What I learnt hiking and running my way through the summer
This summer, in the break of Covid lockdown restrictions I was able to bookend August with two memorable events. At the beginning of the month with my closest friend, I tackled four more stages of hiking Tour Mont Blanc (TMB), and at the end I completed my first ultra-marathon, with a 55k solo run across the South Downs of England - raising money for the Debout avec Nils / Stand with Nils charity.
I need to start by acknowledging the fortune I have to be able to do these things; that I have the means to travel, that I am generally fit enough to push myself, and not only do I have friends and family that are generous with their support, but also in their understanding and giving me the time to train for and carry out these daft ideas.
In both of these adventures there is plenty of time for one's own thoughts, yet, with so much focus needed it wasn't until things were over that I had a chance to reflect on what I had learnt and could apply when back focused in the day-job. A couple are things that reinforce what I - and probably you - already know, but there are also a couple that took me by surprise.
For those that have any knowledge of TMB, my hiking partner and I headed anti-clockwise using the high routes and variants from Champex to Les Houches (Stages 8, 9, 10 and 11). Our hiking of TMB to date had been physically demanding, but fairly straightforward - albeit having to turn back on ourselves each day last year due to unexpected deep snow on the paths.
This year however, we knew we had two significant challenges ahead of us. Crossing through Fenêtre d'Arpette on day one and hitting the heights of Le Brévent on day three.
1. You need partners you can trust, and that can be challenged.
Approaching the Fenêtre d'Arpette we realised that, despite being early August, an overnight snowfall had made the climb up and over even more treacherous than we had anticipated. With heightened anxiety - and I don't use that word carelessly - after a stupid (most of them are!) fall as we approached the base and of course in the midst of the pandemic, we now had a 500m climb over the space of 1.5km with no visible sign of the path, route markers or safe way up.
Hiking with my friend for as long as I have been, we trust one another and each's assessment of situations and risks. When things don't feel right, we pause, challenge each other. We accept that the challenge comes from a positive place, so we act with generous assumptions and work through the problem to an agreed conclusion which we commit to - rather than just blindly following each other. On this specific day, the way G was heading just didn’t feel right. So, we stopped, talked it out, discussed an alternative approach and soon a quick wipe of snow of a rock on the potential alternative route revealed a TMB marker, which was the assurance we needed.
This trust had been tested even more last year, when we had to make decisions about throwing away a day's progress by turning back - again due to snow build ups (although more predictably, as we were earlier in the season) - or push ahead along invisible, narrow paths on steep slopes with sheer drops. Revisiting last year's spots along the TMB route this year without snow had proven that we had made the right decisions...together.
I should stress, not all decisions end in turning back. Hikes in 2016 and 2018 had included discussion where the decision was to push ahead, albeit with caution.
Does your team only include those that you can put trust in? Can you debate with them freely? Do you as a team generously listen to option b or c... and commit to an action?
2. Control the controllables and focus on the path ahead.
Heading towards the summit of Le Brévent (which, when you get there, is somewhat spoilt as you see there is an alternative to 3 days hiking to get there in the form of a cable car) the path narrows, the way steepens, and the drop-offs increase. On the way down the other side when crossing the Vouillards Ravine you can add the tiny path crumbles beneath your feet to that list. Without doubt the most outside of my comfort zone I have ever been with my feet on the ground. There is so much to distract you; people crossing paths, masks not being worn, holding chains, handrails and ladders (normally nothing to think about in pre-Covid times), falling rocks, people pushing by. But at the moment you seize on the basics - control your controllables - put your mask on, sanitize your hands and just focus on where you place your next step.
Any moment worrying about anything else is just wasted mental energy not being spent on focussing on the immediate need at hand - and is more likely to result in a trip or slip than any of the other surrounding activity, and with much dire consequences.
Yes, there are times for vision and long term strategy but sometimes the need is to focus on you and what you are doing and need to do in order to move forward. People will get promoted around you, obstacles will crash across your path, and you won’t agree with all the plans, but sometimes (as long as they are happening without bias) you need to make sure you do what you need to get through the other side in the best shape for you and not get distracted so much that you have a costly yet avoidable slip up.
When do you need to accept a greater agenda and enjoy the freedom if excelling in your own space, and not counter-productively worry about distractions around you?
3. Have a Plan. And a Plan B. And C.
Running the South Down Challenge was partly as a tribute to my first son Mackenzie who, 18 years ago, died shortly after his premature birth, and also to raise money for the Debout Avec Nils / Stand With Nils charity. So even when the official race was cancelled (Covid!), I was committed to completing this challenge so decided to run it anyway. Just, solo. Leading up to the race I was struggling with a hamstring problem (possibly a legacy from my TMB fall) which had curtailed the end of my training and threatened my ability to run freely and, worst still, potentially stop me finishing. But I was running with a purpose and knew that in my heart non-completion was not an option for me. So, Plan A...run, Plan B... if something happened to my hamstring, walk and Plan C... if that became too painful, cycle to the end.
So, in the 'support car' were road shoes, trail shoes, hiking boots and a mountain bike.
As it turned out, at 13km - just along the top of Beachy Head - my hamstring gave way. I would normally have been broken and downbeat, but this had all been figured into the plan (or 'a' plan at least). As soon as it went, I just kicked into the next phase of the plan, I knew what to do and I started to walk, which I did for about 5km at which point I realised that changing my gait allowed me to run again, albeit slowly, rather than walk. And all the while knowing that if I needed it, I had a Plan C in the car too.
In business we often need to take risks and push ourselves, yet you can de-risk this. Do you have mitigation strategies in place, allowing you to pivot as needed as you work your way through to your destination?
4. A purpose will get you through the toughest of times.
A much documented and accepted rule of business today is the need for a purpose, a higher level 'why'. I know that The Marketing Store, Europe does and it has been a large part of our success in recent years. In times such as those we have been through in 2020, don't lose sight of why you are in business. Or if not a business owner, why you are in the business.
While for many I know that surviving is key right now, thriving as a business and a culture can still happen even in a downturn if you focus on what values are important to you and your customers.
I know this is true of The Marketing Store. Yes, our business and financial performance has been impacted by Covid, but with a clear understanding of our Purpose, the Agency has still thrived this year. The building of a 'culture of community' has never been more important, the partnership with our clients has never been so needed, and our years' long drive for equity has never been more relevant. Each of these is inextricably tied to our Purpose and yet is separate from business results.
And this is how it was with me this summer. The purpose of honouring Mackenzie's 18th birthday meant that whatever direction I had to take to get there, getting to the destination was the driving force and every turn, cancellation and obstacle along the way just made it more meaningful and special.
Does your business truly have a purpose, a guiding star, that all decisions are made with in mind?
This started as a business article, but I am going to end it on a deeply personal note. Many years ago, I read a view that the purpose of life is to complete a task or teach a lesson, and I have often wondered what Mackenzie's task was, that he left this world so soon. But at the end of my run, with the release of a balloon, the noting of £8,500 in fundraising that will change a little boy's life, a sense of comfort and healing came over me like I have not felt since that day in 2002.
And so, through all this, I guess what I have learnt is:
- surround yourself with positive people that bring out the best in you
- focus on and value what's in your control
- prepare for trips and slips
...and if you have a true reason why, no matter the outcome or how you get there, you will feel fulfilled.
What business lessons have you learnt away from the office?