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!
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
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
In the last weeks of my twenties, I can honesty testify that I thought nothing needed to change. I was a happy Tomboy, chasing dreams and living life as I had always done – a car cruising along the highway on automatic pilot. However, as I turned the corner into my thirties, I suddenly felt like I was confronted with an enormous junction, a confusion of dead-ends, back roads, and stop signs. It was overwhelming and I was afraid to look back to where I had come from for fear of what I may see. At the end of 2016, I wrote a reflection of this experience titled Planting My Feet. This piece was a very personal account of the journey I went on after I turned 30 and how I navigated this crossroads, discussing how I began working on ‘self’ to find greater purpose in my relationships, sport and career.
As I moved into 2017, my greatest intention, call it a new year’s resolution if you must, was to consolidate the positive experiences and hard work of 2016. I think I can honestly say that I have done so, and here is what I have learnt from this wild ride of the year just gone:
What has helped me to overcome this fear of failure has been to rewrite my definition of success, which has slowly become to ‘seek craftsmanship and strive for beauty’. And my modality for achieving this is, ‘be wilder, to play wilder, to perform wilder’. Gone are my days of butchering onwards, thinking more is better and rushing for outcomes. I now strive to find ways to feel more beautiful in my intentions, so that I experience more joy in my actions, so that I can, in turn, strive for mastery in the outcomes I aspire for. I believe that this has to be the order of priorities… Be, Play, Perform.
2. Ego is the elephant in my room:
After turning thirty, I spent twelve-months working with a performance psychologist. After a few sessions, he suggested that there was an elephant in the room with us. I knew he was right. I could feel the beast lurking in the corner, poking me occasionally with his trunk and occasionally stomping on my toes. This year I have finally come to identify him by name and to bring him out of the shadows. Everyone, meet Ego! For the most part, Ego likes to take long naps and doesn’t bother me. However, when the high-pitched, feminine Fear squeals, ‘Don’t fail!’, the dominating, male presence of Ego the Elephant heffalumps to my rescue. ‘Just do more. Train more. Work harder. Try more. Say yes! Don’t say no!’ And so the tug-of-war starts, feminine Fear on one side and Ego the elephant on the other. Until we all get so damn tired that we put down the rope, call truce, and make a cup of tea.
3. Honest ends the tug-of-war
Honesty is, and has always been, one of my strongest values but I actually didn’t realize its quieter, positive influence in how I live my daily life. Whilst I find it easy to be honest with others, this year I have come to truly understand that I am the best version of Me when I am truthful with Hanny. This is because it halts the tug-of-war between Ego the Elephant and my feminine Fear.
It is definitely easy to drift from the truth, sometimes slightly and other times wildly. This usually happens when Ego is winning the war and I find myself saying to myself, ‘She’ll be right…’ The most frequent example of this is when my body is pleading with me to be kind to it and instead Ego encourages me to battle on through. This has resulted in a few injuries, such as currently with my Achilles. Sometimes I find that the truth feels shameful, like realizing you are not as strong as you thought you were. And it can be uncomfortable, like admitting you were wrong in your judgment. Other times I find the truth confusing, especially in relationships. And sometimes, like when you stand alone on a remote peak, it is wildly exciting. What I have discovered, using wilder adventures and business as a method of discovery, is that to live truthfully is to live in the NOW. When I am in the moment, not thinking about my past or future, I am being honest with myself and finding positive outcomes. When I am in the NOW, there is little room for Ego who is forced to return to his corner, trunk between his legs. And amazingly, as he does, fear abates too.
2017 was beautiful, albeit busy. The highlights have definitely been:
With the new year now upon us, my intentions for 2018 are to:
I hope that you are also looking forward to a wholehearted year ahead! May it be the ride that you wish for.
I really appreciate all your continued support. If you haven't already done so, please check out:
I’m lying on my back on a scratched, leather lounge, trying to block out the intrusive airport intercoms announcing the next departure. Two hours down and only three hours more to go till my flight home to Hobart. My brain is filled with jetlag and my previously clear thoughts have been replaced by a murkier mess. Somewhere between Finland and Melbourne self-doubt has crept into my grey matter, leaving me wondering one of the big questions in life, ‘Where does empowerment come from, both my own self-empowerment and the ability to influence others?’
Today I am returning from Finland where I was assisting the Australian Junior Orienteering Team with their preparations for their World Championships. Amongst the forests and lakes, I had felt my skills, academia and life experiences uniting to support each team member to perform wilder. I would start each day with an early morning explore, cruising along the lake’s edge, finding animal paths through the forest undergrowth. The lake was often mirror calm so after the run I would slip into the gleaming water. For one week, this was my shower. And after rewarming myself with two or three cups of tea, I can honestly say I was ready to empower anything, even the moose and giant slugs populating the forest! My team fondly nicknamed me ‘Nanny Hanny’ after the copious cups of tea I enjoyed as well as my early-to-bed habits. I am confident the nickname does not reflect me driving.
