Strava Made Me Do It

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Dre coughed so violently that it activated her gag reflex, sending in her into a sort of mid-stride dry heave.  She looked up the steep ridgeline in front of her and forced the words out through a muffled wheeze:  “We almost there?”

“Yeah, almost done,” I lied. “Last little push.”

It was cold for Southern California, around 45 degrees, but she was stripped down to her sports bra, the previously donned jacket, beanie and gloves stuffed in various locations around her waistband, stripped off and stowed as the effort accumulated.  We were charging up a trail in the Santa Monica Mountains that you won’t find on any map or listed in any guidebook.  One of those locals-only type things that, if you’re lucky enough to know about it, will roll you higher and higher across increasingly technical terrain until it deposits you on the highest point in The Pacific Palisades.  The summit has exposure, solid topographical prominence and even a make-shift register in a plastic box with a little boulder on top.

We kept pushing hard, fighting through the brush and branches jutting out across the seldom-used trail.  Just as we crested one of the many false summits along the ridge and started to descend I heard a muffled exclamation but didn’t see her break stride so I kept moving, not thinking much of it.  It wasn’t until we were back in the car that I saw the gash along her right eyelid and found out that she had been stabbed in the eye by an errant tree branch.

It’s a funny thing that these type of efforts do to you.  Dre was chasing the course record on a Strava segment. You might think that’s pretty lame.  Say whatever you will about it: it’s a social media app, it’s not a real FKT, it’s for old dudes on electric bikes and retired pro cyclists.  But this app and it’s segments, particularly this 1.4 mile ridgeline with 1600ft of vertical gain over rocky, technical terrain with a solid class 4 section, switched what could have been a casual Friday morning jaunt through the mountains into a coughing, hacking, dry heaving, spitting, air-gasping all-out sufferfest where Dre was prepared to leave it all out there on the trail.  Blood, sweat, tears, stomach bile; name your bodily fluid.  She was going after it.

There’s something special about these type of efforts.  There’s something different about charging and moving and hurting yourself.  Taking yourself to this place where you’re not sure what’s going to happen.  A place far outside your comfort zone.  A place where pretense and posturing fall by the wayside, dumped in a pile along with all those other neatly manicured aspects of your personality.

It’s a magical place that, in my opinion, not a lot of people have the ability nor the toughness to experience.  I’m not talking about going out and trying to run a fast mile or targeting the course record on the ½ mile bike path loop by your house.  I’m talking about mountains.  Climbing.  Testing yourself against terrain that most people wouldn’t consider walking on.  Putting yourself in situations where the stakes are high and the risk is real.  I’m talking about being alive.

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Dre is no stranger to tough Strava segments; last summer she set the CR on the Owen-Spaulding Route on Grand Teton (from the lower saddle to the summit), where she free-soloed three class 5 pitches above 13’000ft. 

The amount of time we spend in a climate controlled box, staring at a glowing rectangle has overreached any cliche about being sedentary and far surpassed all hyperbole about “screen time”. For most of us at this point, it’s just the way it is. It’s becoming harder and harder to remember a time when things were different.

We have come so far out of our evolutionary setting that the effects are real and easily measurable.  We hardly experience any of the emotions that make us human anymore.  We don’t do anything that makes us appreciate all the luxuries that we enjoy.  The inordinate amount of time we spend in this luxury makes us soft and whiny so when we don’t have it, we pout and get angry and count the seconds until were back in it, to the point where I hear people talking about not being able to take a shit without their cellphone. How did we get here?

“We’re not gonna get it…” Dre said breathlessly as her left foot slid atop a small pile of loose boulders.

“Just keep moving,” I replied. “Almost there.” I had probably said that so much to her at this point that it reminded me of the opening line of 4th Time Around by Bob Dylan: “Then, she don’t waste, your words they’re just lies.” But she did. She kept charging. Grunting and huffing and puffing away. Approaching the class four section (aptly titled The Wall on Strava). I extended a helping hand but she ignored it. I knew she would. She scrambled to the top, wheezing a bit, fighting off another coughing fit.

All that was left was a couple of little rollers and we were there. I glanced down at my watch as Dre charged past me, hands still on her knees, surveying the terrain waiting for it to flatten out enough for her to start running. It was going to be close. She didn’t ask me how much further, she could smell it. The barn, the summit and the end of this little digital line, drawing a beautiful aesthetic across the ridge by way of satellite.

She was lost in the effort.  Lost in the experience. Completely in the moment, just her against the mountain.  Moving lightly over natural terrain, pushing her body to the edge, redlining and testing those outer edges of her fitness.  Striving to reach the top.  I don’t think it gets much more human than that.  She was learning about herself this morning.

Would she have done it without Strava?  Probably.  That’s just the kind of person she is.  But maybe not quite as hard.  Having a bench mark already set by someone goes a long way toward making your morning runs competitive.  Not for everyone, but for some.

For Dre on this particular morning, the thought of going to work all day after missing the course record by eight seconds was too painful an eventuality.  This time, you could safely say that Strava made her do it.

I was a few steps behind her as she crested peak and stood on the summit, rolling green mountains surrounding her on all sides.  Despite giving all I had on the final 400 meters, I couldn’t stay with her. I found her bent over, breathing hard, watching her sweat hit the dirt in front of her face. I laid my hand gently on her back.

