The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Athletes

Aaron Gwin’s Bombproof Wheel

I like to complain about cycling gear. As the editor in charge of reviewing bikes at Outside, it’s my job to log a lot of saddle time in new equipment and separate the worthy from the chaff. 

Road bikes can be so stiff they jangle your fillings free. Chamois in brand new bibs rubs raw spots, and shoes with Boa closures fail. Rims crack, hubs seize, cranks fall off, and—my biggest gripe—tires shred, fall apart, and fail at the sidewalls.

While my friends and colleagues who are not so entrenched in the product world are usually thrilled to be using a particular piece of gear just because it’s new, I’ll often take the same sample and immediately name three reasons it’s not good enough to make it into the magazine. 

All that bellyaching makes me feel like the eternal grouch.  

But the video of Aaron Gwin racing at the World Cup last weekend in Leogang, Austria, cheered me up. Sure, you could focus on the tire that he burped and flatted 10 seconds into his run. But the real story is that wheel, a DT Swiss EX471 laced to a DT hub, which survived four full minutes of world-class downhilling—without a tire. And the EX471 isn’t even officially rated as a downhill rim.

There’s footage out there in which Gwin’s team manager, Eric Carter, while watching the run in question, says, “I won’t believe it if that rim makes it down, man.” And yet it does.

It’s testament to two-time World Cup overall champ Gwin, no doubt. The man is faster than you or me, even with one wheel. But it also speaks to just how durable and well-made much of the bike gear on the market has become. (And yes, it used to be really, really bad.)

You have to hand it to Gwin for the best run of the weekend, even though he finished dead last. Meanwhile, Gwin’s sponsor Specialized must be as crabby as a jaded gear reviewer given that their star racer was aboard DT wheels and not the company’s own Roval model.

Watch the man's heroic feat below: 

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The New Era of Low-Cost, High-Risk Expeditions

British mountaineer Ed Farrelly, 22, has a better climbing pedigree than most. (It was his great uncle Sir Christopher Summerhayes who gave Edmund Hillary the British flag he plonked atop Everest). But the young adventurer has found out the hard way that landing easy money to pay for adventure is a thing of the past.

“What’s making sponsorship more difficult is the sheer quantity of people chasing money,” says Farrelly, who sets out on a solo trek up Khan Tengri in Kyrgyzstan in July. “Everything gets lumped in together so that ‘adventuring’ becomes dumbed-down. I get through to someone on the phone and say I’ll be the youngest Briton to solo climb 7,000 metres, and the reply I get is, ‘Sorry, we’ve just sponsored someone to run the London marathon.’”

To survive in this competitive world, he’s working to perfect the art of low-cost, high-risk climbs. The goal: to give his hard-won sponsors an unbeatable return on investment, including dedicated “Ed-time” where companies can do everything from use him in product shoots to book him on a public speaking tour. He has a policy of never saying no to his investors. 

We sat down with Farrelly to chat about what it takes to secure sponsorship for extreme expeditions, and how he’s refined these low-cost, high-risk climbing trips.  

OUTSIDE: Is sponsorship the only way you fund your trips?
FARRELLY: Yes. I'm still a student, and I was determined to find a way to do some cool climbs without going into debt. I spend whole days tracking people down on LinkedIn and then calling people up, and most of the calls go nowhere.

I’m getting better at it because I do interesting, challenging climbs and I keep the costs really low, whereas a lot of climbers go through what’s basically a tour operator and that makes it more expensive. They need to find a lump sum, hand it over to a middle man, and then he sends that cash out in various directions so you can achieve what you set out to do.

While I’m not saying that’s bad, it does mean that people are trying to take too big a slice of the sponsorship pie. I can do a trip for half what some people are looking for.

How much will your Kyrgyzstan trip cost?
FARRELLY: By organising everything myself, I can do it for about $6,000. That’s a month and a half over there, all the flights, everything. The only back-up I’ll have is my dad at base camp, and he’s paying his own way.