Interestingly, the word Empower actually has two meanings: To give (someone) the authority or power to do something; and, to make (someone) stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights. The origin of the word is slightly more complicated, with the ‘em’ thought to actually come from either the Old Frech or Latin word “en”, meaning “in”, “to look” or to “come”. This suggests a word derived from the Old French or Latin meanings of looking or coming for power. Today we see a hugely prolific use of the word, from personal development to business. It feels like everyone wants us to be empowered! So, how does this occur and who has the permission to influence me finding this inner power?
I believe we give ourselves permission to be empowered by someone when we gain a sense of their authenticity and self-connectedness. If I think back to those who have touched my life in ways that enabled me to achieve beyond what I had dared to dream alone. Max Cherry jumps to mind. At 80 years of age, bumbled under an old track suit and a tartan beret, it was his bellowing voice from his car whilst we ran alongside, his handshake at the start of training, his gentle hug when we ‘did good’, that taught me there is no such word as can’t and to see my talents in distance running. Jackie Feathweather nee Gallagher also helped to highlight the importance of vulnerability. One hell of a listener, she allowed openness, demanded honesty and coached me to strength as a marathon runner. Jeremy, with his bike shoes under the table, empowers me to seek authenticity in my own marrow. So many amazing individuals, all with authenticity visible bubbling from even the smallest of handshakes, nods or eye contact.
In Finland, the natural environment inspired me outdoors. Mornings in the sunshine, forest scarps stuck to my hair, mud spatters up my calves, this is where I connect strongest with myself. This is where I find inspiration and self-connectedness. And I took this empowered-self to the competition arenas where I truly believe I passed the empowerment through to these young athletes. I saw them begin to dream bigger and perform wilder, seeing physical, mental and emotional strength unite to create optimal performance.
As I boarded the first or many flights home I began conceptualizing an article on the beauty of empowerment. And yet here I am now, face up on an airport lounge questioning my ragged attempts to do so. I feel as stale and unexcited as the airport terminal itself. So, I do what I know best – rip open my bag, scrounge for my slightly stale smelling running attire, draw tight the laces of my shoes and go exploring.
To my great surprise Melbourne Airport has the most fabulous trail running on its doorsteps. Out past the smokers’ precinct, round behind McDonalds, down around the runway lighting, across a ditch and ‘pop’, into an open parkland I find myself. As the noise of the airport begins to fade and the evening light dapples through the open eucalypt forest with dancing grasslands beneath, I begin to shake my head. How can I possibly conceptualize empowerment from a stuffy, crowded airport lounge where alcohol and donuts are readily consumed? I run with my thoughts through an old gate, parallel with a fence line with more holes than wire and upwards towards open skies. Where does empowerment bubble up from? The realization comes to me as I summit a small hill and confront a 360-degree view of Melbourne and its outlying suburbs.
The process of empowering others is a reflection of our ability to empower ourselves. I choose the word process carefully because I believe that empowerment requires a slow building of trust, not just with the other person, but with yourself. Out on this hilltop with aircraft skimming overhead and rusty rays streaking across a darkening sky I feel inner strength and confidence returning. I am breaking the norm, escaping the concrete and in turn empowering myself. A quick decision to do something that makes me feel good about myself has switched me from moping mess to excitable adventurer. I could have had another cup of tea, or indulged in some smarties (my traveler’s Achilles heal). I could have opened my laptop and tried to strategically think my way out of my muddle. But this simple act of inspiration has replaced the negatives with positives, the internal critique with a gentler voice of compassion, and restlessness with excitement. I feel like racing back to the airport to grab my husband Graham and drag him out here with me to experience this too. And therein lies empowerment. Au natural, bubbling up deep from within.
I guess the moral of this muddled story is that we cannot empower others unless we first empower ourselves. This empowerment comes from taking daily actions, (as well as perhaps the occasional big F$%k-Off adventure!) that inspires you. Recently, I have tried to focus on the small things that uplift me, from a plant-based diet to early nights, time camping under the stars, and my mini-morning missions before opening my laptop. I also find creativity, fostering rich friendships, and self-nurturing also stimulate richer thoughts of authenticity. With guidance, I have spent time thinking more consciously about my values and reflecting on these in my journaling. I have also launched my Find Your Feet Podcast because I love the act of learning from others and the act of freely sharing this with our broader community. All these little things add up!
