Endurance Training in Unconventional Places | Uphill Athlete

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.

Trail running and exploring the outskirts of my residence in Thimphu, Bhutan

Trail running and exploring the outskirts of my residence in Thimphu, Bhutan

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?

One official track exists in the capital, Thimphu. I was granted access to train there and with other dedicated Bhutanese athletes. This track provided an excellent training ground for steady state, lactate threshold, and VO2 max workouts.

One official track exists in the capital, Thimphu. I was granted access to train there and with other dedicated Bhutanese athletes. This track provided an excellent training ground for steady state, lactate threshold, and VO2 max workouts.

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.

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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.

Having one or more sports to cross-train with enhances training diversity, aids injury prevention, and reduces the chance of isolated-sport burnout.

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.

Cross-training in the national boxing gym three times per week.

Cross-training in the national boxing gym three times per week.

Our stretched goals raise the bar and reestablish our perceived limitations. Success is not guaranteed, and that is precisely why we, as athletes, find the trajectory of growth and challenge so intoxicating.

40-mile and 48-hour exploratory fastpacking trip with my friend, Erick, in the Bhutanese Himalayas. Here we camped at 15,000 feet and woke up to a blizzard.

40-mile and 48-hour exploratory fastpacking trip with my friend, Erick, in the Bhutanese Himalayas. Here we camped at 15,000 feet and woke up to a blizzard.

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.

McMurdo Station, as seen from the top of Observation Hill, 750 feet above town. This is the hill I repeated 39 times consecutively to complete the Everest Challenge in 15 hours and 30 minutes.

McMurdo Station, as seen from the top of Observation Hill, 750 feet above town. This is the hill I repeated 39 times consecutively to complete the Everest Challenge in 15 hours and 30 minutes.

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.

In January, four carpenters, including myself, went to a remote field camp, Cape Crozier, for three weeks. We worked seven days per week and 10+ hours per day. With arduous physical labor, I did not train during this timeframe and focused on proper nutrition, hydration, and sleep. Note: Each night, I slept between 9-10 hours per night.

In January, four carpenters, including myself, went to a remote field camp, Cape Crozier, for three weeks. We worked seven days per week and 10+ hours per day. With arduous physical labor, I did not train during this timeframe and focused on proper nutrition, hydration, and sleep. Note: Each night, I slept between 9-10 hours per night.

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.

Cape Crozier, sleeping in Scott tents, with the ocean and Ross Ice Shelf in the background.

Cape Crozier, sleeping in Scott tents, with the ocean and Ross Ice Shelf in the background.

Post-Everest Challenge - Lying next to the lap board made by a fellow carpenter, Cota. Many community members participated in a few laps or attempted the entire challenge.

Post-Everest Challenge - Lying next to the lap board made by a fellow carpenter, Cota. Many community members participated in a few laps or attempted the entire challenge.

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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.

Stress is stress, and it is ok to reduce your training load when we acknowledge and confront peripheral life pressures. If we sacrifice quality sleep, proper nutrition, or training through injury, we are only damaging our unique human potential trajectory.

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.

“The summit is what drives us, but the climb itself is what matters.”

During the second fastpacking trip, we encountered yak herders moving and grazing their animals at 13,000 feet during heavy precipitation.

During the second fastpacking trip in the Bhutanese Himalayas, we encountered yak herders moving and grazing their animals at 13,000 feet during heavy precipitation.

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

Look at what effective road and trail systems exist near you. And don’t limit yourself to established trails! Consider downloading Gaia GPS or Caltopo for offline map use, acquiring a satellite communication device (Garmin inReach or Explorer), and creating your own adventures. Designing my off-trail adventure is the style of the expedition I enjoy the most, both in planning and implementation.

Follow your gut instinct and interests. Make decisions that set you up to spend time doing the things that inspire you, that you love, and find enriching. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box!

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.

McMurdo hosts a marathon on the Ross Ice Shelf in January and allows running, cross-country, skiing, or fat biking.

McMurdo hosts a marathon on the Ross Ice Shelf in January and allows running, cross-country, skiing, or fat biking.

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.

I’ve learned that no matter your geographic location, you can train! You must be creative to optimize your training load and the resulting training effect.

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!

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