The Art Of Suffering

A good friend asked me recently to write an article about training for his magazine Kiss The Snow. I couldn’t really refuse because I owed one to him since a few years ago, when he was still a puppy and he blind followed what the elderly tell him, he came to my place in Chamonix to train during the pre-season and the result was a nice burn-out for the rest of the season. I started looking around for articles and publications related to training for ski mountaineering and after some research I started writing. After some weeks, I found the article to be really complete and academically speaking correct but boring as hell. I erased all. Seriously, if you want to know deeply about training you cannot read an article, get to school, study physiology, psychology, biomechanics and sign up at PubMed or the Human kinetics journal and read all the shit that is published. If you are lazy probably is better you get a coach who have done that and follow his suggestions, and if you don’t have the money for that you can look here for a selection of related articles and books to get an idea of what training with some sense can be. 

But I still had that story to write for my friend’s publication and I my page was blanked, so I decided to put down some principles that have been with me, or joined me during the time I have been practicing the training. They’re probably wrong, I’m not here to pontificate, but mostly to prevent you from following a life of pain.

Principle of overload or the art of suffering

It was a common day. I had been hungry for a while and without slowing down the pace I looked at the watch in my wrist “I still have to do 1300 meters before going back home,” I thought. It’s not that I had a coach or a very detailed training plan, but somehow I knew that if I did not return home with at least 5000 meters in my legs I would feel sort of uncomplete. It was one of those days at the start of the season, that period between the first snowfall and the time when the excel where I note the training reaches the figure of 100,000 meters. Those days when the skin on my feet isn’t yet hard enough to keep up the long days and it has been already two uphills since the blisters appeared making me clench the teeth every time I lengthen the step. I try to stop counting down the remaining meters and immerse myself in the music that plays in the headphones.

“Living easy, living free

Season ticket on a one-way ride

Asking nothing, leave me be

Taking everything in my stride

Don’t need reason, don’t need rhyme

Ain’t nothing I would rather do

Going down, party time

My friends are gonna be there too

I’m on the highway to hell

On the highway to hell”

Emil Zatopek won in the course of 7 days the 5000m, the 10000m and the marathon in the Olympic Games of Helsinki 52’. No doubt Zatopek had good genetics to run, but the nicknames “Emil the Terrible” or the “Czech Locomotive” was given more by his inhuman training (and how he sounded while running!). For two weeks, twice a day: 50 series of 400 meters. They say that in some workouts, Emil was carrying his wife to strengthen his legs. 

If you don’t like pain, you can train hard for a week, a month or maybe a year, but you will not train a lifetime. The life of an elite athlete may seem idyllic; traveling around the world practicing an activity that we are passionate about, but the reality is closer to cold rainy mornings with some knee pain and an injury that begins to poke and makes you doubt of the continuity of your way of making a living. The life of the elite athlete is, in the end, the art of knowing how to suffer.

Mark Twight, the American climber who took punk to the more vertical snowy walls, wrote that “I trained. I punished myself. I thought making myself suffer on a day-to-day basis would prepare me for climbing hard at high altitude. I slept on the floor. I carried ice in my bare hands. I beat them against the concrete just to see if I could handle it. I never missed an opportunity to train. I ran stairs until I vomited, then ran more. 

I ruined relationships to get used to the feeling of failure and sacrifice (it was much easier than holding on). I trained in the gym on an empty diet to learn how far I could push myself without food or water. I imitated and plagiarized the heroes who lived and died before me. I spoke only strong words and ignored weakness at every turn. I subdued my fears. I was opinionated and direct. I became a man either well loved or truly hated. I was ready for anything.” 

And so, after a few weeks of pain, it comes the day that you do a workout in which you are light, that you fly, that when you want pull from fifth to sixth gear, the legs just follow, the lungs just open and you can easily pass the sixth, seventh or eighth. And those minutes of lonely flight are worth everything. And if these sensations come the day you wear a bib in the chest, in addition to be freaking out with yourself, maybe others (family, other competitors, sponsors or followers) also do it.

Competition is, at last, the perfect excuse to justify that we like to hurt ourselves by training hard, and a easy way to measure with the results what we want to improve with training. Because racing is cool and it has some great high (or deep down) moments, but what we really want is to train. Without races (or projects, or goals or say as you want) we could go out to practice sports, but to train, train, not. Or then you can say it’s pure masochism without any justification attempt.

