This is a transcript from Find Your Feet Podcast Episode #48: Running the French Pyrenees. This podcast was a quiet ramble with myself, reflecting on this huge adventure that unfolded in July 2019. I hope you have the opportunity to listen to this podcast too.
I know I’m going to totally regret trying to have this conversation after dropping my husband, Graham, off at the airport at 4 o’clock in the morning. I’ve had a very early start, and I’m probably going to slur all my words together, but in some ways, I find that the fatigue kind of brings a peacefulness, and maybe that’s a really lovely prelude into this conversation. Because today I really wanted to share with you the adventure that I just came back from in the French Pyrenees. I’ve just returned from running 700km from the Atlantic coastline to the Mediterranean coastline. A traverse that took me 19 days, and covered about 42,000 metres of vertical climb, and when I think about that, and I try to put that into perspective, all I can think of is holy moly, that’s like 40 times Mt Wellington, which is the mountain that sits behind Hobart and one that I live on the slopes of. When I think about it like that, even thinking about it now, I’m just like, “I don’t even know how I did that.”
Today’s conversation is really just sharing with you, and I haven’t got notes in front of me, so if I ramble I apologise, but sharing with you the true beauty of that adventure and all the lessons that kind of went in to reaching the Mediterranean where I stripped off to my underwear on a French beach and went for a dip in the ocean. So here we go.
This goal for me wasn’t really a goal, it was a dream. And it started when we were in the French Pyrenees over a year ago now with another tour. We had ten wonderful people (nine women, one male). I felt pretty sorry for the sole male in a group of giggling girls, but we had a really fabulous trip there. Part of the runs that we were doing with the group were on this trail called the GR10. I didn’t really know a lot about it. I mean, I have a girlfriend who has walked the full length of the Haute route, so the very high route that traverses all the different mountains across the Pyrenees, from the Atlantic (think England) down to the Mediterranean (think Morocco). The GR10, it stayed a bit lower on the French side, and it turns out it actually traverses the same length, so Atlantic to the Mediterranean, but hugging on the French side. Because it’s a bit lower, you go right up into the huge high mountains, but then every night you drop down again and back into the valleys. It sort of goes up and down through these glaciated valleys. The bits that we ran on were absolutely stunning and really beautiful under foot, and just lovely running. I sort of had this image, and naïvely my normal way is to never look into things; never to over-read and over-analyse, but I just had this picture of this trail just sort of meandering gently up, gently down, smooth under foot, green, grassy, think The Sound of Music, and that’s what the trail was going to be like. I sort of began to dream about this beautiful Sound of Music adventure through the Pyrenees, and could I do it? I was sort of really eager. I knew in my heart there was… in fact it wasn’t even in my heart, it was in my mind’s eye, this need to kind of chew on something. I had this vision of myself, and it wasn’t quite where I was in place or time. Towards the end of last year, I just, I felt like I’d gone a bit squishy. And I don’t mean that in a body image, necessarily, I just felt like I’d lost my edge – a bit like a knife that had blunted a little. So this goal, this dream, just kind of kept coming back to me, like maybe I should try and run the Pyrenees. Maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe…
And then I broke my foot.
As soon as I broke my foot, or as soon as I ended up on crutches and in a moon boot hobbling around, I knew in my heart that I needed something that was going to keep my fuel alive, that was going to keep driving me forward. Because even though I’d talked about previously on the podcast how I used that time for this amazing self-growth phase, and self-discovery phase, I knew that I needed this little seed to kind of grow towards, or like the sun that I was growing up towards and giving the energy to kind of keep photosynthesising playfulness. So, the Pyrenees became it, and I decided that I would book my flights and I’d set three weeks aside for this adventure straight after two of our tours which we did and we just got back from that as well: Italy and Albania.
When my foot started to not get better, I realised that, well, I believed that this goal was too far beyond my reach. Like I was barely able to go for a 5km run without getting foot pain or a 10km run without foot pain. There seemed to only be one pair of shoes I could run in and one pair of shoes that I could wear around the house in and all the rest of the time I seemed to have this dull ache and discomfort in my foot and I thought, you know, there’s no way I could go and run 700km in a three week period, which is affectively nearly a marathon a day on average. I remember the exact moment that I had that realisation. Graham and I were chatting about what are we going to do when we’re going away? Are we going to do the Pyrenees? And I think without even uttering a word we looked at one another. He came towards me. He wrapped his arms around me, and I burst into tears. It was like this huge bubble; this big dream had been crushed and dissolved away.
I think because neither of us quite knew how to set another adventure in Europe for three weeks that would live up to the expectations of the Pyrenees, we had nothing planned. We had all sorts of weird and whacky ideas, like maybe we’ll cycle tour, maybe we’ll do this. And it wasn’t until the day before we were due to leave Tirana in Albania at the end of our tour there and embark on this three week holiday together, and which we hadn’t had for about seven years, we just have not had a holiday that hasn’t involved some kind of work, we still had no plan. But the thing was that this seed of the Pyrenees never left me – I could feel it always in my gut and even when I was trying to think up what it would be like to cycle through Italy, the Pyrenees would just kind of metamorphize into the back of my brain, and it would start sprouting, and I could feel it’s roots digging into me and into my heart, and so in the end we went, “You know what? Bugger it.” The foot had been pretty good. Not perfect, but pretty good. We didn’t bring enough gear or sports nutrition and my shoes were completely dead. I had no idea what I was going to wear for the next three weeks, and I didn’t really have any of the stuff that I probably had dreamt of using in the Pyrenees but we though bugger it – we’re going to go anyway. So, we booked a flight that went via Italy to Portugal and in Lysbon with an hour to spare towards Spain we did a James Bond taxi moment. We ran out of the airport and flagged down a taxi, jumped in it and a seven-minute taxi ride down to the local running store. Managed to find a pair of a shoes that was in my size, and we grabbed them, and back into the taxi and bundled back to the airport and with about 15 minutes to spare we caught our flight to Spain. So, I had brand new shoes, and then literally all we had with us was these tiny little vest packs that contained basically my bathers, a pair of shorts that I could sleep in and a singlet. We had a few leftover tubes of electrolyte from the trips and we’d scrounged a few off a couple of other guests. I had two pairs of socks, a phone, oh and we had a Jetboil, like a little camping stove, so that we could boil water and of which we still had to find gas. And that was pretty much it. So, it was pretty comical. I had a weird feeling getting on all of these international flights literally just dressed in your running clothes and running shoes and little vest packs, but anyway it was super cool because the dream had gone from me running the length of the Pyrenees to actually Graham and I both having a go and that we would lightweight run, hike, I guess you call if fastpack, as far as we could. But a couple of days into the experience, having a heatwave, another heatwave, yet another one, sweep through Europe, we both realised that we weren’t really being true to ourselves. And you could feel it because it felt mechanical, it felt a bit heavy. Like we were having fun, but you could feel yourself fighting the weight of the pack even though the pack wasn’t that big. It felt like if we were to keep doing this it would become a job. And we didn’t want to have a job. It wasn’t part of the plan. And so, on Day 2, Graham decided that he didn’t want to keep going. I remember the moment because we were standing up on this hill, looking down over this beautiful country of France, thinking, “What do I do?”. For me, probably, my greatest Achilles heel in all of my life has been the emotion of guilt. And as I’ve come to learn, guilt really stems from love. I don’t know why I’ve been so wrapped in a little silver foil of guilt for most of my life, and it’s never to do necessarily with ‘shoulds’ from other people, but it comes from me always wanting, or finding it really hard to put myself first, and I hope that other listeners will resonate with that, because I always felt guilty if I did something for myself that didn’t mean I could pay it forward, or include someone else. I don’t know. I just know it was coming from a place of absolute love and in this moment, the guilt was thinking, “This is the first holiday… this is kind of a honeymoon that Graham and I have had in six years,” and I’m out here thinking, “I actually just want to run the length of the Pyrenees,” which for every single day of that would be at least half a day, if not a full day, out on the trails. I’m dragging him out of bed at 4 in the morning on days that we want to start before the heat of the day. Him driving to meet me at random points beside cow barns and ponds and up the depths of valleys where he was thinking he was going to get mowed down by some little truck on a single-lane road to the middle of nowhere and to put all that on him and to not just spend this holiday next to him was hard for me to wrap my head around. In that exact moment, though, and bless him, and I love him unconditionally, not just for supporting me in this adventure, he agreed that he would love to support me, to continue the adventure, no matter whether it took me one more day, or five more days, or halfway, or to the finish; it really didn’t matter. It was more about not wanting to end in that moment, and knowing in the heart of my heart, that no matter how difficult it was and uncomfortable I was in that moment, I really wanted to be out there and to continue on. We back tracked and we went all the way back via a number of random local buses back to Beirut and we hired a little car. Which in itself was pretty comical! Normally when you’re setting out on a trip to somewhere and going to be in mountainous environments, you generally go fairly well-prepared with big suitcases or duffle bags, or roller wheels, or whatever you travel with, but in our scenario we literally just threw these two tiny vest packs in the back of this car and beelined back towards the mountains. We found a cardboard box a bit later in the trip and that became our suitcase of food. We stopped at a supermarket and bought two teaspoons and a sharp knife, all for the measly sum of about 5 Australian dollars, and that became our fork/knife/spoon. We never even bothered with plates in the end, we would just find a piece of paper, or the back of the bread bag! And we literally just travelled in this ridiculously lightweight scenario.
It was really interesting to end up back at the foot of these mountains and never having really been through most of it, not really knowing what the hell I was getting myself into, and really on the fringes of the big mountains, to find myself lying in bed thinking, “Just lean in, Han. Just lean in.” Because I think that’s pretty much it. You have the opportunity in life. I think every day should throw challenges at you, whether it’s some little challenge of remaining patient in a challenging moment, or you are really challenged by something that you’re working on, or something going on in your home life, or the little challenge that you experience out on a training run in the morning. I kind of believe now that you have the opportunity to lean in or lean out, and I lay there meditating in bed and I just heard my head saying, “Just lean in. Just lean in. Just lean in, Han.” And so, the challenge getting out the next day was that when I woke it was raining. It was one of the only days, actually there were two days of rain, but for now this was pretty rare to have seen rain in the whole time we’d been in Europe, and so I sort of rolled out of bed and onto these legs that were just screaming at me already. This was day three, so it was two days of marathon-length running in, and my legs felt so, so sore and so heavy from all these downhill especially. I just was thinking, “I don’t know how I’m going to do this.” It was raining and dark and we drove back to the start and there was this gushing waterfall coming down, and it was all misty and the track was just root-y and gnarly and rocky and we started walking up. I think Graham could sense… I’m sure it was an energy I was giving off of doubt. He just took my hand in the peace of the moment, and gave it a squeeze. He didn’t even say anything, and in that moment, I knew. I knew in that moment that I was ready, and that he was ready, and that we were going to give this thing a damngood crack. In fact, I reckon, if I’m completely honest with myself, in that moment I knewthat I would see the Mediterranean, and I was on Day 3.
So, it was a really interest experience, because as I read in a quote: “We fight to hold on, and we fight to let go.” And I think I did both, and then I let go. But the funny thing was, if I look at the first two days of the trip, it was completely about the physical. I felt like a little wooden soldier, marching through the Pyrenees on a journey, so excited, but physically, you know, I’m on a journey. And then on Day 3 it became very mental. It became very “Now that I’m here, how much am I going to eat, and when am I going to eat, and how much water should I take, and do I take my raincoat today, and what time do I think I’ll do this, and how far have I got to go in kilometres?” and it was very, very, very mental. I mean, it served me – I absolutely thrived out there. From Day 4 to Day 7 I felt very organised and very prepared for the trail. I was using my phone to navigate. There’s this awesome app called Maps.Me and we had the GPS of the track marked so I was able to use that to correct myself and at times I had to do that. But I think even through that time, I had a couple of really tough days where I thought that I’d be out there for six hours, and six hours became nine hours, and I sweat a lot as you probably all know already, and super-hot and just getting to the end of this day and just thinking, “I do not know how I’m going to get up again tomorrow”. Every day I got out of bed, like I could feel this body just getting stronger, and I don’t know where it was coming from, because like marathon after marathon, with thousands and thousands of vertical metres climbed, I was just like it’s just not going to be possible. But every day, sure enough, I’d get up and I’d take one ginger step towards the Jetboil to make my cup of tea and amazingly it just started to work. I think now, like what was it that allowed me to recover in such away that I’ve never experienced before? I think there were two reasons. No, actually I think there were three. The first one is that I think when you take away the stress of life, you know, because we’d gone so lightweight I’d had to leave my laptop back in Italy and I’d had to leave all of my work stuff, that I just turned off stress source. Even positive ones, even responsibilities to family. No one really knew where we were at alland there was something very liberating about that, and I think without the cortisol rushing through my body I was able to physically really recover. I think the second reason why I felt like I was recovering so, so well, was that I just damn well wanted to be there. And I had no pressure, I had no expectation. I didn’t even really care if I made it to the Mediterranean. In fact, I didn’t even care if I only had one or two more days on the trail in me, that for as long as I was loving it, that was where I wanted to be, and I think that positivity and kindness and compassion to myself, even in the way I moved on the trail, felt more compassionate than what I’d experienced when you just go on a one-day mission at home. I think that really helped.
And I think the other thing which was really eye-opening to me was that I did a lot of meditation. I would lie in bed at night after reading my book, and chatting with Graham, and sharing our highlights of the day, and having that last goodnight hug, but I would then lie there in the moment, and just try and bring myself to the absolute present, and find gratitude for the experiences that I’d had. To feel every muscle fibre just talking to me and then releasing. Telling me what it wanted me to listen to and the releasing, and then I’d fall into this super heavy sleep. Mind you with whacky dreams. Like, every night, whacky dreams. I don’t know where they were coming from. And then I’d wake up in the morning, and I’d just feel like, feeling so ready for the day, and that was super cool. So, something that we can all sort of have a go at is this concept of, you know, if you imagine when you go for a massage, you dig your fingers in and you try to release the muscle by telling it to release. Well I guess I was mentally massaging my muscles and telling them that I was hearing them and that I knew that they’d done so well and that they were talking to me, but now it was time to relax. I’d get up in the morning and I felt like I’d had a massage. It was very powerful.
I think I’d gone from a really physical state on the trail, to a very mental state on the trail, but after Week 1 passed it became a very emotional state on the trail. I started to feel… I don’t know… like one minute I’d be exuberantly happy, and like a little kid in a lolly shop moment and skinny dipping in the lake that I’d found, and whipping down a hill, and kicking up all the leaves from the deciduous trees, and then the next minute I’d feel really, really low, and contemplative and meditative. And then I’d feel fear, like real anxiety about this big section that was going to come up and I was going to be really alone and it was going to be really remote, and what would happen out there if something went wrong. And then suddenly I’d feel real strength in myself. So, the journey became more emotional for a period of time, and very thoughtful. But not from a mental place. And then it was bizarre, because that passed and the physical discomfort had passed and now in this really great space to suddenly finding this absolute peace in the last week. Like absolute, there is no other place on the planet I want to be. I guess, in some ways, I had reached that spiritual place, like I guess you’d transcended into this place that you can really only go if you’ve pushed through all the other, not obstacles, but other walls, other doors: the physical door, the mental door, the emotional door. And then I finally reached what I call for myself, the spiritual door. It was a time when my mind was very, very quiet when I was out there. I still had all the planning and the preparation, but it was so quiet.
I think one thing that really helped me to get through that last door was that at one point I remember even saying to Graham, “It’s looking a bit threatening today, and we haven’t really had a lot of rain, do you think that I should put my phone in a bag just in case it rains? Do you think I should take a thermal as well as my rain coat?” We were both, like, “Nah,”. We probably got really blasé because we just had so much warm weather. “Nah, nah, she’ll be right, she’ll be right.” So I set off, and I literally ended up in the most extreme thunderstorm I have ever been in my entire life, and I was crossing these totally barren mountain passes at 2,000m above sea level, and I am the tallest thing for a million miles and there is bolts of lightning and it’s misty and the thunder’s right overhead, and the rain is teeming down. And sure enough it killed my phone. So, from that moment on, I think I probably had about 6 or 7 days to go of the journey at that point, I didn’t have a phone, so I couldn’t reach anyone unless I met someone on the trail and could get help from them. My phone was also my map. So, I had no map. So I had to spend the evenings looking at the map and studying them, and memorising them, and then going out on the trail and just trusting my what had now become fairly intimate knowledge of the landscape and the way the trails were marked and relying on this memory of where I was going. I think that forced me to step up even more than I probably would have if my phone had still been alive, and it also forced me to forego emails. I couldn’t be contacted by anyone, no one knew where we were, and it just moved into this bubble of an experience. It was super cool. The thing about the Pyrenees that completely surprised me, was that my Sound of Music adventure that I had expected, this grassy, meandering, trail interspersed with little mountain villages, the quiet little backroads I’d been running on, it was bollocks. There were fleeting moments of beauty like that, and then the rest of the time was just gnarly, and rocky, and every day was at least once up Mt Wellington, if not twice up Mt Wellington, up to 2,500m of vertical climbing at any given climb, and then down the other side, and up the other side, and boulder-hopping, and scree. At one point there was not a blade of vegetation, and then the next minute you were pushing through bracken and gorse… Honestly it was nothing like what I expected. But I think that just kind of made it, because in some ways it just helped me traverse those doors because I’d be angry with it at one moment, and then I’d be scared of it the next moment, and then I’d feel sad because I think it would be defeating me, and I’d lean in again, and I’d rally, and I’d get this euphoric determination that I could do it and then I’d feel even more euphoria at the end of the day when I finished, and that would lift me into the next day. Eventually I think I got to that place of transcending all of that and reaching this place where I just let go and I stopped fighting it and just accepted the landscape for what it was. Every day of that trail was so uniquely different.
The final massive challenge was this mountain, Mt Canigou, which sits quite isolated, almost, from the rest of the Pyrenees, and it really is the last massive mountain before you pop down towards the Mediterranean coastline. It goes up to 2,900m. The day that I set out it was pitch black. It was the day after I broke my phone, so I was on my own out there, and we started really early in the day because this day was 47km I had to traverse because there were no other stops. There were no places that Graham could really get to me until at least the 40km mark. So, I had a 40km day, I had to get up to 2,900m. And when I got up there, not only was it really cold, but there was this extremelystrong wind blowing, I’d never been in wind like it, to the point when I was on this knife-like ridge. It was completely barren, so there’s not a blade of vegetation, and so this wind would whip off of the plains of France and then sweep up over this spur, and it would hit me. I had to crawl on my hands and knees for a portion of this ridgeline because it was so strong. I felt like I was literally going to get blown off this mountain. Which is completely bizarre, because by the time I got down and bumped into Graham who’d run up to meet me, it was thirty-something degrees, not a cloud in the sky, completely calm because we were down lower on the mountain slopes, protected by the trees and the valleys. It was kind of comical, but that day on paper just terrified the bajeezers out of me, and it ended up becoming pretty much one of the highlights of the trip. So, the final big mountain push, and I remember the emotion really hit me, actually, because when I crested that mountain was the first time I saw the Mediterranean ocean and it kind of looked so far, and yet so far away. But I knew in that moment I was going to get there.
