5 Weeks to Go: The Check-up

February 22nd, 2015

In just 5 short weeks I’ll hopefully be in Houston competing in American Ninja Warrior 7 and striving once more for my dream of making the National Finals and getting to step on the hallowed course of Mt. Midoriyama.  I say “hopefully” because I haven’t received an official invite to the Houston round, nor has anybody else.  While my anxiety about getting invited has definitely increased this past week after they issued invites to the Venice region, and notably didn’t invite many veterans and stars from earlier seasons, I also try to stick to my mantra of “act as if” I’ve already been invited, and focus on the things within my control, specifically training hard in preparation for stepping on the course should the call come.

So with 5 weeks to go I thought it a good exercise to evaluate myself according to my preparation plan I laid out in my “The Road to American Ninja Warrior 7” blog post I wrote 3 months ago as a reality check.  In general, whether in American Ninja Warrior or in life, I like to set specific goals and plans for myself, and periodically check in against them to measure my progress.  It makes for a certain degree of accountability, and helps focus my attentions on the right activities to get to my desired destination.  For each of the 5 areas of focus I outlined, I’ll give myself a grade and a brief summary.

CORE STRENGTH & FLEXIBILITY:  B+

Recovering from one of my worst ninjuries yet, a torn abdominal muscle in the fall of 2013 which hindered my American Ninja Warrior 6 preparation, I was determined to build a stronger core than ever.  Then a random conversation with super-ninja Drew Drechsel about the importance of a strong dynamic core reinforced my desire to make this a major focus of my ANW7 preparation.  I’ve been following my plan and feel stronger than ever, and feel no residual pain from my ab tear.  For flexibility, I’ve been going to yoga about once a week for the last several months, and doing more stretching for my shoulders, forearms, and hands than ever before.

GRIP STRENGTH:  C-  (or N/A)

After getting an awesome grip board for my house for Christmas to train at home, I unfortunately sprained my thumb in ninja training pretty badly five weeks ago.  A bad ulnar collateral ligament strain, and a couple of small avulsion fractures, has prevented me from training the way I had envisioned.  But I have been grinding the rehab, and I should be ready to roll in five weeks.  Who knows?  Maybe the unconventional grip rehab I have been doing (and putting my “good hand” through as well for balance) might have me stronger than before since I’ve been maniacally focused on it in order to recover in time for the competition.  Side note:  rehab hurts.

WEIGHT:  C

Not doing awesome here.  This is a source of frustration.  I have been dieting hard earlier than ever before, but my weight has not been dropping like I expected.  I can tell that my body fat is quite a bit lower as I feel I am “competition lean” already (for me), but the absolute number of my weight has not dropped to where I want it to be.  Still hovering between 215 and 220, when I expected to already be at 210 by now.  Last year was my lightest ever for competition at about 210, and I thought I could get to “light heavyweight” at 205 this year.  I’m realizing that is not going to happen without something dire, but if I can get to a healthy 210 for this season I’ll be relatively happy.  Still, frustrated that I haven’t done better here because I’m been really watching what I eat and exercising regularly.  Side note:  dieting sucks.

BALANCE:  B

Balance is feeling pretty good, and getting a slack line at home and working on it regularly when I go to the playground with my three sons has yielded some nice progress.  Ironically, pushing the envelope on balance is what lead to my thumb injury!  I have a feeling that a tough balance obstacle is lining up for Houston, so want to be ready here.  I also definitely think my work on a strong dynamic core has helped my overall balance.  Still, I’m going to be working hard here in the next five weeks before the competition to be as ready as possible.

OBSTACLE PRACTICE:  C

My injured thumb the last five weeks has derailed my plan to get more practice on actual competition-grade obstacles at places like Alpha Warrior and Iron Sports in Houston.  My thumb is just not ready for tough obstacles right now, but should be in a few weeks.  However, I usually like to shut down my hard training in the last couple of weeks before the actual competition to avoid over-training and last minute injuries, so I might not get too much actual obstacle practice before the competition.  I did get some great practice in the fall while traveling a lot, hitting Alpha Warrior, the new Ninja Park in Albuquerque, and the 323 Training Ground in LA, so that averages me to a C grade here.

Overall I’d give myself a C+ or B- largely because of the recent thumb injury limiting me.  Other than that, I’d been feeling pretty strong and making good progress in the dimensions that I’ve focused on.  In the past, the seasons where I only recovered from an injury just in time to compete (ANW4 and ANW6) were my best seasons ironically, when I think I was just happy to be able to compete and had fun on the course.  Hopefully that will be the case again!  Regardless of the bumps in the road, the goal for American Ninja Warrior 7 is the same – #VegasOrBust!

