Photo: OutsideOnline

The 2015 Zero to Hero Project

If your new sport doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger, smarter, and—be honest—more interesting. Just ask former editor Ryan Krogh, who blazed a trail of blood while learning to cage fight. We decided to follow in his footsteps (if not into the ring) for our third-ever Zero to Hero special. In less than a month, three editors overcame their fear of heights, long-distance running, and unchecked speed to connect with their inner athletes. The result: proof that any average Joe can become a hero.

An Ode to the Falling, Often Failing, Novice Athlete

Beginners, we have a secret for you. You don't need high-end gear or a fancy training plan to get better at skiing, running, or climbing. All you have to do is embrace the embarrassment and the pain—and don't forget to laugh. Trust us: It'll be good for your brain.

I fail, frequently and enthusiastically. When I stopped embarrassing myself as a competitive swimmer, I started failing as a triathlete—and as a rock climber, snowboarder, and mountain biker. 

Several years ago, while not struggling as a senior editor at Outside and stumbling along as a novice skier, I pitched an idea that became our first Zero to Hero package. The idea: Take writers who define themselves, at least in part, as experts at some Outside pursuit and force them to become complete beginners in something else. We were big at dishing out advice on how to get started in various active pursuits, but we spent our free time excelling at things we’d done since we were kids. I wanted to see what would happen if we turned a bunch of alphas into Lambda Lambda Lambdas.

So we sent a guy with no skateboarding experience off to camp to master the half pipe. Associate managing editor Ali Troxell tried the same on a snowboard. Research editor Ryan Krogh did what any North Dakota native would do if he found himself living in New Mexico without a girlfriend: He volunteered to fight in a cage match. Totally won the first two rounds before getting taken out in the third.

Associate editor/professional photographer/expedition kayaker/world-class skier/master hunter Grayson Schaffer, who gets the whole polymath thing but somehow seems to skip the failing part every time, traveled to Mississippi to learn how to train dogs. (He’s now an expert. And a senior editor. We hate that guy.)

It was all good fun, but an expanding body of research suggests that we were onto something more important than face-plants: Growth doesn’t happen in the comfort zone. And while we’ve long known the physical benefits of changing up our workouts (see: cross-training, plyometrics, CrossFit), we’re increasingly finding out that just as “muscle confusion” delivers a better body, actual confusion builds a better brain.

A 2013 study at the University of Texas at Dallas bore this out. Researchers divided 221 subjects between the ages of 60 and 90 into three groups. The first group was tasked with learning new skills: digital photography, quilting, or both—activities chosen because they involve high-level thinking and long- and short-term memory. The second group was assigned stimulating hobbies with which they were already familiar, in this case doing crossword puzzles or listening to classical music. The third group was asked to participate in social activities like field trips.

You can guess where this is going. After three months, the first group showed a greater overall improvement in memory than the other two.

“The change was significant, about half a standard deviation,” says neuroscientist Denise Park, PhD, who led the study and is a specialist in the mechanisms of age-related cognitive decline. “I don’t want to oversell the results, but they were meaningful.”

The question is whether the members of the first group physically altered their brains or, by virtue of solving new problems, developed strategies that made them better at the memory tests. Park is hoping subsequent studies using MRIs to map neural connections will answer that. But for now, she’s guessing it’s the former. “They were still better even a year out, which would suggest that something changed physically,” Park says.

When a new skill starts to feel less awkward, it’s because repetition has made the brain better at connecting the different regions involved in completing the task. Scientists are discovering that repeated signals along new paths spur the brain to product more myelin, a fatty substance that, in basic terms, speeds up the signals between neurons. The more novel and complex the skill, the more regions get activated and the more myelin is produced.

Bonus if it also makes you sweat.

While research like Park’s is still fairly new, multiple studies have established the connection between exercise and healthier brains. So the question is whether the combination of physical activity and complicated skills would provide an extra kick. “Does the addition of a high cognitive load in something like rock climbing—which involves special skills, geometric problem solving, mathematical calculations, constant risk-reward evaluations—have extra benefits for the brain?” Park says. “I don’t think we know that yet, but I suspect that it would.”

So: Complexity, physical exertion, and novelty. If you’re a great skier, more skiing isn’t going to deliver as much of a cognitive boost as taking up kayaking or spending weekends falling on your ass at the skate park (assuming you don’t know how to kayak or skate).

But that falling-on-your-ass part can really get in the way.

If you pride yourself on your ability to on-sight a 5.12 or rip technical singletrack, you know how things are supposed to work. Even if you’ve never surfed, you appreciate the aesthetic beauty of a good bottom turn. The flip side: Bad form hurts your soul—especially if you’re the one struggling. So when you paddle out for your first surf class and flail just as horribly as that accountant from Des Moines who’s never heard of Kelly Slater, the temptation to quit and go for a bike ride will be strong.

Don’t give in. Paddle back out there and embrace the fail. 

Master It: From Never-Ever to Freeskiing Olympian

Herman competes at the 2013 Visa U.S. Freeskiing Grand Prix at Copper Mountain, Colorado. Photo: Sarah Brunson/U.S. Freeskiing

Master It: From Never-Ever to Freeskiing Olympian

Keri Herman only started skiing seriously in her senior year of college. Now she's an Olympian. Here's how she turned her late start into a competitive advantage.

Keri Herman grew up in Minnesota, where everyone grows up playing ice hockey. So, naturally, she played varsity hockey all through high school. Her family took occasional ski trips, but Herman never considered herself a skier. If you had told her back then that one day she’d become a pro, she’d have laughed in your face.

“I wasn’t very good at skiing, and I didn’t even really like it much back then,” Herman, 32, says.

After high school, she moved to Colorado to attend the University of Denver and started tagging along with friends to ski at Breckenridge and Copper Mountain. But it wasn’t until her junior year when she discovered the thing that would change her life: the terrain park.

“I was like, ‘Excuse me, what is this? A gigantic jump?’” she remembers. “I didn’t know you could ski more than just groomers and moguls.” After that, she took the winter quarter off during her senior year to move to Breckenridge and ski every day, learning new tricks on the rails and jumps.

