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Adventure : Swimming

A Sonoran Desert Rx For The Whole Family

We have been warned about the javelinas and the heat, but nothing prepares us for the best trail surprise of all. It's just after 5 p.m. on the second day of the New Year, and my husband, our two young daughters, our four-month old puppy, Pete, and I are picking our way along a rubbly stretch of desert singletrack when we first hear it: the haunting melodies of a Native American flute rising on the late-day breeze. Somewhere below us, a lone flautist is serenading Wild Burro Canyon.

The sinking sun paints the ragged, saguaro-studded Sonoran hills orange and the air is beginning to cool. This time of year, darkness settles down fast and early on the desert. With more than halfway to go, this is the point in every hike when our daughters, five and three, begin to flag and whine, and we wonder if we haven't once again overestimated their stamina. But at the first notes, Pippa and Maisy, who have been gamely scrambling over boulders unassisted, practically begin to skip, pulled forward by the soothing tones of the flute. It's hard not to be moved—literally—by the music, a plein air concert that sounds like it's just for us.

Only here at Dove Mountain, it happens every night. 

We've come to the Sonoran Desert for a much-needed post-holiday reset, a last-minute, long weekend kick-off to a new year of family adventure. Skiing was the obvious choice, but the winter storms weren't cooperating, so a few days before New Year's, we shifted to Plan B: a desert escape within driving distance of Santa Fe, where we could run and hike and swim. The forecast for Tucson was 75 and sunny. Done.

This would have been ideal conditions for "winter" camping, but after a month of pre-holiday ramp up and a houseful of guests, we needed a little R&R, so I scoured the internet for places to stay. We wanted the best of both worlds: Tucson's sere desert without the urban bustle, with easy access to plentiful trails. We didn't want to spend all our time navigating the city, or driving to find the backcountry, but we wanted to enjoy the perks of Tucson in winter (read: heated pool). A Google search of "hiking trails" and "Tucson hotels" yielded an unlikely result: The Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain.

Generally speaking, we're not resort people. Given the choice, we might opt to spend a few nights sleeping outside in a wilderness river canyon or skiing into a backcountry yurt rather than lounging around a fancy hotel and spa. Relaxing doesn't come naturally to us, especially when there are peaks to climb, rivers to raft, and trails to run. Most resorts, with their elaborate golf courses or skiing infrastructure, have a tendency to separate you from nature rather than bring you closer to it. 

But with nearly 20 miles of desert trails right out the back door, The Ritz at Dove Mountain, which opened in 2010, is that rare breed of adventure resort that gives you serious access to the backcountry, wrapped in a luxe, kid- (and dog-) friendly package. You can hike or run all morning, and then return to a heated, 85-degree pool with a 235-foot-long water slide and ice-cream sundaes—or prickly-pear margaritas—delivered to your private cabana. Set at 2,900 feet at the foot of the Tortolita Mountains, about 30 minutes northeast of Tucson, it also has a daily kids' camp and last-minute rooms in January for just over $200 a night.

As soon as we arrive, I know we're in trouble, our lives as camping enthusiasts doomed forever. This will no doubt be the swankiest backcountry adventure we've ever had. Everyone we meet is outrageously attentive, and genuinely thrilled to see us, greeting us by name (including Pete), giving us maps of the hiking trails, and encouraging five-year-old Pippa to "check in" on her own. (On a sheet designated for Ritz Kids, she scrawls her name, age, favorite color and food.)

Up in our room, they've set up a small, child-size tent for two, kitted out with a fluffy featherbed, two battery-operated lanterns, and a pair of stuffed tortoises. Our two balconies overlook the sprawling pool (and tastefully camouflaged water slide) and behind that, the wide mouth of Wild Burro Canyon.

Any five-star resort that turns its back on its manicured golf course—The Ritz's is about a mile downhill—and orients itself instead to the backcountry surely must be serious about its trails, and Dove Mountain doesn't disappoint. That first afternoon, after a requisite splash in the pool, and half a dozen screaming laps on the water slide, we head out for a sunset hike on one of seven looping routes east of the hotel.