The Road to American Ninja Warrior 7 – #VegasOrBust

November 30th, 2014

VegasWhile for viewers the American Ninja Warrior 6 season only recently concluded with the airing of the final episodes in September, for me over a half year has past since my season ended in the water below the Ring Toss in the Dallas Finals.  In some ways the season was satisfying – I got selected to compete again for my fifth season, which is always an honor and thrill, and I advanced to the Dallas Finals having been just one of 21 competitors out of around 150 to complete the tough Dallas Qualifying course.  In other ways it was a disappointment, primarily because I failed to achieve a major goal I’ve had since I first dreamed of competing in Ninja Warrior, and that is to advance to the National Finals in Vegas and try my hand at the pimpin’ massive replica of the legendary 4-stage course of Sasuke in Japan.  Two of the last three seasons I’ve fallen just short of this goal by ending my run in the City/Regional Finals only a couple of obstacles before where I needed to get to in order to advance to the National Finals, and it hurts.  I’ve been marinating in that disappointment a lot the last few months and been thinking hard about what I have to do to make it to that next level.

With the American Ninja Warrior season about five months away scheduled to begin sometime in the spring, I thought I’d share with you how I’m preparing for the 2015 season, and what I’m doing to make my dream of earning my way into the National Finals in Vegas a reality.  Here are the five aspects of my training that are at the top of my list in order of focus:

CORE STRENGTH & FLEXIBILITY

One way to get better at anything is to seek the advice of somebody better than you.  Much better than you.  A few months back I had the chance at a training workshop to talk with Drew Drechsel, who is one of the top guys of our sport and a transcendent parkour and ninja athlete, and he shared with me his view that a powerful and flexible core is the most important attribute on the course.  He acknowledged that grip strength of course is incredibly important, but that core often gets overlooked, and is just as important if not more important in the earlier rounds before the latter stages in the National Finals that are grip-intensive.  Given this advice, and that a year ago I badly tore an abdominal muscle that had me on the shelf right up until American Ninja Warrior 6, my top area of focus for preparing for next season is to build a powerful, integrated core.  I’ve always considered myself to have a strong core, but have never really worked hard at it much, and am beginning to realize as I start training my core more frequently that I was deluding myself before.  I’ve asked those in the ninja community for their favorite core exercises and received some phenomenal suggestions, and while my goal is to not get too addicted to any particular core workout but to “mix it up” to train my core for different functional movements, there are a few staple exercises that I find myself using a lot these days:  plank variations, hollow body rockers, and hanging windshield wipers.  So a combination of preparing for American Ninja Warrior 7 and rehabbing from one of the worst injuries of my life has put core strength and flexibility at the top of my training focus this off-season.

GRIP STRENGTH

Anybody who has ever competed or even just watched much Ninja Warrior will say that having a kung fu iron grip is absolutely critical on the course.  And that’s because it’s true.  When I used to rock climb regularly my grip strength was pretty good, but my demanding schedule with work and family doesn’t allow me to go climbing often, and my grip has definitely deteriorated from its peak.  At the same time I see the insane grip workouts that many of my fellow ninjas are putting themselves through (looking at you Jamie Rahn), and I feel a grip strength gulf widening between me and the competitors that routinely achieve my goal of making the National Finals.  So the reality is clear to me that I need to more programmatically work on my grip strength.  I’m dealing with some bicep tendonitis that I need to rest to heal, so a number of training exercises (including climbing) that would be obvious choices for me to work on my grip strength are off the table, so I’ll have to focus on some other exercises that won’t tax my bicep.  For Christmas I’ll be asking for a climbing board so I can train at home in the evenings, and plan to work the various grip and hang exercises.  I’ll also do the Shaolin finger hand exercises in a bucket of rice that a lot of climbers do to rehab injuries and build balanced grip and tendon strength.  I did this last season when I was on the shelf with my ab injury, and it is a ferocious grip regimen that really helped me prepare for the competition when other grip exercises were totally unavailable to me due to my ab tear.

I also have some grip attachments (pipes and skinny ropes) that I can hook up to my kids’ playset in the backyard, and practice on those.  Skinny ropes in particular for me represent a real weakness, and I know I need to get MUCH better on rope and vertical grips in order to make the National Finals, so will be focusing on that in the next five months before competition.  I’ll start with extended hangs, then close transitions, and then leaping graps.  Kung fu iron grip here I come!