When I first started Find Your Feet back in 2009 I was simply trying to find my own feet. I had fallen out of love with my running and had let my health tip into the unhealthy, ‘underweight athlete’ zone. However, I was super eager to help other adults fall in love with the sport of running and meet new friends at the same time, using both running groups and life coaching as my means to do so. After around six months one of my regular clients and someone that I am now proud to consider a friend pulled me aside – ‘Hanny, you have the potential to give us all a beautiful this gift. But if all we see is someone who doesn’t nurture themselves then we will never be able to truly appreciate the gift you are trying to give us’. After all these years I finally, truly understand his words of wisdom – empower yourself to empower others.
How much of an endurance challenge is mental or physical? I have always been at a lost for an appropriate response and grabbing at random numbers. Seventy percent physical? Forty percent mental? Or should this be fifty-fifty? Or… Just days away from the my first 100km trail running event I can now respond with more conviction. Breaking down any endurance challenge into only mental and physical components is over simplified. Right now I can testify that there is a huge emotional element to endurance performance too and I believe that we often overlook the incredible power that our emotions hold over us. This begs the question - are we putting enough emphasis on emotional intelligence as we strive to succeed in endurance challenges?
But what is success when it comes to endurance? For me now, success defines my willingness to sit on the edge, to lean in to the discomfort that is inevitable and to accept whatever the outcome is. Conversely, to fail is not a failure to reach the summit, but to shy away from this discomfort and seek an easier way out. Therefore, success is not a result that I find on the finish line but rather an experience I undertake during the journey to the summit.
So what stops us from perching on the edge of our comfort zone? I see this ‘edge’ as the point at which success and failure merge and where some of our greatest self-growth occurs? As I prepare for tomorrow’s daunting 100km run, undeniably what has me begging to step back from this edge is fear. For me, fear normally kicks in during the last few weeks as the big day approaches. It replaces my sense of control and focus, leaving me filled with self-doubt and the inevitable question, ‘why on earth am I doing this??!’
During a recent Find Your Feet Podcast episode with Dr Clive Stack, we found ourselves discussing the concept of fear, especially in relation to my impending run at Ultra Trail Australia. Dr Stack has devoted his expertise to researching human emotions and the purposes these serve. He has come to believe that fear highlights a moment when things are about to change for the better and that instead of running from fear we should lean into these moments, finding courage to strive for another week, day, hour or even minute until we finally break through to the other side where empowerment, personal growth and success lie. So, when intimidation has us withdrawing into ourselves and self-doubt wakes us at 5am in the morning… that is when we must disregard our fear and crawl to the edge. In this moment of self-doubt we need to have faith to lean in.
I think too often we set a goal and then focus on our physical and occasionally our mental preparedness. But I firmly believe we need uncomfortable experiences to foster emotional resilience. Emotional preparedness comes from experiences that hold us in a space beyond our comfort zone. I find my greatest strength when I am active outdoors in a foreign location or immersed in the elements. During the depths of my 100km, when the sun sets and I am alone on the course, I know that I will not be relying so much on my physical fitness, but rather I will be drawing strength from past adventures and the tougher moments in life that I have experienced.
As we strive for new summits, I implore us all to begin acknowledging the presence of our emotions and the role they play as we near ‘the edge’. If we are able to accept their involvement then we will be less surprised as emotions emerge, especially during those critical last weeks or when we are digging deep on ‘summit day’. If you are experiencing fear, hold tight for another day, hour or even minute. For things are about to change for the better. Back yourself. Trust yourself. Take faith in your preparation but especially in the moments when you have been physically, mentally & emotionally challenged.
In summary, I truly believe that fear and emotional turmoil will be intricately involved in any preparation when we strive towards new summits. After all, we seek these hefty challenges as an opportunity to grow, learn and frighten ourselves a little. I know that my 100km run through the Blue Mountains tomorrow will be an intricate blend of physical, mental and emotional resilience. And if that fails me, then perhaps it will become a spiritual experience as I pray to the gods for the finish line!
Listen to Dr Clive Stack on the Find Your Feet Podcast:
As featured in Travel, Play, Live.
This year I hit the big 30. I had really been looking forward to this milestone in my life. On the day I turned thirty, I stood atop the final summit of my ‘30 peaks in the year before I turn 30’ challenge. Whilst it had come down to the wire, I felt wind-chapped & glowing from the inside out. That was until injury hit and I took a visit to my GP.
I walked into her sparsely furnished consulting room in urban Hobart with a few concerns. Mainly girl stuff. I expected a stethoscope, perhaps a poke and a prod and in the worst case a jab to steal some blood. What I didn’t expect was for her to quietly look me up and down, tuck back her hair and say earnestly, ‘Hanny, I think you need to embrace your femininity’.
Ninety dollars poorer and none-the-wiser, I sat in front of Dr Google. What is femininity and what relevance could this possibly have for this 30-year-old tomboy with a phobia for dresses and lipstick?
