Monday, January 16, 2012

1 Mile of Rail Balance

It was a year ago at the Christmas party and the day after the 1,000 muscle ups challenge.

I was so tired and sore that the never ending stream of amazing food arriving in front of us just tasted like bland toast. And besides, I had almost no appetite.

We were joking around about the next big challenge and how we could better this one. Unsurprisingly, everyone liked Stephane's idea of making it more of a technical or mental challenge, rather than a physical one... and his idea was 1 mile of rail balance without touching the ground. And if you did happen to touch the ground, then you had to start again.

It was one of those mysteries where you're not sure whether it's going to be next to impossible, or not too bad.

Either way, we quickly realised one of the biggest problems was going to be finding a long enough rail!

It was new year's eve 2011 and a few of us met up for some training to end the year. Still a bit tight from the 300 muscle ups just two days earlier, I decided to have a light day and just work on some short routes, basic techniques and balance work.

We were at Earlsfield and moved on to a nearby training spot towards Tooting Bec when someone remembered there's a low rail there that might do the job. It was indeed a good length, and more importantly, unbroken, to form a large sweeping circular shape with a few L-shaped corners thrown in to fit the shape of the grass.

We talked a bit about the challenge and agreed it would be a suitable place. The rail was slightly thicker than the average hand rail but that advantage was balanced out by the fact that it was very low to the ground, so if you should wobble then you had no hope of dropping to a hang to stay off the ground.

Andy measured it out and it was about 120 metres in total. Andy, Kush and I then walked a complete circuit to see how it felt and it wasn't that bad. Sure, it took a bit of concentration but there was no pressure and we all made it around.

Let's try it again.

It wasn't until 4 or 5 circuits later that I decided it was a pretty good rail for the challenge and maybe I should just keep walking and see how far I get... It'll be good practice for the mile.

How many times would we need to complete the circuit to hit a mile anyway? We were spaced out along the rail and Fizz, Leon and Joe had all joined in on our little experiment so there were quite a few of us now, and Dan was playing around with the idea of doing a circuit on all fours.

We worked out as we walked that it would take somewhere between 13 and 14 circuits to make a mile, and on we went.

After about 6 lengths, Kush wobbled a bit and tried to correct himself by speeding up, which took him off the rail. He stepped off, and knowing he wouldn't have time before work to start again and complete the 13, he decided to leave it until another day.

Joe fell off at some point and decided to carry on from that point and finish 13 lengths in total.

Leon fell off a little later.

Andy, Fizz and I were still going but Fizz had arrived a bit later so she was 5-6 circuits behind us.

I was at 10 when I remember thinking that I didn't want to fall off now and wanted to tick off the mile today - challenge number 3 of the week.

Being a bit of a weirdo, I decided I'd try for 15 since it was a nice round number and would guarantee that I was over the mile mark.

I was half way around the long sweeping half of the course, on my 13th circuit when I wobbled. It was an almighty wobble and I seized up so tight that I got a cramp in my hamstring trying to fight for stability... Somehow I corrected it and after a few cautious steps I was back in the rhythm of putting one foot in front of the other, albeit with a bit more apprehension than before.

There are two things that you quickly notice after any long period of time spent balancing on a rail. The first is that it's quite a good workout for the shoulders, as you constantly use the arms to balance.
The second is that looking down and focusing on a bar as you walk forwards makes the background lose focus and move at a different speed, so your vision goes a bit strange and when you stop and look around you, the world is made up of moving waves. It's cool, but also a bit inconvenient when you need all of your senses at high alert for such a long period of time.

14 lengths. One to go.

At 3 different sections around the circuit there was an L-shaped corner where you could distribute your weight evenly between two directions on the rail and 'rest'. People would tend to get to one of these, take a few seconds to stretch the shoulders out, shake the legs and take a few deep breaths, before moving on to the next identical checkpoint.

I was at the second L-shaped corner piece on the 15th length and it was getting dark now. I knew I'd probably be fine since I was almost finished but Fizz was going to be finishing her last few laps in darkness.

When I reached the end of the 15th, I balanced a little further and cat leaped to a nearby wall, climbed up and relaxed a bit to wait for Andy who was a little behind me. He finished it without much trouble.

The mile was done in around an hour and twenty minutes or so, and although it wasn't easy, it was easier than we expected it to be and a lot easier than the previous two challenges of the week.