The two-mile Lower Javelina Trail sounds promising, but with just an hour of daylight left, the concierge takes one look at our small, rambunctious children and our even smaller, more rambunctious puppy, and urges us, in the politest, Ritziest of ways, to consider the mile-long Hotel Loop instead. "You can see the resort the whole time," the young man offers helpfully, as though staring down on a five-story hotel is a plus. It's the first of many gentle, cautionary suggestions we'll receive from the hotel staff over the next few days. I can practically see the thought bubble pop up over his head: "Liability waiting to happen."

In genteel spirit of the Ritz, we nod in agreement, and I'm glad we do. The trail leaves from the front of the hotel, and right away climbs a the short but steep Atlatl Ridge, with views to the Santa Rita Mountains. There are saguaro everywhere, crawling up hillsides, reaching their stately arms into the air as though giving thanks for living in this starkly beautiful, surreal landscape. I feel the same way.

The children aren't whining or demanding shoulder rides, and Pete is scampering along, obediently keeping us in sight and staying on the trail, except when he accidentally detours straight into a teddy bear cactus, and steps on a spiny pad almost as big as my fist. Extracting it is a team effort: Steve struggles to pry out the barbs, while I restrain an agonized Pete, and the girls cover their eyes and squeal. Just as I'm thinking that Sonoran Desert hiking might be more extreme than we thought, cue the melodious flute. 

In the morning I stick a map in my pocket, fill a water bottle, and duck out early for a sunrise run out Wild Burro Trail. The first mile or so climbs gradually through the sandy wash before switchbacking up the technical, rock-strewn north side of the canyon, bringing me onto a high, open plateau where the trail turns to soft, forgiving dirt threading through a forest of saguaro. I feel like I could run forever out here forever—it stretches for more than 25 miles into the Tortolita Mountains—but I told Steve I'd be back in an hour.

So I turn around after four miles, just past a small cross propped up in a pile of rocks. The inscription reads "Molly, 1989-2012," and laments her young age and lack of a cure. I decide she must have suffered a terrible, terminal illness, and that she loved this trail so much that she wanted to be honored here.

When I get back to the room, Steve and Pete and the girls are breakfasting on the balcony in preparation for a family hike on Lower Javelina, which traverses both sides of the canyon. We fill a pack with several bottles of water and sunscreen, a pair of kids' binoculars, and a leash for Pete. The night before, it had been gently suggested to Steve that packs of wild javelina roam the canyon and might be prone to attacking small dogs, especially after dark. It was broad daylight, but when it comes to a 25-pound puppy, not to mention two small girls who don't weigh much more, you can't be too careful.

Without the flute song and in the unforgiving glare of mid-morning, the hike is less successful than the evening before, but we distract the girls with small trailside boulders which they scale again and again, and cut the hike short in the wash when the protesting begins in earnest. Pete survives, unscathed by wild pigs, and we strategically avoid dehydration and heat exhaustion (it's 70, tops) and promptly hit the pool.

The pools—in fact, there are two—are the perfect complement to the trails and vice versa. One without the other would either seem too hardcore for the first days of the new year, or too self-indulgent. But now that we've had our fresh air and adventure for the day, we can lounge guilt-free poolside all afternoon.

The water slide is steep and long enough so that you practically catch air on a couple of sections, especially when clutching a small child on your lap—an adrenaline sport in its own right—and various giant inflatable whales and turtles bob around in the shallows, fawned and fought over by a steady stream of little ones. For such an upscale resort, I'm heartened to see that The Ritz is crawling with young families, instant and willing playmates for Pippa and Maisy and more R&R for Steve and me. Even Pete is pampered here. A pool butler promptly arrives with a bowl of water and thoughtfully moves an umbrella so that he's lying in the shade, where he will sleep all afternoon. 

