Sunday, January 18, 2015

Camino Real Jungle, Part Four

The route to Portobello via the Rio Cascaja
The route to Portobello via the Rio Cascaja [Google Maps]

Day 4, 12 kilometers, difficulty: medium

As the sounds of the rainforest fade away, we go through our morning routines.  We know how to quickly disassemble our tarps and hammocks. There is plenty of optimism since that we have the most challenging terrain behind us, yet we are not out of the jungle just yet.

We continue trekking along the Rio Cascaja, west towards Portobello.  crossing and recrossing the river to avoid obstacles, and rocking in the river itself when possible.  No longer does it matter when our feet get wet.

Leaving the jungle temporarily we approach a series of hills crossed with a cattle pathway.  We slog through the mud, which literally pulls your shoes clean off if they are not fastened securely. The mud is not so terrible in that, well it could be worse.  It is the "dry" season after all. Which just means it rains less.  And we know soon we will be reconvening with the river, and the mud will be washed away.

As  the last stretch of the selva approaches, we do not believe that we have conquered the jungle, but rather  that the jungle has allowed us passage in this time. Yet nature has one more card to play.  As the people in the front hack their way through the foliage, we hear "GO BACK, GO BACK, RUN!"  A nest of obispas has been accidentally disturbed, and the wasps go on attack to defend their territory.  The people in the front thankfully escape with only a handful of stings.

After two more hours of trekking (including five medium hills), we reach civilization, in order to then enjoy some well-earned cold bebidas and cold cervezas.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Camino Real Jungle, Part Three

Artwork by Jose Manuel Rodriguez
Pirates ambush Spaniards carrying gold and silver on the Camino Real, © Jose Manuel Rodriguez 

Day 3, distance 7 kilometers, difficulty: extreme

Despite the short distance on today's schedule, our guide, Señor Morales, promises day three to be the most technical and challenging.  In fact, he expects us to spend most of the daylight hours travelling. We will cover less than five miles due to the steep slopes and difficult footing, or lack thereof.  We spend an hour alone scaling slippery rocks next to a series of waterfalls.

We cross the continental divide of Panama and begin our descent.  Without the Rio Boqueron to follow, and with GPS unreliable beneath the thick canopy, we depend wholly on the memory and experience our guides.  Descending is equally, if not more difficult. One false step and you can expect to tumble a long way. With careful footwork, one step at a time, we slowly work our way down the slopes.

Our guides keep their eyes open for the trickle of water that will eventually turn into Rio Cascaja, and lead us all the way to Portobello, what used to be the crossroads of the Western world. In a few hours, they have found the stream.

The terrain and navigation are not the only challenges. Camouflaged among the stones and leaves, adjacent the stream that is soon to be Rio Cascaja, hides a baby serpiente.  It is a Fer de Lance, the deadliest snake in Central and South America.  As luck would have it, the snake leaves us alone, and  after a few minutes of observation, we pass without incident.

Most of the animals, however, do not represent a threat.   Such is the case when we hear a rustle in the trees above, followed by some yelling and vocalizations.  A troop of white-headed Capuchin monos is watching us watching them.  None to happy by our encroachment, a monkey tears off a small branch, and beats the branch against the a tree.  We take that as a sign of displeasure, and continue on.

Fatigue has long since set in, yet we continue another few hours before we will stop for the day.  Wet and covered in dirt, we set up our Hennesy hammocks a final time, and take a bath in the river. During dinner darkness quickly sets in, and the sounds of the jungle begin to come alive. As we get into our hammocks to sleep, we realize that we have adapted a little to our new found environment, and the trekking lifestyle.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Camino Real Jungle, Part Two

A clearing makes an excellent camping area in Chagres National Park
A clearing makes an excellent camping area in Chagres National Park, © Josh G

Day 2, distance 11 kilometers, difficulty: hard

After a fitful sleep due to the nighttime animal noises from the nearby selva, we depart from the last outpost of the human world. We follow the Río Boqueron today. At this time we find the river is about twenty feet wide, and only a few feet deep.  That can change dramaticly of course, depending on the rainfall.

It is not long before the first of many rain showers soaks through our clothing.  These are showers are interspersed with numerous river crossings. Between rain, the river crossings, and the humidity, it is impossible to stay dry.

We come across some huellos of a gato grande, which Señor Morales verifies as puma tracks using a reference sheet. Puma tracks can be distinguished from Jaguar tracks as they are pointier at the toes, among other things.  I think about the puma visiting our camp at night, seeing a bunch of human burritos wrapped in hammocks.

As we walk next to the Río Boqueron, I continue to keep watch for more tracks.  We are far too noisy and visible to ever get a glimpse of a big cat itself though, and perhaps that is for the better.  Not more than an hour later more big cat tracks are spotted in the sand, but with rounder toes. Alvaro says these are Jaguar tracks.  In twenty years of guiding, he has never seen a Jaguar.  Today would be no different.  Jaguars are not known to bother humans much anyhow.  We did not want to be the exception.

