Wednesday 23 January 2008

Women are an ADD-vantage

Chatting to Carine, an AR friend, at AR Club last night, I enquired about her other team-mates for the Salomon UGE 220km this weekend in Harrismith. She said that she was racing with Sam Braid and two guys. I said something like, "Great, two girls". Carine replied that a certain someone had asked her, "Why are you disadvantaging your team by having two women?"

Since I know the certain someone, I truthfully know that his comment was said tongue-in-cheek and, I imagine, with a mischievious twinkle in his eye; AR teams with two female members are not the norm and thus worthy of comment.

Still, the point I'd like to make here is that women are a bonus to any team, especially for distance events. I even wrote an article for on this theme a few years ago.

Aside from being more consistent in pace and stronger over longer races - benefitting from their natural endurance - women also bring balance to their teams.

There's less internal rivalry with a female team-member present as the guys have less reason to run their team-mates into the ground in an attempt to prove their physical prowess. Members of mixed gender teams are more likely to help each other and to accept help offered to them.

Women also contribute emotional balance and they improve communication within the team.

Women keep an eye on their team-mates; they're more perceptive, picking up when something is wrong. They'll also be more likely to be encouraging and emotionally supportive; they'll also help you to get your jacket out your backpack and will gladly pass food from your pack's rear pockets.

And they'll probably pack a few extra clothing items - like gloves and beanies - just incase their team-mates forgot them.

At Outdoor Quest in Borneo in Oct 2004 (5-day, staged AR), all-male teams were allowed to enter and compete for the overall win. Kiwi legend Nathan Fa'avae stood up at the prize giving to express his displeasure about this race element. For him, adventure racing is just not adventure racing without the women in his teams. Excluding women from official categories means that women would start to be excluded from the sport; competitive teams would be prepared to race as testosterone-fuelled men-only teams for the purely physical advantage. When prize money is on the cards this is the understandable outcome.

Nathan's team finished second, to an all-male Kiwi team. But, a fantastic coup for Nathan was when his team broke the all-male team's winning streak, by winning a particularly difficult stage.

I really appreciated that Nathan was prepared to speak out to keep mixed gender teams as the only official category in AR, keeping women - and emotional balance and fairplay - in our sport.

[ASIDE] Women are not always easy to find so although a mixed-gender team is your objective, if you can't find a female team-mate to compliment your team, then it would be better to race with four guys than not to race at all.

Thursday 17 January 2008

nav-i-gey-shuh is my pash-uhn

While I'm not exactly the quiet-type, the one thing that really gets my tongue wagging, my heart racing and my toes itching is the opportunity to talk about my most favourite discipline: navigation.

A number of years ago, Paul Mitchell and I developed a navigation course for beginners. Paul lived in Cape Town and he came up to Joburg one weekend to present two days of navigation instruction for two big groups. Although I'd written the manual, with many of his valuable contributions included, he led the practical sessions; Paul was a meticulous and experienced navigator and he enjoyed sharing his knowledge with others.

That's how the whole navigation course thing started.

Since then I've run regular courses in Joburg; Paul did the same down in Cape Town until his untimely passing in late-2004.

On my very first adventure race, I was our team's navigator. I had no experience at all - only high school geography and a quick refresher from a friend's bush-guide father.

As luck would have it, I made a mistake on Day 1 (my saving grace is that we were not alone; the same mistake was made by a majority of the other teams) and I learned three valuable lessons in one go:

  1. Don't follow (or be instructed by your non-navigator team-mates to follow another team)
  2. Immediately turn back to your last point of certainty when you realise you've made an error
  3. Trust and have confidence in your decisions

Mistakes aside, I was liberated. This race made me realise that I could traverse any environment armed with only a map and a compass. The navigation bug had bitten me b.a.d.

I knew Nicholas Mulder from Wits, and thus I knew of the sport of orienteering. I began attending the regular Sunday morning races to hone my skills and steadily they improved.