When I got to the Mediterranean, and the very end, having not only had the most amazing days on the trail, but some incredible hospitality from the locals in the area. Each night we’d stay in little gites, and farm stays, and the occasional ski apartments, and then running down off the last mountain through the olive trees and the vineyards, and seeing the terracotta roofs of the towns. Every town changed because of the different rock types, but in the Mediterranean, everything is terracotta. It was so picture-perfect. It was a beautiful blue-sky day. I’d had in my mind this white, sandy beach, and really warm water, and I was just going to float around on my back, staring at the sky, and when I got there it was this rubbly, grey, rocky beach, and the water was freezing! Like Tasmanian cold! So, I certainly wasn’t floating on my back. I can’t even put words to what I felt, but I didn’t feel anything. I kind of felt like I should cry, or high-five or laugh… I don’t know, I just had this absolute peace in myself. I was euphoric, but I was so peaceful. And it stayed like that, and it has stayed like that. It actually hasn’t changed. I mean, I feel like a different person, and I don’t know why. I’m not saying that just because I ran 700km in 19 days and this through the Pyrenees that ‘wow, look at me’. It’s not that, it’s just… I just think that I let go of guilt. I breached limitations that I had put in my head about what I was capable of. I found a place to trust myself. I found a new level of love in my relationship that brings tears and goose bumps to me. I realise that I am my absolute best self when I listen to the calling that is coming from within me, to the yearnings, to the seeds of growth. Even just today I was working with a client who wants to set a big, meaty goal and had some ideas, and she said, “How do I know if this is the right goal?” and I’m like, “Because your soul will tell you. It will be that gnawing seed that never went away.” It will make your toes tingle and you’ll know. You will know. I think that so many of us don’t let go of our ‘shoulds’, and let go of our guilt, and let go of our fears and anxieties and our thoughts that we need to kind of live life by the text book, when sometimes the textbook just has a bloody error in it. Sometimes you just need to shut the textbook and make up the rules for a moment. Sometimes it’s when you make up the rules that you realise there aren’t any rules. I think that’s probably what I learned on this journey, that traversing these mountains kind of became traversing my own inner mountains and I reached the other side and I realised that I’m still the same Hanny. But I’d also found another side of Hanny, and that was pretty cool. I brought that person home, and I’m really proud of that person, and I love that person in my relationship and I love that person in my team at work. And I love that person when I’m just sitting quietly at home in my house and when I’m just rambling on a podcast with you. I’m not embarrassed to say that, and I don’t believe I have an ego in saying that, it’s just I’m cool with being me. So that’s the Pyrenees.
I guess the motto of the story is “Don’t be afraid to dream”. Don’t be afraid to be afraid, and don’t be afraid to lean in when you are, and when maybe it would be easier just to lean out, because sometimes when you lean in and you keep leaning in, and you keep leaning in, and you keep leaning in, you fall down an Alice in Wonderland hole and you find a whole other world waiting for you. And that is pretty cool. Yeah. I think that’s my ramble. And done.
I’d love to hear from you all. I’m curious to know who’s listening. I’m really genuinely asking you to reach out, whether it’s on social, or you can take the time to drop me an email. I’m curious to know who’s listening and what you really want to hear more of, because there are so many extraordinary people out there with amazing stories. And I’m kind of curious to know whom you want to listen to. So, let’s call that a day. I’m wishing you all the very best. I hope you’re out playing wilder and until next time, this is Hanny on the Find Your Feet Podcast.
THIS ADVENTURE NEEDS AN INITIAL EXPLANATION:
Dense cloud, loitering over and around me, hanging grey and heavy. Darkness has just departed through the door to this steep-sided valley, creating space for dawn to enter. I move methodically and powerfully up the mountain slopes where alpine rhododendrons cling to the rocks, bravely holding out against Summer and her brother, Winter. I am alone out here and the silence is so silent that I can hear every deep breath and footstep that I take, and every crease and rustle of my movements as I climb higher and higher. Rounding a bend, I am confronted with the world spilling away from me, a trail marked by steep cliffs on the upper-side and deep cliffs below. The track meanders forwards along the precipice and as I run, stepping up, over and around each small obstacle along its course, I know that there is absolutely nowhere else that I want to be. That I need to be. Most importantly, there is no one else that I must be. I am a runner, an athlete, a woman, a wife, and an adventurous spirit who needs wild time to thrive. In its simplest form, I am Hanny… and finally, unapologetically so.
I hatched the dream to run the length of the French Pyrenees Mountains some twelve-months prior, and despite my broken foot over summer and the fears and setbacks this brought with it, at one point believing that the dream was over, spontaneously, with 2 days of planning, I have found myself back out here on a very long trail to somewhere. I have only 70km behind me and some 700km still in front. I have only climbed a few smaller mountains and I have literally a whole mountain range still to come. My new shoes feel foreign, I purchased them 4 days ago during a flight layover in Portugal. My vest pack is also a spontaneous purchase as our initial plans of slowly fastpacking the trail with a larger pack also changed. My beloved one, along with most of my gear, is stored at Milan Airport in Italy. Oops! I don’t own a copy of the GR10 Trail Handbook and the map is on my phone – but I’ve never really used this technology before and am still learning how to navigate by it! I am chewing lollies because I probably don’t have enough sports nutrition to last me the full 19-days, and I am eating dinner with a teaspoon because I couldn’t bring my titanium spork on the airplane as carry-on luggage. Here in France I only have one change of running clothes, two pairs of socks, my bathers and spare shorts plus singlet to sleep in. Oh, and it is stinking hot as yet another European heat wave has just hit.
Yep, I am so underprepared and I have no real idea of what is in store for me over the next twenty or so days… but somehow I feel more ready than ever to be out here.
It is now day 4 of this wild adventure and I am hidden by fog as I traverse beyond the cliffs and deeper into the real mountains. The aching physical discomfort that arose in the first few days has begun to leave me and I feel stronger, steadier and more present. Even the mental chatter – the fears, anxiety, and even the guilt of being out here without my husband and leaving my work commitments behind for three whole weeks – has now calmed. I feel so utterly present and peaceful as I feel myself living the dream one day, one step at a time. From the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea, over 19-days I am attempting to traverse this mountain range. I may not have been organized, and I am definitely not up-to-speed with the experiences I am in for. I may not be the fastest or joining the dots on the map with absolute perfection, but I am out here because there is absolutely no place else that I want to be, completing a journey that I created, where I get to make up the rules, and all the while marveling at the majesty of the Pyrenees in all her moods. Yep, I’m here because I just couldn’t put out the flame of this dream and it burned so strongly in me, and for so long, until finally I just accepted that running the Pyrenees was inevitable.
What has allowed me to step up to this huge, huge goal is that I have taken the time to empower myself every day for the last few years, to learn to ‘be wilder’ and unapologetically me, so that when the time came I was really ready to ‘perform wilder’. Out here, playing wild, I am my best self. So here I am. In fog. On a mountain trail. On my way to the Mediterranean Sea.
Total number of days: 19
Shortest Day: 24km with 2400m vertical
Longest Day: 47km with 2800m vertical
Total kilometers: approx. 700km
Total ascent: approx. 42,000m
Does any of this really matter? Nup!!
What I used to navigate the Pyrenees Traverse:
Phone App software called ‘Maps.me’ & trail markers
My husband and best mate – Graham. We hired Hertz’ smallest hatchback car. He would drop me off at the beginning of the trail each day and then navigate himself to the pickup point before running in to meet me, exploring the rich trails and mountain diversity too.
Accommodation during the Traverse:
Small ‘Gites’ (bed & breakfast), local hotels or self-catered apartments.
Most comical fact:
I ate every meal with a teaspoon purchased for just 0.5 Euro at the supermarket. This became a symbol of the joy that comes from spontaneity and playing wilder.
Overcoming the guilt of taking the time out for me to chase this huge dream. After this it was having my phone die in a torrential thunderstorm, thereby loosing my safety connection with Graham and also my maps. So, for the last 6 days I had to really step up my confidence, to rely on the trail markers and my evening homework memorizing maps, and to trust myself. In some ways, this created the richest memories for me because I think I was just so present and engaged in the landscapes and task at hand.
We had some pretty hilarious French accommodation experiences. But I think it really was feeling how strong the body can become as it lifted day after day after day into the challenge. In many ways the challenge shifted from the physical to the mental, then to the emotional and finally to this very quiet, almost spiritual place. It was just so surreal to experience such a peaceful mental state, and to feel your body feeling so strong after 700km! So when I reached the finish at the Mediterranean Sea, I actually wasn’t feeling or thinking anything. It was like my mind and body were quiet. It was a pretty awesome feeling!
Highlight of the Traverse:
I cannot pick one! However, detouring to climb Pic du Ani with Graham, traversing her bare rocky slopes, would have to be right up there. Then it was just the dawn starts, the silence, and the forests. And of course, the excitement of seeing the Atlantic Ocean at Hendeye at the beginning and then finally seeing the waters of the Mediterranean Sea appear from the heights of Pic du Canigou (2900m) on the third last day of the run.
What I used on the Pyrenees Traverse:*
The North Face BTN Shorts
The North Face BTN T-shirt
The North Face BTN visor
The North Face Stow’n’Go Sports Bra
Patagonia Active Briefs
2x pairs merino socks (worn together for extra padding)
Salomon S-Lab Sense SG Trail Running Shoes
Salomon S-Lab Sense 5 Vest Pack
Petzl Bindi Headtorch
*I literally had one set of running clothes and 1 set of non-running clothes. Boarding my flight to the start of the trail my total baggage weight was 7kg and this included the remnants of my sports nutrition.
What I carried with me:
The North Face Light Thermal Top
The North Face Hyperair Rain Jacket
2x500ml Soft Flasks
Small first aid kit
Nutrition including spare electrolytes
‘Ibis’ – a stuffed goat who acted as my co-pilot
What I fueled myself during the runs:
Koda Sports Gels (mostly non-caffeinated but with the occasional caffeine included)
Peach Ice Tea
Occasional muesli bars
What I fueled myself on before runs:
Dry crunchy muesli
Soymilk & Tea
What I fueled myself on after runs:
Fruit & Veggies
Soymilk & Tea
Would I do it again? In a heartbeat!
This blog is a transcription from Episode #13 of my Find Your Feet Podcast with Tasmanian Tiger guru and Thylacine believer, Col Bailey, was produced by Chris Rehberg. Chris is the Author behind Where Light Meets Dark. (http://www.wherelightmeetsdark.com.au/about-wlmd/vision-and-goals/)
Listen to the full Find Your Feet Podcast Episode #13 HERE: https://www.hannyallston.com.au/col-bailey.html
Hanny: Ok, so, I think this is the most excited I’ve been for a very long while. I am so, so thrilled to be introducing you today, to Col Bailey. Col is actually a retired landscape gardener and an avid bushwalker and back in the day, he used to absolutely love to canoe and was even the Australian fifty mile walk, race, record holder. So he’s a pretty good athlete really, in his own right.
It was in early 1967 that he was paddling in his canoe on the Coorong (sanctuary area) in South Australia when he chanced upon a Tasmanian Tiger. So 1967 is well after the supposed extinction of the Tasmanian Tiger in the 1930s, but Col has become the go-to person for anyone who believes that they have seen or heard a Tasmanian Tiger. And he’s really made it his life’s calling to prove to the world that this incredible animal can still exist here in Tasmania.
In this podcast we delve deep into sightings of the Tasmanian Tiger here in Tasmania, including Col’s own sightings in 1993 and 1996. His books “Tiger Tales” and “The Shadow of the Thylacine” have been a raging success and we actually now sell them here, at Find Your Feet, in our retail store in Hobart.
Col lives in Tasmania and sadly he is not a very well man anymore. It was quite an honour to be given one hour of his time to sit and pick his brains on how and where the Tasmanian Tiger still exists.
Look, I was a bit of a skeptic, before I read any of his books. I am an avid believer now that I have read this book and I have had this chat with Col Bailey.
Our audio was a little bit interrupted because we need to give Col time to catch his breath during the podcast, but I know that you are going to be engrossed in this, no matter what, and are going to come away desperate to know that the Tasmanian Tiger still exists and desperate to see one with your own eyes, so let’s get right into it: Hunting for the Tasmanian Thylacine with Col Bailey.
Hanny: Rolling! Col, Thank you for making the drive down to Hobart to visit me.
Col: My pleasure.
Hanny: This is really exciting. I must say I potentially have been bragging to a few people in the store as they pick up your book and browse through it, that I was planning to broadcast you and that we had you lined up. There’s not many occasions where I can sit in one place for a prolonged period of time but when I came across your book on a holiday up at Coles Bay, I have to admit that eight hours later I was still curled up on the couch.
Hanny: So, it really - for those of you who haven’t read Col’s books, we’ll put some links to them on the podcast pages, but I can absolutely vouch it’s a phenomenal read and it will - I don’t know, I’m an avid believer now that the Thylacine still exists.
Col: That’s good.
Hanny: Yeah. I’m really interested to know, just at the outset, like - you talk a lot about your own experiences in the book as well as other people’s sightings. You’ve kind of become, to some degree, the go-to person if you believe you have seen it or had an experience with a Thylacine. How many times have you personally - feel that you may have come into contact or been in the same region as a Thylacine?
Col: Well, definitely in 1995 and perhaps in 1997 [sic - 1967] along the Coorong in South Australia. I didn’t know what it was, but investigations into what it could have been led me to the Tasmanian Tiger. I knew very little then, about it, and there were other people seeing the same sort of animals being roundly called a Tasmanian Tiger in the Adelaide Advertiser. And, ah, that may be - I don’t know, but what it did was start me on this caper, searching for the Tiger and proving to the world it still exists, but ‘95 was definite. And up ‘til then I was in two minds; I thought it could exist, it may not exist. I was like so many others - I wasn’t sure; I was hoping. Ah, but then I was led into that area by an old bushman who said they definitely were in there, and when I seen it with my own eyes, I knew, but for seventeen years I didn’t tell a soul, not even my wife. And she wasn’t very happy when she found out when I was starting to write the book. She said “I thought we had no secrets” and I said to her, “Darling,” I said “better a love affair with the Tasmanian Tiger than another woman!” And so I told no-one, to protect the animal, because I was so fearful of what could happen if people got in there. And there are hunters that would shoot them on sight. They’ve told me that, and Nick Mooney and I have both had this experience of being told by people that they will shoot them if they see them. And so I want to protect the animal, so the second time (in ‘95) was without doubt in my mind, and that woke me up to the fact that they were there. And people say “How can you be so sure? How can you talk like you do and say, you know, ‘there’s no doubts that they’re there'?” I said “Because I know. I’ve seen - I’ve seen the thylac- I know they’re there”. And so how much more definite could you be than that? I mean I’ve seen the thing, and ah, many people see an animal and they think it’s a Tasmanian Tiger but they’re not sure. And a lot of these people don’t know very much about them at all, and it could be a dog, it could be - and on the mainland, of course - a fox; a mangy fox. They’re seeing mangy foxes over in South Australia at the moment and there’s a certain fellow over there that capitalizes on this - “Oh yeah, it’s a Tasmanian Tiger” - but they’re not at all. I’ve seen the footage, and they’re not. So, ah, no. That’s - once - but I’ve smelt them; they’ve got a definite odour, and I’ve smelt them several times, and I’ve heard them calling in the bush on three or four occasions.
Hanny: Ok. I’m really - you know, I hear what you say about how you kept all this a secret, even from your wife, for a prolonged period of time because - you mentioned that a few times in the book: you were worried that by releasing your knowledge and the belief that you knew that they still existed here, that you were endangering the species itself. What changed then? How did the book come about then?
Col: Well, I really wanted to wait until I’d proven to the world that the Thy- exists, but time was running out. I was getting older and older, and less able to get out into the bush, where I wanted to go, and I thought well maybe it’s time to write the book. I left it until the very last moment. My agent said “You know, you’ve gotta liven this thing up” and I said “I can liven it up”. I said “I don’t really want to yet” and he kept at me and at me and he said - ‘cause I’d had him for the first book, Tiger Tales, back in 2001 and ah, he knew where I stood and he had faith in me and he said “Look, if you’re gonna liven this book up…” and I said “Yeah, I can liven it up” but I said “I’ve resisted this”. So eventually, I let it go. And I - even then I didn’t really want to but, ah, so, I told the full story, and he said “Now, this is what we love; this is what we want” and we showed it to the publishers and they said “Oh, we’ll jump on this, yes.”
Hanny: But you weren’t writing this book to become famous…
Col: No, no, no, no, no - I just wanted to tell my story.
Hanny: Yeah, to tell your story.
Col: If I wanted to become famous I could run to the papers with my sighting, and a lot wouldn’t have believed it, but I don’t like taking this to the newspapers. The media are very dangerous because they sensationalise it, and in this instance they have done, on a number of occasions. And people have gone in there with guns and tried to find it and shoot it! And I didn’t want that to happen.
Hanny: The Thylacine is a bit of a hot topic at the moment. It’s been reported in the media that has been sightings in northern Queensland and in South Australia but we’re talking about the Tasmanian Tiger, so I guess I have a couple of questions. One is, are we talking about the same species? Is there a possibility that they're on the mainland as well, or - yeah, can you describe a little bit more about the Tasmanian Tiger and where you believe it still exists?
Col: Well basically, it is the same animal, basically. The Queensland situation is slightly different. Now there’s supposed to be an animal up there that is a variation of our Tiger. Some have said the stripes go underneath, not over the back, and there’s a lot of contention up there as to, you know, what sort of an animal it actually is. But I doubt, if one was found in Queensland, [that] it would be like our tiger; it would be different.
Hanny: But there’s no record of any animal, no visual proof or any evidence, is there, that there is a Tiger up in the Queensland area. I mean we know for a fact that pre-1937 when the Tiger became extinct, that - you know - Tigers did exist in Tasmania, we have all the evidence of that, but Queensland? Different situation?
Col: Well they did - they did exist in Queensland many, many thousands of years ago. As my friend Mike Archer has proven, the Riversleigh deposits and that. There’s been instances of them being found in every state but basically in Australia. But this is millions of years ago - or thousands, many thousands of years ago. And, ah, but now, today, in this age I think if they were to be found anywhere on the mainland it would be in Western Australia.
Hanny: Western Australia?
Col: Vast areas there that really are still to this day, basically undiscovered. And, um, they found that one on the Nullarbor in the mid sixties - a desiccated specimen, they called it. And then the fur, and the teeth and the eyes are all there! And this animal at the bottom of a sink hole. It looked like it had only just dropped down there twelve months before. And yet they were saying it’s three thousand something years old. So they definitely were on the mainland, but in this day and age, I don’t know - as I say: the one on the Coorong, South Australia - I’m not sure to this day what it was. It was something strange, but if nothing, that started me off on this, this-
Hanny: Yeah, ‘cause the Coorong sighting was your first ever experience confronting a Tiger and you talked quite at, quite length in your book about that sighting. You were just out recreating in the area and suddenly saw an animal that you couldn’t really, um, describe.
Col: I was a recreational canoist. And I was looking for emu that morning. Instead I see what I thought might have been a Ta- I didn’t know what it was, and I went to the local garage and told him on the way home. And a friend of mine had a dairy along the Coorong. I used to stay there and he, he wasn’t home when I got back with the canoe, so I went - packed it up and went back through Maningie and I told the local tourism bloke. “Yes, oh you wouldn’t be the first one to see that”, he said, “there’s been plenty in here saying they’ve seen that sort of animal.” He said “There’s a fellah up the road”, and as I say in the book, “go and have a talk to him”, so I did. And it’s - it all added up. He’d seen the same animal that I thought I’d seen. And the Advertiser in Adelaide - the paper in Adelaide - was calling it a Tasmanian Tiger. So the general belief [was] that it was there, and - dozens and dozens of sightings. I started hunting some of them down, and interviewing them. And, ah, it all built up and I was going out (?) with quite a dossier and then, when I got to Tasmanian of course, I went to see a bloke called Elias Churchill who is on record as hunting the last - capturing the last tiger, the last one in the Hobart Zoo that died in 1936. And he opened my eyes to a lot of things. And then I started hunting down the old Trappers and Bushmen.
Hanny: In Tasmania?
Col: Yes, yes, mainly in Tasmania. A few of them on the mainland, but ah mainly in Tasmania, and I was flying back and forwards and it was driving me silly, so eventually, come over here to live.
Hanny: So before all this came about, had you - were you working in any particular industry? Like who was Col before that first sighting?
Col: Just arbor/landscape gardener.
Hanny: Yeah really? In Adelaide?
Col: I was an athlete of course, and that was my main love - athletics, but then, ah, I was a landscape gardener and as I got older, I liked the canoe - canoing and stuff, so, you know - you take on different things as you get older. But this, when this thing came along, it was the thing that captured my imagination.
Hanny: Yeah, 'cause I was going to ask you - what then drove you to, I guess, you know, become someone who wanted to prove to some degree that the Thylacine still existed? Was that what was driving you then? Or was it curiosity? Was it love of Tasmania? Was it a bit of everything?
Col: Well, I was getting kicked from pillar to post by certain people in the scientific community, that I was a nutcase.
Hanny: I have no doubt.