When Herman graduated from college in 2005, the sport of slopestyle—which was added to the Olympic program in 2014 in Sochi, Russia—was just taking off, and women weren’t yet allowed to compete at the X Games. She was charting new territory and teaching herself highly technical spins and grabs.

Action, XGames, WXG, Skiing
  Photo: Scott Clarke/ESPN

“Hockey translated perfectly to skiing—edge control, stopping, skiing backward, it all felt like the same thing but on longer blades,” she says. “Plus, I brought my hockey player attitude—where you have no fear, and you crash and collide to get the puck—into the park, where I’d fall and then just get up and do it again.”

Women’s slopestyle was added to the X Games in 2009. The next year, Herman made her debut appearance and won a silver medal. She’s competed in every X Games since then and qualified for the inaugural U.S. Olympic freeskiing team in 2014.

Most of her peers started competing in freeskiing contests by their teens. But Herman says learning her sport later in life has actually given her an advantage. “I was more mature and smarter with risks,” she says. “I knew when my body was ready to push the limits and when it wasn’t. Plus, I knew enough about life to know it’s about more than just skiing.”

keri herman freeskiing
  Photo: Sarah Brunson/U.S. Freeskiing

Keep It Fresh

“You can’t expect to be the best right away,” says Herman, who picked up golf last summer. “And who cares if you’re no good at first? Half the fun is learning.”

When things get stagnant or boring, she finds a way to mix it up. One summer, she flew to Australia to ski, where she hitchhiked around and crashed on a friend’s floor just for a change of environment. “Learning something new, you keep trying and trying, and sometimes you have a mental block,” she says. “It’s okay to take a step back and return when you’re fresh.”

Visualize Yourself Being Awesome

Visualization keeps Herman in the right state of mind during competition, and it’s a trick that can help anyone entering their first competitive event.

“I visualize my run and go through it many times. The less I have to think about it on contest day, the less stress I have and the calmer I am at the start gate,” she says. “Visualize yourself standing on the podium or going through the finish line. Focus on the positive things. Don’t waste time thinking about the worst-case scenario.”

Find a Skiing Buddy

Herman trains with fellow slopestyle skier Ashley Battersby almost every day. They key is to not be afraid to ask others for help. “We feed off each other. Yes, for that one hour of competition, we’re competitors, but the rest of the time, we’re friends helping each other,” Herman says. “So find a friend who’s better than you at certain aspects. Look for their qualities, and let other people’s skills accelerate your own.”

Do Something That Scares You

“The adrenaline rush you get after competing in something you’re scared of is incredible,” Herman says. “There’s always the thinking, ‘What if I lose? What if I fail?’ But you can’t think that way. We’re all going to fail sometimes. Coming out of those situations when I do fail, never once have I regretted trying.”

The Beginner's Perfect Ski Quiver

The right gear will make you feel more powerful, we guarantee it. Photo: SkiStar/Flickr

The Beginner's Perfect Ski Quiver

Learning to ski can be overwhelming. Here we help you narrow down what gear you need to take your skills to the next level.

Your first day on skis, you probably got outfitted in some ancient rental gear or hand-me-down skis and boots, which smelled like a musty attic and didn’t fit right. It’s no wonder the sport seemed hard at first—old, used, or ill-fitting gear can put you at a disadvantage from the start. Once you’ve conquered the green circle runs and you’re determined to stick with the sport of skiing, it’s time to invest in proper equipment.

Here are eight must-own items of gear that will not only help you become a better skier, but help you look smart and feel good in the process:

Atomic Nomad Smoke Ti Skis and XTO 12 Bindings ($600)

  Photo: Atomic

For your first ski setup, choose a ski and binding system (meaning bindings are sold with the skis), to simplify the process. We like Atomic’s Nomad Smoke Ti, a forgiving, 76-millimeter-waisted ski built for mellow cruising on groomers, which comes with Atomic’s XTO 12 bindings. This ski won’t hold you back on the bunny slopes. Its soft foam core comes stacked with two sheets of metal for ideal durability and a subtle tip rocker helps the ski float in soft snow.

Dalbello Aspect 80 Boot ($250)

  Photo: Dalbello

The most important piece of equipment you’ll buy is the boot, so make sure it fits right. Dalbello’s Aspect 80 comes with a high-comfort foam liner that can be heat-molded for a custom fit. With only three buckles instead of the standard four, the boot’s shell feels lightweight and not overly stiff, making it perfect for new skiers on the rise. Flip into walk mode for an easier time tromping through the parking lot.

Scott 720 Ski Pole ($75)

scott 720 ski pole
  Photo: Scott Sports

The qualities you want in a ski pole: lightweight, durable, and nothing fancy. The Scott 720 is exactly that, thanks to an aluminum alloy shaft that’s as light as a pencil but won’t break when you click your pole against the chairlift. Rubber grips provide a secure hold, and big, 3.6-inch pole baskets won’t sink in deep snow. Check a pole size chart to find the right length for your height.

Giro Nine.10 Helmet and Focus Goggles ($100 and $40)

  Photo: Giro

Avoid the dreaded goggle gap—that patch of exposed forehead between your goggles and helmet, a true sign of a rookie skier—by purchasing goggles and a helmet from the same brand, so they fit seamlessly together. The Giro Nine.10, a sleek helmet that’ll protect your head without draining your wallet, has an adjustable fit and ample venting, and the no-frills Giro Focus goggles come with an anti-fog coating on the lens.

Mountain Hardwear Sluice Jacket ($235)

  Photo: Mountain Hardwear

A warm, waterproof ski jacket is an integral part of staying out on the slopes longer, which you’ll want to do if you plan on advancing to those expert runs. Try Mountain Hardwear’s Sluice jacket, a two-layer nylon shell built for out-all-day skiing. Ultra waterproof and breathable exterior fabric keeps you dry, while plenty of zippered pockets store your phone and other gadgets. A slim fit means you may want to bump up a size if you plan on layering underneath.

The North Face Freedom Pants ($140)

  Photo: The North Face

You want stretchy, high-mobility ski pants that won’t feel restrictive when you’re learning to carve a turn. The North Face’s Freedom pants have a relaxed fit and adjustable waist tabs if you eat too many chicken wings at après ski. Waterproof, two-layer exterior nylon and fully taped seams keep you dry in a storm and a zippered cargo pocket on the thigh stores a trail map so you won’t get lost. Working up a sweat? Mesh-lined inner thigh vents prevent overheating.