My adventure racing kick is not just about the distance, duration and disciplines; it's actually about the navigational elements. This is where I get the rush.

Truthfully my AR navigation is reasonable (not expert) and I can competently get through a race course taking a couple of educated risks on the side; my skills would certainly come up a good number of rungs if I raced more regularly.

As for orienteering... I do well on the local circuit. But I still make mistakes (we all do). I like to think I'm getting better at recognising my errors so that they only cost me 30-seconds instead of 10-minutes. That said, I had my worst run ever at the short course SA O Champs last year... This is what keeps me coming back [for more punishment!]. Results are not about where you place. Achievement is personal - you know when you've run a smooth, clear and accurate course or when you've really messed up.

I've just finished up the theory section of the nav course with my second group this week. The course was scheduled a week ago to prepare newer racers for the UGE Events 150/220 at the end of the month. We've got a practical session on Saturday morning where their map and compass skills will really be reinforced. These two fabulous groups of navigation students are the inspiration for this Blog.

I love maps. I love compasses. I love not being restricted to roads and well travelled paths. I also love teaching others about navigation - hoping that they'll love it too and that they'll derive as much (or even just part of) the satisfaction and sense of acievement that I've gotten from this discipline.

I have an almost parental approach to the course where I feel a responsibility to equip my students with every important skill they will need to get them through a race. Once they leave the shelter of the course, wondering how one person could possible talk so much, they're on their own.

And so, my students... I'll be holding my breath next weekend for news of your successes in Harrismith. Good luck!

Thursday 10 January 2008

Just try... dammit!

Yesterday I had two experiences where I was left thinking, "Why won't they just give it a try?" Over the years I've enthusiastically tried to get friends and relations (and strangers) to experience some of the wonderful sports and events that I have had the fortune to encounter. They ask, I answer. One thing they usually have in common is that they want something new and exciting in their lives and they want to do more activity. But, they never show up.

Person #1
A woman phoned me yesterday wanting to know about trail running in Joburg. My answer, in short, was that there aren't any formal trail running initiatives but that she should just phone a friend and head out to Gilloolies (she lives near me) or any other such open space.

I also suggested that she give orienteering a try as there are regular events that would also introduce her to great trail running locations. But before I had completed the sentence she commented, "Oh no, my direction is bad".

I replied, "If 6-year old children can do it, so can you".

Issue number 1: This woman phoned about trail running. With nothing specific available I gave her a fantastic alternative that incorporates trail running and will enable her to meet other people who appreciate trails.

Issue number 2: She decided before I had finished that she couldn't do it. She hadn't even tried!

Person #2
I bumped into a chap from my old running club in Woolies. Over the years he has done multiple Comrades, Two Oceans and loads of other road races. He is strictly a road runner. 9-years ago, when I first got involved in adventure racing, I recall him asking me about it and saying how he needed something different in his life. He was tired of the same-old road events and the "Comrades is my life purpose" mentality that persists in running circles.

After various injuries he took a break from running and while still involved with the club, he hasn't done much for two years. He wants to run again and is thinking of doing Comrades and Two Oceans (again) this year.

He has known me for almost 10-years and I see him occasionally at gym. For a long time he has had an interest in expanding his running repertoire; he always asks what events I'm doing.

Sadly, I do not expect to see him on trails or at orienteering. Not now. Not ever.

What does Oprah have to do with this?
Last night on the Oprah re-run she was discussing happiness. She had a happiness professor on the show and ran through a standard quiz thing that you answer in order to gauge your level of happiness (I actually think it is more a satisfaction and fulfillment quiz than happiness, although all three are related). One of the statements says, "If I could, I would change very few decisions in my life".

I was in total agreement with this statement. I am who I am because of the decisions - and consequences thereof - that I have made. Sport experiences included.

If I hadn't jumped into my first adventure race after seeing an ad in a mag I wouldn't be typing this blog. I'd probably still be playing underwater hockey. And if I hadn't taken the step to attend a training session with the Wits Underwater Club (WUC) in my first week at university, I wouldn't have discovered this truly unusual and challenging sport - nor would have I spent 7 years with WUC, progressing to play Provincial and National level and nor would I have become involved in sport administration and coaching.