Col: And I formed a good friendship with Eric Guiler - he was recognised world authority on it, here in Hobart. And Eric was getting kicked around-
Hanny: Is he the one that was in Europe?
Col: No, Heinz Moeller was in Europe. Eric was at the University here in Hobart. And, ah, he was recognised as a world authority on it. And he was getting kicked from pillar to post by the scientific community saying you know, “It’s not there”. How do they know it’s not? They can’t prove no more than we can prove it is there. And short of a dead or alive specimen we’re not going to be able to prove one way or the other, ‘cause photographs will never prove this. You’ve gotta get a freshly dead specimen or a live specimen. And as the Parks and Wildlife here says “Don’t touch it, leave it alone”, if you find a dead one even! “Don’t touch it”, but I tell you what, if I do, it’ll be home in the deep freeze. And we formed a pact, Eric and I - what we were going to do if we found a dead one. Ah, a live one’s a different matter, you just let it go, as I did in ‘95 in the Weld Valley - I let it go. I wouldn’t dare contain it in any way, because the Trappers told me that if you ah got this animal excited, it would drop dead on you. It was a very emotional sort of animal and when they found them in traps, the moment they approached the thing would shiver and put on a tantrum and drop dead. So you had to be very careful with them. And this is what worries me even today, if they find a live one, how are they going to contain it? They don’t know. And there’s so much about this animal we don’t know.
Hanny: Ok, I’m really interested to dig into your stories more - especially your own experiences with the Tasmanian Tiger, but I think maybe to provide some context for those of our audience who haven’t read the book yet and have the same understanding of the Thylacine, can you describe how prolific they were in Tasmania, I guess in the early 1900s?
Col: Oh there were many around as the bounty system proved. That was brought in, in 1888 and by 1900 there were several thousand had been-
Hanny: Several thousand!
Col: There was 2,184 I think officially, but we don’t know that, but I’d say nearer to 3,000 because many were taken on private bounties but didn’t register, and they were paying five Pound per pelt, which was a lot of money when a shepherd’s wage was basically ten Bob a week - ten Shillings a week. And so there was big money in this and the Pearce family at Derwent Bridge and, ah, well Derwent-Clarence River, they trapped something like 70-something Thylacines, and that was a lot of money. And they were just a farming family. So there was money to be made but I don’t think anyone really went out just to trap Thylacines. They were Trappers generally and the Thylacine was an added bonus.
Hanny: Was a bonus.
Col: Yes. And that happened with Churchill - he trapped the last one. He didn’t go out specifically to trap the Thylacine but it bumbled into one of his traps and that’s how he got, he got eight that way.
Hanny: Right. And the bounty was put in place because there was a problem with the early settlers and their animal and livestock being supposedly killed by the Thylacine, but in your book you talked about concerns that this was also to do with the dogs that they brought with that. Is that correct?
Col: Yeah, the feral, feral dogs - dogs that went feral, they brought dogs, ah, domestic dogs and some - a lot of them went feral. And they were adopted by the Aborigines that use them in their hunting and when they - as they got wiped out progressively the dogs became feral, wild, you know, just took off. And great packs of them formed and they did a lot of damage to the sheep - much more than the Tiger. There’s no doubt that the Tiger killed sheep, and we’ve got, now we’ve got people like Bob Paddle who wrote The Last Tasmanian Tiger saying he could only find six instances of sheep being killed by Tigers which is absolute ridiculous nonsense, because, look, I’ve got hundreds upon hundreds of accounts of Tigers killing sheep. And I’ve been told by actual old farmers and Trappers that they definitely did. They definitely were a pest animal. And there was only one way to stop them: wipe them out. Eliminate them. And so that’s basically what happened. But today of course, people are still saying “Parks and Wildlife, well look a Tiger’s killing me sheep”. It’s incredible in this day and age they’re still saying it. And that’s nonsense of course - that’s absolute nonsense today. But back in those days it really did happen, they really did kill sheep.
Hanny: And are there still instances of these feral dogs, I mean dogs of [unclear word] .. there still instances of the feral dogs?
Col: Look, I’ve only heard of one in the last twenty years and that was in the Walls of Jerusalem National Park, and that was about, oh, five or six years ago - there were packs, a pack of wild dogs up there creating problems. But I’m on another book now: The Mystery of the Thylacine and in that I want to explain a lot of this away.
Hanny: Right, yeah.
Col: So there’s quite a story there.
Hanny: So when we talk about like over 3,000 animals potentially being killed - or Thylacine potentially being killed when the bounty was in place, where - was the hunting literally state-wide? Did these kind of Trappers go deep into the South-West wilderness, for example?
Col: No they didn’t, because there were no towns there where you could claim the bounty on. It was a wilderness from, ah, oh, down the Tasman peninsula, and around the bottom there - very few people if anyone lived - and down the West coast, basically no-one lived. It was only Strahan and Queenstown and there was a few little tiny settlements along the coast but there were nowhere, there was nowhere for a Trapper to put his catch. So people didn’t bother to go in there. They [Thylacines] were in there alright. They’re still in there today.
Hanny: So does that help fuel your suspicions about where the Tasmanian Tiger could potentially still exist in Tasmania?
Col: Oh yes! I know where it still ex- I can’t say. It’s there, but I can say in a general area, it’s there. It is, definitely.
Hanny: Alright, and we’re going to get to that. I’m really, I’m really excited to dig more into that. But I guess what I’m also coming to is this concept that there’s a lot of very wild country in Tasmania that it sounds like Trappers didn’t enter and also modern day tourism isn’t entering. It’s just locked up and protected wilderness now. Um, what do you believe is the ideal habitat for the Tasmanian Tiger? Can it still exist in these very wild areas as well?
Col: Look, if you want to see typical habitat - good habitat - go up to Derwent Bridge and look around Derwent Bridge because that’s ideal Thylacine hab- back into the Walls of Jerusalem. But the Tiger just can’t say today “I’m going to live there”, because he’d be knocked off very quickly, so he’s gotta go back, back, back to where he feels safe. There has to be game in these areas, no matter where it is there has to be game, hunting game. And I’ve found parts along the West coast there are - there are plenty of game, and there are button-grass plains where the Tiger could ah, could live there. And so these are the areas that it’s gone back into now to get out of the way, to get away from humanity because it was being killed off.
Hanny: Yeah, because just for our listeners, Derwent Bridge is the southern end of the Overland Track - very famous walking track here in Tasmania. And then the Walls of Jerusalem is becoming an incredibly popular area for especially like families and people entering the hiking market because it’s an easy three night, or even one night, but up to three night overnight walk. But I’ve always thought that as well, that, um, in that area sort of south of the Walls of Jerusalem right through until Lake St. CLair and the Overland Track - that Derwent Bridge area - it’s a lot of lake country, a lot of button-grass lakes. Easy, I guess easy feeding for wallabies which my understanding that the Tiger is one of their preferred food sources, is that correct?
Col: Well it’s not thick bush, and the Tiger, ah, will run it’s prey down and it can’t run its prey down in thick bush. But the bush is fairly open there and sparse, and it can run and hunt there in those areas. And there’s got to be prey for it to hunt, of course, and there are plenty of wallabies in those areas when you get in and have a look around.
Hanny: But what sort of range does one Tiger require to live on, because if we were talking 3,000 in - that we know of, that were trapped in the island of Tasmania, that’s actually quite a large number considering our island is not particularly enormous.
Col: It is when you get out and walk around it! And actually the Tiger wasn’t trapped in the one area - there were many areas, and mainly along the East coast down through the central corridor and the North-West, but very few on the West coast because people just .. go in there.
Hanny: Didn’t go in there.
Col: So when they first arrived here, the central corridor from Launceston to Hobart was much like it is today although a lot of it’s been cleared, but it was sparsely tree country. And that was ideal - there were more Tigers there than anywhere else. But they spread out from there as they started to make inroads into their population. And they had - this animal was supposed to be a dill of a thing, but it doesn’t present itself as a dill to me. It’s got intelligence to get away from humans and that’s what it had to do and it’s done it. And the only reason it survives today is because it had the intelligence to get out of the way and to form its own range in different localities, and it’s range could exist up to fifty-three [sic] kilometres. This is dependent on, ah, the territory, the game and the land itself. It all depends on the nature of the country that it’s living in.
Hanny: Fifty-three kilometres is quite a specific number. How did you arrive at 53?
Col: Fifty kilometres - no, fifty kilometres.
Hanny: Sorry, fifty kilometres, right.
Col: Some have even said eighty, but I say fifty - that’s a pretty good total.
Hanny: And you’ve been establishing just through I guess your own experiences with sightings and, um, coming encounters with the Tasmanian Tiger, plus also other people’s sightings that they work in a corridor fashion as they hunt, is that correct?
Hanny: And can you explain that a little bit more for us then?
Col: Well, it doesn’t hunt willy-nilly over a vast area, but it’s got definite paths that it traverses. He knows where the game are and it will form a - what I call a corridor - to get from one point to the other, and it’s not a narrow corridor a hundred yards wide. It could be a kilometre wide. But it’s a general path and a direction through the, the territory. It doesn’t go from - you know, all over the place, so it, and it will work its way around there, in a period of, oh, five or six weeks. And it will come back again through that area and then - this is how I work my logic, that, if you want to ah, get near a Tiger, you have to find where it’s been through and be back there, you know, within a month or six weeks.
Hanny: Yeah, right, ok.
Col: And I smelt one, by following this, ah - I got near enough to smell the thing and ah, in the Sawback Range, out from Adamsfield.
Hanny: Ok, so down in the South-West area again. So the, um, the corridor theory - which sounds completely justified to me - it’s generally following areas where the Tiger can move more easily in the terrain, so say, like, button-grass plains and open, more open vegetation strips..
Col: Where the game is, yeah.
Hanny: And then it basically roams every five to six weeks around a set corridor because it disturbs the animals as it moves through the first time, is that correct?
Col: Well they get disturbed if they’ve seen a Tiger, yes. But it knows where the game goes - the trail the game uses, and that’s where it bases its corridor on.
Col: But there are summer and winter ideas here because in the colder weather the game moves down from the higher country and when the warmer weather comes it moves back up. So the Tiger will be conversant with this and it will adapt its range accordingly. That’s what I believe, anyway.
Hanny: So, what sort of habitat does the Tiger actually sort of reside in, say in bad weather situations or when it’s sleeping? You talked a lot about caves and hollow logs and things in the book. So can you describe a little bit more about the setting in which that-
Col: Well it hides up during the day, in natural hides. And this could be a cave, of course, or a rock overhang. It could be a bank of man ferns. It could be a hollow log. I’ve found many places that it could hide up. So it wants to get away during the day and that’s when it sleeps it off, and then at dusk, between dusk and dawn are the times that it emerges and hunts. And so, I think probably the best time, if you want to really find a Tiger is to be around dawn, when it comes back from the hunt. And that’s when I seen the Tiger in '95. It was coming back from its hunt.
Hanny: Can we talk about that time? Can you take us back to then? What was the day like? Where were you? Can you set the scene for us a little bit?
Col: Well I was told of a section of the Weld Valley alongside a river called the Snake River, which is way out under Mount Anne. And there were no logging trails there - they log the other side of the Weld River. Now the Weld River runs from under Mount Bueller, and it runs through to the Huon. And it runs through some of the most inaccessible country you could ever imagine. And this old fellow, Bert Brooks, he told me that he knew there were Tigers back in there, and that was in ‘93, so for the next two years I tried to get in and the bush beat me. I went through from the - under Mount Bueller and followed the Weld back, and the Weld goes through a lot of different types of forest, and some of it’s almost impenetrable. So there were various trails that run, that ran from the pylon - the electricity, ah, line, that goes through alongside, ah, Mueller Road, ah, that runs from the Styx Road and it runs through back to Clear Hill Road - it runs through the bush there. And I followed these and tried to get through that way and wherever I went I was beaten back by the bush.
Hanny: So by cutting grass?
Col: Oh, there’s everything in there. A lot of stuff, you can imagine, it’s there, and horizontal [scrub], ah, probably one of the worst things you can strike. And every time I got to the river on the northern side, ah, it was flooded. I couldn’t cross it to the other side. So eventually in early ‘95 I worked out a plan to go down the Clear Hill Road and I branched off from the South Coast Road - or the Gordon River Road and I went back under Mount Anne. I walked through to the Weld River and followed it through to the Snake. It took a couple of days - pretty rough country through there - but eventually I, I wondered why no-one else had been through there before. Then I could see why. It just was, you know, that sort of country you wouldn’t bother about and a lot of it floods when there’s a lot of rain. It floods the plains there that flood. There’s only one, two rivers through there, but are a lot of little streams and the whole place floods. And it snows - you get snow a foot deep through there, and so, I struck in, in early March and I was lucky to get through, get in there. And I camped alongside the Snake River this night and during the early hours of the following morning I heard these yips, high pitched yips, like Terrier dogs up ahead, in the button-grass plains up ahead. And I thought well, what are dogs doing out here? And, it all came back what the old Bushies had told me - they sound like high pitched yip, like a Fox Terrier dog, and I heard these yips coming, and I wondered what it was and I wasn’t sure. But the next morning, I packed up at just on daybreak, and I got my pack all packed up … and so everything was packed up on the pack, [unclear word] everything was there. And I thought well I’ll have a quiet look around, as I usually do before I break camp, and I walked around. And I was standing there quietly and out of the ferns this animal came out and shot straight back in - it seen me, apparently … So I packed up and everything was ready to go. This dog shot out of the ferns - well I thought it was a brown Cattle Dog, and shot straight back in again. And I was only, maybe, ten, twelve feet from it. It wasn’t very far. And when it went into the ferns I walked to the edge of the ferns where it had gone and called it up: “Hey, boy, come and give us a pat”. I thought it was a dog. If it had have been a dog I would have taken it home with me, ‘cause wallaby hunters lose their dogs … And when it went into the ferns, I followed it in and, ah, maybe for 20 or 30 yards and I could see the ferns moving ahead of me and I knew that it was keeping away from me. And I stopped and called it up again. And it went on to a - it moved onto a wombat trail [that] was semi-cleared and I could see it more clearly and then suddenly it stopped and it half turned and glared back at me. And that’s when I, my eyes ran down its back and I seen the stripes and the tail. And the penny dropped and I went into shock, because once I realised what it was - there was no doubting what it was - that’s when the penny dropped and I, I just ah, went into, basically into shock. I couldn’t move, I just - my feet felt glued to the - it’s a funny feeling when you can’t move your legs, you feel glued to the spot. And this thing stood there, eyeing me off! And I could see these great big, black, featureless eyes and I thought oh, what’s it going to do? Anyway, then it started to back-track and it turned right around and faced me head-on. And that’s - I had no doubts then what it was, and it gave a big hiss and I thought hello, it’s going to have a go at me. And this all happened over a 20-30 second time-frame I suppose, and it wasn’t any further than probably, well, 20 feet away from me. It was near enough to get a good look at. And, ah, I thought well what’s gonna happen here? Because I was in no condition to do anything. I just stood there and looked at it, and it glared at me. And then it started to do its back-track again and backed off and went into the ferns and I lost sight of it, and I could see it moving around, moving away, and I thought I’ll follow it. So I went back to my pack and I thought now what am I going to do if I catch up with it? What’s going to happen? And I thought, well, I don’t really want to catch it. I’ve seen it. Perhaps that’s enough. And so I sat down and had a really strong up of coffee to settle my nerves ‘cause I was shaking like a leaf. Anyway, when I finished that I thought well maybe I’ll see where it went. But of course, when I went to see where it went, it could have gone anywhere, it doesn’t [unclear words]. I thought, well it’s a waste of time. And that’s when I started to take account of the situation. I’d seen it. I’ve no doubt what it was. What was I going to do about it? And during the long walk home I - many things went through my mind. That's when I formed this pact to tell no-one. Keep it to myself. Ah, I was scared what might happen if the wrong people found out, got in there. And, the thing about I didn't tell my wife - if she could have let it slip to someone, you know, it's not that she probably would, but you never know. It's just one of those things that I wanted to keep to myself. Now I've found other people in exactly the same position who say they've seen it but they didn't want to tell anyone at the time and maybe five years later they tell me. And so it does happen. The same has happened to me.
Hanny: How have you become that sort of go-to person? Do you think it's through writing of the books, or is it - it's in your nature that you're a very approachable person, because how many sightings have you had reported to you from other outside sources, other than your own?
Col: Ha! Oh, I haven't counted them up but there'd be, probably hundreds, over the years. This is going over fifty years. I've had a lot, a lot of sightings. And, ah, some of them I wouldn't believe. Some of them I would believe.
Hanny: Have the sighting numbers increased recently?
Hanny: And have you noticed any changes since you released your book?
Col: Oh it's dropped off. Not so much since I released the book - that was only a few years ago - but in the last twenty years they've dropped away. I used to get maybe 30, 40 a year, back in the '80s, '90s, but now they've dropped away and I might get five or six. But what I am getting are fairly good ones, and most of the good ones come from the road between Derwent Bridge and Queenstown, along that stretch of road. And that's where the good ones come from.
Hanny: You mentioned one particular one in your book, where someone was driving - was it dawn, I think - and a Tiger crossed the road in front of him, and he stopped but the Tiger just disappeared down in the -
Col: Yep, into the morass below.
Hanny: Into the morass.
Hanny: Yeah. I actually, personally believe that my partner and I saw a Tiger around the Mole Creek area. We were driving at midnight up into the start of the Walls of Jerusalem trail and, um, we'd left work very late after work and thought that we would do that drive at night and we were going very slowly because obviously there's a lot of animals on the road in that area and this animal - again, long, dog-like, but wasn't running like a dog or moving like a dog, crossed in front of the car, and this is before I read your book. Way before. And we both sort of looked at one another and was like "Did you see that?" You know, "What was that?" And I think the more that I, um - since we started stocking the book in our store because I believe I want more and more people to read, and the more times that I point out about your book, the more people kind of open up to me and go "Oh yeah, you know, we believe we've seen one" and you know, "My friend saw one", and the other day I had a copy of the book right on my counter and I had a little note on it saying, you know, you've got to read this, it's a great gift as well, um, for anyone that you know who loves Tasmania. And this woman said to me as she was doing her payment at the checkout, she said "Oh, my friend's seen one." I said "Oh, really?", you know, "Where? Where did she see it?" And she said "Oh, I actually can't tell you", um, "it's with lawyers at the moment". So obviously, um, this friend -
Col: I think I know the one you mean. They took one on a remote camera, is that the one?
Hanny: Potentially. She couldn't tell me anything.
Col: Down in the Florentine.
Hanny: Yeah, right.
Col: I think I know the one.
Hanny: Do you-
Col: Could be.
Hanny: Um, legitimate? Possibly?
Col: What's that?
Hanny: Do you believe that it could be a legitimate -
Col: I've seen this bit of footage.
Hanny: Yeah, right.
Col: [Unclear words] I think it's the one you're talking - and I think it was a big Tiger Quoll.
Hanny: Oh, ok.
Col: Ah, but, um, anyway, if that's the one I'm thinking of, ah, the fellow is supposed to have sent it to England for a verdict from, an expert. Now, look, let's get one thing - if I may, at this stage - there are no experts when it comes to the Tasmanian Tiger. Now, I think you'd have to agree that an expert on anything is someone who knows everything there is to know about the subject.
Col: No holds barred. And this animal, there is so much that we don't know about it. We an assume, or guess, and that. Even Eric Guiler said there was so much that he didn't know about it and he was the world expert [unclear word], basically the world expert. When people call me an expert I cringe, because I'm not an expert - there are no experts alive today. The true experts were the old Trappers and Bushmen who knew the animal, who worked alongside of it, and they knew its moods, what it got up to, how to even catch it, and some cases. But today there - we don't know hardly anything about it. What we can - maybe, guess we do, and there is so many people around that jump on this word "expert" and fellahs fluff up and they thing "Oh, I'm an expert" but they're only kidding themselves. There are no experts. And so -
Hanny: It all happened so early in the, you know, in the 1900s that we didn't, we don't have the knowledge even that, we have now or the technology or anything, so.