What are the biggest costs associated with a big expedition?
FARRELLY: Transport. The Antarctic is the big one—it can cost upwards of $50,000 and most of that will go toward logistics. Insurance is a massive hidden cost when doing solo trips and can be as much as the flights, which on my next trip means about $1,000. Sat phones are another huge cost. Including upfront charges, sat phone services cost an additional $1.50 to $2 per minute. It’s easy to be stuck there sending photos back and finding yourself almost weeping as the seconds tick by.

Why send the photos back to your sponsors?
FARRELLY: It’s all part of the sponsorship deal. You have to get the information back to the very people that your sponsors want to find out about it.

Is your success rate with sponsorship money getting better or worse?
FARRELLY: It’s getting better, I think, but only because I’m getting better at it. I no longer try and persuade people who aren’t interested. I move on as quickly as I can. It’s a numbers game. If someone’s interested, I cut to the chase and tell them what I need, which is usually $1,500 to $2,500. They seem to appreciate the honesty.

Do the sponsors think they're getting a good ROI?
FARRELLY: They seem to. The value of the deals is going up, and they’re being renewed when they run out, too. I appreciate how hard it is to put a tangible value on what I can give them in return, but I take the responsibility seriously and I do my best.

What do sponsors want from their money?
FARRELLY: I would say they either want a quality story which is going to get them exposure, or content—photos, video, blog posts—which somehow represent their brand. The latter requires more work to utilize on their part but is probably better from a branding point of view. Too many companies are interested in just the first.

As far as what the stories are about, I guess the classic angles are youngest, oldest, fastest, and so on, but these are perhaps losing some of their allure as they have been done quite a bit, particularly on the classic challenges like Everest. Maybe now it's about being a little more inventive in terms of finding new challenges which haven't been overdone yet. But explaining why you're different to the press is easier said than done.

Are climbers always talking about money and how to fund their expeditions?
FARRELLY: Yes. If they’ve found it for their current expedition then they’re already talking about how they’re going to find it for the next one, and if they haven’t found it yet then they’re talking about it constantly.

It’s the one thing that stands between you and doing what you want—same as with most things, really. Some would-be adventurers never really make it, because it can be hard to get a toe in the door. There’s a ‘positive feedback’ aspect to it, so the more you do and the bigger your name, the less work you need to do to find the money. I’m nowhere near the big league, but sponsorship deals with Adidas, Rab, and Scarpa all help, and they’re obviously the names I mention when looking for new deals.

What’s your advice to budding adventurers seeking sponsorship?
FARRELLY: Don’t turn up on the wrong day! Actually, that isn’t necessarily a disaster, as it happened to me when I went to see Osprey looking for funding a few years ago and I turned up a day early. I drove two and a half hours to the meeting and I was sitting in the waiting room when the woman I was supposed to be seeing the next day walked past and seemed to recognize my face. She was good enough to do the interview there and then, although we had to change meeting rooms four times because obviously nothing had been booked.

How did your initial sponsorship meeting with Osprey go?
FARRELLY: I must have done a good job because they sponsor me now. I guess if what you’re selling is something people are interested in, you can overcome a few hurdles—though screwing up the date is obviously not an approach I would recommend.

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SUP's Poster Boy Water Walker

Despite stand-up paddling’s reputation as an easygoing pastime for soccer parents, its competitive realm is intense. Athletes compete in everything from grueling 32-mile open-ocean marathons, to full-contact races through breaking swells, to waveriding contests in far-flung locales. But for years, the sport has been missing a key ingredient: a young, breakout champion capable of appealing to armchair fans and core surfers alike. Enter 21-year-old Kai Lenny, a Maui native who has won nearly all of SUP’s marquee events and regularly drops in at big-wave breaks with surfing’s most recognizable faces.

RIDING GIANTS: As a precocious kid surfing Maui’s north shore, Lenny was mentored by icons like Laird Hamilton, Dave Kalama, and Robby Naish, who taught him everything from basic windsurfing and SUP technique to how to tow in to a 30-foot wave.

THE ARRIVAL: In the final months of 2013, Lenny put together an unprecedented string of victories, winning California’s Rainbow Sandals Battle of the Paddle, the sport’s most important event; his third Stand Up World Tour surfing title, in France; and his second Stand Up World Series racing title on Oahu. “Winning the Battle of the Paddle is my biggest accomplishment so far,” says Lenny. “Every top athlete was there.”

