The phone rang, it was my long-time friend John.
“Hey Branden, do you want to move to Bhutan and work with me building a cabin?” I was bewildered by the proposal from John Yarington, and I politely declined. In my right mind, why would I leave behind my stable job, health insurance, social network, comfortable residence, and outstanding training grounds? To volunteer in Bhutan as a carpenter?
However, I thought about the prospect and called John back the next day. Knowing that I desired to find meaning and adventure through experience, I drastically altered my circumstances, quit my engineering job of three years, packed my belongings, and left my life behind. That phone call in April 2021 changed the trajectory of my life.
For me, goals are the inception and motivation for specialized training. When I moved to Bhutan, I decided to register for the Bigfoot 200 and to determine how to train for this next ultrarunning goal effectively. This race is one of the most difficult single-stage ultramarathons in the world, covering 209 miles and 46,000 feet of elevation gain in the rugged Cascade Mountains in Washington State. To set myself up for success after the move, I examined and dissected life, work, and training elements to understand the situation more clearly.
As such, I looked at the following variables:
Goal: What is my goal? What do I hope to achieve, and how long do I have?
Geography: Where am I living, and what do I have access to? What transportation is available?
Climate: What are the seasonal conditions in my residential area? What sports or activities will be available to me?
Training Grounds: What terrain is available? How representative is this terrain of my impending goal?
Nutrition: What nutrition is locally available? How can I optimize my diet within a budget?
Fitness milestones or efforts: What intermediary efforts sound exciting and fun to check fitness en route to our goal? What will these efforts tell us about our fitness relative to our goal?
Cross-training: What cross-training is available outside of my primary sport? How will cross-training aid in my fitness and enjoyment?
Equipment: What equipment will I need to train for my goal and ancillary sports (year-round)? Can I purchase appropriate equipment in my new location?
Holistic life balance: How can I ensure that I am fulfilling my life obligations and training? How do I balance work and training? How do I know if I’m putting too much stress on myself? Am I getting enough sleep?
training for Bigfoot in Bhutan
I researched the area, trails, seasonal climate conditions, and cross-training prospects as much as possible, in addition to planning and acquiring all appropriate equipment for the intended sports.
From studying trails on Gaia GPS and other mapping platforms, I knew Bhutan was ripe for mountain access and trail running. However, mountaineering is illegal in Bhutan, and skiing and climbing are near, if not totally, nonexistent. Knowing I could not purchase my preferred running equipment in Bhutan, I brought extra running shoes, handheld water bottles, hiking poles, and my Salomon backpack.
TRAIL RUNNING TRAINING GROUP
With minimal cross-training possibilities in Bhutan, I hired a boxing coach and trained thrice weekly before work. I used to run from my apartment to the gym at 6:45 am, train for an hour, then commute to the job site on foot. The total commute was only four miles; however, I would have spent 20 minutes traveling in a car. This routine allowed for nearly two hours of well-rounded and comprehensive training before work and higher time-efficiency with my schedule.
I took part in the only available running event, a road half-marathon, as well as two independent 40-mile fastpacking trips with a 48-hour timeframe. These efforts helped give my training schedule structure and milestone efforts to check in on my fitness.
Furthermore, I researched the available grocery stores and investigated what food varieties each has. From there, I effectively dialed in my nutrition strategy based on availability.
Work was inherently taxing, and six days per week of carpentry was undoubtedly no exception. Whenever I felt tired, I checked in with myself and my coach at Uphill Athlete, Chantelle Robitaille, to determine what action could be taken to revitalize my state.
After nine months in Bhutan, I returned to the USA to take on Bigfoot 200. I felt in excellent shape on race day, but after one hundred and ten miles and 24,000 feet of ascent into Bigfoot 200, I could not continue. An aid station volunteer asserted that my hamstring tendon is “as tight as a violin string” while rolling it out with a Nalgene water bottle, while an aid station medic deemed the tendon a likely sprain.
TRAINING FOR SCANDINAVIAN ARCTIC TRAVERSE IN ANTARCTICA
When I was offered a job as a carpenter in McMurdo, Antarctica, in August 2022, I knew immediately what my next expedition would be. The timing worked perfectly. With a contract from October 2022 to February 2023, I can work, save money, and set myself up for a quick transition to attempt an unprecedented 1,000-mile ski and snow kite traverse of the Scandinavian Arctic (Norway, Sweden, and Finland). I would do this project alone and unsupported.
On March 11th this year, I started a new project to cross the Scandinavian Arctic. This 1,000-mile ski and snow kite expedition will cross Norway, Sweden, and Finland in winter. This expedition’s inception came shortly after my Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park traverse in early 2021. I wanted to create a similar experience that was only longer in duration and distance. After examining the global options on Google Earth, I understood my options reside in the Arctic; the USA (Alaska), Canada, Europe, or Russia. Wanting an experience outside the USA, Canada, and with Russia currently at war, I set my eyes on Europe.