Col: Well look, I spoke to Elias Churchill and several other fellahs that hunted them, that actually knew them. They were the experts. They know what they were talking about. But now you get a scientist who jumps on the bandwagon and says "Oh, I'm an expert" but they're not experts at all. And we've got, even one particular who said this animal couldn't kill anything bigger than a possum because its jaws are so weak - it's absolute ridiculous! This thing could bring down a sheep. Ah, a sheep was equivalent to the size of the Thylacine. The sheep that came out here in those earlier days weren't quite as big as the sheep today. They were more in comparison with the size of a Thylacine, and, ah, it could certainly bring them down. But, ah, now we got a certain scientist - I won't mention names - saying "Oh, no, their jaws are so weak", ah, "We found out by analysing this Thylacine head" - that, they've got the head, and the jaws are so weak they couldn't bring anything down, anything bigger than a possum. It's absolute nonsense. So you've got all the scientific community getting up and imagining all these marvellous things that the Thylacine could or couldn't do. They don't really know. And until we can get one and study it closely - a live one - then we're not going to know.
Hanny: Yeah. I sit on the National Parks and Wildlife Advisory Council, which is a select group of people from the community who advise on behalf of the general public, to the heads of National Park[s] and one of the gentlemen - I won't mention names, but he is an incredibly well known, um, slightly older gentleman who works within the science community here in Tasmania; he's won Awards of Australia medals, I think - he really is an amazing person, and I, um, sort of poked him with my elbow the other day and said "Guess who I'm going to be talking to?" And I told him that I was going to be talking to you about the Thylacine on this podcast, and he said to me "Yeah, I've seen them, or had experiences four times". And this is someone that I respect endlessly, his knowledge. So we're not just talking about sightings coming from tourists driving their hire cars over the West Coast road. We're talking about scientists who've been out on epeditions and actually have had their own encounters. So, I guess, kind of going forward, um, what would happen if we were to have a sighting that we can prove the Tasmanian Tiger existed? What do you think would happen if that -
Col: Well look, the Government is fearful of this. Um, and, um, there are people within Government, and within Parks and Wildlife who know - they know it's there. Of course they do. They know the Tiger exists. But mainly because of the logging industry - they want to protect the logging because it's a very big thing in this state, logging. And if the Tiger was proven to be in an area then the Greens would jump up and down and scream blue murder and want the whole state locked up, and that's what they're scared of. And so this - although they know the Tiger is there, they don't want it to release to the general public because they know the outcome, what the outcome will be. So there are certain people within Government, and within the Parks and Wildlife, they know well it's there but they shut their mouths and say nothing. And until it's proven to be there they won't say a thing because they don't want the general public to know it. Because they're fearful of what's going to happen if it's proven to be there. So, I've heard of them being shot, er, in the last 20 years, and other people have heard of it too.
Col: And hastily disposed of. I've heard of them being run over on the roads and hastily got rid of, and so, these things do happen, but, we're being kept in the dark about it for, mainly for the reason, I think, for the logging - because that is a very important and viable part of the state, so many people imagine, and if you lost that, we would lose a lot. And so there are certain people who know, and, er, but I'm not a scientist and I'm not in the Government, so I can say what I like and they can't do anything to me. I mean I'm entitled to say what I believe. But if I was in the Government I'd be told to shut my mouth. And because I've spoken to certain Government Ministers about this, and they believe it's there. And they're out of Government now, they're gone. But, some years ago. So, you know, it's a general -
Hanny: Obviously needing to come to some conclusion in our discussion today, but, you mentioned Forestry. There is a bit of a belief amongst those of us who do believe, that Forestry, farming and hydro potentially could have impacted the ability for the Thylacine to still exist.
Hanny: Do you think there's enough terrain left in Tasmania where we can have a viable breeding population, or are the animals that we're seeing potentially older ones? Do we know how long the Thylacine actually can last for?
Col: Well maybe it's got a lifespan of 10 years in the wild.
Hanny: Right. So similar to a Devil?
Col: Well the Devil's only got 5 or 6 years. But, um, the Devil is considered the apex carnivore now, but the Tiger really still is, but of course it's not recognised, as such. Um, look, that's a curly one really. It's a very difficult one to say. There's no proof of anything at the moment, and so I guess you can't really say yes or no to the question.
Hanny: If - so, I guess to start concluding, you've written the book to help share your knowledge in the hope that some of us who read it will potentially continue the legacy, is that correct? Continue the, um - not "fight", but "search" to preserve the Tasmanian Tiger's habitat and potentially therefore the existence of the Tasmanian Tiger, am I correct in saying that, to some degree?
Col: Well, most people would want to protect it. I think there's only a very small percentage that would want to shoot it, or harm it. So most people, if they knew it was there, they would be happy just to know that - if it could be proven to be there, but of course it hasn't been proven to be there. And all the photographs in the world won't prove this because they can be so easily rigged and manipulated. So a live or a dead one is the only way, and I'd much rather find a freshly dead one in the bush than a live one, because then that would prove once and for all. With a live one you, well, you're not allowed to contain it, so the law tells us, or touch it or harm it in any way so, you just gotta look at it and let it go, much like I did. And, well, but a dead specimen, that would prove beyond doubt - a freshly dead one.
Hanny: Any obviously roadkill is always sadly a potential here in Tasmania. I, um - one of the stories that blew me away in the book was actually, um, the cycle tourists on Elephant Pass over on the East Coast, coming down past the famous Elephant Pass Pancake Parlour. It's an area which has relatively dense farming and housing situation in amongst open and dense bushland, depending on where you are in that area, and they came across some roadkill that at the time they couldn't identify. They then went to visit the museum here in Hobart,
Col: That's right.
Hanny: And saw the tiger and just kind of randomly said "Oh, that's what we, that's what we think we saw as roadkill". The museum curator gave them a bit of a telling off and said that couldn't be possible, and then they bumped into you out at Mount Field when you were giving a talk. What do you think that animal was? Could that potentially have been a Tiger at Elephant Pass?
Col: Oh, well the way they described it, it definitely was, but, as they said, the front half was smashed and the back half had stripes on it, a long, stiff tail, and the way they described it, there's no doubt and I've got no reason not to believe them. People say "Well why doesn't the Tiger get hit on the road?" Because the Tiger doesn't eat carrion, is the simple answer to that. The Devil will go onto the road deliberately to eat a dead animal. The Tiger didn't do that. The Tiger never ate carrion, it only ever ate what it killed, itself. The old Trappers were adamant on this, and they didn't touch poisoned meat. So, ah, very unlikely they were poisoned. So, um, this is probably the main explanation of why they don't get killed on roads, because - they cross the road, but they never stop to eat carrion on the road and that's when animals get killed. This is the Devil.
Hanny: Yeah. And then that makes sense. So what would be your message to us as Tasmanians, as listeners to this podcast further afield, um, going forward? Do you have a message for u?
Col: Well if you're out in the bush and you're fortunate enough to see a Tasmanian Tiger, or Thylacine, leave it alone. Look at it. Get your photo if you're lucky enough to try, but don't go near it. Leave it alone, let it go its way. And don't tell the media. Keep it to yourself, and perhaps to your friends but let a bit of time pass between when you've seen it and when you let it out. Maybe a year or two. And I know it's a hard thing to do for some people - they can't, ah, wait to tell everyone. But the worst thing you can do is go to the media, because they sensationalise it so much, and build it up to something that it really isn't. And a lot of it is nonsense they put in there anyway, but, it's happened before and the moment they get hold of it, it's on, you know - like the things that happening in South Australia at the momnet. And I know that - [the fellah?] this, um, pushing all this, these things over there and, and he's out to make a bit of a name for himself. He likes publicity. And it makes good newspaper stuff, but I'd say leave it. Leave it. Leave it go, leave it be. Consider yourself really, really fortunate you've been lucky enough to see it, but don't try and harm the animal in any way. Just let it go and forget about it for a while. I know it's easy to say.
Hanny: (laughs) .. for 17 years and then write a book!
Col: Be very, very thankful that you've seen it and happy that it's still there.
Hanny: Are you happy for us, if we were to have our own experiences, to continue to write to you?
Col: As long as I'm here, yes.
Hanny: And what - what is your greatest fear? I mean you obviously can say yes or no.
Col: That officialdom get hold of this and ruin it. The Government has ruined many things that they've got hold of and taken over. Absolutely ruined them. And this is one animal they could ruin because so little is known about it and the - as I say, the so-called experts will come into it, and I can imagine this, and then they'll say "Oh, well we'll do this and we'll do that" and, ah, they may kill the thing off very quickly. And we've got Mike Archer who wants to clone it. He wants to, you know, not clone it, he wants to -
Hanny: Re-create it.
Col: Re-create it, yeah. I know Mike well and I've said to him "Mike, this is ahead of its time. It may - it may happen in 50 years time, but just at the moment.. What are you going to do when you find it?" He said "Oh, we'll let it in the bush", but here you've got an animal who doesn't know even how to look after itself in the bush, and then if someone doesn't come along and shoot it, it'll die of starvation beause it's lost the ability to hunt, so there's no easy ques- no easy answer to this question, but, um, if it is still out there, and I believe it is, it's hanging on, then it's done [so] through its own initiative and, ah, you know, why, why, ah -
Hanny: Why mess with that?
Col: Why mess a good thing up? Let it go.
Hanny: Nature is a very amazing thing - way smarter than I think we are, I mean, I loved - I used to work as a hiking guide at Maria Island and there's a story about when the island was created that we had sadly another animal that was extinct in Tasmania called the Tasmanian Pygmy Emu - like really, really small, almost the size of a chicken.
Hanny: When the island was created as a National Park, someone - I don't know who it was - thought that it would be, um, the opportunity to bring - or to try and re-create the pygmy emu. So they went to the mainland and they found the smallest of the large mainland emus and popped them on this island off the east coast of Tamania where, all to - left all to themselves, they blossomed and turned into these ginormous mainland emus that ended up being culled because they caused so many problems!
Col: Was that Maria Island, was it?
Hanny: Maria Island, so, I think nature can outwit us in many ways, but um, yeah. Look, today was only a snapshot of your knowledge, your experiences out in the wild and with the Tasmanian Thylacine. I can't encourage people enough to read your books. I can't wait to read Lure of the Thylacine, which is your newer book, recently released, and then you mentioned you're writing another book at the moment. Can you tell us a tiny bit more about that book?
Col: Well it's the Mystery of the Thylacine. There's a huge mystery surrounds this animal right from the very earliest days to the present, and I want to try and, um, get hold of it a bit and explain it. And it's not an easy book to write, providing I live long enough to finish it. It, ah, people are onto me already, you know, "When is it going to be finished?" but, it's not that simple when you're writing a book of this nature. You've got so much research to do, and I've been researching for over 12 months now and I'm, I'm nowhere. I'm still getting, you know, looking into - getting ideas and stuff, so, I know the direction I want it to follow is ah, to try and reveal the mystery. And it is a mystery. Ah, even today, um, it's as big a mystery as it ever was. And will it ever be solved? But yeah, anyway. It's going to be something a little bit different to the last two books. And, ah, so -
Hanny: Well Col, I - on behalf, I hope, of the Tasmanian public and the broader audience listening to this podcast, I want to thank you. I want to thank you for sharing your knowledge, your beautiful way of writing which inspires me as I sort of dream about writing a book one day. I want to thank you for your humility and humbleness because it speaks very loudly. I learnt (?) something that I really respect. I want to thank you for taking the time today to talk with us on our podcast, because I really hope that your message is shared and spread and that together we can help to preserve what we hope is the Thylacine living here in Tasmania today.
Col: Thank you Hanny.
Hanny: Thank you Col.
More about Where Light Meets Dark:Where Light Meets Dark was launched in 2006 in response to the publication of Klaus Emmerichs' alleged photos of a thylacine in Tasmania but Chris' fascination with the thylacine goes back further than he can remember. Although not trained in the forensic analysis of digital photographs, Chris takes a systematic and critical approach to his evaluation of photographic, film and other evidence for rare fauna. Each report is treated with respect and the assumption that the observer is recalling events to the best of their ability, as accurately as possible.
Since its launch, Where Light Meets Dark has achieved a number of milestones, many of which have been made possible by the generous contributions of a large number of experts and professionals.
Also since 2006, Chris has contributed small amounts of voluntary work to two zoos, a wildlife rescue program, frog conservation research in NSW and Eastern quoll conservation research in Tasmania. Together with Debbie Hynes he has launched a website dedicated to the search for Tasmanian devils on mainland Australia called Mainland Devils. Where Light Meets Dark also documents his own search for the Eastern quoll on mainland Australia.
In 2008 Chris received sponsorship in order to conduct an expedition to search for the Tasmanian tiger in Tasmania. The trip became the subject of a Monster Quest documentary episode screened in 2009.
Chris launched Wildlife Monitoring, Australia's first dedicated camera trap specialist business in 2009. Chris shoots photography both commercially and for pleasure.
AS PUBLISHED IN TRAIL RUN MAGAZINE AUS/NZ, AUGUST 2019 - GRAB YOUR COPY HERE TODAY!
Former world champion orienteer racer, elite trail runner, young businesswoman of the year, tour guide, podcaster and coach, Hanny Allston is one multi-talented, multi-layered, prolific and powerfully driven individual. So what fuels it all? We discuss her fearsome passion for playing wild in the outdoors.
INTERVIEW: Chris Ord
It’s been a long journey from your junior world champion title (in orienteering, 2006) to where you are today: a trail coach, guide, writer, podcaster, small business owner. Looking back, what have been the pivotal moments in your life that you believe had led you to being who and where you are today?
Thank you, Chris. Yes, it really has been quite a journey and one that I never really expected to take. To be honest, the pivotal moments, which I personally call bifurcation points, have either come from a place of feeling thrown off balance or when I realised I wasn’t being true to myself. Bifurcation points can sneak up on you, or they can hit you really hard, but no matter how they arise they really have two options – you can lean into the challenge, or you can lean out. That is, you can choose to grow by harnessing the challenge as a new strength, or you can shy away and continue on the same pathway whilst hoping that it will somehow lead somewhere new. The first option puts you in the driver’s seat, the other is leaving your future up to chance or relying on someone else to do the growth for you. For me, I have always leant into challenges, even on the occasions when I have felt so outside of my comfort zone. I really learnt this art in life, especially at the age of nineteen when my life was thrown into chaos by injury and family illness. I then began to apply this lesson to literally every challenge hence forth, to my athletic development, studies, coaching and more recently, business.
The other driver that has led me to where I am now is this huge sense of urgency to ‘pass it forward’. In all areas of my life I have been blessed to meet extraordinary people who have gifted me their knowledge – from Max and Jacqui, two pivotal running coaches who have since sadly passed away, to business mentors, allied health professionals, race directors and friends. I have always known that the life of an elite athlete can be lopsided as you lean on people to help you strive for those ultimate performances. But personally, I didn’t like the feeling of this so I have always wanted to give back to the community as much as I possibly can. Combining this with the richness of experiences I have had, especially out on a wild trail, has empowered me to share even more. I want others to experience the sensation of being, playing & performing wilder too – the wind sweeping over you as you run alone along a wild ridgeline, your comfort zone stretching until you realise you have moved beyond it. That is an extraordinary feeling and one that everyone should be able to experience.
Just as you reached the top of your game in terms of orienteering and the accolades and public exposure that came with your success, your family life was crumbling with your dad suffering mental health crises and your parents separating – it must have been a tumultuous yet formative time given your youth at 20 years of age. What lessons did you take from that period where professionally all was roses but personally you faced heavy burdens?
I cannot deny how big an impact this series of events have had on me, even until recently. I was only 19 years of age when I faced wheat I now call ‘the perfect storm’ - a full ankle reconstruction, the attempted suicide of my father and medical examinations at university. When I had first visited my father in the hospital I was only three weeks into the recovery process of my ankle reconstruction. Leaning on my crutches and looking him in the eye, I felt like I was literally in the depths of a large whole. I swore then and there to lean into this adversity and rise beyond it. Only 6 months later I became the only non-European athlete to win a World Orienteering Title, and the only junior-aged athlete to win both the junior & senior Titles in the same year. I was very much running towards opportunities and athletic desires through this time. I was also studying hard, a dutiful daughter and a runner progressing up the distance-running ranks. However, after my World Title and the subsequent dissipation of my family unit & home, I did really begin to struggle. It was really only in the last few years that I have actually paused to reflect on these struggles and how I carried myself through. For sure, I made a lot of errors as I leaned into surmounting challenges, and it became so much harder when I lost not one, but two coaches in relatively short succession. But what I have learned more recently is just how these events shaped me, and that they are nothing to be ashamed of – for they are part of the human experience. I now use these experiences to connect to and assist others to help them to find their feet. The only thing that I would change if I could relive these experiences is to allow a little more time for ‘Hanny’, the human at the heart of her playfulness and athletic pursuits. In my haste to move towards my goals and the opportunities I was gifted, I sometimes forget to give her the compassion and self-acceptance that she needed to fully flourish. This is now at the heart of my coaching and my motto in life has become – be wilder, to play wilder, to perform wilder.
You trained in health sciences, then as a teacher but neither medical research nor the classroom seemed to fulfil you – indeed it was this period of professional indecision that ended up seeding your current business name, Find Your Feet. What were the factors that led you to ‘find your own feet’?
Yes, that is correct. I started in medicine but in the aftermath of perfect storm I just wasn’t coping very well amongst the medical profession. All my support networks had dissolved and I just didn’t know how to keep all the balls in the air. I finished medical research and turned towards teaching in New Zealand but found myself at a crossroads here too. At this point I had been struggling with Anorexia, which had heightened after the loss of my beloved coach Max when I was living abroad. I had also reset my goals on qualifying for the Olympic Marathon and had got within 4-minutes of this, but I found turning up to road racing start-lines so vastly different from the orienteering scene I had grown accustomed to and the pressure of all that just so hard on my own. I started with a new coach shortly before coming back to Tasmania and this really began to feel so, so right. But she too attempted to take her life and was later successful. It was at this point that I relocated home to Tasmania and my friends would say, ‘Wow, you’re back! What are you doing now?’ In response, I kept finding my reply as, ‘I am just trying to find my feet’. I felt quite over the constant personal drive for performance and found myself wanting to give back, to help others and running was the language that I now spoke. So one day I just decided to pull adults together to play in the parks of Hobart, all the while teaching them some more skills in running. It really blossomed although I never saw it as a business nor something I would do long term. I just kept taking every opportunity to help people and well, look where it has landed me!
And in honesty, it is this single factor of wanting to help people that has helped me onto the pathway towards finding my feet and I can thank one of my earliest clients for this gift. He pulled me aside and looked me up and down. I know now that he could see how weary and underweight I was. “Hanny” he said, “It is no good trying to give us the beautiful gift of your compassion and energy if all we can see is someone who is not giving the gift back to herself”.It made me really sit up and realise that if I wanted to help others I also had to work on strengthening my own self – to really commit to finding my feet. I have been 100% committed ever since.
You once wrote “You empower others when you empower yourself.” Can you elaborate how this mantra has shaped your own journey and what you believe it can mean to others?
As I have just explained, this concept began when Find Your Feet began in 2009. However, as I have gone on this journey I have really grown in my understanding of what helps us to find our feet. And truly, I believe it begins with a super strong sense of self – I call this my ‘be wild’ state. It began by asking myself, who is Hanny? What does she need to thrive? What empowers her? What frightens her? What has she got to offer herself, her relationships and the world around her? I began to make small changes to the way I lived and I began to realise that I could live more consciously – to live a conscious life that made me feel more empowered, alive, and proud of who Hanny was becoming. This gave me more and more energy and purposefulness, like I was blooming out of a dormant bulb. Changes I made were to pursue the things that I loved the most, a more plant-based diet, electric transport, journaling, working on my relationships, reducing my use of plastics, buying organic & local, taking time for me when I needed it, and generally just trying to make conscious choices rather than responsive ones. Strangely, what I found was not only that I had more energy and excitement to share with others, but that individuals around me also become to change. As we did, we all became stronger in our endeavours and began to perform at higher and higher levels too. So subtle changes ultimately have made huge effects – be, play & perform wilder!
You have a brilliant podcast series that sees you interviewing not just runners but people from all walks of adventurous lives – what is the driving theme behind your choices of who to interview?