WEIGHT

Last season I competed at my lightest weight in my five American Ninja Warrior seasons when I got down to 208 lbs.  It was the lowest I’ve been in almost 10 years, and I felt good and light on my feet.  However, after the competition my weight pretty rapidly returned to its natural “homeostatis” weight of about 220.  I recently had pretty hard training sessions on actual obstacles during trips to Albuquerque and Los Angeles, and I felt very heavy at 220.  Even at 208, I’m one of the heavier competitors in the competition, and this is a big disadvantage for me.  Although I’m clearly delusional to some degree, as evidenced by my competing in American Ninja Warrior at age 43 in the first place, I’m fairly realistic about certain things too.  And one of those things is how much weight I could possibly lose for American Ninja Warrior 7, having relevant data points of how much weight I was able to lose in my sincere attempts to lighten up prior to past competitions.

At the beginning of November I stepped on the scale and weighed an even 220, and clocked in at 16% body fat.  I’m slightly ashamed by that second number, I know there are many ninjas out there who are going to say “Damn!  That’s a fat ninja right there!”  Pretty much every ninja I know would have single-digit numbers for their body fat.  These are some lean fine-tuned athletes.  So I acknowledge that I am not lean at 220 lb and 16%, but it gives me some motivation that (1) I’ve been able to compete pretty well even at this big fatty size, and (2) I have some non-productive weight to shed to get to a lighter weight while not sacrificing muscle.  With almost a half year from the beginning of November to the spring when competition most likely will happen, I feel pretty good about putting out a weight target of 205 lbs (meaning I’d lose 2.5 lbs a month from now until then) and get down to 11% body fat, which would mean 11 of the 15 pounds I’d drop would be pure fat.  If I can hit that goal, I’d feel that I’d done better for American Ninja Warrior 7 than I’d been able to do any other season in this dimension.

BALANCE

Balance is a skill that a lot of ninjas overlook, and they simply hope that they won’t get a brutal balance obstacle in the Qualifying course that begins the competition.  I think there are a large number of American Ninja Warrior competitors who have ridiculous balance from backgrounds in parkour and gymnastics, and while there aren’t very many true balance obstacles in the competition, usually each season a couple of the regions have a tough balance obstacle that reaches out and bites a number of accomplished competitors in the City Qualifying and Finals rounds.  This year that was the Slack Ladder in Venice Beach, which knocked off legendary parkour pro Jesse La Flair (among others), and the Dancing Stones in in Miami which slayed top guys like Idoko Abuh, William Brown, and Brett Sims.  Last year in Dallas our “balance obstacle” was the Tilting Table, which was quite easy, and I have a feeling that we’ll get a more challenging balance obstacle next season.  Balance is not a hard thing to randomly train, so I hop up on beams and rails and practice walking on them whenever I have the chance, and I also bought a kid & beginner friendly slack line that I practice on with my kids on the weekends.  Slack lines are pretty fun, and great balance practice!  My goal is to be ready and confident for whatever balance obstacle they throw my way in American Ninja Warrior 7.

OBSTACLE PRACTICE

While I don’t believe practicing all day long on actual obstacles guarantees success when you encounter them on the course, there is simply no substitute for getting practice on actual obstacles to practice technique and build the psychological confidence that you can surmount similar obstacles when it’s game day.  Sadly I don’t have many actual obstacles at my disposal to train on, and am at a disadvantage to the guys and gals who have obstacle course gyms at their disposal where they can get hundreds of reps of practice.  I’ve never really had ready access to the obstacles though, and have always found a way on my work travels to visit fellow ninjas at their gyms and get some training time and advice from them that I rely on when the competition rolls around.  I’ll continue this approach, and hope to get to places like Alpha Warrior in San Antonio and Iron Sports in Houston a few times before the competition to drill technique and build confidence.  In particular I’m really hoping to build skills in the peg board, which I have a strong feeling we might see in Dallas this year, and the Rolling Escargot which is death to big men and very technique-oriented.  I’m also really hoping to get more experience on some of the vertical grip and rope obstacles as I know I really need to build up my skills and confidence there too.

So for the record those are the five areas, in approximate order, for my preparation and training for American Ninja Warrior 7.  Hopefully I can stay injury-free (always a big ‘if’ for ninjas) and can break through in American Ninja Warrior 7 to realize my longtime dream of making the National Finals in Vegas to compete with the very best obstacle course runners on the toughest course in America.  Vegas or bust baby!