Pow XG Long Glove ($45)

  Photo: POW Gloves

Cold hands are a skier’s worst enemy, so invest in a warm pair of gloves. Like Pow’s XG Long glove, an affordable nylon glove with a micro-fleece liner and 100 grams of toasty Thinsulate insulation. The glove’s gauntlet wraps over your jacket’s cuffs to keep snow out and the outer fabric is pre-treated with a durable water repellent to keep your digits dry. Bonus: The thumb comes outfitted with a plastic squeegee for wiping your goggles clear of snow and sleet.

The Transformation: Learning to Ski

After three years of failing on the slopes, online editor Scott Rosenfield finally discovers the beauty—and pain—of downhill skiing.

We’re somewhere north of 11,000 feet at the Ski Santa Fe on dawn patrol when Chris Keyes, the editor of Outside, gives me a warning: “I’m going to push now.”

We’ve spent the last 45 minutes talking shop while moving at what I thought was an unreasonably fast pace. I’d carried myself well for a newbie skier. Sure, I’d taken a few extra water breaks and asked an unnecessary number of questions to slow Keyes down. But I had (mostly) stayed within shouting distance of my boss. Within seconds of his announcement, however, he gapped me. And that’s when I realized it: skinning up sucks so bad that it’s actually fun.

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with sports. One of my earliest on-the-field memories involves my father offering me $100 if I scored the winning goal in a soccer game. I didn’t get the check. I just wasn’t athletic. Too tall. Joints too loose, according to the chiropractor. In little league, I batted somewhere around eight in the order. And when we ran sprints in middle school, I was once outgunned by a pudgy female classmate. Ego, deflated.

Then my grandfather bought me my first road bike and I started riding, first by myself and later with a team. And to my surprise, I was actually good at it. I raced, won a few state championship titles, was a solid teammate, and even competed internationally (hey, Canada counts). It was only at this time that I began thinking of myself as an athlete. The sport turned me into a new man.

It also introduced me to the love of my life: descending. Yes, you have to summit the mountain before coasting down (and I’m not a fan of climbing), but on the descent, any zero can be a hero. So when my college buddies explained that in skiing, you get carried to the top of a mountain and then glide down—no exertion required (hey, that’s what they told me)—I got excited. Really excited. I bought a ticket and flew to Colorado.

At first, it was a blast. I took a group lesson, leaned about DIN settings, and had my first taste of the West. Problem was, I hated feeling like a non-athletic beginner. The perennial never-ever getting passed by 5-year-olds without poles. With bike racing, I’d finally mastered a sport. I wasn’t about to make a fool of myself again. So for the past three years, I’ve only occasionally rented the gear to pizza my way down the mountain.

And then I was asked to participate in the 2015 Zero to Hero project, our attempt to transform three beginner athletes into all-stars. This magazine has a long history of taking willing to not-so-willing editors and interns and throwing them into the ring. Back in 2008, Will Palmer, our then managing editor, learned to skydive for the magazine. One year later, research editor Ryan Krogh was given six months to become a cage-fighting champion. He drove to an MMA gym in Albuquerque five times a week, lost 25 pounds to get into the best shape of his life, and survived a few rounds in the octagon.

By comparison, my challenge was hardly a challenge: become a strong enough skier to skin up the the Santa Fe ski hill and ski down a blue run before work.

The month before I joined Keyes, I’d been on an all-out mission to become a better skier: a private lesson at Taos Ski Valley (those guys are crazy good), weekend ski days, and one-on-one coaching from our executive editor. I was linking parallel turns and had learned how to hockey stop. No, I hadn’t ever skinned up before. But I wasn’t really worried about the uphill. I figured it would be easy and good preparation for my hero video.

I knew I was in trouble the minute I lifted Keyes’s skis onto my roof. They were insanely light. Gliding out of the parking lot didn’t inspire any additional confidence. Each time I took a step forward it felt like I was lunging with cinder blocks strapped to my ankles. I had been so focused on the downhill that I hadn’t prepped for the uphill. And nobody had warned me about the pain. It didn’t get any better the higher we climbed. But I stayed close to Keyes. So by the time he decided to push it—he was training for a 25-mile skimo race—I’d been redlining for 45 minutes.

I continued to the top at my own pace. In the same time, Keyes skinned all the way up, skied down to me as I kept going, then skinned back up with me to share a gorgeous view of Santa Fe.

On the way down, I stopped cursing my skis and my boss. And for a blissful seven minutes, I fell in love with skiing.

Master It: Trail Running Newbie to Course Record Holder

Trail running can take a lot longer and have a completely different toll on your body than road running. Be prepared. Photo: giorgio1978/iStock

Master It: Trail Running Newbie to Course Record Holder

Professional road runner Tim Tollefson’s foray into trail running isn’t a traditional a zero-to-hero story, but the lessons he learned switching from pavement to dirt will help everyone, from beginner to the expert

In 2013, Tim Tollefson finished the California International Marathon in 2:18:29. It was the second-fastest race of his life, but still 30 seconds shy of the Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier he’d been chasing.

“I walked away disappointed, full of self-doubt, and depressed,” says Tollefson, an exercise physiologist and physical therapist based in Mammoth Lakes, California. “I was losing joy in a sport that is a huge part of who I am. I needed to reinvest in my passion for running and liberate myself from concern with mile splits or overall time.”

So last September, Tollefson entered the Flagline 50K in Bend, Oregon—his first trail 50K. He figured his tried-and-true marathon fueling strategy would suffice for the 31-mile endeavor. What he neglected to consider was that on a challenging trail, five miles can take twice as long to cover as it does on the roads.

The oversight cost him. At mile 24, Tollefson’s energy tanked. “As my body began failing, I found it increasingly hard to navigate any technical portions of the course,” he recalls. By mile 28, the bonk crescendoed. Tollefson caught his foot on a root and face-planted into a pile of rocks.