After a few more hours of slogging through mud, and sloshing across the Boqueron, we arrive to a nice swimming hole, and a flat beach that will be our camp.

Those of us with the interested and energy for a short excursion continue on for about fifteen minutes, to see the sixteenth century cobblestone remains of the Camino Real, and to swim in an even more spectacular pool, bordered by a waterfall.  Purple butterflies flutter in the distance.

After a refreshing swim in the pristine water, we return to camp to set up hammocks, followed by la cena consisting of beans, rice and tortillas, while sitting on giant jungle leaves.  It's the same dinner we had yesterday, but somehow it tastes twice as good.  As they say, hunger is the best flavoring.

By half past six, it is black except for the lights of our headlamps. We retire for a meager eleven hours of sleep to the loud chorus of frogs.

Interested in doing the Camino Real expedition? See

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Camino Real Jungle, Part One

Nature Dominates Chagres National Park
Nature Dominates Chagres National Park, © Josh G.

The Camino Real (Royal Pathis the route the Spaniards travelled in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to remove the gold and silver looted from Peru, and transport it to Spain.  This route was used during the dry season, and Camino de Cruces (Path of Crosses) was travelled during the rainy season.

The original Camino Real stretched from Panama City to the city Nombre de Dios (Name of God). After numerous pirate attacks, the Camino was changed to end in Portobello, which was thought to be a more defensible location.  Even so, with the immense wealth continuing to flow through Portobello, it would continue to be attacked by Henry Morgan, Francis Drake and other pirates for hundreds of years. 

The Panama Railroad became the overland route of choice in the mid-nineteenth century.  Sixty years later, after tens of thousands of lives lost, and hundreds of millions of dollars,  the Panama Canal eclipsed the railroad as a means of commerce.  At the time of this writing, the Panama Railway operates daily for tourists who want a train ride along the length of the Panama Canal.

A Word on Risk

It is difficult to know the extent of the risks, as we tend to exaggerate some dangers, and overlook others. It is likely to be equally or more dangerous riding in a taxi in Panama City, or in your home town.  That being said, here is a list of some of the perils of the Camino.

While mosquitoes may seem to be simply annoying, these insects are in all likelihood the most dangerous of the Camino's perils.  The Centers for Disease Control says that areas east of the canal have mosquitoes harboring malaria. In addition, mosquitoes can carry Yellow Fever, Dengue, Chikungunya, and other diseases.

Various venomous vipers, including the notorious Fer de Lance, inhabit the area. As snakes do an excellent job camouflaging themselves, it would be easy to accidentally step on one.

While there are few places on the trail at which a slip could prove fatal, even a broken or twisted angle would be a grave problem far from civilization.


Rick Morales - Head Guide
Alvaro - guide
Segundo - guide
Porters (3)
Aden & Bree (Australia)
Markus & Sonja (USA)
Susie (Germany)
Beatrice & Xavier (Columbia)
Hilde & Wonder (Holland)

Day 1, distance: 7 kilometers, difficulty: easy

It is the morning of the first day of the expedition, and guide Rick Morales walks into the hostel with confidence, which you hope will bode well for the following days.  You soon get aboard a large van and meet people from around the world; your new teammates. There is no turning back now.

Hiking relatively easy terrain on a muddy road, you pass several small farms, which become further and further apart with time.  Humidity gradual increases, an aspect that will persist for the remainder of the expedition.

As the civilized world falls behind, nature begins to take over.  Humans are no longer the masters of the domain here.  Instead we find some other organisms take precedence.  A long army of leaf cutter ants march back and forth, carrying small bits of leaf to be used in fungus farming.  This is the first of many instances we will see the ant armies busily at their work.

A perezoso hangs motionless in a distant treetop.  It might be nice to be a sloth for the afternoon. The sloth doesn't move at all.  We say goodbye to the sloth, and continue on on the muddy road.

In a few short hours we arrive at a couple of small structures where we will spend the night, an indigenous community and the last outpost of the human world.  We learn how to set up hammocks, and then eat a typical dinner of meat, beans and rice.  We go to bed early, with fireflies twinkling, crickets singing, and frogs croaking in the nearby river.

Interested in doing the Camino Real expedition? See

Monday, September 15, 2014

Slowed Down in Crossfit, Travis Mash Front Squat Tips

Photo credit: Southern CrossFit / Foter /CC BY-NC-ND
     Should everything be done as fast as possible all the time? While the increased intensity in Crossfit can be beneficial for many people, it really depends what your aim is.  For those seeking strength gains and one rep max gains after their first year of Crossfit, some lower intensity days may be in order.  Try 60% to 80% effort for most days, depending on how you are feeling,  and 100% on special test days (1-2x a month).