Mark Twight

Principle of reversibility or t-a=0

Elite sport is bipolar. It has very high highs (there is no orgasm that comes close to the sensation of winning an Olympics, a world cup, of clipping the chain of that hardest route or crowning a summit by a new route), but the lows are also very low. Injuries, accidents or deaths, psychological or physical problems, loneliness or misunderstanding. Usually, unless death, the highs end up winning the game. It is also forgetfulness. Going from being someone (a brand, a result, a way of life) installed in yourself and well known also by others, to really not knowing who you are, discovering that being in the maturity of life, we don’t know how to do anything, because even the body forgets to run or ski fast. Being able to descend this mountain is essential to continue enjoying the sport (and continue living) once our chronos are lengthening. This forgetfulness is, in the other hand, also one of the main motivations of the athlete. Who remembers the last World Cup when the next one is already approaching? Mark Twight described better than anyone. “Memories and hope are not so different; one is “having done” the other is “to do.” Neither constitutes action. You are what you do; thus, if you do nothing, you are nobody. If you once did great things, you think you are great. You coast along on dead, preserved laurels, lifeless and wasting away.” 

Ok, fine, maybe it’s a very black vision (well, he was a punk!) But at last the sport doesn’t understand past exploits or future projects, but the action that It is done right now.

Steve House, Mark’s teammate and disciple, repeated his “talk minus action equals zero” mantra day and night, and reason was not lacking. How many friends we have complaining day after day of their lack of form, their pains and injuries but that are never seen training before dawn?

Principle of continuity or those cravings

It was the end of the season, I don’t remember exactly the year, 2007 or 2008, and when everyone had been dressing short for some time, Marc Pinsach, Mireia Miró , our mentor, our physio, and I were in Col de Puymorens to extend the pleasure of sliding on white gold, then brownish, one last time before its complete extinction that season. We got out of the car and soon we realized that that was a crazy meeting on skis; Marc had been injured a couple of months before, when in a sharp fall in the Pierra Menta he dislocated the shoulder and was wearing a sling since then. Also that day. Mireia, who during that year had won practically everything in the junior category and was anxiously waiting to step up to senior and to be able to measure herself with the older ones, just put on the headphones and put herself in a autistic way-to-train.

Jordi Canals, who after having occupied the podiums of skimo (at that time ski-alpinism)  races during the 80s, combining it with expeditions to the highest peaks of the planet, had always remained linked to the competition; whether organizing races, in federations or in technification centers. But if Jordi stands out for something, it’s his extreme analysis of… well, anything related to mountains, gear or training. During the journey, one of his legs was covered with the leg of the windbreaker pants and the other naked, with the remaining pant leg on a knot around the waist, like a diaper. Jacques Soulié, who was Jordi’s companion in the competitions at the time, was a few meters ahead of Mireia, pissed off when one of us spoke to him because we deconcentrated him from his appreciation of the biomechanical movement and the execution of the technique while skinning up.

The day was sunny and despite the fact that the warm temperatures had long  been installed in the valleys, at altitude the snow layer was still correct, and by linking snowfields it was possible to go far. Of course, since it had not snowed for months, the remaining layer of snow was the one that had spent months strongly compressed and now, with the steamy days and the cold nights in these shady valleys, early morning it was like skating on cement and after noon, it felt more like diving among that ice they use in the fish market to keep the seafood cold. To avoid that we left early, and each was adapting to the conditions in their own way, some based on brute force, others with sublime technique and Marc working one arm like Popeye. The fact is that neither the young’s who wanted to take on the world in the years to come, nor those who were holding it, nor those who had already digested it long ago wanted to stay behind. To not take all the advantage of the snow remaining in the Pyrenees. As long as there was a snowfield, however small it was, no matter how much we had to carry the skis on the backpack for making a pair of conversions and two turns, when a hiker passed by with his shorts, surely one of us would be found, with the suit rolled up, or in underpants, but with the skins on, praying to the clouds for the drought to be short and to be able to return soon to that same place, with the mountain dressed again in white, to take out the stone skis, those that you know beforehand that are going to be scratched at every turn we make.