POSTER BOY: Among Lenny’s sponsors are GoPro, Oakley, and Red Bull. “Kai is the perfect guy to put SUP on the map,” says Pat Towersey, marketing manager at Nike surfing subsidiary Hurley, which recently inked Lenny to a multi-year endorsement deal. “He has as much fun paddling on a lake as he does paddling into Jaws.”

HEAVY HITTER: When the infamous Maui surf break Jaws hits 20 feet, Lenny is one of only a few surfers in the world who can ride it on anything from a SUP to a big-wave gun to a kiteboard. “I grew up watching my heroes, like Laird, charge these incredibly huge waves,” he says. “When I started to gain experience at Jaws, I realized how special it was.”

SECOND OPINION: “He’s competent in every discipline of the waterman lifestyle,” says big-wave legend Greg Long. “It’s true athleticism, and you can’t help but be inspired.”

UP NEXT: This summer, Lenny will try to nab the one SUP title that has eluded him—Molokai2Oahu, a 32-mile open-ocean race. Held in July, its racers paddle across one of the Hawaiian Islands’ most treacherous channels, with head-high swells and 30-knot winds. “Mentally and physically, it’s the hardest SUP race in the world,” says Lenny, who came in fourth last year. “It truly tests your spirit and will help you find out what you’re made of.”

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Steve House and Scott Johnston Are Turning Climbers Into Athletes

With their new book, Training for the New Alpinism: A Manual for the Climber as Athlete, Steve House and his coach Scott Johnston introduce a structured, periodized training methodology to the sport of alpine climbing. Borrowing from traditional endurance sports like cycling and running, their approach represents a major departure from convention in a sport that has had little history of formal training.

One of the world’s most accomplished high-altitude climbers, House started working with Johnston in 2003, who was a former World Cup ski racer and a longtime climber himself. Training with a progressive plan for the first time, House achieved many of the feats he’s known for today. These include a solo first ascent of Pakistan’s K7 in under 44 hours, and setting a new route on the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat in just eight days. This success inspired Training for the New Alpinism, which details how a recreational or elite climber can use the principles of aerobic conditioning, strength training, and nutrition to achieve their mountaineering goals. 

House and Johnston took some time out of a hectic international travel schedule to speak with Outside about the paradigm shift that is the new alpinism. 

OUTSIDE: How do you hope that your book will change the sport of alpine climbing?
HOUSE: The culture of training for climbing, and not just alpinism, is nascent. As it exists we prepare ourselves—train—in some ways erratically, and often ineffectively. Climbers generally have little understanding or appreciation of the power of basic training principles, especially the big three: continuity, modulation, and gradualness.

If you look at a developed sport like running, Nordic skiing, or triathlon, there is a high degree of understanding of training principles by the top athletes and coaches. Once alpinists come to understand and apply these commonly understood principles, today’s top climbing standards will seem average.

What are the primary differences when it comes to training a traditional endurance athlete like a cyclist, versus a climber?
JOHNSTON: Training for all endurance athletics shares the same basic physiological underpinnings, whether that athlete is a cross-country skier, runner, or alpine climber. All need to start with developing a high level of aerobic capacity and a high level of general strength, as well as acquiring the technique and skills needed for success in the sport. The second step in development then begins to focus on the event-specific fitness needed to reach the athlete’s goals. The culture of alpinism in general has not followed this prescription.

The differences stem from the application rather than in the science. A runner needs primarily to develop running fitness and a cross-country skier needs skiing fitness, while a climber needs to develop fitness that allows him or her to move faster and longer in the mountains, and on many different types of terrain. 

The book recommends that an athlete spend a significant portion of their time developing general fitness. How does this transfer over in a sport in which technique is so important?
JOHNSTON: It’s well understood by coaches and sports scientists that an athlete’s ability to handle event-specific training is determined by the base of general fitness. Once one has established the base that allows for that kind of training, the more climbing-specific training one can do, and the better one will become.