Some other positives in addition to better strength gains:
  • Less frequent immune system weakening from continuous 100% max effort sessions.  
  • Better able to focus on  technique when you are not at 100% effort all the time
  • Fuller recovery between sessions, especially for older people who do not recover as fast
Renato Canova, one of the most successful distance running coaches (I almost said couches :-) of all time, advises his athletes to always finish feeling like they want to do more.  So despite this blog being called "DeathByWorkout", I want to emphasize that is just a name, and not a recommendation.  I could have a blog called "DoWhatYourCoachTellsYou", but that is not as catchy.  Or how about "WorkoutUsingYourBrain"?

As always there are some exceptions:
  • Younger people (who recover faster) might be able to have more max effort sessions
  • People that want to work on their endurance and are using lighter loads
On another topic, I heard a neat tip on a podcast interview with Travis Mash, for those trying to improve their front squats.  He recommends front squats with a five second or so hold at bottom,  and a ten second or so hold at top (in front rack position).  Try and let me know how that goes!  For more info, please see

Friday, September 12, 2014

Is it Worthwhile to Compete in a Crossfit Competition?

Kbell snatch in the competition [Photo by J.  Gold]
Recently I completed the Summer Slammer Competition in McMinneville, my second competition of 2014.  So here I want to share my thoughts about the competitive Crossfit scene.

First, I am wondering where exactly are all the master's level competitors?  As I am less than three years shy of my fourth decade, I want to know that this sport has a place for me in the future.  I want to know that this is a worthwhile long-term pursuit.  When you don't see anyone in your age bracket, it's a bit disappointing.  Hopefully more competitions will offer master's categories even if masters level makes up a small portion of the total number of competitors.

I also wonder if Crossfit competitions are about showing off?  With fancy shoes, fancy socks, bright colors, and gals in sports bras (not that I'm complaining :-) ) what's really going on here?  The competitions seem a bit like a place for vane, middle class folks to hang out and validate eachother.

On the other I hand, I do like the idea of testing myself, and seeing where I'm at.  And the competitions certainly provide an opportunity to determine your exact current level of fitness.  I also like team events, in which you get to work together with one or more partners to complete a workout.   So if you have being doing Crossfit for more than a year, I recommend finding a partner and signing up for a team competition.  You will find out what people in other gyms are doing and the techniques they use for certain exercises. Perhaps you will see butterfly pull-ups for the first time, and resolve to learn them for yourself.

David & Goliath competition [Photo by J. Gold]
If you are hoping to place high in a competition, my subjective observations are as follows.  The person with the highest clean and jerk max is going do well.  That's been the case in the last two competitions I have seen (in fact in both those two people won the events).  The top men are going to be between 190 and 215 pounds. The top women I couldn't say, as I'm haven't been paying quite as much attention to the women's competitions, as that is not my category obviously.

So if you have the free spending money to compete, and you are looking for a way to stay motivated in your day-to-day regimen, I recommend it.  Train smart, don't get injured, and have fun!

Friday, September 5, 2014

Handstands = Long Term Commitment

Making serious Russian faces for the camera at a seminar.
At one time or another, you may perhaps be interested to practice your handstands.  What you don't realize is the seriousness of this undertaking, the level of long-term dedication required to reach a modest ten second handstand.  For some body types with excellent shoulder mobility and a reasonable strength to weight ratio, you may do well.  For the rest of us, however, handstands are a tremendously larger endeavor than you can imagine.  Such is my realization after handstand classes, seminars and a few months of practice.

Another piece that people often don't realize, is that there are a large number of prerequisites before the handstand.  If you cannot hold a crow position or a headstand for ten seconds, for example than the more advanced position of a handstand is probably too ambitious for you at this time. I hardly mean to discourage anyone, but rather to encourage practice in a logical sequence of steps of gradually increasing difficulty.

Probably your best odds at mastering the position would include a healthy level of obsession, and one or two equally minded practice partners.  There are dozens upon dozens of drills that can be practiced that work on one or more aspects of the handstand.  If you can find out, and practice these drills, you can alleviate the inevitable boredom that many beginners face by only working on the end goal, which is the handstand itself.

It may seem quite strange to spend hours upon hours of practice to gain a few additional seconds upside-down.  And I cannot argue with that!  I am sometimes wondering to myself whether the time spent is worthwhile.  I think that definitely depends on the alternatives you have to spend your time, and is unique for each individual.

On the bright side, there are several aspects as well.  Once you have mastered turning out ninety degrees to prevent toppling over on your back, you can practice almost anywhere, without a spotter.  There is no equipment required. Handstand contests can be fun to do with people of similar abilities.  There are probably a few obvious health benefits as well, which I am not going to speculate too much on here, but I will leave to yourself to form your own opinion.

Enjoy your practice.