Tollefson went on to win the race and set the course record in 3:24—but he also discovered what so many people do when they take their running off-road: Trails make a totally different set of demands on your muscles, your mind, and your stomach. No matter how fit or fast you are, you have to prepare for the specific rigors of the trail.

Below, pros share their tips for moving a race off-road—while keeping your limbs, tendons, and ego in tact.

Pre-Run the Course

No one is born knowing how to negotiate rocks, roots, mud, ice, and gnarly climbs. That’s why you have to practice running on the same terrain you’ll face on race day, and ideally run the race course, says Ian Torrence, a Flagstaff-based ultrarunning coach with McMillan Running. If you can’t run the actual course, find a trail that mimics the elevation changes and technical terrain. No trails near you? Get creative. Run dirt hills, golf courses, office parks, or moguls. “Anyplace where you can get off the concrete and get off the even running surface will do,” he says.

Learn to Pace Without Gizmos

Measuring pace will be of limited use on the trails. You may lose your GPS signal. The number of minutes it takes you to cover each mile varies according to how technical the terrain is and whether you’re running uphill or down. Instead, listen to your body to determine how hard you’re working and to judge whether your speed is sustainable or if you need to slow down.

Train Your Gut

No matter how fast or fit you are, GI distress can derail you. If you underestimate your fueling needs or can’t take in the fuel you need to sustain your energy, you will hit the wall. Test different flavors, brands, and varieties of foods and drinks to figure out what gives you a boost without upsetting your stomach. If you’ll be out longer than you’ve been before, you may need to eat more on the road than you’re used to. That takes practice. And get used to fueling by minutes, not miles, advises Mike Smith, a 2:19 marathoner who is also a three-time winner of the 120-mile TransRockies Run stage race. Four miles on the roads can take you 40 minutes. On a gnarly trail, it might take you two hours. If you wait to fuel until you see a mile marker, you could already be running on empty.

Find a Comfy Pack

Get used to carrying more fluids and food on your person. Test out hydration vests, fuel belts, and handheld bottles before your race to figure out what feels most comfortable. “People who run on the roads are reluctant to carry things,” says Torrence, a 2:42 marathoner who has finished more than 180 ultramarathons. “Whatever weight and inconvenience it’s causing, in the end, the payoff is worth it by tenfold.”

Expect to Be Sore

Anytime you change anything, you have to give the body a chance to catch up. Transition to the trails gradually, advises Smith, who coaches women’s cross-country at Georgetown University. Trail running uses a lot of muscles in the feet, lower legs, hips, and glutes that don’t get worked on the road. Don’t be surprised if at first “you’re a little more sore in places you didn’t know could be sore,” Smith says. “Each step is different on the trails, in terms of the angles, impact, and force. The body is going to definitely feel that.”

Stop Neglecting Strength Training

To prepare for the trail, do exercises that work one leg at a time to become equally strong on both sides of the body. “With uneven terrain, those weaknesses on one side really come into play,” says Torrence. Drills where you’re barefoot on the grass, balancing on one foot, can help strengthen the tendons, ligaments, heels, toes, and arches, says Smith. Try this: Stand barefoot in the grass, balancing on one foot. Have someone toss you a medicine ball from high, low, left, and right angles. Do three sets, spending 30 seconds on each leg.

Watch Your Form

When you’re going uphill, lean slightly into the hill and drive with the legs. Pump your arms. Going downhill, take short quick steps and keep your body perpendicular to the surface. Don’t lean back, stick your feet in front of you, and brake with the legs. Stay upright and keep your feet under you, says Torrence.

Get Boy Scout Safe

Learn how to read topography maps, and study the area where you’ll be running before you go. If you’re uncomfortable training or racing on your own, buddy up. If you can get a cell signal, bring your phone. On training runs, tell someone where you’re going before you leave. Start with out-and-backs, and make note of any turns you take at intersections.

Let Go of Splits

Racing on the roads, the clock always looms. If you miss your mile splits, “you may freak out, knowing that every second counts,” says Tollefson. On the trails, where success is defined more by survival and overall place, not overall time and mile splits, “you learn to focus more on the terrain ahead and your nutritional plan.” For Tollefson, the difference has been liberating: “It allows me to do more of what I love with less stress.”

The Beginner's Perfect Trail Running Quiver

Lightweight gear that doesn't get in the way (or create blisters) will keep you on the trail longer. Photo: Ken Etzel/Courtesy of Patagonia

The Beginner's Perfect Trail Running Quiver

Gear to help you focus on your surroundings, not your blisters

Picking up a new sport is exhilarating, but corralling a new crop of gear can be expensive and intimidating. Fortunately, dialing in your trail running kit is a hassle-free proposition. All you need: a good pair of sneaks and a few choice pieces of lightweight technical apparel to head out the door and hit your stride. Here are the best options—for men and women—to help you transition from the road to the trail.

Patagonia Houdini Pullover ($89)

  Photo: Courtesy of Patagonia

Spring is the season of the windbreaker, and whether you’re running an exposed trail along the lakefront, traversing a high ridgeline, or jamming through your weekly hill intervals, the super-streamlined Patagonia Houdini will keep the chill at bay without slowing you down. Made from lightweight ripstop nylon with a wind-blocking DWR finish, this hoodless snap-top stuffs into its own pocket for easy stowage and weathers light drizzle respectably. Four snaps offer ample ventilation, and a stealth chest pocket stows a key, gel, or your iPod Nano, a nice companion when you’re ramping up your miles.

Lululemon Inspiration Tank ($58)

  Photo: lululemon athletica

This colorblock racerback top does double duty as technical trail tank and post-run athletic chic. Mesh T-back paneling lets in the cool breeze, while the smooth Light Luxtreme panels in the front and sides wick sweat as fast as you burn it. We love the long, lean fit that won’t ride up and the wide straps and back coverage that keep sunburn and chafing at bay. It’s a sweet piece you’ll want to wear even when you’re not running.

Hoka Challenger ATR Trail ($130)

  Photo: REI

In the past couple years, the shoe design pendulum has swung from minimalists all the way to fat and foamy maximalists, pioneered by Hoka and favored for the cushy yet lightweight ride that softens the impact but tends to be too high and squishy for steep, technical trails. Now Hoka seems to be easing ever so slightly into the middle with the Challenger ATR Trail, a slightly pared-down model with a 5 mm toe-to-heel drop and a 4 mm lug sole. At 7.4 ounces per shoe, the Challenger is just as bantam as the minimals but isn’t stacked so high that you’ll roll your ankles on roots and rocks—ideal for newbies looking for great grip and a little extra cushion.