Fizz was doing great but wobbled, and fell off on her 12th or 13th circuit... We were all gutted for her since she had worked so hard for it and deserved to finish. She vowed to come back and conquer it soon.

A few of us headed for food and a few others stayed. We met up later to learn that Joe had finished his 13 laps and Leon had started again and done the whole mile off the ground without falling, after getting half way there in a previous attempt - awesome.

It was a great end to the year, but as I mentioned in the previous post, I'm going to take a break from these long haul challenges and focus on some other goals....

It's time to get stronger, faster and more powerful.


Monday, January 02, 2012

Again. Faster.

My legs were destroyed.

The 500 jumps had broken my quads down to a place they haven't been in a long time, and stairs were once again my worst enemy.

Everyone remembers trying to walk up or down the stairs following their first few training sessions, and it ain't pretty. That stiff 'Thunderbird-casual' walk you try to pull off as you approach the stairs and the straight face that tries to project "I'm cool bro, I got this." It lasts until you hit the first step and then it's like someone's wedged a slice of lemon in your cheek as the horror springs across your face. It ain't cool bro, and you should've called the elevator.

But, it didn't last long and by Thursday I felt almost 100% again. Three days of Thunderbird-casual isn't a bad price to pay for getting that forfeit out of the way.

Now, on to the next challenge. It was also back in 2009 that I first attempted the now infamous '300 challenge', that is 300 muscle ups in under 2 hours and 30 minutes. It was tough, but I finished it in 2 hours and 11 minutes on my first attempt and during the 1,000 muscle up challenge just over a year ago, I shaved 2 minutes off to make my personal best 2 hours and 9 minutes. I was happy with that but I saw something that day that I knew I would one day be facing.

My good friend Joe Boyle not only finished the 300 challenge in under 2 hours (1 hour, 56 minutes), but he also went on to finish the 1,000 muscle ups in around 8 hours... An incredible achievement. Now, I was happy just to finish the 1,000 muscle ups in one piece, but one thing I did want to tick off was a sub 2 hour 300...

I'd need to do it 9 minutes faster. It doesn't sound like much but when I sat down to do the maths it turned out to be quite intimidating. I'd need to do at least 2.5 per minute, every minute, for 2 hours straight to make 300 in 2 hours.

I'd enjoyed Christmas like everyone else back home with my family, and I'd eaten a lot of food, both good and bad. I'd soaked most of it up healing from the 500 jumps but I felt a bit bloated and not quite on top form as I went to bed on the eve of war.

Thursday. Even on the train to Leicester from Hinckley, I was doubtful. I didn't feel much better than last night and it was wet. Not raining, but everything was dripping, dark, cold and grey.

Just do your best.

The scaffolding was good. Tim, my old friend from Leicester had found us a fine set and he planned to attempt as many as he could in a 2 hour time limit too.

2.5 per minute, every minute... For 2 hours.


I started with sets of 3. I'd learned a valuable lesson for endurance challenges like this during the 1,000 and that was to listen to my body, rather than being too strict on timing.

I'd do 3, walk around, and when I felt good I'd do another 3. Shirley, my master tactician for the afternoon was helping me to keep track of the numbers and was working out how many I'd need to do to catch up if I had to, or how much I could relax when I got tired.

I had to hit 150 in an hour, but ideally I'd be at least a little ahead to give me some breathing space towards the end. My goal was to hit 180 muscle ups in an hour, which is 3 per minute for an hour, and this would allow me to drop down to doubles for the last hour.

The problem with that plan was that it relied on completing 3 within the minute, not on the minute, so rest times would be limited.

I'd stuck to 3 per set but I wasn't going fast enough. I hit half way after 56 minutes, 20 seconds, which only gave me 3 minutes, 40 seconds in the bank to slow down later.

162 muscle ups in one hour.

I couldn't drop to doubles, I was about 20 muscle ups behind schedule and felt pretty beaten up.

I was working hard and not resting as much as I wanted to, and yet I knew I had to somehow increase my workload if I was to finish this in under 2 hours.

It was around this point that I had an internal conversation with myself that revolved around me not wanting to do this again. I'm tired, this hurts and I'm just not enjoying these challenges any more. Dealing with pain is a necessity when you train hard, but dealing with pain for 2 hours, 5 hours, 10 hours, 15 hours, is just not nice. I've done so many of these long haul killer sessions that it's time to do something else, time to test myself in other ways...

I don't want to fail and have to come back and try again another day, I don't want to go to sleep tonight wondering if I could've given more.