One common flaw Steve and I have observed with climbers is that virtually all of their training is done by climbing. And often that is done by climbing at, or near to, their maximum ability. Think of the training that Usain Bolt does. Do you think that each time he goes to the track he tries to break his world record in the 100 or 200 meter [sprint]? Hardly. The vast majority of his training is focused on developing the component parts of his event. No world class endurance athlete does a race every workout. Yet the equivalent of a race is what most climbers do each time they go climbing. 

Alpine climbing demands a wide variety of essential skills and technique. We do devote an entire chapter of the book to an approach that simultaneously develops fitness and skills.

Steve, what was the biggest mistake you regularly made in your own training before you started working with Scott?
HOUSE: I trained erratically. I avoided strength training. I overtrained. I ate whatever foods I wanted. I did almost everything wrong at one point or another. But that’s how you learn. 

You discuss the use of training zones in the book. What’s the best way for a climber to target the right intensities in aerobic training?
JOHNSTON: The heart rate zone method of controlling intensity is common in many sports. In sports where it is difficult to quantify intensity in other ways such as pace or power, as you can do in running or cycling, heart rate can be a fair monitor.

Most people, regardless of sport, train basic aerobic endurance too hard or fast. This happens for two primary reasons. The first is that this intensity level “feels like training” because it feels moderately hard. Secondly, many people are time-limited in their training and imagine that they can make up for the duration of training by increasing the intensity.

In the book we also suggest that climbers can also use a ventilatory marker [breathing] that is tied to a significant metabolic event, which is itself directly linked to the aerobic capacity of the climber.

Another idea you’ve borrowed from endurance training is that of using a training log. What do you use to track your own training?
HOUSE: Personally I’ve used dozens of different logs, and I refer back to them frequently. Right now I use an Excel spreadsheet that becomes a combination planner and log. For climbers that we coach, we use the web-based training log TrainingPeaks, because we can easily upload workouts for our clients and then subsequently view the training they log on the site.

There’s an in-depth discussion about nutrition, too. Any fueling or hydration misconceptions you hope to clear up?
JOHNSTON: The purpose of our nutrition discussion is to help climbers realize to what degree training affects how their bodies utilize food, as well as to help them learn how to pack a good food-bag for a route. Nutrition is an important, and often overlooked, key to success for alpine climbing.

You often discuss how training builds both physical and mental strength. How can structured training help your mental game?
HOUSE: Doing anything, including training, with thought and examination teaches us about ourselves as well as how to live with intention and purpose. Climbing mountains, and training to do so, are practices many of us embrace for our entire lives. Climbing and training are crafts we learn by doing. We can always know more, we can always improve, and we can always benefit from practice.

Steve, what were the biggest challenges for you with his new approach initially?
HOUSE: The structured approach to training and climbing represented a complete paradigm shift for me. I had never approached anything, let alone climbing, with so much forethought and planning. And I never experienced such solid results.

How do you balance a love for adventure and, to some degree the unexpected, with following such a detailed daily training plan?
HOUSE: I don’t love the unexpected, I fear the unexpected. And because of that fear, I prepare myself as best I can. In the younger days of my climbing I felt an almost all-consuming drive to be the best alpinist I could be. The value of having a coach—in my case it was Scott—was that I had an advisor to help me determine how stringently I would follow the plan each day. Sometimes you follow the plan to the T, but most days we would modify the plan slightly depending on how I was recovered, rested, stressed, etc.

Do you see coaching for mountaineering becoming more popular in the way that it has for other sports?
HOUSE: Coaching has an important role to play in the development of climbing, but the majority of climbers are the DIY types. There is no culture of coaches in climbing as there is in running, football, or soccer. For now I think the role of coaching will be relatively small. However, once people realize how beneficial it is to have a coach, they will know why most sports rely heavily on coaching.

You talk about goal-setting in the book, and the importance of having both annual goals as well as long-term goals. What are yours? 
JOHNSTON: Climbing has given us a lot; and with this book and with Steve’s Alpine Mentors project, we both hope to contribute to the quality of people’s climbing experiences. And we hope to do some good climbing along the way.

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