UltrAspire Quantum 2.0 Waistbelt ($32)

  Photo: UltrAspire

For training days when you want to carry a few extra gels and supplies but aren’t ready to shoulder a pack, the UltrAspire Quantum 2.0 is an ideal bridge between too little and too much. The stretchy, barely there mesh fabric is unobtrusive and gently hugs your waist like a pair of yoga pants. Instead of a clunky belt attachment, the ingenious waist cord attaches easily via a small hook and locks down as snug or as loose as you like, eliminating bounce and the love-handle effect. Three pockets, including a zippered sleeve in back that’s long enough for your phone, stash a surprising amount of gear in a sleek, no-fuss package.

Brooks Infiniti Capri III ($68)

  Photo: Brooks Running

The only capris you’ll need in your quiver, the Brooks Infiniti III has a precision fit, with a hidden-drawstring waist that lies flat and stretchy compression that adds lightweight muscle support without constricting your stride. A sneaky zippered back pocket and subtle reflective details on the lower calf make your trail-to-road transition after dark a little less dodgy, and the snazzy patterns provide a welcome break from boring black.

Balega Blister Resist No Show ($13)

  Photo: Balega

The unsung hero of every runner’s kit, the right pair of socks can make the difference between limping home with blisters and flying free. Balega’s stellar lineup of South African–made performance trail socks features superfine wool polyester and wool yarns for lightweight coverage and natural air-conditioning as they transport moisture away from your skin. The Balega Blister Resist is one of the softest, snuggest socks on the market, with its reinforced heel and toe, mohair-blend footbed to ward off unwanted friction, and ample elastic heel tab to prevent the dreaded bunch-up behind your shoe. Happy dogs, happy running.

Running Skirts Ultra Swift ($49)

  Photo: Running Skirts

People love to hate running skirts. Too girly, too amateur, just plain silly. But I grew up playing tennis and lacrosse in skirts, and I never once felt like less of an athlete for it. This Running Skirts Ultra Swift is the do-it-all piece, with a sleek mid-thigh length that guarantees total leg freedom when you want to crank up your stride, a wide yoga-like waistband that won’t ride up, and a breathable built-in mesh liner that never chafes or droops. But the skirt’s real coup is its three savvy pockets: one on each hip and one in back, all with Velcro closures, for keeping essentials like fuel and tunes handy. Serious trail cred meets backcountry style.

SportHill XC 3SP Zip Top ($155)

  Photo: Sporthill

The half-zip is a staple of your running wardrobe because of its three-season versatility. Wear it against the skin on cooler days. On colder days, layer it over a base layer, and on the coldest days, with a wind-blocking vest. But even without a vest or base layer, the proprietary fabric in this SportHill XC 3SP shelters skin from gusts up to 35 miles per hour. The top’s long sleeves, with their generous thumbholes, work in a pinch if you’ve misplaced your gloves. A pocket on the shoulder holds essentials or media devices.

Lululemon Surge Tight ($98)

  Photo: lululemon athletica

While all tights may be formfitting, the Lululemon Surge Tight somehow fits a guy’s form better than other options we’ve tried. The Full-On Luxtreme fabric has a slippery sharkskin feel, but it turns away a stiff breeze well. Ventilated panels on the back of the knees dump excess heat and moisture. Though you’ll still need to wear a brief, Lululemon did include an additional inner panel over the groin to blur the outline of your man bits. Two side pockets and one back zip pocket let you stash energy gels and car keys.

The Transformation: Overcoming Being Born Not to Run

The pain, beauty, and nipple considerations of running for a really, really long time

The first thought that entered my head when my employer commandeered my body for two months of endurance running—the first dribble from the cloud of dread forming above me—was Oh, man, my poor nipples.

I vividly remember slews of joggers crossing the finish line during Run to the Farside on a rainy San Francisco morning. It was the early 1990s. One man came in with bright blood streaked down his soaked white T-shirt. It was then, when I was just a wee pup, that my mother explained to me the chafed-nipple effect.

I was horrified. I’d gone to the finish line to score some free swag only to meet face-to-nipple with wet, bloodied zombie runners. Ever since that moment, running, to me, has been a foreign and frightening endeavor.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, when I told my coworker Jon that I'd been selected for long-distance trail running—like a tribute in the Hunger Games—the first thing he said to me was, "Right on, dude. Let me know if you need help taping your nipples."


Eight weeks later, I've logged more than 180 miles, gobbled fistfuls of après-run hamburgers, and re-awakened a 15-year-dormant knee condition. (Osgood-Schlatter disease. It sucks.) I even ran 12 miles (almost) straight, and my nipples, I'm happy to report, are fully intact. But does all of that make me a hero?

When I set out on this journey, my colleagues and I debated what, exactly, I’d have to do to officially overcome zero status in trail running. Running differs from most sports in that you can do it anywhere, anytime, with little to no gear. And unless you suffer from a debilitating physical setback, progress is dictated more by willpower than skill.

Our other newly minted heroes had skill-based goals. Matt had to haul himself up a 5.8 route on top rope; Scott trained specifically to scoot down a blue run.

But nearly everyone can run. So would running fast make me a hero? Maybe. But I’m a newbie—an off-road newbie at that—so I wasn’t going for speed just yet. Would covering a certain distance make me a hero? Probably not. Anyone with enough grit can run really, really far. Ultrarunner Scott Jurek and I are doing essentially the same thing, he just does it longer.

Finally, we figured it out. As most runners have told me, running is a lifestyle. To become a hero, I’d have to like running.

So back in early January, my main concern—apart from preserving my virgin nipples—was getting my mind in the game. For the sake of pretending I was on-track to become a hero, I conjured an alter ego for myself—one who doesn’t hate running or suck at it.

“Blackbird?” said my coach, associate editor Meaghen Brown, when I told her about my run-happy other self. “That’s just stupid.” (Meaghen, by the way, is a nationally-ranked ultrarunner of most miraculous origin. Apparently, five years ago she discovered—practically on accident—that she could crank out 30-mile runs on a whim.)

It was the morning after my first trail run. Because Meaghen told me to, I’d run up a system of icy trails that crisscrosses a sprawling park in the hills above Santa Fe.

The earliest I could get there was after work on a 30-degree, pitch-black evening in January. I selected what appeared on the trail map to be a simple circuit, then clicked on my headlamp, gloved up, and headed into the frozen wilderness.

Partway through, I glanced at the fancy GPS watch Meaghen had handed me earlier that day. The watch said I’d slogged just under two miles in about 20 minutes. Sometime around then, I decided I relate to fictitious figures like Superman more than flesh-and-blood freaks like Meaghen. I formed Blackbird’s call-sign while lost in mid-bonk delirium.

As Blackbird, I pushed through nearly three more miles that first night for a grand total of 4.84. Maybe that’s farther than you’d expect from a true zero. But I was under orders to record at least four miles, and when you’re under that kind of peer pressure to perform (I’ll say it: Meaghen can be intimidating) and half-mad from oxygen deprivation, putting one foot in front of the other is about the only thing you can do.

I returned to find the parking lot at the trailhead empty. Apparently I was the only person foolish enough to clomp around in the snow. And my body was begging for a cheeseburger. Without pausing to stretch or even catch my breath, I dove into my car, phoned in a desperate takeout order, sped to the burger shop, then beelined it home and gorged.

I’d say that whole ordeal pretty much sums up my two-month relationship with running. There were moments of pain—deep-tissue aches developed in strange places on long runs that stayed around for weeks. There were a few revelations—fleece-lined running tights was a big one. There were mornings when I awoke with strange urges to lace up the shoes and go further—dig deeper—than the day before. There were Zen-like moments of mind-body-soul numbness. And there was a lot of boredom. Try standing still on the sidewalk for an hour and a half watching traffic. Running is a lot like that.

I no longer fear running, but I don’t love it either. I probably don’t suck quite as much as I first did, not because I’ve learned a new skill so much as exercised my resolve. I will say, as someone who enjoys a challenge, that it’s hard to pass up the opportunity to find out how much ground you can cover when the running shoes are staring at you from across the room each day. I still haven’t found out, and I’m still running. Does that mean I've achieved hero status?

The second thing I did after that first run—after phoning in the burger order—was text my co-worker, Jon: "Remind me tomorrow to ask you about my nipples."

How to Not Hate Running

  1. Like Born to Run author Chris McDougall says: Go easy, light, and smooth before you worry about moving fast. Endurance and intensity aren’t the same thing. You can go for a long time and cover some real distance if you take it easy.
  2. Try running in different types of shoes. I’ve run in cheap basketball high-tops with flat soles because the heel and ankle support feels amazing.
  3. Keep your back straight. It makes me feel slower, but also more in control.
  4. If you’re running in cold, dry weather, put on Chapstick. This was a revelation for me.
  5. Find new places to run but get familiar with a specific circuit. Switching up the terrain helped keep my interest. But getting to know a spot inside and out (La Tierra, I own you) helped me measure my improvement more easily.
  6. Bring something interesting to listen to. Music doesn’t really do it for me on a long run. The podcast Serial got me through some long, dark, cold miles. If you’re like me and your brow sweat somehow works its way into your ear and causes your earbuds to lose their stick, think about investing in buds with an ear brace, like any of these..
  7. Go for gear with thumbholes. On long runs, sometimes my hands would get itchy (They’re probably not used to being away from a keyboard for more than an hour). I’d hook my thumbs into the sleeves of my running jacket and it helped stabilize my hands. Weird trick, but it worked.
  8. Find people who like running and talk to them about it. The first week I started, I read Born to Run for inspiration during those long trail miles. Luckily, I also work in an office where half the people run regularly. They answered a lot of stupid questions and smiled through my misguided bragging.
  9. Try jogging at random times. I’d jog home from the office sometimes (it takes five minutes), or start jogging in boots during a weekend hike. It’s a reminder that running is something you can do anywhere, anytime, for free, for pleasure. It doesn’t always need to be a task measured in steps, miles, minutes or ounces of sweat.
Master It: Become a Rock Climber at Any Age

Focus on technique over power if you're just starting out. Photo: Leonardo Pallotta/Flickr

Master It: Become a Rock Climber at Any Age

Tips from legend Lee Sheftel, who sent his first 5.14 after his 59th birthday

Lee Sheftel’s climbing career began in 1980 during a hike up one of the Flatirons in Boulder, Colorado. That’s when he decided to scramble up some rocks on the side of the trail and found himself in the middle of a face, hundreds of feet above the ground.

“I got scared shitless. I realized that if I slipped, I was going to die,” recalls Sheftel, an accountant in Carbondale, Colorado. “So I had to climb myself out of this situation—and I did, obviously without dying. But I realized I needed to learn how to use ropes.”

Sheftel was 33 then, a very late start by climbing standards. Still, the former competitive runner who had completed marathons poured himself into it.

When he was 59, Sheftel sent his first 5.14: The Whole Shot at Maple Canyon. He was likely the oldest person to have ever done so at the time. In a sport where conventional wisdom says athletes hit their stride in their teens and 20s, Sheftel ticked a grade that was thought almost unfathomable. It made him an instant legend.

Now 68, Sheftel is still a regular at Rifle, Colorado, where he continues to climb hard. In September, he sent Eulogy, a bouldery 5.13b. For fellow late bloomers thinking about starting to climb, he has a simple message: It’s never too late.

Start with the Basics

When Sheftel got into the sport 35 years ago, climbers trained for their ascents by, well, climbing. Logging time on the rock, rather than pounding out weights at the gym, is still the best way for beginners to build essential climbing skills.

“You don’t really want to train until you know how to climb,” says Sheftel. “You don’t want to go into the gym and think that just because you can do 50 pullups, or because you can do finger-hangs with 8,000 pounds hanging from you, that you’re suddenly going to be a rock star.”

Focus on training technique, rather than power. Climbing easy endurance routes lets you practice moving efficiently without straining your muscles. If you’re not averse to pulling plastic, climbing indoors is also a convenient way to up your mileage.

At the end of the day, Sheftel recommends burning any energy you have left by picking a climb you know you can do and running laps on it. If you want to incorporate bouldering into your workout, use caution: Newbies with good upper-body strength, like gymnasts, may adapt easily to the intense, dynamic moves, but less-prepared novices run the risk of injury.

Drop Those Pounds

Climbing is a struggle against gravity: The more excess fat and muscle you carry, the more weight you’ll have to haul up the wall with you. Slimming down is an easy way to get an advantage.

“If you are overweight, the first step would be to just get into general shape and get fit,” says Sheftel. You don’t need to be supermodel skinny to climb, but you’ll enjoy an instant performance boost if you can get down to your fighting weight.

Teenage climbers can get away with eating almost anything. As adults, we aren’t so lucky, as our snacking readily translates to extra pounds.

A self-described “health nut,” Sheftel eats almost all organic and, apart from a weakness for potato chips and dark chocolate, eschews junk food. As spring arrives, however, he cuts outs even those vices to drop excess winter weight.

“No bullshit,” he says. “Don’t overeat. Don’t eat too late at night.” While Sheftel doesn’t recommend pounding protein, he does down a protein-heavy drink or snack within half an hour to an hour of working out to boost recovery.

Don’t Forget to Cross-Train

Climbers do a lot of pulling, building up their upper backs, forearms, and biceps while leaving triceps, shoulders, and pectorals weak. “They overuse certain muscles and underuse others,” says Sheftel. “And not only is that bad for your posture and bad for your overall fitness, but it also can lead to injury.”

To stave off imbalances, get into the habit of working out your neglected “push” muscles. Sheftel incorporates a routine of pushups and shoulder stretching and strengthening exercises into his training. If you don’t do yoga already, consider adding a few basic poses—like downward- and upward-facing dog, cat pose, and hare pose—to your workout.

Train Hard, Rest Hard

Just because you aren’t a youngblood anymore doesn’t mean you can’t work out like one. “You need to be more careful. You need to warm up more. But I’m 68, and I do campusing and hangboarding,” says Sheftel. “I do all the things that these 20-year-old kids do.”

When it comes to recovering from those workouts, however, younger and older climbers are very different. “When you’re 17, 18, 19, you just go to sleep at night and you’re rested,” says Sheftel. In contrast, Sheftel takes two to three days off after a hard climbing session.

With Age Comes Wisdom

Older adults may not be as resilient or quick to pack on muscle as climbers in their teens or 20s, but they have one definite advantage: patience.

“Many times, you get these young climbers and they’re just impatient,” says Sheftel. “They’re impatient on the rock; they rush their moves. They get impatient about sending the route.”

Climbing can be a frustrating sport, especially for beginners who feel like they’re making little progress for how much effort they’re putting in. But resist the urge to overtrain, focus on the long game, and the gains will build up.

The Beginner's Perfect Rock Climbing Quiver

Beginners shouldn't be spending major money on gear—just focus on comfort and ease of use. Photo: vernonwiley/iStock

The Beginner's Perfect Rock Climbing Quiver

You need only the essentials, but make sure you know what to look for

Don’t worry about buying the perfect setup for your first trip to the crag. You’ll be best served by partnering with a mentor who can teach you about the gear that works best on your local wall. Chances are your mentor can even initially lend you some products (like a rope).

That said, some basic beginner equipment is designed to help novice climbers learn the sport. These bare-bones essential will get you on your way and transform you from a rope-hugging newbie into a master who can send a 5.14.

Black Diamond Momentum Harness ($55)

black diamond momentum harness
  Photo: Black Diamond

The versatile Black Diamond Momentum works for year-round use thanks in part to its adjustable leg loops. The waistbelt uses Speed Adjust technology, a great option for beginners because it eliminates all the guesswork from fitting the harness. Bottom line: It’s a durable, comfortable option at an unbeatable price.

Evolv Royale ($89)

evolv royale climbing shoes
  Photo: Evolv

Beginner climbing shoes should be comfortable and inexpensive. Don’t buy shoes with an aggressively downturned toe—those are designed to give climbers great rock feel, but they’re painfully uncomfortable. We found the Evolv Royale to be perfect for novices because of its leather upper that gently hugged our feet. The mesh tongue breathed well and offered a bit of padding when we cinched down the laces. And the stiff soles offered a stable platform to help us with footwork.

Petzl Bandi Chalk Bag ($20)

petzl bandi chalk bag
  Photo: Petzl

You’ll want your own chalk bag even if you’re climbing mostly indoors. The stuff gives you a much better grip when your hands get sweaty. We like the Petzl Bandi because it’s inexpensive, unobtrusive, and lightweight (75 grams). We also like how the well-designed enclosure prevents chalk from coating the rest of your gear in white.

Prana Bronson Pant ($75)

prana bronson pant
  Photo: Prana

Okay, you don’t technically need a $75 climbing pant—any relatively tight-fitting pair will do just fine. But we like the Prana Bronson because its 98 percent cotton weave feels great next to skin while being stretchy enough to move with you thanks to a hint of spandex. The canvas material, with triple-needle stitching and inseam gusset, makes these pants very durable. Expect them to last for years even after lots of abuse at the crag.

Black Diamond ATC Belay Device ($18)

black diamond atc belay device
  Photo: Black Diamond

Possibly the most important tool in your climbing quiver, a belay device works as a brake on a rope, letting you arrest any falls your partner might take. We haven’t found any that are easier to use than the minimalist Black Diamond ATC. It’s not the type of device you’ll outgrow, and like everything else Black Diamond makes, it’s bomber.

Giddy Organics Cedar Mint Balm ($6)

giddy cedar mint balm
  Photo: Giddy

Your hands are going to hurt like hell when you’re learning to climb. Trust us: Taking care of them from the start will make the experience much more enjoyable. While there are lots of dry-skin-fighting balms out there, we like this Giddy Organics Cedar Mint Balm because it gives a cooling sensation that soothes sore muscles and helps heal small wounds.

John Long’s How to Rock Climb!

You can only learn so much from a book, but supplementing lessons from a mentor with wisdom from this classic by climbing legend John Long will serve you better than any other item on this list. This is one of the most comprehensive books for beginner climbers on the planet. Buy it first!

The Transformation: Fear of Heights Meets Rock Climbing

When you leave your comfort zone, that's when you really grow.

Do what intimidates you. It’s my mantra for a simple reason: it always leads to something amazing.

I am afraid of heights. And not just in an I-don’t-like-it kind of way, but in a nauseating, the-world-is-spinning sort of way. So I’ve zip-lined (piece of cake), hiked nontechnical 20,000-foot peaks (vertiginous and, in the Andes, coca leaf addled), skydived (tandem, nearly puked), hang-glided (tandem, on a date with the instructor, pretending I liked it), and cliff jumped (beer plus Hawaii…).

Rock climbing, however, has been off-limits. As in: no f*cking way. Too dangerous, too technical, and there’s no going tandem. Besides, I still can’t shake that dramatic opening scene from Cliffhanger. But with some prodding and the guidance of editor Matt Skenazy, I finally strapped on a harness.

I quickly learned that there is more to climbing than just hanging out in high places. Like strength. A half hour into my first session at the climbing gym, I excused myself to go eat. I was starving, but really I was concerned about my hands, which had been white-knuckle squeezing the colorful knobs that made up the course on the wall. Never before had the cracked skin on my hands ached so badly. And I couldn’t bend my fingers. When I tried to type a text to a friend, it came out in fluent gibberish, and I couldn’t blame Autocorrect. Driving home, I could barely grip the steering wheel.

Any experienced climber will tell you—as Alex Honnold pointed out to me when I asked him for some advice over email—that beginners should focus foremost on footwork. But even if you do, you’re still using finger, forearm, and back muscles. They’re an underutilized group and require concentration; if you don’t want to fall, you must laser-focus on these muscles while strategizing the best route up the wall. The result, fellow acrophobics might be excited to hear: You’ll have no energy left to get dizzy with fear. Yippee!

After one more go at the gym, Skenazy and I took the operation outside. And everything changed.

Diablo Canyon in Santa Fe offers a spectacular 300-foot wall of rust-colored basalt that could have been in a scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Much better looking than the inside of a gym, it was also freezing on the day we arrived. And, you know, it’s made of real rocks, which are sharp and feel like ice cubes when they’re cold. Those fiberglass knobs in the gym, favorably colored to show me the way up? Gone. The climbing gym’s padded flooring? Nope. Before me was a steeply inclined, vermilion stone wall with skull-cracking scree at the bottom.

This wall was the endgame. Mastering it would be proof that I’d gone from Gumby to bomber climber who could lead a 40-foot-tall, 5.8-level climb with at least one Genghis crux.

Genghis, huh? Ah yes, if you want to learn to climb, you’ll also have to learn the language, or “you'll be left scratching your head,” Cedar Wright, a climber with The North Face, told me a few days later. “Climbing is so much about communication between you and your partner, it’s important to know what’s going on,” he said. There’s no way to explain even the basics of climbing lingo here—it’s easier to understand than Spanish but harder than Irish brogue. Just know that I had to go from rookie to crackerjack, learn the essentials of the route, and be the guy who clips the rope from the bottom of the rock face to the top on a beginner route that has one intermediate section.

When you “lead”—clipping the rope in first—it means that if you fall, you’ll sustain a much more dangerous drop (but not to the ground) than had you been “top roping,” which is the phrase for going up after the rope has already been laid out. The task on my first day at Diablo Canyon was to top rope the 5.8.

In doing so, I quickly discovered the most meaningful aspect of climbing: you need incredible mental stamina and the will to survive. Dramatic? Maybe. But when you’re clinging to whatever naturally occurring grips you can find on a cold, hard wall so you don’t feel the horror of falling and then slam into a crag, the sport starts to mirror a prolonged life-or-death situation in which no one’s coming to the rescue. Well, except your trusted belayer, the guy on the ground who’s holding you in place. When you start feeling exhausted, you can scream, “Take,” and the belayer will pull on the rope, holding you in place as you recharge. Still, taking isn’t a strategy, Skenazy had to tell me more than once; it’s a last resort.

When your energy gets low, hands start to numb, and you’re not sure which way to go—and any mistake could lead to an injury—how will you act? Will you persevere? Prove yourself? Give up? Take a break every two minutes? Pee your pants?

I wanted to do all of those things all at once. And I may have taken lots of breaks, but eventually I barreled through the fear (rookie tip: think about food—it helps!), the aches, the cold, the uncertainty of the route, and the voice in my head that told me to just give up and settle into a life of stand-up paddleboarding. After a few falls, scrapes, encouragement from my coach, and a good 30 minutes of being stuck on a two-inch ledge while talking to myself like a crazy man, I made it to the top.

The process was tedious but worth it. For one thing, there was the view! But also, as I perched at the end of the route in a nook meant only for birds, I felt awesome, my adrenalin-infused relief mixed with pride. It was like how you feel after you find your lost phone, combined with finishing a marathon.

After a while at the top, I peeked down—and you know what? The world didn’t spin, nor had it been merry-go-rounding the entire time. Had rock climbing just cured my fear of heights?

It had, for the moment. And then it was time to be lowered back down—an operation that should have taken all of two seconds, but now that my concentration was freed up, it ended up being a little trickier (read: spinnier). I remembered a toddler in the boulder room at the gym. He was dangling from a nub about six feet off the floor (no harness or ropes), giggling and saying “Magic!” to his parents, who didn’t look nearly as concerned as I felt. Out on Diablo, I was completely strapped in and still couldn’t bring myself to lean back over the four stories of empty space. It’s funny how children have no fear. And how they believe they are magic. Kinda like adult rock climbers. Anyway, soon I found my calm and bounced down the wall, Mission Impossible-style.

Over the next four weeks, I hit the climbing gym nearly every day and practiced at Diablo Canyon a few more times with my coach. A month after first putting on that awkward harness, I successfully led the climb without falling (or taking too many breaks).

Knowing I tried my hardest would have made me content. Succeeding would have been a bonus. But the real win came in doing both things and in discovering that—lo and behold—I like rock climbing! And in the process, I wrestled with and overcame my fear of heights yet again.