Pour a 40 on the Ground for G4

November 19th, 2014

G4 is officially dead.  Long live G4!  For many of us watching Sasuke reruns and the first 3 seasons of ANW on G4 is the nostalgic root of our ninja passions.  This death has been slow and confusing (Esquire Network, were you ever really G4?), so let’s all give G4 a tip of our hat and pour a 40 on the ground in remembrance of an old friend officially passing.

Hit LIKE if G4 was a ninja and geeky delight for you, it was for me (I miss Olivia Munn and Alison Hayslip).

G4NBC Pulls the Plug on G4

“According to a statement that NBCUniversal Cable sent to the remaining providers still carrying the G4 channel, the company announced that the network will come to an end on November 30. In 2013, there was talk that NBCUniversal would rebrand G4 as the Esquire network, but ended up launching it on Style, instead.”

Fifth Time’s The Charm

July 13th, 2014

It took me much longer than I ever expected to get to smash that red plastic button at the end of an American Ninja Warrior course.  To be honest, I’m a little embarrassed it took me this long.  When I first dreamt of competing in Ninja Warrior (before American Ninja Warrior ever existed), like a lot of couch jockeys I felt sure that I could crush that course and easily complete the first stage of competition.  Although I came very close to completing the course in my third season (ANW4) when I failed at the Warped Wall, and fairly close last season when I failed on the second-to-last obstacle (the Circle Cross), I entered my fifth season competing this year having never completed the course and having never felt the sweet sensation of smacking that red button, hearing the horn blast, and celebrating on the top of the wall  in victory.  While my determination never waned, and my desire to get to the top only increased with each failure, I’d be lying if I said that in my dark moments I never wondered if I had the stuff to get the job done, and that I never worried whether I truly belonged on the same course as the amazing assortment of athletes I’ve had the honor to compete with.

I stepped to the line in Dallas for American Ninja Warrior 6 on a warm April night to compete in my fifth season only having recently healed from the worst injury that I’ve suffered since I started on this ninja obsession.  After I badly tore an abdominal muscle last September while training there was about a half-year window during which I would’ve had no chance at competing at all, I couldn’t even sneeze without pain or do a single situp, much less jump and swing around.  Only in February could I begin to start tentatively doing obstacles again, and I trained hard in rehab to rebuild the core strength necessary for the explosive movements required on the course.  So I stepped to the line for American Ninja Warrior 6 frankly just happy that I was able to compete at all.

I’d say that ridiculous self-confidence (some would say self-delusion) is a required and shared attribute of most of the impassioned competitors who have stepped onto the course for American Ninja Warrior.  No matter what obstacle is before me, or what physical shape I’m in, I always believe that I have a fighting chance to complete it.  So despite having only recently healed from this ab injury, I stepped to the line in Dallas believing I could finish the course, even though history would have argued against such a belief.  I waited on that starting platform for the signal to go with both a grim determination to finish and a singular joy that I was getting to compete at all.  I gave a wave to my wife and kids who were in the crowd, having come to watch me compete in person for the first time.

With my focus on finishing the course, I didn’t press through the first four obstacles quickly as I wanted to conserve my energy for the fifth obstacle, the Ring Toss, by far the most difficult obstacle on the course.  I cruised fairly easily through the Quint Steps, the Log Drop, the Tilting Bridge, and the Swing Jump without any drama.  After those first four obstacles, I took a long pause before stepping up to the Ring Toss which had been crushing the dreams of ninjas all night long.  Before my run I’d seen it eliminate top ninjas like Brent Steffensen, Josh Kronberg, Jonathan Horton (2-time Olympic gymnast), and Ahmed Toure, so I knew it was going to take my best effort to get through it.

My plan was to move through the Ring Toss quickly, moving a knob with every swing back-and-forth.  I’d seen a lot of guys gas out taking a slow approach, and weighing 210 lbs I didn’t want to be hanging around for too long and wearing out my arms.  The approach worked great, until it didn’t.  I twice missed placing the ring on the next knob and found myself swinging forcefully away from the missed knob hanging by one arm on just a single ring.  Fortunately I was able to hang on for dear life on both occasions (where other ninjas in similar situations had that lone ring peel out of their grip), and I pulled myself back up by my one arm on the back-swing and was able to get the ring onto the previously missed knob.  I was getting a little rubber-armed though by the end of the obstacle, and was fairly elated when I cleanly hit my dismount onto the landing pad and completed the Ring Toss.