Thank you for saying that Chris. Look, I am no natural or talent when it comes to podcasting and there was so much fear when I started The Find Your Feet Podcast (…and in some ways still carry! It is scary to hear your own voice and with now hundreds of thousands of people listening!). However, launching the podcast again came back to wanting to share the words of wisdom I continually felt gifted to receive. Whether it was from the lessons of my past mentors or from new acquaintances I was meeting through my work, there were all these extraordinary voices and stories that I felt needed to be heard in my community. I think because I was now trying to broaden my thinking, I was beginning to realise that there were so, so many important things we all need to be hearing – from climate change and its impact on our natural environments, to nutrition, personal endeavour, the plight of bees, the Tasmanian Thylacine, self-acceptance or running for mental health… so many people with so much wisdom to share! Therefore, I really try to be open when it comes to selecting my guests. When I hear about someone or have an individual recommended to me I just try to ask myself, ‘What have we all got to gain here?’
Of all your interviewees, who has had the most impact on you and why?
In some ways, my very first guest in Paulo de Souza, a NASA & CSIRO scientist who has had a very lasting impact on me. Not only was his story amazing, (and even since I recorded it he has continued to grow as both a remarkable human being, scientist and ultra-runner!) but his drive to help save our food security and resolve the terrible plight of global bee populations is so empowering. Paulo was saying to me that within 10 years the price of apples could be as high as $100 per kilogram because bee populations are declining at such a rapid level. Preventing this has become his mission in life – to leave a healthy, sustainable, secure planet for his children, and their children. It just made me realise that had I not interviewed him I never would have understood the depths of this issue, and it made me feel so driven to deliver the podcast even if I didn’t have the schmickness and skills of other podcasters out there!
You were one of the world’s leading orienteering racers before you stepped across to make a significant mark at an elite level in trail running – what prompted the move across to trail and what were the challenges you encountered in the transition?
For me it was just a very natural, subconscious move into the scene of trail running. Growing up on a farm and later roaming Mt Wellington whilst I trained for my orienteering has meant that I have always loved the trails. Then, when I met my now husband, Graham, we shared this love and I wanted to spend more time out in wilder places with him. I continued orienteering for some time, once again reaching the podium in 2016, but I was doing more and more trail running as a way of exploring the world and our relationship. What I have also loved about orienteering is the sensation of running through landscapes. The navigation is something that I can do but it is not the element of the sport that drives me. So leaving this behind and beginning to run the trails felt like an effortless step. I have no regrets about this move.
You announced at Ultra Trail Australia in 2017 that you were done racing as an elite – what were the motivations behind your decisions?
This was a really hard decision and I don’t think it sat well with me afterwards. It came at a time when I was beginning to feel like I was juggling a lot of balls, perhaps too many. We were trying to get our feet on the ground at Find Your Feet, we were living in a friend’s converted garage with a lot of hefty bills, travelling a lot with the business and our tours, and I was just beginning to feel like it was super hard to maintain the love of racing with all this going on. Further to this, I honestly believed that at some point I needed to ‘not be an athlete’ and ‘be… well… an adult’? I really thought that we cannot be athletes forever! However, as I have come to realise more recently through working with a new mentor, I will always be an athlete. This will always be a partof my identity but it is also wrapped up with other identities too, such as a learner, explorer, woman and teacher. Knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t have said the word ‘retirement’ at UTA 2017. No, I will never ‘retire’ as an athlete. Instead I should have just said that I wanted to see where my athletic journey continued to evolve to. However, all that said, at the time of UTA 2017 I definitely wanted to spend more time supporting Graham and our Find Your Feet Team, as well as using my trail running to explore wilder landscapes. I have definitely done this and it has been rewarding. But I now feel like I can take a bigger step back towards my athleticism and I am ready to let that part of my identity shine a little more again.
Your messaging throughout your channels – social media, promoting tours, coaching and retail business – seems to have a refreshingly heartfelt and personal bent. What is your approach when it comes to the story you want to tell?
Look, to be honest Chris, I just want to be real, authentic, honest, brave, vulnerable. I want to share my story, and others too, and what I learn along the way so that others can navigate the human experiences with greater ease, thus spending more time out doing what they love and with those that they love. For life is a giddy thing, and I am certainly not perfect in any sense of the word. I make mistakes, just as others do. Finding your feet can be damn right confusing! But if I can willingly lean into these challenges, all the while asking, ‘what have I got to gain here?’then perhaps I can help others in even a small way. Then I will be satisfied.
The environment is more than just a fun place to run for you – what is your connection to the land and environment, and what are the key issues you are moved to speak out about?
Absolutely. Nature has become my cathedral, my quiet place where I can celebrate, find gratitude, self-acceptance and deep honesty. It lifts me when I feel flat, and calms me when I am too excitable. It provides places to challenge and extend myself, and also places to rest and restore. When I see it being challenge and in trouble I feel unsettled and empowered to stand up for her. For she doesn’t have a voice – we do! I am so grateful to continue to be given opportunities to help protect our greatest asset, such as my role on the National Parks & Wildlife Advisory Council, a statutory body there to help protect our Wilderness World Heritage Area and National Parks of Tasmania.
You have a particular place in your heart for the trails and landscapes of Tasmania – why do you think the southern isle of Australia holds such a power of attraction for trail runners?
It is just so damn wild! And ‘wildness’, and at its rawest level, ‘wilderness’ is such a rare commodity these days. The guests who join us on our Find Your Feet Tours are always blown away by how rough and exposed to the elements Tasmania is. And yet they too are moved by her beauty and ancient magesticness. I have been to a lot of places on the planet, thirty-six in total, but when I stand isolated on a remote peak in the depths of the South-West Wilderness, there is no feeling quite like it, no place quite like it, no home that will ever be quite like it.
The Takayna campaign - a huge battle to fight for the protection of the Takayna / Tarkine region in western Tasmania - has been getting huge exposure. In that campaign, trail running and trail runners have come to the fore as key agents of change in shaping the issue. What is your take on our role as trail runners, stakeholders and potential champions for environmental issues?
Every human being, whether we run trails or not, really needs to begin to lead a conscious life and make changes that shift us faster towards where we need to be. Climate change is rea. Threats such as forestry and mining are real. A need for resources is real. The boom in tourism is real. As individuals who need trails and wilder spaces to be, play & perform, we all need to ask ourselves, ‘what choices do I have here?’Sometimes we can think that we don’t have a voice but really, we do. We can choose to not take that paper coffee cup, that plastic bag, to pick up that scrap of waste we find on the trail. We can choose to eat more plants, to support campaigns like Takayna, to start a ‘friends of the local trails’ community group. Every time you make one small, conscious change, you are helping us steer ourselves to where we need to be.
How do you personally get involved in shaping the arguments and issues surrounding conservation of our natural landscapes?
Through our business Find Your Feet we try to support absolutely everything that we can although within the limits of our limited resources. This included the recently Takayna Ultra. I am also frequently speaking at events and to schools, a member of the National Parks & Wildlife Advisory Council, and I am braver to speak up to things that don’t sit with me such as writing to local council requesting more signage on our trails or bike lanes for those commuting on the roads. I try to interview podcast guests who can help share their knowledge and tips on how we can live consciously. And then I just try to lead by example, to empower myself to empower others.
You have published a trail running guidebook – what was the seed of inspiration for that and how can might it help regular trail runners like me?
I am doing more and more consulting and performance coaching. Not only was I beginning to see patterns in our experiences and individual’s knowledge, but I kept saying to myself, ‘more people could benefit if they heard this.’I wasn’t thinking about elite athletes as I said this, but people like yourself, myself, my mother even… anyone who wanted to thrive on the trails, no matter how fast or experienced they were. I began writing the book as a small manual to supplement my resources, but as I began writing I just couldn’t stop until it was all out of my head. It became a book of its own accord! At its core, I wanted the everyday trail runners to be able to adopt and benefit from the methods that many elite athletes use, and to train & perform in a way that gives them lasting health, vitality and success. I have been overwhelmed with how the community has supported it, with over 3000 copies now out there in the hands of our trail running community.
As a coach, what are the most common mistakes you see being made by clients and runners –in a physical or training regime sense, but also in a psychological sense? How can we all approach our training and running better mentally?
Firstly, I would love to say what I see being done well, and that is seeing people just having a go! It is so inspiring to see so many new faces coming into the sport of trail running and willing to embrace the plethora of experiences that it can offer. The other thing I see being done well is the camaraderie. It is such a unique sport in that sense. However, I wish I saw even more people believing that they too are entitled to the methods of the elitist athletes – such as training for sustained health and success, mastering the art of recovery, and simple & effective nutrition strategies during trail runs. This requires adopting the mindset of an athlete, no matter where you are at on your journey, how fast you are, or what goals you may have. If you want to lean into the trails, you are an athlete. So, believe this and allow yourself the skills and lifestyle that assists you to flourish.
Secondly, I want to encourage people to look beyond racing. Whilst I love that it has an important place in our sport, it is not the only option. For some individuals, racing feels unnatural and they feel more at home when on a quite trail to somewhere they have personally aspired to. For now, this is me. This is where I find my best self and to be honest, some of my best performances. So, I encourage everyone to at least consider this when they are next asking the ‘what next?’question.
You once volunteered as the coach of the Australian Junior Orienteering team and at another stage crossed paths with Formula One ace Mark Webber who asked you to ‘pass it down the line’ when he helped you out. What role do you feel volunteering and doing things for others without expectation of reward plays in in growing adventure pursuits like trail running and, indeed, more broadly in terms of personal development?
I have maybe covered this above?
Personal development is a key theme throughout all your work. What are you main tenants for personal development?
Personal development begins with ‘being wilder’. What empowers you? Who are you when you take away all the things you ‘do’? What are your strengths? What would you love to work on? Are you completely accepting of yourself?
Then it requires you to ‘play wilder’ – What do you love? Do you unapologetically love what you love? Do you give yourself the time to allow your loves to flourish? Are you willing to lean in and pursue these loves?
Then it requires you to ‘perform wilder’ and to learn the art of mastering what you love – What knowledge do you need to perform? What skills can you acquire? Who can you learn this from? How can you learn this?
I believe we are at our best when we know who we are, play unapologetically, lean in and then strive to master this.
You once passed up a prestigious scholarship to study at the International Olympic Committee in Switzerland, in favour of staying in Tasmania – tough call?
Yes, but in my heart it wasn’t me. I looked at the pictures of people in suits and corporate attire, thought about how it would likely lead to jobs overseas in larger institutions, thought about all my Find Your Feet’ers whom I was loving assisting, my home in Tasmania, the wild landscapes I loved here… and in the end the decision was simple. It was merely a bifurcation point – to lean in or lean out. I chose to lean out and it was definitely the right decision.
You balance what is obviously a hectic work schedule, with marriage to husband Graham Hammond, who is not only your life partner but also your business partner and run partner – what lessons have you drawn from making that relationship work in terms of mixing business with pleasure and personal life?
We said right from the very beginning that we needed to build the business in a way that always allowed us time out to play. Playfulness is a part of our love language, as was recharging outdoors where we are at our best. It came back to recharging our own batteries before we could recharge others. Not wearing ourselves down and turning something that we love into a chore has been a conscious choice and practice. Then, we both consciously do this every day for ourselves. No matter how busy we are, we take the time to carve out the time that we individually need so that we can be there to support each other. For me this is being outside in my cathedral, journaling and solace. We also make sure that we turn off in the evening – we have the Hanny & Graham who at work are business partners and directors, then we have the Hanny & Graham who at home are wife and husband. We try not to mix the two together. Finally, I have really found value in having a mentor who can help me navigate through my own challenges, assist me with my own growth. Finally, I write and journal… a lot. I find it helpful to clarify my thinking and not bring ‘all my dirty laundry’ to our personal and professional relationship. So yes, in summary, the relationship is not something that just happens, you both have to consciously work on it and bring as much honesty & acceptance to it as you can. To be honest, I am so proud of how we have navigated what would be a challenging space.
As a once-was-racer, you seem to have turned your attention to more exploratory trail running – FKTs and missions to run in all sorts of wild areas. Tell us about what excites you about trail running these days and how your focus shifted through to less competitive, but ultimately perhaps more challenging runs?
Yes, for me, trail running has very much become about exploring wilder spaces and my own growth potential. I am not saying that I will never race again, but right now I absolutely love that sensation of running along a wild beach or mountain ridgeline, knowing I carried myself here and that only I can get myself home again. A small pack on my back, mud in places I shouldn’t have mud, scratched raw, but raw in spirit! By far and away the highlights of my athletic career was running Federation Peak in Tasmania’s South-West wilderness. We had the most epic weather out there and I honestly don’t know what happened, but I shifted into this gear I have never found before. I just felt so at home in the mud, the cold, the torrential rain and the sketchy upper sections. It was so hard and yet so easy. Thanks to all the knowledge I have gathered over all of the years I have been an athlete, I was able to play out there and to thrive. Once again, knowing this and feeling overwhelming gratitude for this is what continues to motivate me to assist others.
You’ve achieved a lot in a short space of time, and despite many challenges – what does the next ten years for Hanny hold?
To be honest, I don’t know Chris and I think I am actually at a place where I am completely okay with this. I used to think that I needed to have ‘life all sorted out’, whereas now I am content with having me, Hanny, more figured out and then allowing life to unfold as it will. I am currently upskilling my coaching in a large way and this involves NLP, hypnosis and relationship coaching. So I really hope that I can continue to help people on a personal, professional and aspirational athletic levels. I have also just completed writing my memoir so I hope to have this published sometime soon and no doubt this will add a new twist in my onwards journey. I also know that I need to continue exploring my own trail running potential. Whether this heads back towards racing or wilder and wackier adventures, I do not know. But I know it needs be strongly in the mix! Finally, I want to continue playing my part for the planet – to keep living a conscious life and finding greater ways to minimise my own personal footprint.
You once wrote a letter to your younger self. What is the abridged version of what you would tell your younger self?
Spend the time getting to know yourself and what you love the most. Do not feel pressured to pursue something because you ‘should’ or you have a fear of missing out. Our greatest gifts will come when we feel empowered, are unapologetically pursuing what we love the most, and continue to dedicate ourselves to mastering this journey… be, play & perform wilder…
And looking the other way – what do you want to say to your 80 year-old self?
‘I just lead a life that has made me jealous… I played my part, did my best and I have no regrets!’
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Hanny Allston CV
2009 Founding director of Find Your Feet, outdoor retailer
2015 Awarded the Tasmanian Telstra Young Businesswoman of the Year
2018 Telstra Small & Succeeding Business of the Year.
Council Member, National Parks & Wildlife Advisory Council
Tasmanian Councillor, Australian Institute of Company Directors
Tour Guide, Find Your Feet Running Tours
Podcaster, Find Your Feet Podcast
Author,Trail Running Guidebook
Coach & Performance Consultant
2006 Only non-European to win a World Orienteering Championships
2006 – 2015 represented Australia at various World Orienteering events
2006 Australian Mountain Running Champion
2007 Melbourne Marathon Champion
2008 Winner New Zealand Marathon & Half Marathon Championships
2009 World Games Orienteering Champion, Taiwan
2009 Australian Mountain Running Champion
2009 Winner Point to Pinnacle
2010 Winner Triple Tops, record holder
2013 Overland Track 82km, record holder (8 hours 10 mins)
2014 Winner Six Foot Track
2015 Winner Six Foot Track (record time 3hr 34min)
2015 Oceania Skyrunning Champion
2016 Winner Ultra Trail Australia 50km
2017 2ndUltra Trail Australia
2017 completed female FKT, South-Coast Track, Tasmania (12hr 15min)
2018 completed return summit and FKT of Federation Peak, Tasmania (11hr 20min)
2018 completed FKT, Frenchman's Cap, Tasmania (6hrs 20min)
2018 completed FKT, Hazards Traverse, Freycinet, Tasmania(2hr 25min)
Find Your Feet
A female runner utilising my training planners recently asked me my thoughts about training around the monthly female hormonal cycle. She wanted advice on how to adapt the wave training principles to her menstrual cycle. Here is my reply:
Thank you so much for taking the time to email me! You asked, 'How can I adapt your wave training principles around my menstural cycle?' and also, 'Should I try to avoid training or racing when I have my period?'
In response to your great questions:
The female monthly cycle is something that I am fascinated by and have been doing a lot more research into. The interesting thing about the cycle is that it slightly differs in length for many women, and it isn’t quite as you would expect. Interestingly, we are actually at our strongest and most ‘male-like’ as soon as our menstrual cycle begins (ie. during the week of our bleed'. Therefore, racing or playing hard when we first get our menstrual cycle is actually a blessing! Therefore, I would never try to avoid races or hard training just because you have your cycle, unless you experience uncomfortable cramping that really holds you back. Training hard in the first two weeks of you cycle (the bleeding and then the week immediately after) can be a great thing. However, the weeks when recovery if less optimal is the final week, and even the one before that (week 4 and week 3). That is, the lead up to your bleeding week. This is when estrogen and progesterone levels are less favourable to recovery and when we experience more fluid retention.
So, in answer to your first question, I am still wrapping my head around wave training around our cycle. It is where I will take my coaching next. However, my initial suggestion would be to train something like this;
Week 1 (menstruation): Recovery then 'Mission' or 'Race'
Week 2: Moderate training
Week 3: Hard training
Week 4 (week before menstruation): Easier in intensity but with some volume (reduce any heavy strength training you are doing too)
These are my preliminary thoughts. There is a fabulous book out there by a lady called Dr Stacy Sims called Roar. I would highly recommend a read and following her on social media too. It also has some great ideas for strength training in it that are very applicable to women.
I hope that this helps.
Today I received an email from a reader with an important question - 'What do I eat before race?'. She had read in my The Trail Running Guidebook where I recommend to simplify our diet in the last few days before a race, focussing on lower fat, lower protein meals. In the book I suggest - WHITE, FLUFFY, STARCHY. So her question was, 'What are some examples of white, fluffy and starchy foods that I should eat in the days leading up to a race?' Here is my reply:
I have been vegetarian and more recently, plant based, for almost my entire life. So, keeping this in mind, my suggestions would be:
On race morning I would aim for:
I hope these suggestions help fire you up for some great adventures ahead!
The rain batters louder onto the sloping sheets of exposed tin above my head. Light glows faintly through narrow slits in the timber walls of this old cow shed, its exposed earthen floors emitting a musty dampness into the small room. We lie side-by-side like cucumbers under doonas and sleeping bags, cocooned, riding out the stormy night. Just outside the rickety door a cow begins to bellow, calling to her calf. Separated from its mother, the calf is also shut up for the night in nearby barn. The owners want the mother’s milk in the morning to make gloopy piles of cheese. I close my eyes, listening to the storm rage and echo through the valley, a drum beat to the higher pitches of cows, chickens, horses, goats and humans. As my eyes close I find myself expressing my gratitude for this opportunity to be here. Once again, I find amazement for the opportunity to run through this landscape, a place on beginning to hit the tourist map. As far as I am aware, we are the first trail runners to run across this mountainous region. - ‘Thank you for this night and to the trip now drawing to a close.’Then I sleep.
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Leading a running tour to Albania begun as an off-hand comment from an attendee to a spontaneous talk we held in Hobart at Find Your Feet back in 2017. During a day on the retail floor we met Rok, a travelling Albanian and Patagonia sponsored kayaking athlete striving to protect the last wild river of Europe, a snaking length of water running through the Valbona valley in the heart of the northern mountains of Albania. Rok had come to Tasmania to discover more about how Tasmanians had fought to protect the natural flow of the Franklin River. After his informal slideshow evening at Find Your Feet, we added Albania to our longer-term bucket list. But as the last guests left the premises, one lady pulled me aside. ‘Have you ever considered a Find Your Feet Running Tour to Albania? My daughter owns a lodge in Valbona. I can give you her details if you like?’From pipe-dream to forming plans, it looked like we were off to Albania.
Two years on we were joined in Tirana Airport by thirteen intrepid trail running enthusiasts from Australia. Amidst the buffet breakfast around sleek tables atop gleaming floors, we began to explain the plans for this inaugural tour to Albania. ‘This trip is exploratory. That is, we haven’t been here yet either… I am sure there will be many adventures in store.’As the waitresses bustled around us, delivering fine espressos and soy milk lattes, little did we really know what we were in for!