So let's frickin' do this. Let's step it up, increase my effort, reduce my rest times and tear this whole goddamn scaffolding down if I need to. Whatever it takes to finish this in the time limit.

I stuck with sets of 3. The first two felt ok each time but the third was taking a toll. I had to claw back 20 muscle ups using 3 at a time to allow me to drop to doubles. I had to fight for the privilege to drop to doubles.

Walking to the bar, I'd repeat "It's just three muscle ups, anybody can do three muscle ups", under my breath, I'd manage two... fight for a third, drop, update my counter and walk around for 30 seconds or so then head back to the bar. It was hell. Again.

Muscle Ups 196-198:

I was down to being 9 muscle ups behind schedule. I had to claw back 9 more before I could drop to doubles.



Suddenly I was two ahead of schedule. I'd done 252 after 1 hour, 35 minutes, by reducing my rest times and pushing harder when I was on the bar.

I had 25 minutes left to do 48 muscle ups, but I was a broken man.

At 1 hour, 40 minutes, and after 264 muscle ups, I dropped to doubles. Time was quickly running out but I had five muscle ups in the bank and could afford to drop down to doing two per set, as long as I did at least one set per minute.

Muscle ups 285-286, shortly after dropping to doubles:

I remember looking at my watch and having 15 minutes left, and I had 25 muscle ups to do... This was going to be tight.

With 10 minutes to go I had 14 left. I can do this.

I had 3 muscle ups left and 5 minutes on the clock, I've got this. But then, I failed a double and managed just one muscle up for that set. OH... SH*T!

My failed double and obvious panic:

It was my first failed rep and suddenly a lightning bolt of fear shot up my spine. What if that was it? What if that was as much as my body had in the tank and I couldn't do any more?

I walked around, came back screaming "JUST ONE REP!" in my head and ripped up as hard as I could. My body was grateful and perhaps surprised that it was just a single rep, and I made it.

2 left. I finished them one at a time.


I hit 300 muscle ups at 1 hour 58 minutes and 18 seconds.
1 minute and 42 seconds inside my desired time limit.

It was over...

With a little time left and with Tim still battling away, I did three more singles before the 2 hour time limit. 1 for Shirley for managing my time, 1 for Tim for his Herculean effort alongside me, and 1 for luck.

We went to a Chinese restaurant a couple of hours later and spent an hour and a half hammering the buffet service and refueling. As we ate, relaxed, chatted and caught up on news, there was a moment where I knew this was the last endurance challenge I was going to do for a while. Perhaps for a long while. I've spent the best part of eight years doing this kind of thing, and it's time to work on some other goals now. Of course, they're still Parkour/training related... but this kind of challenge with ridiculous amounts of repetitions, with time limits, without time limits, without missing, with forfeits, without, and with various other stipulations involved, they no longer interest me as much and I think I've gone as far as I want to with them, for now at least.

It was Thursday 29th December, almost the beginning of a whole new year, and I'd ticked off two items on my to-do list. I felt good.

That feeling lasted a few moments.

...Then I remembered I had agreed to a challenge that Stephane suggested just over a year ago. There was two days left of 2011.

(write up of challenge #3 coming soon.)

Sunday, January 01, 2012

The Forfeit

Soon after I moved to London in February of 2009, I found myself at a housing estate in Earlsfield training with Dan. This being his local training spot, he showed me around some of the various jumps and challenges in the area and we worked on some running and standing jump drills on a set of stairs. It was a good session, short and dynamic.

Afterwards, Dan pointed out a standing jump that he had been drilling recently and he wanted me to take a look at it since it was a big push for him, and he thought it might be a good challenge for me too. It was big, and with tired legs from the drills and having not focused on max standing jumps for quite a while, it was well out of my range for that day. Confident that if I was fresh and got back in to the groove of standing jumps I could probably make it, I vowed to do the jump within a week, and in typical PKG tradition, I added an incentive of having to do 500 repetitions of a smaller jump in the area should I not make the deadline.

It was a busy week and I didn't get a chance to go back to Earlsfield when I wanted to. I managed to squeeze in a short power session for the legs elsewhere and hoped I'd be ok when I returned to Earlsfield a week after my first encounter with the jump.

Before I knew it, it was D-Day. Deadline day, and I had to make the jump. After warming up, the jump still looked big but I felt that if I pushed with everything I had then I could probably make it. I bounced off after getting two feet on the wall. And again. And again. I rested a little longer and tried again. And I bounced off again. It was one of those days where the body isn't quite fresh or firing on all cylinders... great timing!