It was a surreal experience transitioning from the Ring Toss and stepping onto the runway for the Warped Wall.  I saw the distinctively lit-up Centennial Hall in the backdrop and the announcers’ tower right there, and it mentally kicked me back two years before when I’d missed my dream by failing at the same obstacle and in the same location in American Ninja Warrior 4.  Then I heard Matt Iseman’s booming voice “AND MATT LAESSIG MAKES THE WARPED WALL AGAIN!” and it triggered a massive surge of adrenaline.  I took a deep breathe and said to myself, “You’ve replayed your failure from this exact moment two years ago a thousand times in your head, and dreamt of getting a chance to actually re-do it for redemption.  This is that moment!”  I paused to collect my focus and determination (see Psycho Warped Wall picture above!), committed myself to getting the Wall in my first attempt, and drove hard.

I cleanly got the wall on my first attempt, hauled myself up to the top, and smashed that button for all I was worth.  I stood on top of that wall and pointed out to my wife and three little boys who came to watch me compete for the first time, and who have been along for the whole ride.  I looked over at Matt Iseman and Akbar, and Iseman shouted “You finally got it big guy!” to which I responded enthusiastically “FIFTH TIMES THE CHARM!” acknowledging it wasn’t a speedy or easy journey to that destination.  I got a pretty hearty laugh from Matt and Akbar in reward.

And then I let out a barbaric yawp of victory, redemption, and suffering.  It was five seasons worth of determination, failure, doubt, and aspirations all rolled into one moment for me.

At the end of the night I was one of only 21 competitors out of roughly 150 amazing athletes to finish the course, and I advanced forward to the Dallas Finals, but that’s a story for another time.  Thank you to my friends and family, and my fellow ninjas, who have been along for the ride with me, and have encouraged me on this improbable journey.  I hope this journey isn’t nearly at its end (as I write this I just got notice that American Ninja Warrior got renewed for another season), but certainly getting to the top of that wall and finishing the course was a very meaningful milestone for me.  At age 43, and with a body type that’s definitely sub-optimal for this pursuit, I’m rushing into some stiff headwinds as I pursue my dream, but never underestimate what perseverance and vision can achieve, particularly when you throw in a hearty dose of self-delusion!

Calm Before the Ninja Storm

May 26th, 2014

With the season of American Ninja Warrior 6 starting tonight, and with NBC shoving all its chips into the middle on this show (there will be three times more hours of obstacle course awesomeness on NBC this summer than any previous season), it’s an exciting and nerve-wracking moment for our obsessed cadre of ninjas.  Or is it a pride of ninjas?  Or a flock of ninjas?  Or a nincompoop of ninjas?  Who knows…

It will be interesting to see whether America has an appetite for this much American Ninja Warrior with NBC taking every episode of the season for itself, and showing two-hour episodes every Monday night from now until mid-September.  That’s mucho ninja-ing, and I’m not sure that the average viewer will really want that much obstacle course action.  I hope so.

Even though it’s my fifth season competing I never take the opportunity for granted, and if anything feel increasingly lucky every year that I get to be a part of this great competition and community.  Competing is so surreal and immersive, a roller-coaster ride of adrenaline and aspiration that is only tethered to the earth by the amazing camaraderie and humor of my ninja brothers and sisters who I get to share this experience with.  The amount of encouragement and support I’ve gotten over the years from fellow contestants has been humbling, and I cherish their friendship. Although I love me some obstacle course running, the best thing about this experience has been the friends made and experiences shared with them.

I’m deeply grateful for the broader experience of simply participating in something like American Ninja Warrior.  For a middle-aged dad with serious responsibilities as a father-of-three and a businessman, having something so fun, physical, and playful has added an amazing and joyful dimension to my life experience, and has been an profound vehicle of lessons for my three young sons. Not only does it make them appreciate their dad more (not too many middle-aged dads play on the playgrounds with their kids like I do!), but they also learn key life lessons about trying your best and daring to dream, and hard realities like even when you try your best you sometimes fail.  As my oldest son (8 years old) has observed, if you try really difficult obstacles sometimes you fall in the water.  But then you dust yourself off and try even harder.

I hope America continues to embrace this show which has come a long way since its inception as a back-water spinoff of Ninja Warrior Japan shown just on little G4 with only a few hundred competitors applying.  This year over 30,000 people applied for approximately 500 slots competing in American Ninja Warrior 6, and NBC is looking at our show as one of the key staples of its summer line-up.  A long long way its come.  We’re all hoping that you love the show, see how meaningful it is for us to compete, and appreciate the amazing and inspirational performances many of the competitors deliver this year.  I think this year might be the most amazing yet for a lot of different reasons, so be sure to tune in!