The first tastes of the country came half-an-hour later as we boarded a compact, dated minibus and headed towards the major A1 highway leading north. Half-built buildings dwarfed dilapidated homes now neglected as a sea of petrol stations popped up around them. Fields of corn and maize hugged them closely, enwrapped by the arms of small streams reaching down from the mountains. Litter dangled like cheap jewelry from the small shrubs lining the creeks, a sad sign of neglect in an otherwise beautiful landscape. Chaotic cities came and went, then the mountains lifted us into their midst, first dry but eventually tinges of green joining the pastel painting. The heat in the bus was stifling and we stopped on two occasions to take a break from the twisting, turning, gut-gurgling bus ride, eventually reaching our final destination with bewilderment and an overwhelming sense of displacement. As we disembark, chickens pecked the scratched earth, a pen of sheep peered through the roughly weathered timber of their yard, a dog barked, a cow bellowed and a family wandered into the scene to greet us. English is very limited in this northern region of Albania but with generous hospitality we were seated at their outdoor table and presented with a feast for lunch, all prepared from the fruits of their farm and their labor – homemade bread, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, setting a tradition for the remainder of our trip. Not ideal food to run on for our upcoming afternoon jog but delicious non-the-less!
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Each day of the tour we awoke early to the calls of the pigeons, or cows, goats, sheep or children playing. Breakfast looked like dinner, albeit with the addition of fig or plum jam, and our picnic lunch was a simply slab of break, a tomato and freshly harvested cucumbers. Vest packs donned, we would turn on our Suunto Spartan watches and navigate towards the trails, always blessed with a large climb through forest to meet the alpine meadows and their swaying heads of wild flowers, a bobbing sea of beauty. Past stone and log shepherds’ huts we would walk or run, waving enthusiastically at the children, women or weathered males. Occasionally we would be asked in for coffee and tea, the latter a blend of mountain flowers seeped in hot water. It was hard to gauge the ages of the individuals who braved summer and winter up there in the mountains, the sun, wind, rain, snow and shepherd lifestyles etched into their faces like a map of their territory. We tried to comprehend living in their shoes, especially when the winter would once again descend upon them, but sadly we couldn’t. It was just too far removed from our privileged lifestyles back home in Australia.
The mountains of Albania (and Montenegro and Kosovo when we crossed their borders too) reach up to over 2500m. A mixture of gnarled, white limestone and lush green pastures create a green and white tapestry that stretches to the horizon. The Accursed Mountains were especially spectacular, their jagged peaks erupting into the sky like the teeth of scissors, cutting Albania and Montenegro apart by dramatic alpine passes. It was through this landscape that we travelled, overnighting in the valleys before ascending again come morning.
We traversed three countries on this Find Your Feet Running Tour and there was a distinct difference between Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo. Albania felt slightly rougher around the edges, and despite generous hospitality that stemmed from their gardens and their herds, there often felt like a wall between them and our western ways. The buildings were more rustic and whilst clean, there was always a feeling that their walls and floors had seen a lot of life, and maybe hardship. Then, when we crossed into Montenegro there was a clear difference in the language, lifestyle and our guesthouses. The architecture was sharper, the timber fresher and the smiles of the hosts more apparent. We especially loved Lilly and her brother Arben who welcomed us into their brand-new guesthouse with open arms. Their father had built it, their mother our generous chef, and Lilly and Arben a wealth of knowledge about growing up in a land of richness and poverty.
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On the last morning of the tour I awake in our cow barn, kicking back my sleeping bag and waiting for the sound of rain still falling. However, the weather gods are now silent and instead I am met by the continued ruckus of the shepherding lifestyle echoing around the valley. Easing my way out the creaking doorway I wander out into the meadows, marveling at the strength of the horses as they flock together, waiting the journey that also lies ahead for them as they transport our bags across the last lift of mountains and into the valley of Kosovo just beyond these hills. What a privilege to guide a group through such a rich landscape! I am humbled as I pull on damp, smelly running gear and prepare for breakfast.
On this last day of running we reached Kosovo, a country torn apart by war in a short three-month period in 1999. To reach our transport home we skirted around the country’s highest peak, past more shepherd huts and alpine glacial lakes scattered across the naturally barren plateaus. After descending from these lofty heights, we were met with our horses who had lugged our luggage across the mountains to meet us, and then our 4x4 transport back towards civilization where we were confronted with a plethora of graves and memorials littering the roadside’s fringes. This is a country torn apart by three-months of war in 1999, and now in a frantic phase of rebuilding. Houses, memorials, commercial complexes and yet more petrol stations were in varying stages of redevelopment. We all fell silent as we watched this all slip by.
The tour concluded back in Albania with a night spent in our Panoramic Hotel in the town of Kruje, a short bus ride from Tirana Hotel. The beating shower and fine dining such a contrast to our previous night’s accommodation in a cow shed. Sharing our highlights of the tour around the dinner table reinforced to us just how extraordinary this tour was and just how much more exploring we all want to do now. Yes, we are never too old or too busy to play wilder!
This morning I was moving along a winding trail on Mt Wellington, my office for the morning. I found myself reflecting on a coaching consultation I had hosted yesterday with a mother in her mid-50s. For the purpose of this conversation I will refer to her as Sarah.
Four years ago, Sarah’s two children had flown-the-nest and now her inner-city townhouse where she lived with her husband felt gapingly large. She now enjoys intermittent exercising and travel adventures with her husband, and finds strong purpose in her teaching work in women’s health issues. Trained in Swedish and Thai massage, and with a strong self-compassion routine, in our consult she still sat across the table from me and said, ‘I know I should try to get fitter, loose some of this…’, she slaps her thighs and next her upper arms, strong and quite lean from her swimming workouts, ‘I practice self-compassion and gratitude. But I am just not as dedicated to exercise & wellbeing as someone like you.’
I have come to learn that whenever someone says, ‘I am…’, this is an identity that they have attached themselves too. In a positive application of this, Sarah had exclaimed early in our conversation, ‘I love my role as a teacher. I am good at teaching.’ So, here she holds the identity, values and beliefs of ‘Teacher’, and this enables her to action her teaching with excellence.
However, there are many instances where the identities we hold are unhelpful. For instances, Sarah slapping her thighs and biceps suggested that she has formed the identity of ‘lazy’. This means that somewhere, deep down, she believes she is fat and lazy, and then as a byproduct of this, she actually values her laziness and weight. Identifying as lazy and overweight has become an excuse to not action fitness, to avoid better health routines & to not set her alarm earlier so she can climb out of bed to pull on her bathers. In many ways, it is an identity that she is hiding behind.
I know this may sound extreme – that Sarah could actually value her fatness and laziness? Yes, I truly believe this and Sarah is not alone. We all hold multiple identities, some helpful and some hindering. If we hold onto our unhelpful identities, never challenging ourselves to break free from them, we will only be reinforcing the unhelpful actions associated with them.
Highlighting this to Sarah was the first step in moving her forward. I then asked her, ‘If you had all the time, money and support in the world, how do you see your optimal life?’ Sarah paused for a while, closed her eyes, and let out a big sigh.
‘I don’t know how to not be a mother anymore. When I was a mother I had routines and I also wanted to be a great role model for my children. I found it easier to take myself swimming earlier in the morning, to make us all a healthy lunch, and spend more time outdoors with the kids in the evening. But now that they have grown up and left home, I know that I am no longer a mother and I am now lazy. I guess if I had all the time, money and support in the world I would just like to be more self-compassionate and maybe to even try some trail running so I can join my friends when they go out on the weekends? I want to feel like I have more invigoration for my work again, and to travel more too. My husband is so supportive and gives me all the support I need, so I feel like I am letting him down the longer I feel like this.’
In response to Sarah’s comments, I asked, ‘Do you still see and talk to your children?’
‘Oh yes,’ she replied and her eyes begun to sparkle, ‘At least twice a week we chat on the phone to share news and what we have been up to. And next week we are off to London to visit Lizzie.’
‘Why do you call Lizzie and what made you want to visit her in London?’
Sarah looked back at me perplexed. ‘Because I want to keep an eye on her, I miss her, love her and want to make sure she doesn’t need me. London is such a long way…’
Sarah then paused, she closed her eyes, took a deep breath in, and opened then again to look me directly in the eyes. ‘I am still a mother, aren’t I?’
I didn’t need to reply. A mother will always be a mother. Just because Sarah’s children have grown up doesn’t mean that she needs to lose this identity nor the positive actions that she adopted as a mother. She can still support them and also be a positive role model through exercise, nutrition and her self-compassion, sharing these when she speaks to them on the phone or meets up with them on her holidays..
Sarah later left the room with a twinkle in her eye, a spring in her step, and goal to join her friends at a trail running event in 3-months’ time.
In conclusion, it is important to begin to hear those inner voices that say to you, ‘I am…’. Try to understand the identities that are helpful, as well as the ones that hinder. Begin to identify with old identities that no longer serve you, but to also rekindle those that need to remain, that can hold you strong, such as Sarah’s identity of 'A Mother'. Finally, ponder on the difference between self-compassion and self-acceptance. Too frequently I work with clients who take baths, change their diets, have massages and exercise – all in the name of self-compassion. But here I challenge us all, ‘is this for self-compassion, or to make me feel better about myself, to mask an unhelpful identity that still grasps me?’ I truly believe that there is not just a difference between self-compassion, but also a sequential order at play. Self-acceptance must proceed self-compassion. In Sarah’s case, self-compassion was a mask hiding a woman who was not yet able to accept were she was at and where she truly desired to be.
So, what identities are you holding onto? What need to be rekindled and which can be gently waved goodbye?
I recently posted a social media post on the topic of stress and its impact on our ability to optimally recover from training loads. Given the flurry of interest, ongoing questions and requests for support I received afterwards, I wanted to provide an excerpt on the topic of stress from my Trail Running Guidebook. I feel that stress and its impact on our hormones is poorly understood, so I hope you find this article helpful.
I have found more and more frequently that many well-documented training theories are hard to implement with adults without triggering an overtraining complex, leading to unnecessary injury niggles, sick- ness, suppressed mood and more.
Stress: The fight-or-flight response
Stress is the body’s reaction to a physical, mental or emotional change in our normal, balanced state. In an ideal world, our body would deal with all stressors one at a time via the fight-or-flight response. Our body’s fight-or-flight response activates the nervous and hormonal systems when the stressor (the ‘tiger’) pounds towards us. The nervous and hormonal systems ensure that the heart and breathing rates accelerate; blood is relocated to the heart, lungs and muscles for movement; functioning of the gastro-intestinal tract is inhibited; and mobilisation of energy sources occurs. Then, once the danger is dealt with, we return to our steady state.
However, there are two interesting things about the human stress response:
Hormones and stress: A tight link
The stress response is controlled by both the nervous and hormonal systems of our bodies. However, I have found that one of the most interesting impacts that stress has on us, especially as athletes, is how it affects our hormonal system. To understand the significance of stress on our hormones, we need to understand the incredible role our hormones are playing at every minute of the day. They help us to:
Healthy hormone function relies on pregnenolone, our ‘master hormone’. Pregnenolone is critical for the production of:
Each of these hormones is found in both females and males. However, oestrogen and progesterone are found in substantially higher amounts in women, while testosterone and growth hormone are found in significantly higher amounts in males.
Oestrogen has more than 400 functions in the body and is the main female hormone. It shapes the uniqueness of our female bodies and emotions, makes us feel sensual, brings a glow to our skin, moisture to our eyes, fullness to the breasts and clarity to the mind. Importantly, it gives us the feeling of female energy and sensuality.
Progesterone reduces anxiety and has a calming effect on our mood. It helps us to feel happy and calm, increases sleepiness, helps to build and maintain bones, slows the digestive process and prepares a female for pregnancy.
TESTOSTERONE & GROWTH HORMONE
Testosterone and growth hormone are produced by both males and females, although to a much lesser extent in females. Without testosterone, the body’s ability to repair musculoskeletal tissue is hindered. Testosterone is the main male hormone, and assists a male to feel masculine and energised, and creates muscle bulk and strength.
When we are in a calmer state of balance, there should be ample master hormone, pregnenolone. The body should be able to make adequate amounts of our sex hormones, as well as the key stress hormone, cortisol. However, if stressors compound, such as through poor diet, exercise, insufficient sleep, lack of relaxation, and internalisation of emotional stress, we can fatigue our adrenal glands. When this occurs we effectively are entering a chronic state of stress. The need to produce vast quantities of cortisol overrides the production of our sex hormones, an occurrence that has become known as pregnenolone steal.
Living with chronic stress
Up until this point, I have inferred that stress is a negative occurrence. However, sometimes it can include positive events, making it harder to recognise the build-up of stress, the onset of pregnenolone steal and the sneaky slippery-dip into chronic stress.
Positive stressors include:
Negative stressors include:
Accumulating stressors in the context of inadequate physical and mental rest can lead to a chronically activated fight-or-flight response and can disrupt hormonal balance. Degeneration will begin to occur to our body’s tissues, increasing our risk of injury and poor wellbeing. These changes include: alterations to sleep-awakening patterns; gut irritability; suppressed appetite; weight changes; agitation accompanied by poor concentration; restlessness; muscle loss; decreasing bone density leading to stress fractures or joint issues; immune suppression; and overall fatigue. Furthermore, if you are finding yourself required to cope with too much stress then you may be at risk of long-term changes to your mind, body and playful spirit.
I cover these effects in more detail later in The Trail Running Guidebook in a chapter on Overtraining Syndrome. Further to this, the book is filled with information on the training principles I believe can enhance performance through adequate recovery.
BUY THE BOOK:
If you haven’t already purchased a copy of The Trail Running Guidebook, paperback and eBook formats are available from my website. hannyallston.com.au/trailrunningguidebook
This blog contains information that I recently shared with the 809 athletes who are utilising my Ultra Trail Australia Training Planners & The Trail Running Guidebook for the upcoming 2019 UTA100, 50 & 22km events. The advice is relating to how to conduct your longest training missions which for the 100km athletes is up to 8hrs in duration. I hope you also find it useful!
During mission tips that will carry beautifully over into race day too:
• Begin with an athlete’s mindset. I call this ‘athlete’ mode – check in with your body and ensure you listen to what it is telling you. How do you feel mentally, physically and emotionally?
• Then try to conjure up your inner wilder child. Try to play, explore, laugh and learn how to immerse yourself in the experience. Enjoy leaving ‘race’ thoughts behind and instead ask yourself, ‘right now, where else would I want to be?’ Hopefully, you find excitement and positivity in the answer to this question!
• As the hours' pass, think about shifting into the meditation zone. I find this is my ‘warrior mode’. Turn inwards and feel the rhythm of your running, your breath and the dancing nature of trail running.
• Don’t forget to also practice your hiking skills and long sustained uphills where possible. I suggest walking anywhere from 20-40% during this long mission as you will likely find yourself walking at times on race day and it is important to prepare mentally and physically for this.
• Throughout this whole period remember to refuel frequently. I strongly encourage you to keep a constant supply of jelly beans and glucose tablets on hand, as well as your race day nutrition. Practice, practice, practice and learn!
• Towards the end of the mission, check back in with the athlete’s mindset. How am I feeling now – mentally, physically, emotionally? If you still feel confident and strong then play for the remainder of the Mission’s duration. If you know that you might be at risk of digging a big hole that may be difficult to recover from then please call-it-a-day. Learn from the experience, work out what you did really well and what you could improve on for next time. You will have one more mission to practice in before event day.
• After the mission, your focus needs to be on recovery, recovery, recovery. I write at lengths about this in my Trail Running Guidebook. I would strongly recommend booking a massage for yourself as a reward for your hard work in training to date and your long mission. Then, take your time returning to training. Take as long as you need to recover before you jump back into my planner. We don’t want to take any risks!
In preparation for the upcoming challenges, now is a good time to gather the rest of your mandatory gear together. Whilst we are all crossing our fingers and toes for fine weather in May, consider how you can prepare for either wet or hot conditions.
However, despite all of the above excitement and as we move into April, it is a brilliant opportunity to remove some of the pressure you may be feeling about race day. I believe that Autumn is a time for ‘letting go’. Let go of some of the fear and nerves you may be carrying. I highly recommend listening to my podcast with Dr Clive Stack – Listening to your emotions. A good way to unwind is to carve out an hour a day for you. Use this time to do whatever makes your heart sing or reenergizes you. Then, add some more time with friends, try different activities or new running routes. Keep it fresh & playful!
This piece is for all the individuals out there who can feel like a zebra - like your stripes are telling you apart from the crowd. It is also for all the individuals who feel a pull to shed their old identities and begin again, and to those who aren't quite sure where to start. It is packed with honesty in the knowledge that you will not judge me for the humanness of these experiences.
A zebra. That is what I kept likening myself to as I wandered in and out of various presentations at the Australian Institute of Company Directors Annual Governance Summit. What a mouthful! As I sat there, surrounded by 1500 other delegates, each in their grey suits, with the occasional blue pop on a male, or a fling of red or white from the women, I honestly felt my stripes yelling to the room. I don’t own a suit jacket, or corporate skirt, or black shiny heels. In fact, I don’t own anything that would help me fit into that room. Add to this my short spicy white pixie cut, youthful looks, my white slacks and turtleneck jumper, yes, I really was the zebra here. Many individuals bravely stated, ‘You don’t look old enough to have done all that!’ when I shared dribs and drabs of my story and how I came to be attending the conference. So, for me, the two-day summit and AICD councillor’s meeting prior to it, has not only provided insights into the principles of good governance in Australia, but also raised one question, should I be trying harder to fit in?
My mentor & transformational coach, Alice, has always said that you can find all the answers to our questions in nature. When I sat back to deliberate on my question, this is precisely what I have subconsciously done. Why was it that I picked the zebra as my way to describe my discomfort in this environment? And if I was the zebra, what did this make everyone else? Assume for a moment that they were horses, gorgeous stallions and wild brumbies. Yes, let’s consider this scenario for a second. If you were to put a zebra in the midst of these horses, to give it the same food source, water, love and attention, it will remain a zebra. The horses may try to teach it to trot, canter and follow their lead, but it will still have the traits and qualities of a wild Africa animal, one with white stripes and black. It can act like a horse, but it will undeniably still be a zebra. We could trim its main, shod it, and make it look more ‘horse-like’, but it will retain its stripes… it will still be the zebra.
So is that the answer here? If I know that I am a zebra, and this is a room full of horses, each of various breeds and beauties, I cannot change the essence of who I am by changing what I wear and trying to fit in. No, I don’t believe that I can. I must be proud of those traits and qualities that make me different. Proud of my age, my experiences, skills & my story. In truth, I must be proud of my identities, formed from my values, beliefs, actions and environment. If there are horses in that room who see me and accept me for these stripes, then I am willing to canter alongside them and enjoy the rush of the wind in my face and the new lessons I learn from them as we roam the lessons of great governance. However, to those who turn away, confused by the wild creature before them, then I respect them too. Zebras are not for everyone.
The second part to this story is that whilst happily a zebra for now, I too am still trying to understand my complete identity. Even a year ago if someone had asked me, ‘How do you see yourself?’ I would have responded with, ‘As an athlete and a businesswoman, as well as a daughter, a sister, a partner’. And if pressed, I might add, ‘World Champion and young businesswoman’. However, in truth, I am coming to realise that these identities are changing and I am still wrestling and trying to reconcile with this. This begs another question for me - What do you do with a beloved, love-worn jacket that you now know you need to retire? Should you keep on wearing it because it seems a waste to cast it aside, especially given how much you have trusted & loved it for protecting you from the elements? Now dismiss it after it has shared many wilder journeys with you? Or should you take it off, hang it in the closet, or pass it forward to someone who needs it more than you, someone who can grow into it? Just like this well-loved jacket, taking off an old identity can be terrifying. You can suddenly feel naked, feel the loss of its warmth and protection, forcing you to wrap your arms tighter around you. As you do, you will undoubtedly wonder, ‘How on earth you I find another jacket that is as good a fit as that one?’ Now imagine that you gifted your jacket to the local Vinnies shop, and a few weeks later, as you pop into the supermarket and feel the chill of the refrigeration section hit you, you suddenly see someone else wearing your jacket. This vision brings on a sudden pang of jealousy, a sudden desire to tug it back on and revel in its comfort. Yet deep down, you know this jacket no longer belongs to you. Now you feel sadness as you try to fill your basket with your groceries. You look down at the basket, and the items that you always enjoyed now no longer seem as appealing. For a short moment, you feel cold, alone and a little saddened without your jacket. Your old identity.
