When I decided to climb Denali in 2007, I wanted to reassure myself that I was in good shape for the attempt. I just took a VO2 max test simply because it was a popular metric and I was very curious. It is about your maximum rate of oxygen consumption by looking at your CO2 output. However I was confused: I had friends who had lower VO2max levels but I was not able to keep up with them most of the time. So I later learned that it is not a measurement of endurance performance. Nonetheless the Denali climb went well and I felt very strong (although I have to add it was a relatively short expedition of only 12 days thanks to great weather).
Since even before then, I have been constantly doing ultras, adventure racing, rock climbing, occasional big mountain climbing. In addition, I have been reading a lot trying to learn more about training, new research, etc. However all this came to a point where I felt like I could do only so much on my own: I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I only knew for sure that intelligent training needed to be always guided by goals and I had an ambitious goal ahead of me: to be able to experience the top of the world.
In the past few years, I came across a series of stories about Adrian Ballinger who is a well-known mountaineer and a guide. He had climbed Everest in the past but recently was trying to do it without oxygen. He failed at his first attempt and started to question what he was doing wrong. Long story short, he started to work with Scott Johnston and Steve House, the authors of the book Training for New Alpinism published by Patagonia, who later founded uphillathlete.com. They need no intro – they have incredible resumes in the mountains and I have been a big fan for a long time. There is so much Adrian Ballinger had to change in his training regime and ultimately he was able to accomplish his goal of climbing Everest without oxygen without any issues (you can Google these names and find out more).
I also wanted to accomplish my goal. Simple. I have been already heavily embedded in high-altitude mountaineering: through climbing mountains for more than 20 years, having been to Everest in the past, following expeditions and stories to satisfy my curiosity, and doing academic research on risk marketing and risk consumption. As part of these experiences, I had long learned the fact that there was/is a lot outside of my control on the mountains. So I knew I had to put all my focus into what I could control: my training was on top of that list.
In summary, the training story I mentioned above motivated me to look into my training carefully. I got in touch with Steve House and Scott Johnston and started working with them. I feel very fortunate that they accepted me as one of their athletes. Scott became my coach and eventually my mentor. First, he asked me to get a metabolic efficiency test (including lactate threshold, energy utilization, etc) done to see where I was. In addition, he asked me to give him all the info on what I have been doing. After looking at everything, one of the very first things he told me was to slow down. Yes. He was on point: I, for the most part, thought I was doing great training if I tired myself up a lot – but I was overdoing it at times (simply because it was relaxing my mind). He told me my body was tired and I had to learn to slow it down.
The point was to make my baseline even stronger than it already was. Endurance is about having the ability to sustain a workload for a long time not at but below your maximum capacity. So he threw at me a 2-month training program first to see how I do and then we continued afterwards for months interacting everyday and modifying things according to my needs. I learned a TON from him, from myself, and from the process. I had to undo some of what I thought was working for me and had to do better training specific to my goal. Thus my training plan was overall a brilliant mix of low intensity and high intensity, aerobic and anaerobic, short and long workouts. And at the end of 6 months, I felt stronger than before and very content about my decision.
As in the case of many ambitious projects, progress comes over a long period of consistent hard work. And what I love about being an endurance athlete in uncertain environments the most is that it teaches (forces) you to be patient. Given your mind is open, perseverance is something you can learn, though only if you want to accomplish your goal real bad. At times you fall - then you simply get up and continue. With each step, you learn so much what you are capable of: physically, intellectually, emotionally. It is an ongoing process in which you have to leave your comfort zone and push yourself - and it feels great to be able to do so - a bit more, every time. There is no other way or a shortcut. And at the end, feeling content from hard work and thus accomplishing what you set yourself for is unparalleled.