The fact is that we all liked to boast of being the last ones to ski at summer and the first ones to put on again the skins in autumn, and in that matter, Jordi and Jaques had some good years of advantage. They say that the anxieties are not good, but if something I learned from this two mentors, it is precisely that the anxieties lead us to train the most, to do it when the conditions are horrific or comical, and it is precisely in these days where you learn.

Pep Ollé, Jaques Soulié, Joan Cardona and Jordi Canals

While skinning up snowfields, a few times Jordi began to make strange movements with his body, advancing a ski or twisting the chest and opening his arms while moving, and when we approached him (Marc and I, as Jacques grumbled in front of these rhythm drops and Mireia was at her world) Jordi looked at us very serious and concentrate and made us partakers of his principle of hypothesis. Those could be “When it’s rising wind, crossing a hard snow inclinate slope, skis with rocker are slower, because the wind makes force upward so we need to push down to keep the straight direction and that force can’t be used for horizontal speed ” or “If in strong lateral wind we we put ourselves in the position of a sailboat with our body turned to ¾ in profile, we will move faster ” Sometimes Jacques turned around when he found one of the interesting theories to apply in his search for the perfect step. And at home, secretly, I did too.

Principle of specificity or being geek

I believe I could say, quite surely, that the film that I have seen the most times in my (short) life is La Tecnica Dei Campioni, 45 minutes that I looped in the tv screen of the small studio I lived in Font Romeu during my school years. The quality of the film was the opposite of spectacular, but homemade images from one of those compact video recorders fathers had to keep bad quality memories of the family holidays  during the end of the 90’s, capturing the athletes during the international ski mountaineering races during the 2006 season by the then director-editor-photographer-scholar-seller of the Italian magazine called “Fondo Ski-alp” Enrico Marta. A magazine that left the elegance of the cross country glide to focus on the sheep’s going up tongue touching the spatulas and coming down sitting on the skis tails, since then renamed “Skialper”.

In the video you could see, for example, athletes doing quick turns; Guido Giacomelli (quite fast), Stéphane Brosse (the quickest one, avoiding the heel strike to the binding rear part, but raising the foot under the ass in a fast movement so, without having to stretch the leg a lot, turn the knee 180 degrees and enter the ski sliding on the track in the opposite direction), Rico Elmer (with an ease of who seems to only be pass by) or Pierre Gignoux (dirtily filmed in the last meters of a race -of those from before with more than 2500 meters) at that point when you doesn’t remember your name, and the quick turn becomes a I want but I can’t, with the ski getting stocked in the deep snow)

And after some series of views, rewinding again and again trying to capt the best gestures (the short passages with the beautiful landscapes are still without any scratch on the old DVD) we went outside and repeated until exhaustion the movements that we had seen on the screen of our TV, until they came out (more or less) automatically.

The afternoons of the national team autumn stages in Tignes what is smoking the most  (apart from the youngsters who I have convinced to go out to make 1000 meters more when in the morning I have burst them with 4000m putting this half ski ahead to provoque for attacks and so a fast pace) is the indiba, a device that basically serves to keep the callus of hallux or calves-that-look-like-cowboy-spurs not painful for the next day. Others choose to cut the liners, making holes where it hurts, the calcaneus or in the toes, during the first weeks until the pain gets tired of hurting.

The only positive thing when I broke my leg in the last stage of the Pierra Menta is that in the hospital they put me a kind of net underpants, and when I woke up I was surprised how light they were. I took them.

You know that if you put the skins not centered in the ski sole but stuck to the external edge you will slide much faster just putting the knee inwards. Or that if it’s windy and you put yourself in a schuss position with the body while continue moving the legs to go up you will go faster than using the poles and arms hard? And if you put the gels inside a softflask mixed with water, will you not waste time opening the gels during the race, keeping the paper in your pocket and then drinking from another bottle? You know that if you open your boots about a hundred meters before reaching the transition area and remove one ski just before completely stopping, skiing with one leg, you can gain about 8 to 10 seconds in the transition. You know that if you paint with liquid silicone the soles of the boots and the washers of the poles you will avoid clumping. That if you change the crampon straps for an elastic one you will be able to put them with one hand in the middle of an icy slope …