Resort life is easy to abide: hike or run all morning, loll and swim all afternoon. With three restaurants right on site, we don't have to drive anywhere. The girls in their tent sleep like logs for the first time in months, and therefore so do we. I've read almost an entire book and soaked up enough Vitamin D to make it through the month. And Pete, too, is noticeably calmer than when we arrived.

The next day we drop Pippa and Maisy off at Ritz Kids camp on the ground floor, where they'll spend the morning with Ranger Ron, one of three rangers employed by the hotel to lead nature hikes and teach guests about desert wildlife. They're the only children enrolled for the day, but they're so distracted by the walls lined with terrariums that they don't seem to care. When it comes time for us to leave, they're pressing their faces against the glass, shining infrared flashlights on the resident scorpions and tarantulas. They barely register our departure.

Steve and I are going running. We've plotted a 15-mile circuit along the Wild Mustang Trail, up to a goat corral at the far end of Wild Burro, and back along the south side of the canyon via the Alamo Springs Trail. "How long do you think that will take you?" Ron asks delicately, subtly sizing up our water supply, but I can see right through him: Here comes the cautionary tale. Molly, as it turns out, was a guest who went hiking with her family in the summer, took a wrong turn on the Wild Burro Trail, and ran out of water. By the time Ranger Ron arrived with the rescue crew, she'd gone into cardiac arrest. She died on her 23rd birthday, at the spot in the trail now marked with her cross.

Chastened, I think about Molly as we run. Rationally, I know we're safe—it's the dead of winter and overcast, not even 55 degrees. We're carrying plenty of water, a map, and a cell phone with a loaded battery. Our girls are in good hands, and we're experienced trail runners. Still, I have a new respect for the desert. It's lovely and humbling, strikingly beautiful country, raw and empty, except of the swarms of saguaro which have an almost human presence. The trail weaves through prickly pear and spiky sotol cactus, and the snowy ridge of Mount Lemmon looms to the south. Passing Molly's cross for the third time in two days,  I inhale the warm air and damp, winter-desert smells and give thanks for being alive and for running and for three whole hours of freedom on the trails with Steve.

To Ranger Ron's great relief, we slide into Ritz Kids right on schedule, a few minutes before noon. The girls are decked out in khaki quick-dry Junior Ranger shirts emblazoned with pins, and they're wild with stories about the morning. Ranger Ron released the tarantulas and scorpions ("not the biting kind, Mama!" Maisy assures us) and assorted snakes from their terrariums to give the girls a closer look. They stalked the resort's resident African desert tortoise, Wamba, and went on a nature walk. They learned about the Native American tribes, drew pictures, took a quiz, and earned half a dozen junior ranger badges. We can barely drag them away from the spiders and snakes for our afternoon session at the pool.

That night, our last at Dove Mountain, we drop the girls off at Ritz Kids again and go to dinner at Core, a sublime, candlelit spot overlooking the terrace, where we're doted on in classic Ritz-style. In between bites of tender butterfish, I sneak glances outside, far across the patio, to a big flashing TV screen inside the Ritz Kids suite, where our children are dining solo with Ranger Ron. So spoiled have we become that this arrangement seems like the most natural thing in the world. When we find them a couple of hours later, draped with blankets and sitting in front of a blazing chiminea, roasting s'mores with Ranger Ron, all three are laughing hysterically, and Maisy and Pippa are each clutching a brand new ranger badge they earned for roasting marshmallows, compliments of Ranger Ron.

In the morning, Pippa and Maisy and I meet in lobby for family nature hike, offered each day at 8 a.m., while Steve and Pete take to the trails on their own. Ron is off today, so Ranger Mike's on duty, and Maisy and Pippa trail behind him, obsessed with earning their final junior ranger pin. Mike guides us to a 150-year-old saguaro sprouting tiny new arms, and shows us the spongey inside of a dead one, explaining that even though the cacti are 70 percent water, you can't just cut them open and drink. Cautionary tale No. 3, or is it 4? He can't resist ending with another one, about the mountain lions that lurk in the area, and a helpful tip: Carry a small rock in each hand and be ready to throw. (A few days later, in Santa Fe, I try it on a solo run, and feel surprisingly empowered.)