For me, this is exactly what has been happening, With the love and support of Alice, we have torn down barrier after barrier, peeling off the old jacket to help me uncover what my new identities are, and how my values feed into these. Most of these barriers come in the form of unresolved emotional traumas, and an incongruence with my actions, emotions, thoughts and identities. Unresolved anger, grief and sadness were hidden in the depths of each and every one of my cells. These stemmed from incidences that I had forgotten, dismissed or thought I had already overcome. Often the blocked emotions were not to do with an incident itself, but how I responded to the situation, or how someone close to me responded. It was about the choices that I made, or didn’t make in those moments, with the lessons not yet realised, the growth not yet experienced. So, as the barriers were torn down and reflected upon, at first I grieved, ached from the bruises of experiencing once again, and then rapidly felt myself coming back together, stronger than ever with clarity fuelling the flames of new desires and enhanced purpose.
For as long as I can remember I have lived by the identities of athlete, daughter, sister, protecter, hard-worker, talented, achiever, Tasmanian. Proudly so. Fiercely so. They have served me well, and taken me to the heights of sport and business accolades. Yet, despite the successes, lumps, bumps and dips in this road, somewhere along the way these identities had become shaken up - my environment had changed, my beliefs, actions and relationships too. In fact, my values had shifted and until working with Alice and trusting her to take me down deep into my subconscious, I didn’t release just how far I had moved beyond these old identities and how some of them have never actually served me. I had accepted them as a given and never thought to pause and ask the simple question, ‘Is this jacket for me?’
Sitting in the huge theatre in Sydney, the distant voices of the presenters floating towards me, I couldn’t help but find my mind drifting. Why? Because I have suddenly realised that there is no part of my identity that is a businesswoman. No, not at all. Despite having won two business awards, business is not a part of my identity… not at all. However, what is, is learning about the people who interact with the business. What motivates them, their dreams, aspirations and how they lead themselves there, or lead themselves away for that matter. It is the why and the how that fascinates me in business, not the what or the outcomes. During the conversations that erupted during the tea and lunch breaks at the conference, I found that my brain couldn’t attach to the stories that people were sharing with me unless we reached the human element at the bottom of their story - once again, their why and how, not their what - the accolades, successes & business outcomes. Similarly, earlier that morning, I had taken myself off to the Ian Thorpe Aquatic Centre to spin my arms and feel my body move silently through the quiet waters of an awakening swimming pool. As I began to ease into the movements, I couldn’t help but feel that athlete is no longer a part of my identity either. I no longer feel like I am competing against myself or others, that I am no longer driven by accolades or results. No. Instead, I feel like with every stroke that I take I am eager to see if I can make it my best stroke, to feel the water catch more firmly on my hand, to feel myself rise out of the water and how the resulting glide can feel more effortless. I can recognise now that this is not the mind of the athlete, but rather the mind of a learner, an explorer… an artist.
With guidance from Alice, I realise too that I now need to move beyond my identity of ‘young Hanny’ - the daughter, sister, and timid, young girl growing up in the big, wide world. At thirty-three years of age it is finally time to embrace my womanhood. I want to now look in the mirror and embrace the curvaceous breasts that greet me, the slight curve on my hips and the skin maturing from exposure to life, sunshine and the elements. I want to move beyond purely the practical underwear and sometimes pull on my big woman panties, the ones that make me feel a little more sensual and feminine. At night I want to go to bed and enjoy the feeling of sleeping in sleepwear that makes me feel beautiful and capable of mature intimacy with my husband. I want to see his eyes light up with ‘that look’, to know that whilst our relationship is absolutely 100% grounded in friendship and indefinite love & respect for one another, that there will always be a romance alive there too. I want to walk into a room and hold my head up high, rather than letting my gaze drift to the shoes of the adults. Then to sit across the table from them and feel empowered to share my thoughts. I also want to sit across the table from my brother and speak as equals, and to take the advice and wisdom that he shares with me as adult-to-adult, rather than simply as his little sister. Further to this, I want to visit my mother as Hanny, and yes, whilst still her daughter, I also want to know in my heart that I am an adult creating my own life and with a plethora of choices in front of me. More importantly, I want to share a meal with her knowing that she feels the same freedom and ability to make choices too. When I speak to my father on the phone I want to know that I can open myself up to vulnerability, sharing the joys, highs and lows of our lives lived, sometimes together but more frequently apart. And finally, to know that within each of my special relationships there is no judgement.
Therefore, in the recent months I have learnt that identities evolve. When it becomes apparent that we need to, we must peel off the layers - the athlete, the daughter, the sister, the youth, the businesswoman - and try on some new ones. The laciness of womanhood. The stillness of the writer. The creativity of the explorer. The colours of the artist. The compassion of the healer. The voice of the coach. From this place of strength & understanding, my ‘be wilder’ state, can come the exploration of values, beliefs and actions.
I am sure that many of the things I have discussed here today will change by tomorrow. However, this is absolutely okay and please do not judge me if I do profoundly state tomorrow that I am once again an athlete! Change and evolution, confusion and then clarity, this is all a part of the human experience. We must wrestle with the known and the unknown, with the feelings & experiences that we can put words to, and those that we cannot yet. We must be willing to be brave in our vulnerabilities so that we can turn these into our vitalities.
Like Alice has done for me, today I write to give you the permission to also turn inwards and identify the identities that you are wearing, those that serve you, and those that no longer do. For if we all go on this journey, not only will it be less intimidating and lonely, but we will be helping to make the world a better place. The world needs more zebras. But it also needs more lions, buffalo, hippos and tigers. It needs more cats, dogs, ponies and goats. It needs more plants, grasses, and towering trees. It needs more diversity and individuals living a conscious life.
This blog stemmed from a client's email query: 'I live in the UK where it is super cold at the moment. How do I prepare for your relatively hot Australian conditions?'
When you live in a cold environment, acclimatising for an event in hot conditions is incredibly difficult. In 2005 I was heading to the peak of Japan's summer for the World Orienteering Titles. It was expected to be >37 degrees celcius with humidity of over 90%. As I began preparing for the races, snow lay in a thin blanket across the lumpy paddocks of our family's farm in Tasmania. Without too much experience or guidance, I dusted off my bike, set it up on a friend's spin trainer by the hearth, stoked up the fire, shut all the doors, decked myself out in all my thermals & tracksuits, and began one incredibly uncomfortable 10-day streak of training.
Yes, if you do not have the luxury of arriving well in advance of your race, acclimitisation is pretty tough. Here are my tips:
For Sports Nutrition that will assist, visit Find Your Feet's Nutrition & Hydration Collection.
Preparation for our athletic dreams requires a harmony of focused recovery combined with enough strain to see gain. Baby steps.
However, in the face of injury we need to respond quickly. Baby steps don’t suffice. When injury strikes, there is no such thing as ‘meeting in the middle’. We either want to listen to our body or we don’t. We either want to get better or we won’t. We must acknowledge the weaknesses that led to the injury. We must take responsibility for the road back.
Whilst it is imperative to hear the wisdom of the gurus around us, at the end of the day we are the ones who knows what is at stake. We are the ones who knows what our body wants to say to us… We set the dream. We take the steps. We reap the rewards.
An interview with Find Your Feet Australia.
In 2013 you broke the women’s record by around 75mins that year and finished 4th overall. Describe the run that you had – was it more mental, physical, strategical or all of the above?
To be honest, this was a hard year for me. In the leadup to the event, and even during it I had this real knowing discomfort in my knee. A month or so earlier I had been racing in China and tripped, knocking my knee on a rock. I found out weeks after the Overland event that I actually had a hairline fracture in my patellar. So, I guess I explain this because I don’t think my best races come from physical. The UTA100km in 2017 was a classic example of this. In that circumstance, I was super physically prepared, but not there mentally or emotionally at all. It made it a very, very long day out. In the 2013 Overland Track event I was just so eager to be at the event and running down the trail which transects my favourite regions of Tasmania. I had been living in Canberra for years and really missed this pristine landscape. It is where I feel most at home. Where I feel my love of mountains and the intimacy of all the natural elements combines with the rhythm of running. So, toeing that start line I was filled with eagerness, albeit a little apprehension. I had no strategical plan other than to run by the feel of my body, to monitor it carefully and listening to it, just as I was listening to the landscape and its own rhythms as the day unfolded. As it turned out, I ended up continuing to bump into Matt Cooper who was one of Australia’s top male ultra-runners at the time. He was having a tough day in the office but there was this quiet companionship and admiration at play. I didn’t ever run with him for long, but it was like a yo-yo, his coming and going as he found energy and then lost it again. I found that emotionally keeping an eye out for him and wanting to help him gave me strength too, and I ended up feeling on cloud nine all day. I certainly didn’t know anywhere near as much as I know now, such as about nutrition, hydration, equipment and strategical racing. I just ran with heart, spirit and tingling toes. I am so stoked still with that result. It was just a wonderful, long day outside.
(NB. Hanny finished 4th overall that year in a time of 8hrs13mins. In the last three years, no woman has come within fifty-five minutes of this time.
How did you focus your preparations in the last week before the event?
In the week before the event I was conscious of not overloading my body nor mind. I was doing a lot of coaching at the time so that made it quite tricky. I was also living in Canberra where it was really hot. Therefore, I did a little more swimming, early morning gentle jogs, tried to focus on consuming more electrolytes and simple foods, and generally just enjoying the excited nervousness that comes before a race. Sleep is critical and that should always be your number one priority pre-race. After travel, I like to also lie with my feet up a wall as it takes away a lot of my lethargy and is proven to help reduce cortisol levels.
What do you think is the optimal mindset for long distance races?
You need to be able to tune into your emotions, hear what they are saying, and then utilize this knowledge to your advantage. The importance of this is to be able to stay strong but still be human. I find that when I am too ‘switched off’ to what I am feeling when I am out there, it leads to not enjoying myself. I become robotic and unable to appreciate why I am out there and what I am seeing. On the other hand, when I am too vulnerable and ruled by my emotions I can find it hard to stay strong and lean into the discomforts. So, it is a very fine balance. I personally work a huge amount on understanding ‘self’ and ‘my story’. I want to know what sits below the surface of me and to feel the vulnerability & strength that comes from this knowledge. I then find I am really able to tap into the adventures and missions that really are making my toes tingle… easily able to answer the question, ‘Why am I doing this?’ This is so important. Knowing you are out there for the right reasons will definitely give you the strength to lean into the discomforting moments, which are always prevalent when you are walking towards the edge! The other thing that is important is to understand what your definition of success is. And be warned, in Tasmania, this cannot be about time or places, or otherwise the raw wildness of the landscape will chew you up and spit you back out again!
What is different about racing & ultra-running in Tasmania?
I know we always use the word, but Tassie is definitely wilder. The trails are more remote, with many points of no return. The tracks are usually rougher too, with more roots, rocks, mud and sometimes, exposure. Therefore, I think you have to approach running in Tasmania with a slightly different mindset. You can’t easily say, ‘well, I’ll start and see how it goes’. You have to be far more prepared for that. To know that when you toe the start of a trail you are 100% ready for that. I think this is why I became one of those athletes who never raced half-baked. I always needed to be 100% confident in all my process – from my training leading into the event or mission, to my nutrition, recovery, equipment and psychology. I guess this is where Find Your Feet has grown from – a really willingness to highlight the importance of preparation and preparedness with our community of eager trail enthusiasts.
What final tips or tricks would you have for anyone preparing for this year’s Overland Track Ultra or another upcoming event?
I have come to learn that the half-way mark of an ultra-distance event is definitely not the half-way mark! I find that the game really begins sometime after the 2/3rds point of the event. Therefore, I like to determine a point that for me heralds this ‘true ½ way mark’. In the Overland Track race, I had the half-way mark as when I reached the northern shores of Lake St Clair which comes at around 62km into the event. Even though I had run the event previously and really enjoyed this section, I knew that most participants mentally & physically struggle in this section. So I knew it was important to pace my race so that my energy tank was still more than ½ full for this remaining 20km of the race.
A place where growth is not limited to garden beds and trimmed hedges. The known, the kept, the manicured. It is a union of sun, rain, wind and soils home to the vegetation that lives there, stretching, seeking growth. A place where we bask in the rays of our mentors, water ourselves with self-compassion, lean into the headwinds, and strive upwards… forever growing.
A state where pruning occurs only to allow us to walk a faint trail to somewhere even more remote, scenic and worthy of our spent energy. A state where we lean into the head winds, get buffeted by the horizontal blasts, and pushed forwards by a gust from behind. A state where we teeter bravely through the challenges, bound forwards when the terrain evens out, then finally stand atop a mountain, sunburnt and grinning with a pulsing heartbeat. Toes tingling.
When we strive each day to make ourselves proud, willingly leaving the known trails to carve our own pathway. When the smallest individual actions add together until one day you realise you are running towards your best self.
When you feel so self-empowered that you no longer look behind or to the actions of others.
When your steps surmount until you are standing near the edge, marvelling at just how far you have come, and realising that YOU were the one who got yourself there. For me, that is the art of ‘Being Wilder’
The following blog post is a recent interview I did with James Kuegler on my experiences with the Six Foot Track Marathon.
I do have a Training Planner available for this event if you are interested in taking on the challenge of the Six Foot Track Marathon Race and would like a guide for a sustainable training method that I use.
As a coach, I value all my athlete interactions, as they are all meaningful. It is edifying to engage with people who are trying to create a new normal and put themselves through something that, regardless or the outcome, will be ultimately transformative. Taking that view, all my athlete’s successes are meaningful to me, however I feel comfortable saying that sometimes a performance will stick. One such performance is Hobart resident and former orienteering world champion Hanny Allston’s 3:34:50 course record setting run at the 2015 Six Foot Track Marathon.
The Six Foot Track Marathon is one of the oldest and most storied races in the Australian trail running Calendar. Taking place every year in Katoomba in New South Wales. The 45 kilometre event, which some consider the toughest trail marathon in Australia, was first run in 1984 to mark the centenary of the Six Foot Track- which gives the race it’s name. As with most of the best races out there, the SFTM (as we will now call it) raises money for the New South Wales Rural Fire Service and the Six Foot Track restoration trust and is a proudly grassroots event.
Continuing with the proudly grassroots feel of the event there is a classically detailed long form course description at the SFTM website which details the race turn by turn. In short, however the SFTM course descends for roughly the first third of the race, to the lowest point at Cox’s river, before a massive sustained climb with undulations before dropping down into the finish at Jenolan caves . The race has a mix of fast trail, fire road, meadow, and narrow, more technical terrain at the start. The key challenges that you face are the difference in terrain, the sustained descending and climbing and the temperature, which can get to over 30 degrees at this time of year in Katoomba.
I would suggest that to become an able runner you have to learn the discipline and craft of running, that is, training frequently with good form, a solid aerobic base, with periods of time spent training at an increased effort. We’ve been doing that forever because, well, it works. I would consider however that applying cross training principles to a race like the SFTM is especially important due to the makeup of the course. You will need a strong core and posterior chain to cope with the initial long sustained downhill sections (where it is all too easy to get carried away when you feel like you’re flying) and then maintain excellent form and high leg turnover as you grind up some brutal sustained climbs in the second half of the race. Even though SFTM is considered a descending course, with an overall net descent of 260m (1528m total elevation and 1788m descent) one should not be fooled. You will pay for any early excesses in the latter part of the race.
Why I am talking about cross training specifically is that yes, core strength is vital, and we should all incorporate some aspects of core work into our weekly routines, but what we need for an event such as SFTM is plyometric strength. Plyometric strength comes into play with someone like Kilian Jornet, who is able to bound up hills, thanks not only to his aerobic capability, but to his ability for his muscles to contract explosively. Plyometric strength is important as it is what gives us that “running bounce”. If we think back to earlier articles, high leg turnover should mean that each leg is spending less time in contact with the ground, ergo our footfalls should be lighter, our muscles don’t load up and we run in a more energy efficient manner. To do this, we need plyometric strength. A varied training plan, with a focus on cross training, can be helpful to develop this strength.
As I’ve described in the sample week’s training, Hanny’s workouts leading up to the SFTM were a mixture of speed work, strength work, water running (to maintain physical integrity) and hiking. There was comparatively little ‘straight’ running in the training load. Leading up the the SFTM this mix of time on feet, recovery, strength, and some speed work gave Hanny all the elements she needed to set a blistering course record that still stands. You could take my word for all of this, or you could hear it from the source herself, As I spoke to Hanny via email about her recollection of the event.
What do you believe are the key training requirements for someone planning to take on the SFTM?
Base fitness. You need to really be able to run consistently as under foot, the terrain is very fast. That is, major trails, fire trails and even some almost road sections. Then it comes down to great running form on the hills. You need to learn how to get into granny gear and grind up a hill for a very long period of time. Finally, it is strength and conditioning the legs for prolonged downhills. If you are not used to running downhill, often at a high intensity, for a long duration then I can guarantee you will struggle to walk for the next week after the event! So, in this order my training focus would be:
My memory of you running SFTM in 2015 was about not getting caught up in the excitement and energy at the start, and running your own race hunting the guys down towards the end. How did you manage to temper the excitement of the race with sticking to your processes around intensity and strategy?
Yes, this was absolutely my plan. I had a lot of pressure on me to break records and be a front runner, but I knew that my performance would only be as strong as my ability to execute what I wanted to in the race. So I have created this ability to get in ‘my bubble’. This is my place where I go to focus on my running technique, keeping myself fuelled and hydrated, feeling the rhythm of the run and observing the day around me. I know that if I am running in my bubble I am conserving energy. And that if I do all of this right, then the result will take care of itself.
Psychologically and physiologically what are the constituent sections of the event?
Physiologically, the aim should be not to burn too many bridges over the first very long downhill and runnable sections to Cox’s River. You should be focussing on feeling light and fast, without pushing too far. This is a period for really keeping on top of your energy levels so that you have lots left for later. Then you hit the big climb out of Cox’s River. Here you need to get in granny gear. My motto on this is, ‘how slow can I go?’ It wasn’t so much about slowness, but about remaining comfy and really finding my rhythm. Then, when you get to the ‘top’, there is this undulating 10km or more of running. This is definitely where the race is won. You need to be able to really hammer this section at full throttle, because after this it is all downhill to the end. I saw so many people coming unstuck here because they hadn’t kept enough in the tank. This section should be your absolute focus in this race. Then the last 10km or so to the finish is about trying not to get too caught up in your head and your own pain. By now, everyone is hurting. You just need to focus on staying fuelled and hydrated, trying to get out of your head, and let the legs roll beneath you to the finish. It is definitely tough because by now your legs feel a bit like pulp, but hopefully you have trained for this.
Anything else you think worthy of mentioning?
Fuelling and hydration is everything. You can be the fittest athlete in the world, and give everything to your training, but if you muck up your nutrition and hydration on the day then you can wave goodbye to a great result.
Cross training is beneficial because it helps us to be a better animal. Cross training uses different muscle groups, it is psychologically refreshing, and can aid in limiting stress on the muscles that we are using regularly in our consistent training. Cross training can be done within running, rather than say doing plyometric exercises or swimming, experiment with different shoes, terrain, carry a backpack sometimes if you don’t normally. This will change up the load on your body and be beneficial. Plyometric exercises, ones that have our muscles contracting and expanding quickly, are especially useful for runners. Box jumps are an ideal form of Plyometric exercise
Hanny Allston Sample Week leading up to SFTM
Monday. 1:00 Strength workout. 0:45 Water Run
Tuesday, 3:00 Hike
Wednesday. 0:45 Water Run. 1:00 Tempo Run
Thursday. 3:00 Hike
Friday. 1:00 Strength workout.
Saturday 1:00 Aerobic Run
Sunday 1:30 Off-Road Run
As a performance coach specializing in trail and ultra-distance running, I am frequently asked about the use of caffeine a supplement to performance. With almost every sports nutrition brand providing caffeinated options, from gels to chews to beverages, I believe it is important to address the question – to caffeine or not to caffeine? Sadly, as you will soon find out, whilst there are some good rules to abide by, everyone is different. Using caffeine requires you to understand the science, your own body’s response to this common stimulant, and then to deliberately practice and observe its effects during exercise.
