SGPT: Tell us about yourself?
TJ: I’m a writer living in Boston with my wife, Gretchen, our 2-year-old son, Milo, and our pound puppy, Lucy. I’m 52. I
grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I originally studied acting and playwriting, but after running my first marathon in 1989, Big Sur, I was pulled as if by magnetic forces toward endurance athletics, and eventually began writing about running and triathlon in the early 1990s.
My best marathon time was 2:38 and I would eventually complete five Ironmans.
In around 1994, I ran a 4:06 1500-meter race after I sought out to see if I had any speed.
By 1996, I had joined the staff of Triathlete Magazine. Between then and 2012 I served as editor-in-chief of Triathlete Mag, Inside Triathlon, Competitor Magazine, and in the end of that time frame oversaw all of those titles plus VeloNews, a cycling magazine. By 2010, however, I was pretty beat up from 20 years of racing everything from the 800 meters to the Ironman. Magnetic forces again entered the picture and I was fortunate enough to meet and write about pioneers like Brian MacKenzie (CrossFit Endurance) and Kelly Starrett (MobilityWOD). They had tremendous impact on me and I’ve been on a new path ever since—and this was part of the reason I left working on a magazine staff to exclusively writing articles and books. That path led to Mark Divine and SEALFIT. In October of 2013, I pitched an article to Outside Magazine on Coach Divine’s Kokoro Camp. I remember pushing the “send” button on the email and thinking, “What if they say yes?” They said yes. This was about six weeks before Milo was born. In 2014, I went to Kokoro Camp in June. I detailed the story for Outside, but I didn’t make it through the first day of the camp. It was in 2014 that I co-authored two books, one with MacKenzie and one with Starrett, both on the subject of running.
SGPT: Did you have an athletic background growing up?
TJ: I did. I played football from 11 years of age through high school. I also ran track.
SGPT: How did you train for the Kokoro event?
TJ: We lived in Palo Alto at the time. I did workouts at Amity CrossFit along with running workouts, long rucks and also workouts from SEALFIT GrinderPT. I definitely got into phenomenal shape. I am sure that at no point in my life as an athlete I would have been able to do some of the workouts I did in the build-up to Kokoro. I loved learning that I could get a great workout in an empty field with nothing more than a canvas backpack and a couple of sand bags.
SGPT: Tell us a more about the event? Where was it?
TJ: It was at SEALFIT HQ in Encinitas. Ironically, I had once lived in Encinitas and know the beach well. I recall laughing to myself as we descended the staircase to Moonlight Beach in our tactical pants, boots and white-shirts, into a surf-and-sun-tan crowd of kids completely shocked by the rush of our cohorts down to the sand.
SGPT: What was hardest part of the event?
TJ: I recall feeling, in the first breakout, a bit of relief. It was hard and chaotic, but I actually felt strong. But my appraisal was incorrect. It’s all in the Outside story—the big picture is that I suffered a textbook bonk. I hit the wall and my body shut down (at one point I lost consciousness carrying two kettebells across the grinder), and even after drinking about 2000 calories of an energy drink one of the coaches gave me, I couldn’t restart the engine. During the surf torture phase of the day, I was kicked out of the evolution because I was bonking again. About an hour after that I dropped out.
SGPT: What is one thing you wish you would have done to get ready for Kokoro?
TJ: Here is my post-mortem list:
In hindsight—and after having learned a lot about sleep and sleep deprivation’s effect on performance through Dr. Kirk Parsley, MD, (former SEAL who has worked extensively with SEALs in an effort to help the mitigate the challenges they face with sleep), I should have either schedule Kokoro the year before Milo was born or until he was 1 and half and sleeping regularly. As it was, Milo—like most infants 0-to-4 or so months—woke up a lot during the night. So sleep was irregular at best. I once remember falling asleep between sets of deadlifts at a CrossFit workout. I don’t know the sum total of the effect the sleep loss had on my training, but my guess is that my metabolism wasn’t where it should have been by the time Kokoro came around. I recall thinking, “Hey, all of this waking up at 1am, 3am and 5am each night is good for my Kokoro training.” I no longer think that.
Raised the standards on myself. It was about three weeks before Kokoro that I met the performance standards for the event. What I would do differently would be to shoot for and secure performances a notch or two (at least) above those standards. Rather than being able to do 50 pushups in two minutes, for example, if I was doing it over again I would bump that up to 60 pushups—before I started a three or four month push for Kokoro. While Kokoro is designed as more of a mental and spiritual challenge—with an emphasis on team—I think (especially for older participants) that you need some physical buffer there. I also think I would add in a specific set of strength standards for myself: Squat, tire flipping included.
Mobility. One of the challenges presented by Kokoro is that you really need to demonstrate a high level of functional conditioning, and the base of that conditioning should be a high level of shoulder, hip and ankle mobility. There’s a reason Mark Divine is a big yoga fan.
Diet. I’ve learned a great deal about nutrition since my attempt at Kokoro. Nutrition is a real tricky thing when it comes to Kokoro—which combines high-intensity, ultra-endurance and sleep deprivation. I interviewed Robb Wolf on the subject and he told me that if he were coaching someone for Kokoro, it would involve a lot of testing to see what works best for the athlete. I think he would advise a very specific carbohydrate strategy so that the athlete is both fat-adapted and also chock full of muscle and liver glycogen when the event starts. You need it all when it comes to Kokoro-an ability to burn body fat efficiently but also an ability to surge with great amounts of energy and force, and to recover quickly when the chances are given.
Really invested myself more in the Unbeatable Mind program of Mark Divine’s. Another huge mistake I made was not giving due diligence to the breathing and meditation work. In reviewing my mistakes, I realized that whenever the coaches got in my face on the Grinder, I let it get to me. It turned into rage—all of which, I’m sure, helped me burn through my stored glycogen much faster than I needed to—helping bring on the bonk that did me in.
SGPT: Any tips for up and coming athletes that want to do Kokoro?
TJ: Another mistake I made was doing most of my training alone. Kokoro is a team event, really—even though you might not know the others joining you there, you will know them in a fast and furious way. I think an ideal situation would be to have a good coach and a good crew of athletes to train with, even if you’re just getting together once-per-week for long SEALFIT-type challenges, or the more challenging sessions from the SEALGrinderPT build-up plan.
Along with learning everything you can about what diet works best for you, I’d suggest really digging into what Kirk Parsley has to say about sleep. Sleeping right is the best way to get the most out of your training.
TJ: The Nike SFB Special Field Boots
SGPT: Did you use double socks or body glide on your feet to prevent blisters?
TJ: I used a liner along with a 511 Tactical socks.
SGPT: What kind of ruck did you use for training and the event?
TJ: The canvas ruck sack they use at Kokoro. I bought it through NavySEALs.com.
SGPT: What book are you reading now?
TJ: Cormac McCarthy’s “Child of God”
SGPT: Many thanks for the interview TJ.
TJ: Thanks Brad! Keep up the great work.