Steve meets us at Core for breakfast with one of his own: At the trailhead, he and Pete ran into a women, looking shaken. She'd been out on the trails alone when she came across a pack of javelinas, so she'd turned around. He snapped the leash on Pete and forged ahead. The trail was still in shadow, but he saw no sign of the rogue pigs, and after a while he set Pete loose and kept trekking.

It's a cool morning, and the minute we arrive at the pool, the girls are greeted with butlers bearing trays of hot chocolate and a water bowl for Pete. One last swim and soak in the hot tub, and then a fond farewell to Dove Mountain and its trails, which in just a few days have come to feel like home. Somehow we've managed the impossible: an active, legitimately adventurous family base camp weekend in the lap of luxury.

After four perfect days in the desert, as promising a launch to 2014 as I can imagine, we have our own cautionary tale to report. Once you stay at The Ritz, there's no going back. You have to go back. The girls still have one final badge to earn—geo-caching will wait until they're a little older—and there are new trails in the works for us to explore. Next time.

The Ritz Carlton Dove Mountain; doubles from $206
Kids' in-room tent camping, $99
Ritz Kids camp, from $85 per session

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30-Minute Holiday Workouts

“A 30-minute workout can be a great way to mentally take the pressure off of feeling like you are working out,” says your coach, Gina Kehr, a former pro triathlete with five top-10 finishes at the Ironman World Championship, and a coach for Endurance Corner and Stanford University’s Triathlon team. “With limited time, it is good to make it count.” Below, Kehr shares seven triathlon-inspired workouts designed to do just that.


1. The 30/30 Workout
High-intensity interval training has been shown to improve aerobic capacity as effectively as continuous endurance training at moderate intensity—in less time.

  • 10-minute warm up
  • (30 seconds fastest sustainable effort, 30 seconds rest) x 10
  • 10-minute warm down

2. Lower-Body Strength Workout
“Leg, glute and hip strength is what you are targeting,” Kehr says. Building strong hips and glutes, in particular, will help improve knee stability (read: avoid knee injuries) and power on the bike. Note: A $2.00 mini band can increase the resistance of this workout twofold.

  • 6 x (30 seconds of Y squats, rest 30 seconds)
  • Rest 1 - 2 minutes
  • 6 x (30 seconds of lunges alternating legs, rest 30 seconds)
  • Rest 1 - 2 min
  • 6 x (30 seconds of climbers, rest 30 seconds)
  • Rest 1 - 2 min
  • 6 x (30 seconds of jump squats, rest 30 seconds)


3. The 30/30 Workout

  • 10-minute warm up
  • (30 seconds fastest sustainable effort, 30 seconds rest) x 10
  • 10-minute warm down

4. The Build Workout
Progression runs can train your body to go faster without inducing the fatigue and greater recovery time often associated with long runs at race pace, and hard track workouts.

Start at an easy pace and build for approximately 7 minutes to 85-90 percent of VO2 Max (10k pace). Once you reach that pace, maintain it for 20 minutes. Use the rest of your time to cool down and walk it out.

Strength and Flexibility

5. Full-Body Workout
As the American College of Sports Medicine notes, strength training helps prevent injury by making bones, connective tissue, and muscle stronger. Strength training can also improve power, speed, and agility. This routine is designed to hit every major muscle group in your body to help make you a better, bomb-proof athlete.

Note: As with the lower body strength routine above, a $2.00 mini band can increase the resistance of the workout twofold.

  • 10 pull aparts
  • 10 push-ups
  • 30-60 second plank
  • Repeat the above exercises 3x through
  • Easy 60 second jog, rest 30 seconds


Try using to find a pool near your zip code. Alternatively, iPhone users can use the SwimRadar app to browse more than 17,000 places to swim around the world.

6. The 30/30 Workout, swim style

  • 10-minute warm-up
  • 10 x 25 yards or meters, 30 seconds rest between each 25
  • 10-minute cool down

7. Kick Improvement
“A 30-minute swim can be used to work on a skill we all can improve: kicking,” Kehr says. A good kick can keep hips and legs from dragging in the water, thereby improving your body position, and overall speed.