For a few days, Dr Google became my morning reading and I studied the topic religiously. I learnt that we are all a unique blend of masculine and feminine traits. Our masculine traits are related to strength, independence, stability, focus, competition and self-confidence. Our feminine traits are related to empathy, compassion, sensuality, nurturing, patience, loving and living with ‘flow’. Males can display greater feminine traits and women may express more masculine traits, neither or which are right or wrong.
The more I learnt, the more pressured I felt. I must become more feminine! The harder I tried to be feminine, the more I resented the skirt I was wearing.
I never found what I was looking for from Dr Google but I have through honest self reflection and inner work found some answers. Nothing can prepare you for the discomforts of looking deep inside yourself and pulling apart your personal assumptions, barriers, rules and truths. I enlisted the support of a performance psychologist to ask the difficult questions you are never really prepared to ask yourself. After a few sessions I was still grappling with the concept of finding femininity. I had somehow evaded the most difficult questions until one day we journeyed into foreign territory.
‘What do you do for self-compassion?’ he enquired with that intense focus that makes you squirm. ‘I had a massage last night,’ I mumbled in reply, grateful for this worthy evidence of my self-com- passion practice. After a few minutes silence he replied, ‘For self-compassion or physical recovery?’
That was my possum-stuck-in-car headlight’s moment. My wake up call not to sit on the road and play chicken with the truck roaring towards you. A truck carrying a whole load of.......femininity.
As I was paying the bill for this perplexing session, he quietly drove the nail into my understanding, ‘Hanny, femininity is not just about wearing dresses’.
It was days later on my frosty Mt Wellington, solo run and scrunching my thermal around my frozen fingers that I found enlightenment. The lone burrawong’s chorus cut through the sharp cries of the yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos. Light was dancing off the water as it gushed through healthy streams. Whilst fatigue had plagued me when I laced my running shoes, I eased back the effort and became acutely aware that my stunning surroundings were leading me into a state of flow. I felt like I could run forever! And therein lay my first true awareness of femininity – self compassion, sensuality and living with flow. Femininity felt amazing!
Through a lifetime of athletic & academic practice and a hobby farm upbringing, the tomboy has lived strong inside me. The masculine traits of goal setting, competitiveness, independence and pushing through when ‘the going gets tough’ have strongly dominated my persona. These traits were reflected in my daily routines, exercise habits, nutrition and meal preparation, business, athletic racing style and even the way I showed Iove as a fiancée, daughter, sister and friend.
But I have breasts. And when a family member hurts, I want to wrap them in a bundle of compassion. I love to listen and believe empathy is one of my stronger virtues. I find peacefulness when I am in nature and my greatest creativity when I don’t force it. These are some of my many feminine qualities.
My GP sent me away to ‘embrace my femininity’, not ‘be more feminine’. I don’t have to wear a dress or apply lipstick. I just need to love being me, a unique mix of ferocious tomboy, compassionate sister, fun loving fiancée, empathetic friend and loving daughter. I am a young woman just learning about self-compassion and embarking on a long pilgrimage towards womanhood.
If you too are struggling with femininity and if this notion also feels foreign to you, here are my words of advice. Stop trying and start with self-compassion. I have found the easiest place to find my femininity is outdoors on a mountain trail, with the wind in my face. Where will your femininity take you?
Sometimes you reach a point where you know some things need to change. In February 2016 I realised that it was time to audit my life after experiencing the devastation of raging fires in northern Tasmania’s Wilderness World Heritage Area, a back injury and turning 30 years old. I started journalling my thoughts and actions, quickly realising that I felt completely unharmonious between my intentions and actions. Furthermore, I knew that my body wasn’t healthy. I looked fit and was running strongly on paper, but underneath this there were old habits that were holding me back. Crunch point.
Today I want to share the 11 steps that I have taken so far to re-find my feet:
1. Beginning the ‘Internal Work’When I visited a new doctor at the start of the year she looked me up & down and said, ‘Hanny, you need to find your femininity’. I had not a clue what she meant but when I was handed the name of a performance psychologist in town I new she must be serious. For sure, I was experiencing a nasty back injury & was feeling a little directionless but by no means did I really feel I needed to ‘chat’. However, when I began to audit my life I realised there were (and always will be) a number of areas for self-improvement. At this time these included: a lack of feminine hormones; a constant need to be busy; quick to react to stress; physical niggles; adapting to a growing leadership role in my business; increasingly large sporting goals; and a concern about nourishing nutrition (or lack thereof).
This year, I have worked with Jeremy, a performance psychologist, on my ‘internal self’. It has been one of the more difficult and yet rewarding experiences I have ever had. It has opened my eyes to the extraordinary power of our minds, emotions and actions stemming from deeper, mindful intentions & values. I have found greater purpose in my relationships, running, and business, as well as an understanding of femininity & self-compassion. And this journey is just beginning…
2. Loving the ‘External Self’As I started the ‘internal work’, I realised that I was often neglecting my ‘external self’. In fact, I almost felt disassociated from my body. One day, Jeremy asked me what I did for self-compassion. I racked my brains before proudly jumping to the notion of massage. “I get massages!’ He looked me squarely in the eyes and replied, ‘for self-compassion or for recovery from training & sport?’ I had never realised there was a difference.