Principle of recovery

Principle of individuality or don’t ctrl+c -ctrl+v

Don’t get me wrong, I really think Eliud Kipchoge is the absolute marathon GOAT, but the no human is limited thing I don’t buy it (says the man who have wroten a book entitled Nothing is Impossible 🤦‍♂️) Believe me, we have a lot of limitations as humans, and every individual has different ones. Communism did sell us that we’re all equal and capitalism that everything is possible and neither are true, at least in terms of physiology. When Usain Bolt made the 100m world record of 9.58 seconds, the top speed was clocking in at 27.8 miles per hour (44.72 kilometers per hour) between meters 60 and 80. Peregrine Falcon gets up to 389 km/h (242 mph). Taking closer to us, fastest mammals are Cheetah, and can run 120km/h. We need to go down to a cow or domestic cats to match Usain Bolt.

That’s to say we’re physically limited. Speed, strenght, endurance (speed vs duration), flexibility are some of the measures we can see those limits. And of course not all the human’s in the planet can run as fast as Usain Bolt, or climb as hard as Adam Ondra. Those measures are close to the absolute human limits, most part of us are far away from those, some limitations are morphological (even if I had a huge passion for basketball with my 1,70m height I coudn’t go far) some are genetical, some are by background and formation, and then is also the willing of work we want to put into it.

Renato Cannova, Italian coach of athletes like Shaheen, Kiprop, Kirui or Moen says that “A Kenyan runner’s mentality is to run at the right speed. The Western runner’s mentality is to run the right distance.” His method is based on running fast and then going lengthening the distance the athlete can run at this speed. On the other side, Arthur Lydiard, considered “All time best running coach” by Runners World magazine, prepared his athletes with a base period running “slow” volume and then introducing the speed as the competitions approached, which it’s the method of periodization most used today by western coaches. We could say that there are as many methods as coaches but above all there are or should be as many methods as athletes.

Principle of commitment or the game of renounces.

Patrick Song, coach of Kipchoge explained it very well in a conversation with “you know if you put three scientists, or ten scientists in a room, to debate on an issue, there will never be a consensus. So why are you using this route or this other one? It depends on the material you are working with [the athletes], and of course the common thing is where you want to go. I can give the ideal program to people, but if you are not considering their abilities, then you are not doing anything.”

Last week I was speaking with Marc, our conversations always start with weather and conditions. Not as two too-far-acquaintances trying to break an awkward silence but mostly to try to make the other jealous about our respectives playgrounds. He was in the Alps for a training camp – How it is there? – Well it has been a lot of snow but shitty weather- well, I thought, if you want great snow, it needs to fall some time, and I remembered a proverb ( a very masclist proverb!) that one of our teammates used to tell “You can’t have the woman drunk and the wine in the bottle”. Despite its vulgarity the bottom line is that if we want powder snow days we need to live in a shitty weather place, if we want ice to climb we need to live in a fucking cold place, if we want to train under the sun everyday we cannot expect pow. So we need to expect many dog days to enjoy those that really matters. 

The same goes for our body, we must suffer hardships, injured years, years that we train like the devil and the results are not bad but worst. Months of ant work and years of falling after falling waiting for The Day. 

If your The Day is a deep powder tour it is clear that if you live in Canada you will be more likely to repeat often that day than if you live in New Mexico, but hey, weirder things have been seen!

The life of an elite athlete is not about to choose a passion but about to give up to other things we like or may like. It is a game of renounces, and generally more you renounce, purest is the training, and so the performance, the art of suffering comes from choosing to renounce, because what is left from our renounces is stronger than the addition of all of them. I have read a lot of sports science books but I have never found a better advice for training and racing than the first rule in the Hardrock 100 endurance run regulations:

  1. No Whining.

Behind will be left excel tables or notebooks full of numbers that only the one who wrote them will understand, probably some chronic pain and a certain feeling of sadness that the body will no longer go as light as before, a blurred memory of adventures and ecstasy, but when we will go out to the mountain, because the passion doesn’t know about ages, we will be able to skin up that 30-degree ice plate using our technique where the other climbers must take off their skis and put the crampons and ice axes, so and at the end we can get a little farder.