  • Warm up 5 to 10 minutes
  • 6 min of 30 seconds fast kick, 30 seconds easy
  • 200 easy
  • 6 x 100 as: 25 fast kick, 30 sec vertical kick, 25 sprint free, 50 easy 
  • Rest 20 seconds between each 100
  • 200 easy
  • 3 min of 30 seconds fast kick, 30 seconds easy
  • Cool down

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An Olympic Swimmer's History of Freediving and Spearfishing in Hawai'i

From his appearance, you couldn't tell Sonny Tanabe apart from any other older Japanese gentleman in Hawaii. But a long time ago, Sonny was a member of the U.S. Olympic team that competed in Melbourne in 1956. And since the days he dove for coins off a bridge in Hawaii, he's been an avid freediver and spearfisherman. Most recently, he wrote The Evolution of Freediving and History of Spearfishing in Hawai’i, perhaps the most beautiful book on the subject, the tools, and the heroes of the art that has ever existed.

OUTSIDE: What’s the biggest fish you’ve ever speared?
TANABE: Ninety-one pounds. @e were diving out at Pua Kua on the Big Island. My brother speared it, and my other friend did another, and that thing was so powerful that when I came on over, I hit it with a spine shot. It hardly penetrated the fish, but it was enough to stop it right there. I’ve speared a lot of 60- and 50-pounders and below. But the Ulua is a fish that is a worthy fish to spear because it has a lot of fight. The only way you could stop them was with a brain or spine shot. If you don’t get that one small spot, you’ve got a battle.

Traditionally only the royal family were allowed to spear it because it was treated like a warrior. Hawaiians would hunt it with a spear, and they treated it as a form of Hawaiian martial arts, or Lua. 

But I stopped spearing them because of ciguterra poisoning [a sickness caused by neurotoxins accumulated by fish that sit closer to the top of the food chain]. And as I get older, I gain respect for the ocean from a conservation perspective. 

How has the ocean changed since you were a young man? 
My experiences in the ocean … I saw it when it was the best ever. In my twenties or thirties, I could hold my breath for about 3 minutes. I saw fish in the shallows. You could see red, green, blue, yellows—practically all the colors of the rainbows.

Today, on the beach, you wouldn’t see any of these. It used to look like christmas lights in the ocean. The colors fascinated me. Today, I think people have to practice conservation and take what they need to eat for food, and that's it. Because already there’s been a big impact on the reef, and people are going into blue waters to find pelagic fish with a lot of fight.

I’m amazed at how smart the fish have become. After you shoot a few, they swim sideways, to give you a low profile. It’s amazing how they adapt to danger. If they feel your rubber of your gun vibrating, they are moving, they’re not sticking around. They’re intelligent. 

I don’t get into the water too often lately. I usually get into the pool to stay in shape. But I can’t wait to get back, because that's my best form of exercise. I get a good night’s sleep from it. 

Briam Lam is the founder and editor of The WirecutterThe Scuttlefish, and The Sweethome. He divides his time between Honolulu and San Francisco. 

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Mirinda Carfrae’s Training Tips