Though self-exploration and monitoring my actions I am slowly developing an awareness that self-compassion starts with accepting who I am and how I look & feel. I started by exploring small ways to nurture myself. Here are some of the actions I have taken, although I know there are many more to foster:
3. Learning through listeningI love to learn but was becoming frustrated that I wasn’t investing in formal learning. Through the encouragement of my friends I began exploring the beautiful world of podcasts. I was hooked! And because I loved listening to podcasts so much I began exploring ways to have more time to listen to podcasts. This lead to getting back on the bike, running more on my own and using rare times in the car to unwind with a great episode playing. Learning doesn’t need to be formal and what I am learning through other peoples’ stories has not only increased my motivation but also made me feel more connected to society. I am now in the process of launching my own podcast through which I hope to share my community’s stories. I honestly believe stories are the gold through which we can learn to enrich our own lives. Here are my current favourite podcast series:
4. Understanding through writingI wish I could find more time for writing but journaling has become the key to unlocking my understanding. When my head is full or I feel like I am becoming stale, I pick up a pen and start writing. I am always amazed at what my mind has stored up that I was unaware of, and the insights that I shed when I write without judgment. Don’t get me wrong, there is also a lot of garbage that gets written too! Writing allows your mind to let go of the unnecessary thoughts, release subconscious mulling, and then act on the ideas that spark your imagination, creativity & passion.
5. Acceptance through meditationWow, never thought I would admit that I love to meditate! I started in this world with a need to relax. Using free YouTube videos & the encouragement from Jeremy, I started practicing whole-body relaxation before I went to sleep. This certainly enhanced the quality of my sleep but I also found that I had a clearer mind the next morning. From here I began to explore more and more YouTube videos: Guided meditation; Chakra Meditation; Hypnosis etc. It really is an interesting world. I try to put thoughts of religious association aside and just observe what happens when you willingly have a go. I have also begun practicing self-guided meditation, especially when I am lying quietly in bed at night.
6. Plant-Powered NutritionI also never thought that I would admit to exploring a 100% plant-based diet. I have been a vegetarian for 17 years now with the occasional salt & pepper calamari in there, but I honestly have never enjoyed any form of animal meat or fish. When I audited my life I realised that I had some shockingly unbalanced habits when it came to diet and I know these have stemmed from struggles with disordered & restrictive eating in my blacker past. These included an absolute love affair with cheese. Whilst I was eating enough in an energy sense, I didn’t feel good. I felt heavy after lunch and the skin on the back of my arms and legs were covered in Keratosis, a dry skin condition that looked like a constant bout of goose bumps caused by excessive keratin build up. The more I researched, the more I was pointed to the ill-effects of dairy and how it can cause Keratosis. Furthermore, I knew that my mother is lactose intolerant.
Removing dairy from my diet has changed everything! Not only has the Keratosis almost completely disappeared but my mind is clearer, my moods are more constant, my hormonal cycle is regular for the first time ever and I feel energised beyond measure. It has also opened up a whole new plethora of amazing foods that I have barely experienced and a need to be more creative with preparing meals. None of it has been hard, but rather it has just required a willingness to shift my thinking and crack some old habits.
7. Simplifying StuffThe flow on of changing my diet and removing toxins from my lifestyle lead to a realisation that I have a lot of ‘stuff’. I am just beginning to think about how I can master the art of living simpler. I would love to set a radical goal of spending at least one night a week in our van for the entire summer (and maybe winter too!). I am also about to embark on a big ‘culling’ session around home. When I do need to buy something, I will be looking for lasting quality and where & how it was made, rather than the price. Buy once.
8. Intention & Values not GoalsI no longer have strict goals and for now I am not planning any races. When I started feeling richer in other areas of my life I found that the drive to set goals had diminished. I am not saying the need for goals is gone completely, but perhaps setting goals had been a way to plug holes in a leaky lifestyle? I now feel filled with purpose and a motivation to just live & be wilder. I am driven by intentions that bubble up from a deeper place within me. And because of this I am playing… hard! I don’t think I have every felt so fit and I have big dreams that I am working towards. That is far more exciting for now than any goal I could set myself.
9. Learning the Art of PresenceI am a shocker for trying to plan, plan, plan. But isn’t there a saying, ‘life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans’? That was me in a nutshell. I am now trying to not get too far ahead of myself because I also think my planning brain kicked in when I was fearful, nervous or struggling to slow down. I also read The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. Whilst heavy and often a little too ‘out there’ for me, I found the concept of intentionally trying to be present in what I am doing highly invigorating. When I am on a run I am on a run. When I am listening to a podcast I am listening to a podcast. When I am making a cup of tea I am focusing on this task. When it is time to go to bed I am literally going to bed to rest. Being more present has reduced stress and increased space in my life for creativity & enjoyment.