“You got it,” I said with the slightest air of solemnity, “By almost two minutes! Sent a lot of emails this morning…”

She stood up, beaming. Her eyes sparkled and her skin glowed.

“I fucking better have,” she said as a huge smile spread across her face, “cuz there’s no way I’m doing that again.”

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Still smiling though…
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F*&% Breakfast: Running, Fueling and Fat Burning

Mainstream nutrition is slowly starting to catch up to what most intelligent people (and body builders, ha!) have known for years now.  You shouldn’t be eating breakfast.  The whole “breakfast is the most important meal of the day…even though you’re not hungry at all and could likely go three or four hours before you get hungry, you need to force feed yourself a bagel and a bowl of cereal” thing is finally starting to be debunked. 

It makes absolutely no sense from an evolutionary standpoint.  Our ancestors were hunter-gathers; they didn’t wake up and grab a granola bar.  They didn’t grow food.  They didn’t keep animals.  They woke up and they had to go find, hunt, kill and cook their food.  Or, they had to scavenge or dig for veggies and tubers.  Then cook those.  In all likelihood, they didn’t eat until the late afternoon or evening most days.

Why do you think you’re not hungry in the morning?  You’ve been fasting all night.  So, if breakfast is really the most important meal of the day, why aren’t you ravenous for a six egg omelet the second you wake up?  Because that’s how our biochemistry was designed by evolution.  When we wake up, we’re technically already eating breakfast: we’re burning fat.  Fat is the best, most readily available fuel source we have, and something I’m sure all of us would like to be better at utilizing.  On top of that, we get a heavy dose of cortisol upon waking that triggers our liver to start producing and mobilizing glucose to be burned as fuel.  Our bodies know that there’s a chance we won’t be eating for a while and possibly until after vigorous physical activity.

No one with a real life who doesn’t have a live-in chef wakes up and cooks a healthy breakfast.  Most people who regularly consume breakfast are literally eating candy in the form of breakfast cereal or granola bars or Eggo waffles or fruit smoothies.  It makes complete sense that the most popular and widely-consumed breakfast foods in the US are sugary garbage:  We have no appetite because we’re burning fat and so it’s the only thing we can stomach… similar to desert after a big meal. There’s always room for desert, right?  Even in the morning. 

Still, with all of the science pointing toward skipping breakfast, nine out of ten nutritionists will still give you some garbage about how important it is and how you need to “kick start your metabolism”.  If someone is about to go running, it’s basically blasphemy to tell them to skip their morning sugar fix beforehand.   To anyone with half a brain, it should be clear that you DO NOT need breakfast to go sit in front of a computer for four hours before you eat lunch.  With exercise involved, it seems less clear.  I’m here to tell you that not only should you skip breakfast, but that skipping breakfast will make you a better runner as well. 

Burning fat is like anything else, you need to train in order to be good at it.  You need to develop fat burning enzymes.  You need your body to become efficient at accessing your fat stores for fuel.  We’ve all heard people talking about how even the leanest among us—people with less than 10% body fat—still have tens of thousands of calories stored on our bodies.  We’ve all got it.  The more we burn this fat, the better our bodies become at it. These calories become available to us more quickly.  Upon waking up, your body is already burning fat.  This is a good thing.  As soon as you shove a couple spoonfuls of that “healthy” cereal in your mouth, it all stops. 

Just like Dr. Phil Maffetone has made abundantly clear through his research performed on high-level endurance athletes, eating carbohydrates—especially any type of refined carb—has a devastating effect on our ability to burn fat.  As soon as we eat carbs, we lose access to our fat stores. 

So, if I’m about to go running at 10am and I wake up 7am and start eating a bunch of crap to “fuel” for my run, there will be no fat burning going on during my run, I’m not developing my ability to burn fat and I’m stuck being dependent on the glucose in my bloodstream for fuel throughout the run.  If I hold out until after the run, I’ll feel much better during because I don’t have to contend with the food I recently consumed moving through my GI tract, I’ll burn fat as my primary fuel source and I’ll become a better fat burner along the way. 

Then, after the run, when my muscles and liver have been depleted of their glycogen, essentially making them giant sponges to soak up calories, I eat a big meal and replenish.  Breakfast is by no means the most important meal of the day.  The meal after your workout is the most important meal of the day.  And if you can get to that workout before eating (and especially before eating any carbs), you’ll have more energy all the time, never becoming a slave to your blood sugar swings, always utilizing fat as fuel.  

If you’re not going running until 7pm and you’ve got a long day ahead of you, I would still skip breakfast and don’t think about eating until you start to develop an appetite later in the day, but then pay close attention to what you’re eating.  You should primarily be eating good fats: coconut oil, grass-fed butter, almonds, avocado, etc.  Eating good fats not only keeps you satiated for a long period of time (no blood sugar spikes and subsequent crashes) but they also help you burn the fat you’ve already got stored. 

One of my favorite things to do if I’m not running soon after waking is to put a teaspoon of coconut oil in my coffee.  That small amount of coconut oil can usually get me to two or three o’clock before I even start to think about food if I haven’t worked out.  I’m just burning fat. 

It’s time to stop being brainwashed.  Forget about breakfast.  It will make you healthier, leaner and a more efficient endurance athlete.