I recently discovered Parkour as I was writing an article for a mag. I had heard about it years ago but the mag article was the kick I needed to attend a jam session. I love it! and I now incorporate elements in my regular training sessions (a bit like explosive plyometrics). Last night I attended a salsa dance class at gym - it was fabulous and is easy to incorporate into my weekly training schedule.

I think what has really got me yesterday (and I've had a number of similar calls and emails in the past week) is that people take that first step to ask about AR, trail running and orienteering. They have obviously got some kind of desire to give it a bash. But, they make no effort at all to take that next participatory step. Do they want me to say, "I'll fetch you at 07h00 and hey, don't worry about tieing your shoelaces, I'll do that too".

I've said this same sentence to people many, many times. "Just try it. If you like it, you know where to find it and it will be there for you. If you don't like it, you don't have to come back."

There are websites and events so there is no lack of information and opportunity.

Interested people, you need to make at least a little effort to attend. Then I'll gladly share my time and experience to teach and assist you. But you've got to show up first.

Monday 7 January 2008

Be like a (smart) ultradistance runner

This is the time of year when we set goals (sport, work, relationships) and take stock. I have had the fortune of 5 career changes since 2000 (in 7-years; 3 drastic changes, 2 aligned changes). I thrive on change, although it can be stressful and disruptive. This afternoon I received a poignant piece on aging with a delightful perspective on age and work. Change, friends, is in the air.

A quote from the piece (I don't know the source) is as follows:

You get older faster than you think. Be ready for it when it happens.

I have a friend. Call him Dan.

When I first met Dan, he was a twenty-eight year old aspiring filmmaker, in a one-bedroom apartment down on New York's Lower East Side, who liked to spend too much time in bars.

The last time I saw him, he was a forty-one year old aspiring filmmaker, in a one-bedroom apartment down on New York's Lower East Side, who likes to spend too much time in bars.

There's a famous old quip: "A lot of people in business say they have twenty years experience, when in fact all the really have is one year's experience, repeated twenty times."

Rivers, and people, take the path of least resistance and it is only when a tree falls over to block the main current that the river's path changes. In ultradistance running I always advise people to "walk because you want to, not because you have to".

Be like an ultradistance runner and not like a river; take stock now and make changes before you end up repeating one year's experience twenty times. The time will be gone before you realise it has passed.

Thursday 3 January 2008

Visiting the Kingdom

Like most of South Africa, the Kingdom of Swaziland has received abundant rainfall this summer. The mountains are green, the rivers are flowing and the trees sparkle. It was really great to see some super areas from quite a different perspective as I was not - for the first time - a) racing across the terrain, my eyes on a map, or b) so sleepy that I couldn't remember what I saw anyway.

I've always maintained that the one thing adventure racing destroys is your ability to just chill out on a hike; to stop and smell the roses. I laugh when people spend a week doing a 100km hike... in an AR (or ultra run) we'd blitz the distance in a day. As a result, I don't join social hikes because I get too frustrated and agitated - not nice for me and not nice for friendly hikers.

While in Swaziland Darron and I went out to check out some prospective kloofs (no jumps) and mountainous locations. The Kingdom is certainly looking beautiful and we were able to fill up our water bottles from fresh mountain stream (without treatment!); during April, when the race is held, the country is considerably drier.

One thing I can tell you is that the Swazi roads department has been a busy beast. There are a number of new roads (all dirt, but good quality) up mountains and through valleys. This spells good news for reducing the distances that support crews have to travel - a logistic that seriously affects the race route.

I've included a few photos below from our explorations up one river valley. Unfortunately this is probably not going to be included in the 2008 race as it lies too far off the current (3rd) version of the race course. But, all is not lost and the delightful 7km downhill mtb option (new dirt road, great quality) may feature in another year's event.