10. Recognising the importance of PatienceNot my greatest strength! It was Jeremy who said to me, ‘Han, I think you need to learn the art of patience’. With all this energy and enthusiasm I am constantly looking for how I can give back more and more. But Rome was not built in a day, nor are dreams, or health, or lives. Patience may end up being my most difficult obstacle. Lucky I like a challenge!
11. Measuring health by the health of my hormonesThis is a personal note to end on but a lack of regular menstrual cycles has been my biggest fear in life. I had seen so many specialists and been put on so many supplements and drugs over the years to solve this issue. However, the deep internal work, the decluttering, the planting my feet in nutrition that nurtures… this has been what has allowed my body to embrace its femininity. I have learnt that the greatest measure of my body’s own health is the health of my hormones. So, over medals, business, records and more, I think finding health in my hormones is the accomplishment I am most proud of in 2016.
For 2017 I am setting my intention to consolidate 2016. I want to learn more and find routines in what I embarked on this year. Underlying this is a desire to ‘Be Wilder’ - in my actions, intentions and thoughts. Getting uncomfortable every now and then will be at the heart of this too.
It is with great excitement that I wish you all a wonderful start to 2017 and I hope that this coming year can provide an opportunity for you to find health, vitality & wild adventures too.
This article was featured in the latest "Travel Play Live" magazine:
I am doubled over. With hands on hips, I gasp air into my lungs. My head feels heavy and achy… a dull throb enhanced by the altitude. This Italian mountain is a beast! I look up to where the trail squiggles near vertically above me and try to make out where the track crests the pass. It is somewhere up there where the bare rocks merge into the mist. I look down. My hotel where everyone else is still sleeping is just a mere 100m below me. I have barely started and I am feeling… vulnerable.
The TED Talk by world-renowned vulnerability researcher, Brene Brown is one of the most watched TED talks of all time. Her books are a New York Times bestseller. So when I first stumbled across Brene’s teachings and realised almost everyone was listening to her, I realised in turn that EVERYONE must struggle with vulnerability… even me.
Until this awakening I had used exercise, nutrition and perfectionism to combat emotional discomforts, especially fear and what I now recognise as vulnerability. When I was faced with career ending injuries, a fracturing family and that famous question, ‘who am I?’, vulnerability and shame screamed in my face. There was no hiding from these moments and I found myself tugging on my vulnerability armour and kicking into self-protective overdrive. Whilst I achieved successes during these years, the accomplishments were like eating Weetbix for breakfast in Italy - a little dry and leaving me wondering why I didn’t just eat the cake. And so I strived for a tastier goal, one that would surely say ‘you are enough’ when it was accomplished.
On and on I ran.
At the age of 30 I have finally stopped running. Not literally. I still love a trail, especially one with a mountain finish. But 10 years and a Brene Brown TED Talk later, I have finally realised that on my current pathway to destination Enough there will never be enough. And no matter how fast I run, vulnerability will always accompany me.
So doubled over near the base of my Italian mountain I decided to confront vulnerability. I stopped, acknowledged my fear and looked outside of myself. Shear mountains rose up into the mist and the sun was painting small highlights onto the contrasted green meadows. Marmots cheeped. In this moment I realised that despite my fear & vulnerability, there was no where else on earth I would rather be, especially not indoors. I turned towards the trail and told myself to take just one step. Then another. Soon my hands were pumping my thighs, turning my legs into pistons that powered from my greater sense of purpose. As I headed up and up with increasing courage I realised that at last I really understood the power of vulnerability. This is what I learnt.
An hour later I stood at 3052m on the summit of Piz Boe. There was no audience. No medals. No photo evidence. Just a few struggles, sweeping views from sheer cliffs, sweat, a goofy grin and a long descent back home. Up there I found my new definition of success, one that is so much more fulfilling. It didn’t require a race entry, a medal or money. It just required the courage to be vulnerable and to say ‘maybe…yes?’ when my body language was screaming ‘NO!’. On top of my mountain I realised that success requires: the acceptance of vulnerability, daring greatly and being content with the result. Success is simply saying, ‘I am enough’.
After sliding and whooping my way back down the peak with scree slopes shifting beneath my feet, I pulled up somewhat breathless at the doorway to my hotel. Here I was greeted with a cheery grin from a local mountain guide. Through a smooth Italian accent he asked, ‘Where did you venture this morning?’ I pointed to up there. After following my gesture he looked straight back at my sweaty face. With a slight rise of his eyebrows, he claimed, ‘I can see it in your eyes - you really like to run!’
