Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Why We Must Keep Pushing the Envelope

November 2010, and while reviewing the past year’s accomplishments it was time to plan 2011. As this was the year of the big 4-0 it seemed appropriate that all goals across all verticals be ‘big ones’. I find breaking my life into verticals (physical, social, intellectual, financial, family, business, etc.) enables a clearer focus and increased likelihood of accomplishing things. I start with the vertical that’s most familiar to myself; Physical.

Having completed many great physical destinations well outside my comfort zone, it was time to up the ante to the ‘biggest one’ of all. A multi-day unsupported adventure race. This was the kind of challenge that tests your mental fortitude like no other. I would spend two months researching races to find Raid the North Extreme (6 days 500kms) was happening in our province mid July, contemplate team mates and ultimately decide to accept the invitation to a team where I would be the least experienced. I would invest over 300 hours training for the event, while coaching, running the business, and all other responsibilities.

Fast-forward to 104 hours of hell. 

The first leg of the race was a 20km ride from base to 5,340ft. With the 10-12% grade I found myself red-lined pretty quickly after a mate jumped on the back of my bike for a tow (I’m not the strongest climber as is). It took our team 4 hrs to do 20k, we arrived mid pack [15th] and started our hike.

The second leg included a 30km hike that took over 18 hours and crossed two mountain ranges. The thing about this event is there are NO routes, markers, etc. You get maps a couple of days early and you map your route. By 2:00am, the team was shutting down. It’s not ‘if’ everyone on your team is going to bonk, it’s when. We took out our emergency blankets and got an hour’s rest on the floor of the forest. We arrived in transition area and got ready to get on our bikes again. It was here we found out our navigator had suffered a suspected fractured tibia BUT would continue. I could not believe it.

The third leg consisted of a 40km, two mountain-bike summit pass, 10km each up and down. The average grade was 7% except at the top where it rose to about 11% and there was snow up the last 3km. It was basically granny gear all the way and carry your bike 1-2km across the snow. Very challenging, and it was teeming rain to boot. We arrived back at the transition in the rain, put up the tent and slept for four hours before starting the next leg.

The fourth leg included a 25km paddle down the lake. This was a welcome reprieve for the suffering to date and we made this easily.

The fifth leg would prove to be the toughest for all teams; a 40km trek across alpine terrain. At points of this trek we were bushwhacking at a rate of one km per hour. A storm blew in catching many of the teams off guard and we had to bunker down on the side of a slope because we could not pass over the creek running down the rock face. While we tried to get some sleep, our navigator and another mate bonked hard and were suffering from early-stage hypothermia. We stripped her down to shorts and underwear and had to jump in the bivvie sacks with them to get her stabilized. At the same time we had to start a fire on the side of the mountain to stay warm. I won’t lie – I was worried and thought about getting extracted here, but with daylight we got them dialed and moving again. This is when the troubles started for our other mate. She had diarrhea at the rate of 3-4 times per hour. We were trying everything to keep the water in, without luck, but we pressed on at a slower pace. When we reached checkpoint 8 – we knew she was in trouble so we let her sleep for five hours straight and tried to get food and fluids to stay in her.

We set off for the final hike of the stage early morning and hiked up two glaciers and two summits on the way into CP9. She started off okay but digressed quickly and we were moving steadily but slowly. We knew we would miss the long course cut-offs and we also knew we were about to miss the Friday 4:00pm cut-off for the last leg, but more importantly, we knew our mate was in serious trouble. It took A LOT of coaching that she needed help and she didn’t want to let down the team. We knew with the direction she was heading a physiological consequence wasn’t far off. Turns out we were not wrong as we marched her straight to the hospital where she took seven IV bags and spent the night. She was later diagnosed with having Campylobacter, a bacteria found in water contaminated with animal feces.

Overall we made it through five legs / half the course in 14th place with a time of 104 hours over 4.5 days. Ten hours of that was spent ‘resting’ (you don’t really ‘sleep’ on the ground of a forest). Of the 50 teams that registered for the event, 30 made it to the start line, three finished the entire course, seven finished modified versions, and 20 did not finish the race on time or as a team of four. It was truly a war of attrition.

While interesting, this isn’t / wasn’t the point of this story. The question I hear time and time again is ‘why do you keep doing these crazy things?’, ‘why do you need to keep pushing the envelope?’ That answer is simple for me.
1. ‘Living’. Life is a culmination of experiences. Cliché, you will get out of life what you put into it, pushing the envelope provides proportionate returns. If I subscribed to the day to day ‘grind’, my life would resemble that grind and I would be a member of the largest group in society... the ‘exist-ers’. While there are many benefits to conservative routine, they pale in comparison to the feeling of summiting a glacier over the Valhalla mountain ranges.
2. Perspective. In North America, we behave largely as we are directed to behave by the media. When you have the opportunity to see what life is like in Africa, in Peru, in other countries, you return with a heightened sense of reality. What’s important. What’s drama. What’s worth the effort and what’s not. There was a point in the race where we were reaching hypothermia on the side of a mountain at 5,000ft. Nothing else mattered at that point except stabilizing that very real, very serious situation.
3. Adversity. If you want to find out exactly what you are made of, put yourself into ‘real’ adversity. Real adversity is adversity you don’t / can’t control. Do you make excuses? Do you throw in the towel? Do you want to opt for the easy route? Or do you take it one step at a time, knowing things will get better if you stick to the team plan? The more real adversity you put yourself into (and come out of), the better you become at handling the day-to-day ‘hardships’ that are manufactured.
4. Connections. If you continue to push the envelope, you’re likely to find fewer and fewer people who are willing / able / wanting to push it with you and you’re likely going to migrate towards them. This is healthy and often keeps you on your toes. In any big event I embark on, I try to surround myself with teammates who are more experienced, more athletic and more knowledgeable than I. I can’t share how many things I learned through the six months leading up to this journey. There are too many to describe and I’ve increased my base of knowledge on so many things ten-fold.
5. People & Places. This refers to those not in the immediate team circle. They may not even be the same nut-jobs that are race enthusiasts. The people of Rossland and  Nelson, BC, those who took us in for the week (Margie and Colin) were unbelievably hospitable. Interestingly, they were all choosing to live in this community for the very reasons described above, and it showed. The people you meet and the places you see while pushing the envelope set you up with a lifetime of fond memories and tangible connections. Simply amazing!

I will keep pushing myself outside of the envelope. If I ever go too far, it will at least be doing something I was truly passionate about and I will have had no regrets. We must push our own envelopes not only for all those who would if they could, but also because it’s what makes life worth living.

No comments: