October 22, 2014 posted by

My Story: A Life Exploration Of Human Performance, Part I

My Story: A Life Exploration Of Human Performance, Part I

The reason I’m writing this is explained here, in Part I. I’ll probably never touch on this stuff again, unless I find another field where I’m not an expert that I’m being asked to comment about as, in this case, cancer. Sorry if it’s a bit of a ramble. It’s goes way back.

I think my obsession with fitness starting watching the Olympics at 11. I was enthralled, not with winning, but with the training aspects. I walked down to the local track, set up hurdles, high jumps and all the other sports and started teaching myself (they left this stuff out back in those days, long before liability laws had their fear-inducing grip on everything we did). I tried to learn everything I could about how athletes trained.

Supplements and gym training began at 13, thanks to influence from my cousin and his teenage bodybuilding brethren (yep, Chris, this is on you). This group didn’t do steroids, probably fueling my philosophy, but would try almost anything else. It was cutting edge and rad.

By high school I was a lab rat (though that moniker didn’t catch up with me until decades later). My mom was so curious as to what I was doing she got a Master’s in Nutrition to try and keep up with me. She never quite did but it made her a much more healthy cook. My training revolved around testing weird diets, under-the-counter supplements (you could just ask for non-FDA approved stuff back then and, with a nod to make sure nobody was watching, the guy at the counter would get your anything you could name), trying new training regimens based on science, rumor, and lore. As soon as I could drive I’d organized things like high-altitude training camps, survivalist-state training session, and go poke around where the best athletes training to try and learn what they were doing. I tried anything. I probably overtrained as much as humanly possible. Luckily I had a teenage metabolism so it didn’t affect me too negatively. Oddly enough, I remember writing school papers about the dangers or overtraining in high school, even though I was the number one proponent of it I knew. Ah, my life of contradictions was just beginning.

How well this worked was always debated because I never focused on one thing, making it hard to quantify. To the frustration of my dad, a college basketball player and life long coach, I was too interested in “broad domains” (no term existed at the time) to focus on a single sport. I played many, all at a reasonably high level. I was recruited by colleges in five sports (not full-ride coaches hanging around the house recruited, but letters and interest), made All-League in three and was MVP in two (b-ball and track) my senior year.


pics: the only two pics i seem to have of these days. my parents dug up the above photo last visit, our championship hs x-country team and jess gilman (#16) provided the team USA shot. big life lesson from the top pic. during this euro tour we played the ussr. we were expecting them to be machine-like, scary, american-hating commies–how the “the big red machine” was profiled. instead, found a bunch of kids just like us, wanted to chase girls, drink beer, and have fun. opened my eyes the the world might not be exactly what’s pitched to us from our media and, in fact, maybe people were the same no matter where you went, with all those political differences being made up to drive some type of individual agenda.  

Oddly enough, those awards were not my best sports. I had the most talent at football and was best at baseball, so I tried them in college, as well as basketball in track, but not all in the same year. Obviously this makes it hard to excel but it can’t be beat of experience. I rubbed elbows with a lot of burgeoning professional and Olympic athletes. Learned about many training protocols, diet and supplement strategies, and had a peak behind the door at steroids and their effects, both good and bad.

I never tried steroids (though did experiment with some PEDS that didn’t alter your body’s DNA). I wasn’t “dedicated” enough, to use the parlance of those non-regulated times (they were only technically illegal) but, in my mind, I was realizing that my talent, while very high compared to most, was not high enough to make it worth it. Steroids are not magic. You have to be born with an ample engine and, in my sports, I was shy enough of gold-medal elite for steroids to bump me up. Note: journeymen professional athletes were not paid what they are today. My low-end professional friends often made less than I did bartending and coaching. Today’s agent-filled contracts might have changed my though process. I offer this to say I was not, in any way, a philosophical saint. I really just loved the natural template I once I did ‘roids that would be changed forever.