I ate cake for breakfast that day. And Nutella. I was highly satisfied.
And so here I urge you to never settle for Weetbix when there is delicious cake on offer! Get to know and accept your vulnerability. Befriend it and listen to what it is indicating. Then take a deep breath and step in any direction that shifts you from comfortable to uncomfortable, onto the pathways less travelled. Because from here you can dare greatly. And afterwards you can remind yourself, “I am enough’.
A recap of the World Orienteering Championships, Scotland
Elite athletes are constantly asked to focus on routines in the lead up to competitions. These include when to arrive, how much to train, when to sleep, what to eat, how to execute your race strategies and what to do for recovery. However, I have come to learn that routines cannot and should not dictate how you approach orienteering races. This year’s World Orienteering Championships once again reiterated that for me.
This was my seventh World Championships and I felt somewhat like Nanny Hanny of the team. Through previous years I had established a routine of approximately a 2-3 week preparation in the relevant terrain. During this phase I would base in the country I would be competing in and switch from physical preparation to striving for a comprehensive understanding of the regions forests and how these are represented on the maps.
Due to the tight schedule of coaching and racing, this year I only had 3 days in Scotland. When the races began rolling around I could feel the doubt creeping in, ‘was this long enough?’
The significance of routines
Given I only visited two Scottish forest maps and one local sprint map in the lead up to this championships, I knew that I could not approach the races in the same way. Normally I have felt relatively confident in the competition’s terrains and try to attack the courses both physically and technically. With understanding of the terrain comes a readiness to take more risks. That is, understanding a terrain can help de-risk the more risky racing decisions. Examples of such decisions are selecting a faster but more difficult route choice or starting the race with more speed.
New routines require new racing strategies
The limited technical preparation for Scotland left me feeling shaky. The few days prior to the races starting rolled around in a frenzy of visiting maps, washing clothes, shopping for food, preparing meals, team meetings and then collapsing into bed at the end of the day. This does sound exhausting doesn’t it? Despite best intentions, there was little time for reviewing old maps and studying potential courses. I did my best but I never felt it was enough.
Then suddenly the races were on me and I found myself standing on the start line of the Sprint Qualification. The race was shaky. Decisions were rushed, an alleyway missed. A few lapses of concentration but I found the finish.
Driving home from the event the lights went off, ‘What had just happened?’… Then they came back on again. In a moment of revelation I realized that my racing routines had to change. I was not as well prepared as I usually am. The focus on physical routines had to switch. I turned off the attack button and hit the caution one instead. My new approach of arriving just in time to race required a new routine for racing.
Sprinting with caution
I stole a glance at the back of my hand. Only minutes earlier I had written two words - cautious underdog. These words symbolized my new strategy and cautiouswas at the foundation of my new routine.
I picked up my map with reservations. How tough would this course be? The qualification and sprint relay had been filled with surprises. New fences and barricades; unexpected spectator passages and hidden fence crossings. The traps had been numerous and I had fallen for quite a few already.
So I started slow. I didn’t race to the start triangle nor attack the first control. I paused frequently to check my directions and ensure that no traps had been set. The atmosphere was amazing and spectators seemed to appreciate the novelty of Australians racing in their hometown. But their cheers were also distractions so I took the next couple of controls equally safe, aiming for the larger features and avoiding the narrow, twisting and more intricate alleyways. I used multiple features as attack points and avoided running at a speed that made reading the map difficult.
Before long it felt like I had survived the first section of buildings and I found myself reading ahead towards some areas of the course that spanned parks and small lakes. I changed gear and lifted my speed by a notch as linear features had become more abundant.
Through this section I was solely focused on taking time to plan my route choices and executing a perfect exit from the controls. Once I was heading in the right direction I lifted the speed, but never to a point where I felt out of control. I was determined not to let my alarm bells ring. But on reentering the buildings I was reminded of the dangers and cut my speed back to cruise mode.
Again I looked for the safe lines. Where there were none, I just trotted my way through the narrow spaces, ensuring that at every intersection I knew what direction I was taking next. I felt safe, calm and like an underdog. I saw spectators but they no longer took any of my concentration.
Leaping over a fence I refolded my map and was surprised to see that the entire remainder of the course was now in flat parkland. It felt somewhat reminiscent of the last part of the 2006 Sprint Final in Denmark. I knew what I had to do. Stay strong and use the excellent visibility to pick straight lines. Exit directions became my focus. I found that once I exited cleanly from the control and looked up, I could almost see the next control in front of me. Here I began to feel like I was finally tapping into some of my fitness and speed.
New routines required
Crossing the line I had absolutely no idea of how I had gone. But in my heart I knew that was the best I could have done and it was the most magical feeling. Only later did I find out that I had achieved a podium finish and fifth position.