Caffeine is a stimulant
Let us begin with the most important concept. Caffeine is a stimulant. It acts to give you a false sense of energy, helping to heighten alertness and enhance wakefulness. In trail running, these effects can help someone to feel more responsive to the challenges of the trail, overcome fatigue (both physical and mental), and to also mask pain (more on this soon). However, herein lies the caution. If caffeine is a stimulant and can help someone to feel like a relative of Superman, then it is likely that this individual is working at a heightened level of physical and mental exertion. Underlying this is still the same body requiring the same amount of energy, if not more, to maintain its level of performance. If you are someone who uses caffeine, then it is highly likely that you are chewing into energy reserves faster than you would in a non-caffeinated state. Unless you are ruthless about putting this energy back in whilst on your caffeine-high, then you can be digging your own energy hole that may be difficult, or near impossible, to return from.
Caffeine is a diuretic
The same concept holds true for the effect that caffeine has on our hydration. As caffeine is a mild diuretic, it can give an athlete the sensation of needing to stop behind a tree, all the while thinking,‘great, I must be hydrated’. If you are zinging along the trail on your caffeine high, it is also imperative to keep on top of your fluids, preferably using an electrolyte higher in sodium.
Caffeine has different effects on different people
I am a tea drinker and even a small influx of caffeine will hit me hard, so hard in fact that my mind begins to race and I begin to feel a little bit jittery. My husband on the other hand loves a coffee, or two, or three. Whilst I opt for the tea leaves, he will grind, filter and create an espresso with negligible effects on his physiology or psyche. Out on the trail, the enormous difference of caffeine’s effects on our bodies continues to be evident. For me, even a portion of a caffeinated gel is like putting a firecracker in a tin can. The nearly instantaneous pulse of caffeine resonates throughout my body, causing me to feel zingy, jittery and uncomfortable. However, for my husband, he will really, really notice the lack of caffeine in his system if we begin early in the morning or are running for extensively prolonged periods of time. For example, if he skips his morning coffee, or those later in the day, the lack of caffeine leaves his normally caffeinated body feeling lethargic and stagnant. Utilising a caffeinated gel during these lower periods makes a lot of sense, albeit carefully ensuring that enough energy is also replaced to combat its stimulating effects. This is imperative to avoid crashing and burning later.
Caffeine and women
Fascinatingly, studies are now coming to light about the role of caffeine on a woman’s body, and how the effect varies depending on her hormonal status. For example, information is coming to light to show that the metabolism of caffeine during the first two weeks of a woman’s cycle is similar to that of men, but then in the second two weeks women show higher peak levels following ingestion, meaning that the caffeine will stay in her body for longer. This is also true for many women using certain forms of birth control. I would recommend that if you are a woman and are sensitive to caffeine, begin to notice and document its effects on your body at different times of your menstrual cycle. You may observe that your sensitivity to this stimulant may go up and down with the changes in your hormonal levels, thus requiring you to adapt your approach during exercise.
Caffeine and stress
Some athletes are highly susceptible to pre-race exercise stress or anxiety. For these athletes, I would strongly recommend steering clear of caffeine prior-to, or in the early phases of a race as it has the potential to enhance the cortisol stress response. Too much stress too early on can lead to burning more calories than desired, leading to a potential deficit later in the event.
Caffeine for pain
Interestingly, one of the greatest benefits of caffeine during exercise is that is becomes a potent masker of pain. That is, during exercise, it can have an effect of similar proportions to that of taking two Panadol tablets. There have certainly been occasions when I have had to tap into this during the depths of a long, difficult ultra-distance run. For example, on one such adventure I had a sudden, sharp onset of ITB syndrome with symptoms of jabbing pain in the front of my patellar. No amount of hobbling helped and deep down I knew that this compensation would only make the problem worse. Within 10 minutes of consuming a caffeinated gel, I had not just climbed out of this hobbling hole, but the pain had completely disappeared! I believe that this was also due to my heightened ability to improve my motor patterning, once again tapping into the strength of my gluteal muscles that had become lazy and non-responsive due to mental and physical fatigue. Amazingly, I experienced no more knee pain for the remaining 6 hours of this long mission.
In summary, caffeine certainly does have a role during exercise. It can help us to feel alert, agile and responsive to the demands of the challenges we have set ourselves, and not to forget its effects on pain. However, it is imperative to remember that it is a stimulant. For these reasons, I would urge all athletes to develop insight into how it affects them on an individual level, and also to consider keeping it up your sleeve as a trump card for later in the race. This will help you to experience that sensation of finishing with fire, whilst also helping to prevent digging energy deficits due to overexertion too early in an event.
I am running along a wild trail in Japan, entering into the Zen state that occurs soon after the ‘I am getting a little tired’ point, and shortly before the second-wind gusts you back onto your feet. In this internal bubble, time loses all meaning, and thoughts come and go like the breeze that hits me each time I crest onto another jagged ridgeline. Sweat is dripping down my forehead, seeping down my neck, before finally making it into my undies. Moving along this trail, far from the wandering crowds, and well beyond reach of emails, phones and all that ‘life’ stuff, I think I am in heaven. And, from the depths of this meditative state, I feel completely connected to my rawest self.
This experience in Japan is my first multi-day, lightweight mission. All I am carrying on my back is a small five-liter running vest pack. It contains only the bare essentials – a change of undies, a singlet, shorts, thermal, rain jacket, toothbrush, electrolytes, sports gels, cash, phone and a few tea bags. (As I learnt last time I visited, even in Japan I can find myself in tea deficit mode. On that occasion, I had reached a teahouse surrounded by tea plantations only to find that they only served coffee!) On each day of this spontaneous adventure I am aiming to cover anywhere from 35 – 55km through relatively remote, mountainous terrain on the Kii Peninsula which lies to the south of the mega cities of Osaka and Kyoto. As I would later find out, I had been all too dismissive of the word ‘mountainous’, which in Japan really does mean huge, sharp climbs in excessive of 1000m, followed be slippery freefalls back down the other side, only to repeat again.
On rare occasions the trail dips into the valleys that gently cup small, remote villages where a rural life of rice paddies, tea plantations and persimmon trees adorn. Here, I am greeted to a hospitality unlike anywhere else in the world. Stooped women eagerly grasp my empty water bottle, or offer me some, ‘chocolate, just for you’when I step into their home, which also serves as a café. When the time comes to stiffly stand back up and bid farewell, she will stand at the hearth of her home, waving madly like I am her daughter. I feel so connected to them even though our homelands are waters apart, and our native tongues struggle to express our gratitude.
In this rural region of Japan there is also attention to detail simply everywhere I turn. Small rest stops enroute are cleaned to 5* hotel standards, with the toilet paper carefully folded into a ‘V’ shape to highlight just how carefully prepared it is for my sweaty bottom. And when I finally arrive weary, muddy and salt-crusted at my ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) for the night, I am greeted by unphased, cheery smiles, along with a pair of slippers and a white fluffy towel. Later, as I soak in the healing onsens and revel in the warm fuzzy feeling of a day of adventuring, little do I know that my futon bed is being carefully prepared by Japanese pixies.
Prior to this personal four-day adventure, I was leading a group of trail runners on one of our Find Your Feet Trail Running Tours. Each day of the tour, we host a tradition of sharing our highlights of the day with one another. This is a beautiful insight into the small moments that can, at times, be life changing for our guests. It provides not only a connection with one another, but also allows our guests to connect with a side of themselves which may feel unfamiliar and nuanced. At the end of this particular trip, we also asked each guest to share the one element of Japan that they wished to return home with. It was, without a doubt, the most remarkable conversation as unanimously, collectively, the group’s highlight of the trip was the Japanese custom of generosity and compassion, given so freely and with no sense of entitlement in return. Yes, it is this missing sense of entitlement, replaced only by unwavering generosity and trust, that connects me to this unique country and continues to prod me in my heart me as a plod, huff and puff my way along the weaving trails.
Out here, on a trail to somewhere, I love to watch the way neighbors connect in the street, chatting gaily to one another. To marvel at the lack of fences and their community gardens. To watch them sweep, clean, and live alongside one another. Individual lives, connecting together and being enjoyed collectively. And yet beyond this camaraderie, there is another Japanese custom that profoundly strikes me – self-compassion!
In many of the small towns which provided my bed of the night, the onsens are also frequented by locals who would tug off their gumboots at the entrance, and pad their way down carefully cleaned corridors in a pair of slippers. Many of the women would be stooped from years of toiling in the rice paddies, tea plantations or vegetable allotments. From labour to self-love, the onsen is where they come to nurture, preen, show mindfulness, and leave renewed. When I step into this steamy environment at the end of the day, my dirty feet padding a contrasting pathway across pristine white tiles, I cannot help but observe the relaxed nature of the Japanese women sharing this space alongside one another… and me. We are all nude. We are all different, some with more curves here, and some with less there. Taller, shorter, rounder, smaller, it doesn’t appear to matter. These women will look at themselves in little stumpy mirrors whilst poised on small plastic stools. They appear to observe themselves with a peacefulness that could only come from a lack of self-judgement, and a lack of judgement of others.
Contrastingly, back home many of us are warriors in the bathroom. I, for one, am far too quick to judge and rush through a routine of in, out, dried, clothed and on my way again. It is about time… time… time… or lack thereof. But in Japan, there is always time. Somehow, the days feel spacious, the heart fuller, the body more capable of brimming with self-gratitude. And of course, connecting to both oneself and others.
My adventure has now passed and this morning I am back in the more concreted landscapes of Osaka, awaiting my flight home. I cannot help but pine for those hazy memories of steep mountains and unknown pathways still to come. So, in the shadows of dawn, I pull on my running shoes one last time and slip from the hotel, weaving my way out onto the foreshore overlooking the manmade island now forming the impressive Osaka Kansai International Airport. Rain clouds are boiling with potency around me, and as the sun begins to bead light onto the earthen walls where families and fisherman throw their fishing lines into the sea, a bold rainbow manifests. I pause briefly, revel in the fact that I have had this glorious experience, and continue onwards, never once occurring to me to share this moment with the unfamiliar faces around me. However, I am soon pulled from my inner glow by another jogger. He is waving madly at me and then madly at the sky, all the while hosting a broad, goofy smile. ‘Rainbow, rainbow!’He is calling to me, connecting with me, wanting me to see what he has seen. We pause together, two individuals connected by an appreciation for nature’s finery, each exchanging unfamiliar words of excitement before continuing along our solo pathways. Moments later, just as two nattering women in broad, floppy hats are wandering towards me, the rainbow has spread into a two-layered beauty with an arc from ocean to ocean. I wave madly at them, and then up at the sky. I know I am sporting a goofy smile but I cannot help it. They stop in their tracks, conversation now on pause, and look up. Then they are squealing, pointing, waving at all the other wanderers as they wander. We become bundled together, connected by an arc of colour, all pointing and cheering. ‘Rainbow! Rainbow!’
Had that first gentleman not taken that moment to connect with me, I would never have learnt that generosity can be as simple as sharing an arc of colour as it seeps across a sky. Had I not connected with those women in the onsens, I don’t think I would have ever fully understood the gift of self-compassion when I now turn on the taps in the quiet of the bathroom. We need connection, both to ourselves and to others. It makes the rainbows shine brighter, judgement to seep away and compassion to rise to the surface. It allows us to stand on a set of steps and wave goodbye to someone we do not know. And it gives a sense of having more time. More time to to greet a neighbor in the street. More time to share a random act of kindness, with no sense of entitlement in tow. More time and excitement to explore wilder trails, knowing that you will be taken care of, both by yourself and by others.
Lee walks softly through the sliding doors into my living room, a converted 1960s garage which we rent from generous friends who live above. For three years we lived humbly since we sold our home in Canberra and thrown everything into our Find Your Feet adventure business here in Tasmania. Lee meets my outstretched hand with a quiet confidence and yet boyish nervousness. I feel like I am looking in a mirror. ‘Well this should be interesting!’ he remarks with a husky smoothness laced with an accent I cannot place.
I flick on the microphone and watch the sound bars jump up and down as we begin to reminisce about adventures along Tasmania’s remote wilderness trails, the escapades which have profoundly shaped us. Frenchman’s Cap with its landmark Lorax cliff face plummeting into Lake Tahune hundreds of metres below. Federation Peak with its wallowing hippo-friendly mud. And our local icon, Mt Wellington with is plethora of rabbit-warren trails etching a runner’s paradise across her north-eastern flanks.
For fifteen years Tasmania has been my home to a wicked combination of adventurous runs, heavy-legged recovery days and interval repetitions up brutal climbs. It shaped me as a person, elite runner and ultimately, a World Champion. The mountain’s beauty has always helped to spark a belief in my dreams during times of adversity and has become a place for celebration after moments of accomplishment. As stories unfold during my conversation with Lee, I realise that we are sharing a deeply profound moment of, ‘me too!’
Today Lee is a sixty-nine-year old recreational athlete whose greatest claim to fame, aside from the significant accomplishments in cycling to triathlon, running to trail running, is the fact that he has never been injured. How is this possible? A celebrated ecologist with an inquisitive mind that allows him to ask the deepest questions of humanity, Lee has adopted a belief in a theory called Punctuated Equilibrium. Tasmania is his Petri dish. I am rivetted.
“It is not the external world that needs to change. Transformational shifts happen from upgrading the internal world – your patterns of both thoughts and actions. These pattern shifts might just begin with moving beyond the drive for high performance; beyond the search for peak experiences; beyond being able to do more in your life. While the peaks are important and wonderful, the transformation of living more fully daily begins with a fundamental commitment to organize your life to be you at your best more often; to be more present, more grounded, more joyful, more playful, more focused — more “switched-on”. That way of living requires an investment in recovery: proper sleep, proper hydration and food intake, plenty of movement and an optimal way of thinking.”
This year, Federation Peak formed a huge punctuation mark in my life. Over eleven hours of wading through mud and scrambling through a maze of horizontal scrub I overcome fear after nervous fear, driven by the knowledge from an early podcast guest, Dr Clive Stack, that fear serves the purpose of highlighting what is of greatest importance to us. Being out there on that back-jarring trail, running and wading my way to the summit, was vitally meaningful to me. And in the depths of one mud-hole, at a moment of ‘what am I doing!?’, I found a heightened realisation that we can only reach our greatest performances, our wildest ambitions, when we are grounded by a strong sense of self and what we love. Yes, discomforts aside, I love this side of Tasmania, and it helps me to uncover my truest self.
As a performance coach and consultant, time and time again I have observed the phenomena that when individuals have a profound understanding of their values and an ability to empower themselves; when they are then willing to play wilder and find the child within; only then do they reach their greatest levels of mastery and to strive for performance. Be wilder, play wilder, perform wilder. Stability. Fun. Perform… a constant cycle of self-exploration, playfulness and striving after which it is critical to return to our inner foundations and to ensure that they are still serving us.
“Regardless of what you are aspiring towards, you do need elements of stability”
As Lee explains, we grow in waves, with internal and external forces pushing us to rapidly adapt. And if you are aware of how we as a species grow like this, then you can self-inflict the punctuation marks. From his steady home-base, this is how Lee has come to grow as an athlete.
“We have to be careful of not all heading for the middle ground. I think we need to pick up on our strengths and at times, create the punctuation marks.”
In summary, it is vitally important to learn to be more to do more. For me, I know that the old way of do more to be morehas passed and now been replaced with a desire to be wilder, play wilder and perform wilder. In doing so, I slowly believe that I am finding the pathway to finding my feet.
Listen to the full Find Your Feet Podcast episode with Lee Belbin.
As featured in Travel. Play. Live Magazine, Autumn 2018
Mud between my toes. Mud etched into the lines of my hands. Mud spots on my cheeks, both facial and I am sure, other. Mud masking the scratches across my legs, the downside of this dense south-west Tasmanian scrub. I have pain in my lower back, jarred from all the ducking beneath and leaping over the maze of toppled trees, their lifespan shortened by the roaring forties that rip through here. If I am not buried in this confusion of fallen limbs, I am vaulting from button grass to mud bank, trying to avoid the deepest holes. I can hear Dale behind me. Deep breaths expired, the squelch of his shoes and the occasional humorous remark at our predicament as he flings himself across, and sometimes into, each muddy void.
Just four hours earlier I had lain, clean and cosy beside my husband listening to the rain beating onto the metal roof of our van. Surrounded by absolute darkness, the only indication of our remote location was the sounds of wind in the ancient Gondwanen forests and the swollen, rushing river. Into this dark night I had uttered, ‘I am scared’. Despite the knot of anxiety in my stomach, I had clambered out of the down parlor, the beam from my head torch highlighting the breadth of the growing puddles. As I had tugged on long scrub socks, shoes and raincoat, set a match to my stove and prepared my tea pot, I went through a mental checklist:
As I poured the boiling water onto the tea leaves and finished preparing my vest pack, I knew that the only failure in this adventure would be not leaving the comfort of this van. Fear should never be the barrier to our dreams.
In May 2017, I had taken a giant step back from competitive sport. Ready for a change in attention, I was forced to address the questions, ‘Who is Hanny and what does success really mean for her going forward?’ My new normal became playfulness and it was on the silly adventures, most notably in the wilder environments of Tasmania, that I slowly came to a very important realization - success is not about reaching summits, winning medals or hitting business targets. Rather, it is a willingness to walk to, and then along, the edge of discomfort. To be willing to be uncomfortable in the pursuit of the meaningful.
By the time I had hugged my husband one last time, rain beating down and my watch reading 4:30am, I was completely committed. I followed Dale into the dense, saturated undergrowth, our torches dancing together. Whilst the summit of Federation Peak was our aim, twenty-two kilometers along this overgrown hiking route, I knew that I had already succeeded by being 120% engaged in this adventure. That is, success had been emotionally checking in for today despite the adverse weather conditions.
Now, four hours into the mission, I feel nervous. Dale and I are ‘running’ towards the base of Moss Ridge, the notorious 1000m climb onto the plateau that marks the start of the final precarious ascent to the summit of Federation Peak. We can see the clouds boiling above us, the summit’s sheer beauty obscured by their wet contents. I have noticed the temperature has dropped again and I find myself needing to stop to pull on more layers. I am wet to my skin, my shoes filled with the fine silt from the mud and every time I bend over my back is jarring. Deep down I can distinguish that my emotion is not so much fear, but rather vulnerability in the face of the challenge ahead.
To help remain positive, Dale and I begin to break the adventure down into smaller moments. We encourage one another to keep fueled, warm, and to continue for another short period of time before we decide on the feasibility of a summit attempt. We cut through the tension with laughter for what else can you do when you are soaked to your undies, muddier than a hippo and running like a wombat? As it happened, this was the exact moment in this adventure where success occurred. Our willingness to persevere and laugh in the face of our discomfort created a positive spiral that soon after had us whooping and huffing, puffing and clambering all the way to the plateau. From there we had gingerly scuttled up and then down steep scree-filled gullies, teetered our way around narrower ledges and then, with frozen fingers, pulled our way up the final rock faces towards the summit where cold and dangerous conditions had us hightailing downwards before even a happy-snap could be taken. Not once, in those uphill endeavors, did we consider turning back. Success at the base of the mountain had helped us to realise our dream of summiting.
It was a long, muddy waddle home. However, high on the adrenalin of accomplishment, we giggled, found tranquil silence, experienced peacefulness in our deepest selves and then finally bumped into my husband Graham. After 11.5hours and 43km, we popped back out of the undergrowth to the welcome sight of the van. The sun was shining.
Every element of that adventure to Federation Peak should have been miserable and yet, when I reflect on it, all I can find is joy. I am so proud that we overcame the temptation of comfort to embrace the conditions, that we found delight in the discomforts, and that we didn’t turn around in the face of fear or vulnerability. It just makes me even more empowered to share what I know about success – that it is not the outcome. It is about your willingness to walk to the edge of discomfort, and then remain there.
Adventure can truly be your avenue to self-development. It can strengthen you in moments of weakness and showcase what you truly love. Adventure can highlight where you have room to grow, and where you have already grown. It requires patience and perseverance, preparation and planning, humility and humour. And if the stars align, you will walk away many memories richer.
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