After bouncing around colleges playing different sports, I realized you can’t add passion that doesn’t exist (football and baseball) so I parlayed my track talents to get into a great school that just happened to have the best track team in the history of NCAA track, UCLA. I sucked at this level but it got me into school and allowed me to test a training theory about changing natural talent. A bit on this later but, save to say, it didn’t work but provided me with more cutting edge knowledge as knowing what doesn’t work, for most people, is more important than what does as less than .001% of the population are born with gold medal potential (sorry Horatio Alger and TV executives).

After college I changed sports and found an area where I could be “elite”, not that anyone would notice. Multi and adventure sports didn’t pay, and were completely fringe, but allowed you to combine disciplines, and do weird stuff like mountain running that I’d been an almost lone participant in for years, so you didn’t have to be so good at one thing. I ended up with some success at these. Set records, made US teams and won a lot races nobody ever heard of but a few weirdoes—my favorite quote from these years was triathlete Scott Molina, doing a mainstream interview to help increase the sport’s obscure status, answering a question about what he did for training with “I’m not going to tell you because you’ll think I’m an idiot.” But, mainly, got focused on another sport that captivated my passion and changed my life forever: rockclimbing.

It is very possible that this was because I was so terrible at it. I had never been bad at anything performance related (even playing musical instruments—requiring breath control and coordination) but I was awful. Everyone was better than me. When I took my girlfriend out to show off my new death-defying activity (gyms and sport climbing did not exist), she crushed me. Understanding how this was possible created an obsession that changed everything. Within a few years I’d quit my dream coaching job (hardest thing I’d ever done), threw the pursuit of money forever aside, and moved to Yosemite to learn something new.

Coaching and training

I began coaching my little brother when I was 14. At some level, I coached basketball for the next 14 seasons. I also coached baseball and football when it paid or could advance me in a program. I worked with a lot of track athletes on training, diet, and supplementation. Later, when I had basketball programs, I was also the conditioning coach. I always figured, that like my dad, coaching would define my life’s work.

I was also one of the first certified trainers, probably in the world. I don’t honestly remember too much about it except that the book we used was already out of date (a common theme in training certs and college nutrition courses, where the field changes much quicker than curriculum, so don’t hire someone who, say, got a PhD in 1975 and then fell off the radar!) For years I rarely trained too many general clients and stayed focused on my niche, peak athletic performance. For me, it was really easy to help people lose weight and get to 95% of their potential, which meant boring. I remained obsessed at the last five, sans steroids, that altered you from elite to podium. It was much harder, much more intricate and, as it turns out, much harder to make money at.

Holistic nutrition and explorations

I actually become interested in this through spiritual explorations. My buddy Dave and I researched every institution containing “higher powers” and, more or less, the search for why we’re here. We ended up becoming completely disinterested in dogmatic, rule-based cults. You know, like Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. And the small ones too. It all seemed too business like, focused ways to get your to give them money, that would up in the hands of a privileged few, and lacking in history that made any scientific, or logical, sense.

Zen Buddhism had a big influence on my progression. I could get behind God being internal, based on your actions in the world, forcing a release of personal ego and a need to dominate the world, which all seemed quite utopian. I also dug the ancient cultures that thought god existed in the natural world; its mountains, rivers, oceans and, mainly, its animals. They often gravitated towards physical interaction with things like vision quests, where you moved through the natural terrain, with little or no food (sometime natural hallucinogens—yes I invested) for days on end in search of enlightenment. Shockingly, I’m sure, this was a spiritual template I could get behind.

If this all seems at odds with someone who had been so concerned with “winning” all his life, it is, and changed my outlook. I completely gave up caring about beating others (unless advising clients) and only competed for personal growth gained through pushing the body to its limits. The only races I even bother to try and do well in are ones that I need to qualify for an experience I’d like to have, for example, a particularly-challenging adventure or a World Championship in a place I’ve wanted to visit.

Anyway, the search for “god” created another obsession, an extreme template of suffering and endurance, based another living off the natural world, in order to seek out a meaning for existence. Keep in mind this does not mean an obsession with health, but with all walks of life. Experience.

One such example was a long experimentation with testing the limits of going with both food and water. While I managed to get good at both, and this can be helpful, the hydration thing both almost killed me and most likely led to such a terrible case of chronic tendonitis that it nearly ended my climbing career before it began. For better or for worse, these “vision quests” became a major template for my life and continue today.

I still pursue life as one long experience, focused on both good and bad, and, what I’ve found in my world explorations, mimics the words of English explorer/renaissance man Richard Burton’s simplified line, “it’s about the living.”

Body composition changes

I became an expert at changing my body. No surprise that has helped my career with Beachbody, since by the time that began is was second nature. As I said, I was introduced to bodybuilding at a young age. While I needed a different body to excel in the sports I loved, and still loved what they did and paid a lot of attention. I was still a gym rat. I loved the nutrition aspect. Bodybuilders, steroids aside, are the kings/queens (now) of human transformations and I’ve always felt like a part of this club, even when I was the skinny guy at Gold’s in Venice, doing super weird stuff that only got attention when they noticed I that my 160lbs of “skin and bone” could out perform almost all of them on the lat pulldown machine. My friend Phil and I had the “300 pound club” for lat pulls as a joke response to all the beefers who wore their “300 pound club” shirt for their benching prowess.

Three examples are perhaps worth mentioning.

The UCLA strength experiment. My interest in running at UCLA was based around, well, that I had passion for the sport but also a theory I wanted to test. I didn’t have Olympic speed in sprints, which you need to run effectively there. I didn’t have world class lungs (VO2/max in the 60s instead of the high 70s/80s), and I wondered if I could move my speed to longer distances by increasing my muscular strength. I thus because, by far, the strongest person on the distance team. I once managed, at 150-some-odd-pounds to squat 500 pounds. It was a failed experiment, oxygen capacity is still king; though it’s possible I needed to work it longer. But it was cool to try.

Getting big, fast, and then small. I quite running track because I had no real future in it and there was so much to do at a school like UCLA. One of my first actions was to hit the gym and see how much mass I could gain. In about three months, I soared to nearly 200 pounds, nearly add in upper body mass. I actually cashed it in, as I recall, three pounds shy of two bills. If Bill Phillips was dishing out a million bucks for quick transformations, like he would do later with EAS, instead of schlepping ‘roids out of the trunk of his car like he was back then, I might have continued, but I’d only done it as self experiment. Stats didn’t matter. I hated feeling heavy and slow. Again, I probably could have stayed heavy and increased my power, leading to more thorough data, but my passions existed in “light” sports. In another couple of months I was svelte enough to win the intramural 400.

Re-tooling the natural body. The final example was the most interesting. In order to become a better rock climber I changed from a lower-body to upper body athlete. In about six weeks (that was a main transformation cycle, anyway), I was able to shave about 20 pounds of muscle off of my legs and add maybe ten to my upper body. It was all sans drugs, using targeting dieting and training. My legs got skinny enough that I couldn’t safely lift 500 pounds off a rack, much less attempt to squat it (legs are almost dead weight when climbing overhanging terrain and life is lived “by your fingertips”) but I could one-arm hang a ½ edge and do sets of pull-ups with 100 pounds hanging from my waist. Essentially, I transformed my body from a running/cyclist to a gymnast, and very quickly.

A Re-Examining of Life

Eventually, I’d settled into the basketball program I’d targeted that as the best chance to change from doormat to dominate, which would move me to the next level of coaching. I was finishing my teaching credential and already being recruited to move to “bigger” programs, before the resuscitation had even begun. Life was good.

It was also carved out. I saw my future and, it seemed, there was still too much life to explore. After a ton of agonizing self-torment, I made a decision to uproot my life completely. This was understood by almost no one, except perhaps one climbing partner, but it led to undoubtedly the most rewarding experience of my life. A giant adventure, along with my most thorough vision quest, was about to begin.

To this day, telling my kids I was leaving, who were a very tough sell to buy into the challenge I’d laid our for them, was the hardest thing I’d ever done in my life. I think it still is, but it was something that I felt if I didn’t do right then, would never happen.

This is already way too many words, so I’ll leave it as Part II.

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