I made the big standing jump to the wall a couple of days later but it wasn't within the agreed time, so at some point I had fo face the forfeit.

Here's a clip of the jump, filmed almost two years ago on the day I managed it for the first time:


Fast forward almost two years and those jumps were still hanging over my head. I'm not normally one to avoid a good physical challenge but I'd been working on other skills, focusing more on strength and power, over endurance (except for the 1,000 muscle up day!), and I'd been forgetting about the forfeit for a month here and there. There never seemed like a good time to do such a large number of jumps.
But it had to be done. I'd given my word that I would do it and even though almost everyone else had forgotten about it, it was eating away at me and invading my thoughts when I was going to sleep at night and  it was popping in to my head on the tube.

Alright, screw it... time to do those jumps! Christmas Eve, 2011. Why not? Let's get it out of the way before the new year and tick it off the to-do list.

I warmed up, looked at the jump and realised it was slightly bigger than I remembered. It's nothing compared to its big brother next door that caused me all this trouble in the first place, but it's a respectable jump, about 9ft across and half a foot down. With 500 to do, I thought I might as well make a start. I'd decided to only count the jumps where I landed and stayed on the wall, and for every jump I missed I would add another repetition on to the final count. How long could this take... three hours? Four?

I'd soon settled in to a routine of lining up the jump, leaning forwards and pushing, landing as quietly as I could and walking back around to the take-off wall. I'd been working in sets of 10, taking a 30 second break and then going for 10 more, and had rattled out the first 100 in 30 minutes. So far, I hadn't missed and it crossed my mind that it might be possible to complete the challenge without missing one jump. Why must we always make things harder than they already are?

Jumps 52-55 of 500:

200 in just over 1 hour, no misses. My quads feel a little interesting and are clearly asking me when I plan to stop this madness. The little voice in my head again asks if it's possible to finish this with no misses. I'm approaching half way and I'm not having much fun, and now I'm seriously thinking about not missing.

250. Half way and 1 hour, 19 minutes have passed. My glutes have joined the queue of body parts waiting to complain and my calves feel slow... But what's really starting to take a toll is the building pressure of having not missed. My mind flashes back to the 300 kong to precisions I did back in 2008 and the feeling is exactly the same, that dread that builds with each successful repetition that needs to be forced down and controlled to leave a focused and clear mind for the next attempt.

300 in 1 hour 37 minutes. I have spaghetti quads. I'm so tense on the landings trying not to make a mistake that I'm adding unnecessary difficulty to each jump. I could just deliberately overshoot and end this madness, take a break and finish the last 200 without the added stress...

Of course I can't, what are you? A bleeder? This will all be over in an hour and you can go home and eat, rest and sleep. Focus on the jumps... relax... BUT DON'T EVEN THINK ABOUT MISSING!

400. 2 hours 15 minutes. I'm incapable of judging distances now and I think I'm going to miss every time. Luckily my body is running on auto pilot and taking care of the push for me and somehow managing to factor in my failing quads and depleted calves. I glance to my right and see the big jump that I couldn't do that led me to this day.

495. The first thing that happens when you try not to think about how close you are to finishing is you immediately think about how close you are to finishing. Alright, shut up and finish this... You won't miss now. Oh really? Yep. REALLY? YEP. And in a moment of stupidity, I did it again... I made a decision that was as ridiculous, as it was plain stupid.

"If I miss the last jump, I'm going to start again."

This would be a much better story and I would have learned a much better lesson if I'd missed that last jump, but fortunately I didn't. I finished 503 jumps in 2 hours, 53 minutes (500 + 1 for Dan, 1 for Shirley who had been supporting me with her own jump challenge nearby, and 1 for luck).

Done. I sat down on the wall for a minute and realised I hadn't touched the floor in nearly 3 hours. It was almost ceremonial to step down from the walls and as soon as I did my legs went from spaghetti, to jelly, as they breathed a huge sigh of relief.

I made a new pact with myself at that moment. Never again will I accept a forfeit, or challenge, or endurance marathon of doom, without giving it much deeper consideration first.

Training hard is good but training hard AND smart, is better.

All that being said, there was one more challenge in my mind that I was considering trying before the new year. Something I'd been thinking about for a while and thought I might just be able to do. One last all-out war with my body that needed to be played out.. and like all good wars, it involved muscle ups.

Write up coming very soon...