On October 12, Mirinda Carfrae won the Ironman World Championship. Not only did she win, the 32-year old Aussie also beat the course record, set in 2009 by Chrissie Wellington, by just under two minutes. It now stands at 8:52:14.
To achieve that top time, Carfrae did something previously considered impossible: she raced a faster marathon than the men’s winner, Frederik Van Lierde. After swimming 2.4 miles, and biking 112 miles, Carfrae averaged a 6:30 minute-per-mile pace for a final run split of 2:50:38. (Van Lierde ran a 2:51:18.)
“This year the stars aligned for me,” Carfrae says. “I knew that performance was in me. But believing that you’re capable of something, then actually having it come together on the one day of the year that matters—that’s like a dream.”
It wasn’t an easy victory. After winning the race in 2010 in only her second attempt, Carfrae struggled to reclaim the throne, placing second in 2011, and third in 2012. But what she learned during those few years in between wins ultimately made her a stronger, faster competitor.
Below, Carfrae shares her hard-earned tips and tricks for getting the most out of training and competing.
Turn negatives into positives
Going into the race in 2012, I was fit enough to contend for the title. To make mistakes in nutrition and fall short, I was disappointed because of the lost opportunity. But I was also quite surprised and proud of my performance because I was running on fumes and held it together for third place.
I went into medical after and had lost 10 pounds. That’s a lot for someone my size. (Carfrae is 5-foot-2, 118 pounds.) For my body to still be able to function on an OK level after basically depleting itself, I took a bout of confidence from that. I know that f I get the nutrition right, and even if things go a little bit south, I should still be able to perform.
Keep a training log
I take a lot of confidence from my training. This past year in particular, I had a pretty rough year. I really didn’t have any great results until July and I started racing in March. But I didn’t panic because I could see the numbers in my training log. I could always go back and look to see what sessions I was able to hold, how I felt through the sessions, and that really helped me stay calm. It would’ve been very easy to panic and worry that I wasn’t fit enough or that I was gonna have a disastrous Kona. But when I can just go back and look at the numbers, it takes the emotion out of it, and I could take a lot of confidence from those good sessions.
Schedule benchmark workouts
I have a few key workouts. About eight weeks out from Kona, I’ll do a 5.5-hour ride with the last hour flat out, as hard as I can go. Then I’ll hop off and do 10 by 1-mile on a road that’s slightly uphill on the way out, slightly downhill on the way back. If I’ve held a certain amount of watts on the bike and a certain pace on the run, then I know that I’m on track.
Date around (with coaches)
Siri [Lindley] and I started working together in ’05. Then in the beginning of 2012, I left her because after 6.5 years of working together, I wanted to seek some different opinions, work with some different coaches. For a year, I was with a guy who just wrote my cycling program, and I did everything else, and I didn’t enjoy that. Siri’s a really hands-on coach, and I realized that that’s really what I need to function at my best level. [The two reunited in July 2013.] Siri’s basically like family and it was awesome to share the win in Kona with her. I don’t think I would’ve been able to perform to the level that I did without her support.
Try plyometrics
I don’t believe in weight training for my body type. I’m naturally muscular, so putting me in a gym bulks me up and slows me down. I do functional movement to optimize the strength that I have and making sure everything’s firing in the correct pattern so that I have access to all of my muscles when I’m out there exercising. A lot of it is making sure everything is open and free, so I do a lot of ankle and hip mobilizers to start, then some plyometrics and more explosive exercises. [Check out this full-body plyometrics regimen.]
Crank the tunes
I can’t live without my iPod on those long runs and long solo rides. I listen to all sorts of music from Dave Matthews Band to Pink to David Guetta. I love David Guetta, he’s my go-to guy for key sessions. I probably wouldn’t go country. That’s where I draw the line.
Eat the ice cream
I’m pretty relaxed with my diet. Obviously, I’m not eating fast food all of the time. I try to fill my body with good food for the most part. But I enjoy a lot of wine and for most of the year I eat ice cream every night. That’s more to keep the weight on throughout the season, because you don’t want to be too lean. That leads you to being susceptible to sickness and being run down. So I try to keep a couple extra pounds on throughout the season.
Zen out on course
For the most part, you want to just shut your brain down and focus on being in the moment. When you’re able to have a quiet mind and focus on what you’re doing in every moment, that’s when you’ll have your best race.
Race yourself
After I won in 2010, a lot of people asked me why I’m continuing to do Ironman—it’s a tough sport, it’s grueling. Why are you continuing to put your body through this when you’ve already won the world title? My answer to that is: my goal is always to see what my capabilities are. It’s always been how fast can I race Kona? I still believe I can improve my swim, bike, and run. Until I believe I can’t get any better, I’ll keep racing. That’s what drives me.

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