each one has an easier route, or we have the luxury of choosing one that is closer.  The mountains reveal their true beauty as we step beyond the easy routes and ones that are closer to home.  By traveling faster, farther, in harder, bigger terrain, they reveal more to us.  And we experience them in a much deeper way.
(Photo Above:  James McSkimming, skiing the beautiful shoulder of Mt Matier's North Face)
Recently, in an epiphany, I had realized how much harder they can be.  I raced through mountains in Italy in a Teams Race in the 2011 World Championships, and gave everything I could give to moving through those mountains as fast as possible.  I gave more than what I could give, and borrowed all the energy I could to accomplish what I felt was most important at the time, I told myself nothing is more important that catching the racers at the front.  I drained everything, tasted blood for days after the race, sacrificed my body to that race, literally, and felt psychologically destroyed.  I learned in an epiphany that I had burnt out, a mere 1.5 years later, as I couldn't bring myself to the depth of suffering that I once enjoyed so much.  But now after that 1.5 years, ready to give my body back to the mountains, and not to a race course, I realized the importance and lessons of draining everything.

Racing on the Ski Mountaineering Team was amazing, and I may think about doing it again.  I trained hard, focusing all day on training, recovery, nutrition, hydration, each aspect every minute of every day.  I focused on it, telling myself it would pay off to get back into the mountains, and complete the goals I had in mind.  It did.  But what I didn't think of is the fact that it may take away from that as well, especially if I went to intensely.  My ego told me I could race and perform to maximum power in the mountains, I felt really strong, but with the mountains you are sometimes just waiting to get a real full dose of the truth.  I simply couldn't recover from it, hitting rock bottom, for an athlete.
(Photo Above:  Slovenian Competitor living inside the 'Pain Cave'.  2011 Vertical Race, WC Italy)
Recovering, after the burn out, was hard.  I still trained, did some racing, got out in the mountains, but couldn't go to the depths as I once could.  I wanted to, but both mind and body, held back.  And now finally recovered, like a light switch got flipped, I'm ready.  But have lost 1.5 years of growth to the recovery.  Now getting out training, looking towards routes I've dreamt of for years, and feeling mentally and physically ready to take on again I have started looking forward to that uncomfortable comfort of the pain cave.

What may hurt people to think, which I find has helped, is to tell yourself the truth (it hurts).  You are not special, you are not insanely strong or fast, you have merely put in a bit of time to make yourself slightly better, but realize this; overall, you are slow, you can always train and recover better, you can always do more, you are not dedicated enough, you are frail, and one day you will die.
(Photo Above:  Justin after a long day of being on the move, Whistler, BC.)
Now, ski-mountaineering with a friend, watching them be introduced to that at first seemingly horrible dark pain cave I can truly begin to start understanding the mentality behind the growing in the mountains.  It's not the acceptance of pain and fear, but welcoming it in, and keeping it close for long periods at a time.  The more time spent, in pain and fear, the deeper the experience.

Living inside the pain cave becomes a warm comfortable recess of the mountains in time.  Inside it our human frailty and softness are equally apparent and also easily left behind, the choice is ours in which way we choose to lead it.  We can accept the fact that our pain overwhelms our senses, but understand it is merely a reaction to growth, as we grow stronger with each step and movement forward.  Only when we've been inside the cave long enough, stripped away our ego, our thoughts of what or who we are, and spent the energy that is required to think of these distractions, that we can discover our true self and realize what needs to be done in order to continue on our path in the mountains.

"The greatest enemy will hide in the last place you would ever look."  -  Julius Caesar, 75 BC.
(Photo Above:  New lines to test out, requiring the mind to lead not the body.)

SkiMo Racing And Ski Mountaineering Training Tips
1.  Identify Weaknesses
What is your weakness?  Do you get scared on mixed rock and ice terrain?  Are you slow on boot packs?  Do you bonk after long periods skinning?  Whatever it is, identify your weakness, and seek out that weakness.  If you are afraid on mixed terrain, go find objectives with more mixed terrain, study gear and climbing techniques more.  Bonk on long skintracks?  Learn about nutrition, timing, and record your results in a training journal (what helped, what didn't, how you felt at the end of the day hours later.)
2.  Change the way you are training
The only way to continue to grow is to not stagnate.  Never do the same thing over and over again, change your long distance routes, interval inclines and technical courses, bootpack with different amounts of weight on your back, drag a tire, just do everything in your power to ensure your body does not get used to your training.
3.  Learn from your mistakes.

1.  Sleep
8 Hours a day minimum.  Add 1 to 2 hours of sleep for added stress at work, life, or harder than usual effort.
2.  Nutrition
High quality proteins lean organic meat, chicken breast, eggs, cooked without fats or heavy sauces.  Good fats such as avocado's, fish oil, extra virgin olive oil (not heated), and lots of vegetables.
3.  Yoga
Yeah, so I'm saying yoga.  For a long time I've liked a bit of yoga, but have been reluctant to engage in it as many people refer to it as a true form of fitness, and the best way to be extremely strong.  I disagree, but as this is not a rant post about yoga, here's why I like it now.  Finding the right stretching classes have helped align my body better, keeping my body a bit better balanced, improving my recovery, and loosening up tight muscles that aren't so easy to stretch.  Supporting muscles used in climbing, and skiing, sit in better positions afterwards and I become far less likely to get an overuse injury.
4.  Mixing It Up
Possible the most important thing out there.  Skiing has been one of my most important focuses in life, but taking a step back, taking a break, and enjoying other activities have only helped it and my enjoyment of it.  Go biking, climb, just do something that is fun, requires your athletic skill and energy, without your only goal being skiing. 


  1. Alex,
    I was aware that you had dropped out of the racing scene and have been pursuing the guiding life. It's cool to read the details of the transition here. Yes, you WILL be back. The worm sleeps but never dies. Soon, you will feel it's gnawing and the urge to toe the starting line will be undeniable. Sounds like you may be getting close.

    Funny to read about you and yoga. You probably remember my rant on that years ago. I think I spoke for all of us on that one. But, unlike what many yoga fans read in my piece, I do not dislike it at all. Simply recognize it for what it is. As a tool for making our bodies more supple and fluid, it works magically.

  2. Thatnks Guys,

    Brian, was thinking about your article as I wrote those tips. Definitely has helped me, but laughed quietly during a few yoga classes when getting the elitist yoga position. I'm definitely picking up a few lessons though, while putting together some new plans for the mountains. Stoked to get out and crush some stuff in the next year, as I'm starting to organize my training plans and set my sights on goals that need completing once again!

  3. What a great post! It reminds me that maybe I'm not going far enough into the pain cave when I'm racing:)

  4. Thanks for the comment Michelle,

    Finding that line has been an important lesson in life. However, it's only when we step way over that line that we will know exactly where it is, and by the time we've really reflected on it; it's too late to come back. And now, if you were to know where that line lies you can ride it extremely well, but the issue is that line is constantly changing and fluctuating. Finding your limit isn't exactly just a wall, but a complete journey over the line and away. I would guess the ultimate athlete would be able to find the line, step way over it when it counted, but then have enough knowledge and insight into each last aspect of their life, body, mind, and training in the past, present, and future, to know they needed to rest and recover in the exact way they needed to in order to overcome that journey. The athlete who could do that, would be unstoppable.

    We can't stop learning about training, our bodies, our minds, and how it relates over time. The second we do, we are no longer athletes engaged in our sport, simply participants. Stoked to see you pushing it on the ski mountaineering circuit! Keep the hurt on.

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