The Scandinavian Arctic is diverse and vast, and these countries have a “free-roaming” law that allows near-unrestricted travel through any part of the country. The route will traverse towering mountains, impenetrable forests, and sprawling tundra.
After discussing with Chantelle, I took the first two weeks in McMurdo to understand the physical and mental demands of transitioning to this new environment and working as a carpenter. I determined a realistic energy threshold I had available to dedicate to training while balancing socialization, nutrition, sleep, and my overall well-being.
In Antarctica, I worked six days and 60 hours per week unless I was in a field camp, in which I worked seven days and 70 hours per week.
At McMurdo Station, everybody eats within designated timeframes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner at two-hour intervals. After work, I must train immediately to make dinner or eat first and train after. After contemplation and experimentation, I found it made sense to complete training before dinner so I didn’t have to train on a full stomach. I had a few hours after dinner to relax, read, plan my next expedition, or hang out with friends.
I determined which, if any, cross-training sports appeal to me. I stayed diligent with my physiotherapy strengthening and injury prevention routine and primarily focussed on running for cardiovascular training.
Ideally, I would replicate my future goal’s intended climate and terrain. I was lucky to be in Antarctica’s cold and windy environment, frequently working and training outside. Although I knew the physiological adaptation to cold in Antarctica would be negligible, I now had a developed psychological exposure to the cold, which prepared me immensely for my next expedition.
Like my approach while living in Bhutan, I participated in local training events – 5 km, 10 km, duathlon (run and bike), and an Everest Challenge. For the Everest Challenge, I lapped the 750-foot ascent of Observation Hill 39 times for 29,032 feet of ascent. The community highly supported this effort, and many people participated in a few laps or attempted its entirety.
Three people, including myself, finished, and I was granted a fitness reference that I could not have with formal structured training each week. The Everest Challenge also gave me an exciting project to work towards and had on my calendar, further motivating me to train.
LEARNING AND DEVELOPMENT THROUGH EXPERIENCES
Since leaving the United States, I have been gifted, not with a wealth of financial gain, but with experience and the opportunity to live my life in a way that I find unparalleled enrichment and value.
Throughout our connection, Chantelle has been invaluable in my life as a coach, a wise mentor, and a role model. She has consistently given me support, encouragement, and advice as I adapted to my surroundings and grew as an individual. One of the most valuable gifts Chantelle has given me is incorporating a holistic awareness and approach to balancing training and life. If anyone is going through the process of moving, relationship challenges, work stress, physical illness, or COVID-19 lockdown, I now clearly recognize that we, as individuals, only have so many matches to burn in a day, a week, or a month.
I firmly believe that no situation exists for balancing training and life to be easy. But that isn’t the point, is it? We train because we want to challenge ourselves, grow, and learn. Wherever we live, we can adapt to our surroundings, learn from them, optimize the quality of our lives, and enhance the probability of success of our goals – our visions.
My definition of success has evolved. In a race setting, my perception of success was initially driven by my finish time or position in the event. In the context of a mountain, success meant reaching the summit. Many years later, I now find success in diligent and meticulous logistical planning, physiological development, and psychological preparation – then showing up. When I toe the line at an ultramarathon or reach the base camp of a mountain, I know that I have already succeeded.
I recommend checking out this Stanford professor, Ph.D. Andrew Huberman’s podcast. He has provided insightful information as I investigate subtle bio-hacking techniques to improve my training and performance. He provides commentary on the benefits of deliberate heat and cold exposure, which I found tremendously informative. In addition to the outlined physiological benefits, I derive significant cognitive benefits from calculated hot and cold exposure. Will it be scorching hot during your next ultramarathon? Well, you likely won’t be as hot as sitting in a sauna for 30 minutes. When you get out during your summer race, and it’s 90F, your body and mind won’t be nearly as shocked.
MY ADVICE IF YOU FIND YOURSELF IN SIMILAR SITUATIONS
Talk to locals who know the area, get involved in a local running or climbing club, and research online to discover your area’s potential. Be willing to take risks and be uncomfortable. You will learn and experience far more than if you stay in your comfort zone.
If you are feeling overwhelmed, slow down. Evaluate your situation and determine what you have control over to enhance your life and training experience. You will not jeopardize your goal if you skip a workout or two. Proper sleep, nutrition, hydration, and physical and mental well-being always need to take precedence over training.
Regardless of where I live or how much I have been traveling, I have successfully planned, trained for, and attempted challenging endurance projects. I know many athletes residing in major metropolitan areas with limited access to training grounds, hectic schedules, and significant life commitments. The process I have applied to my life and training will apply to many of you, wherever you live.
Finding and calibrating an optimal schedule in a new environment is enjoyable and enriching; however, it takes time and will not happen overnight. Be patient and diligent with your focus, and you will be rewarded!