Driving home from this event I knew I had found my new routine and one that suited a limited preparation in the terrain. Whilst not ideal to arrive so soon before the competition started, it was suddenly ok to not know everything about the terrain so long as I recognized that my old routines needed to be put aside. My new routine of cautiousness and calmness felt appropriate and with every race I ran with this new understanding.
I am sure this is why the week unfolded in the way it did. The transition from sprint racing to the forest was hard and my first race in the middle distance started shakily. But you learn from mistakes and each day I tried to execute my routines with 5% more perfection. I’d say to myself, ‘just 5% better today Han… just 5%’. On the finish line it often felt like 20%.
Recovery routines change too
The recovery from this World Championships will be new and different too. The immense focus and concentration has taken a different toll on my body. My head feels like someone has blown into my ears and filled it up with air. The body feels lethargic and dragging my suitcase through the airport concourse is enough training for the day.
Over the last 8 days I have completed 6 races. I put more focus into how I raced each of these events than ever before. The new approach of 100% concentration from start to finish resulted in a body that holistically feels exhausted. And given that this is the same amount of races I have done in the past 5 months I shouldn’t be surprised.
Therefore, I am setting no expectations on how long it will take me to recover. If I bounce back in a couple of day’s time then great. But if it takes a week or two then I am content with that. After all, it is critical to recover optimally so that the mind, body and spirit all have a chance to become even stronger for next time… whatever that will be. As always, lessons will be learnt.
The Scottish experience
I have amazing memories of Scotland. I loved the landscape and the beautiful people. Amidst lochs and tales of the Lochness Monster, you can live like a princess. In the eyes of the locals, from orienteering volunteers to the petrol pump man, my name is ‘Love’ (sounded more like Luv). Furthermore, up there in the far north there was an overall sense of tranquility and remoteness. The week was busy and I didn’t get a chance to experience much of the Scottish traditions. I never ventured beyond laughing at the Aussie’s wariness of their deep-fried haggis, driving the small laneways to events, and my first experience of wearing a midgiehead-net.
Despite my advancing age and being the Nana on the Australian Team, this year I feel like I opened new doors. I learnt that flexible routines and recognizing weak links in your preparation could become your greatest strengths. Whilst I am proud of running for Australia and the results I achieved, I am more proud of how I got there. I am now excited to share this revelation with others so they too can enjoy that amazing feeling that comes with the perfect run. After all, as runners and orienteers, isn’t that what we all strive for?
I was anxious for the race on Saturday. Excited, but anxious. I wasn’t scared about breaking records or standing amongst a cohort of amazing elite runners. No, I was scared for the same reason as any other athlete there – will I finish? How much will it hurt? And most importantly, can I run well enough to feel content with myself afterwards? After all, can there be any greater emotion than contentedness?
In the week leading in to the race I allowed myself to feel scared. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow explained – ‘For after all, the best thing one can do when it is raining is let it rain.’ And through my life experiences I have come to realize that some of the things that rightly scare us can also become our greatest strengths.
I find change scary and it was the plethora of change that had occurred in my life in the last six months that was making me anxious. In October we sold our first ever home and left all our friends to move back to Tasmania. In November I started working with my new coach, James Kuegler, and started an extensive fit out of our new retail store. In December we opened the first Find Your Feet store and with that all the challenges of employing staff, paying bills from thin air and generally chasing our tails. January heralded my first international orienteering race in my home country and a further three weeks overcoming knee niggles incurred on the last day of racing. February welcomed Gus, my new strength coach, and the last year in my twenties. And March? March was 6 Foot Track and the start of my year of trail racing. So, yes, I was anxious because my benchmarks and parameters for performance had shifted. But Einstein said, ‘ Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’. As the changes had all been positive I now just had to trust in my coach, the overall process and myself.
I ran this race learning from yesterday, living for today and hoping for tomorrow. I started faster than last year to find space on Nellie’s Glen. I didn’t want the risk of not being able to watch my footing as I had new shoes on and decided not to strap my ankle after the tape fell off last year. The fast start got me into a better rhythm through the first section of the course to Megalong Road. This was where I hit my maximum heart rate of 192 beats. Despite my fast pace of sub 3:40min/km pace through this section, I later saw that Emma Murray was still faster than me through this section and down to the Cox’s River.
The descent to Cox’s River is beautiful and I tried to forget about the race for a while. I was comfortably tucked behind a cluster of boys for this section and just tried to relax as much as possible, saving energy for the large climb to come. This is a great section to refuel and I started my routine of Shotz Gels and a very concentrated sodium electrolyte solution in my 250ml hand flask that I carried for the entire race.
Conversations about pace and time began amongst our group as we neared the river. I tried not to buy into it. I knew that focusing on record pace and times was only going to burn the energy that I desperately needed to conserve for the latter part of the race. I purposefully had no idea what time I needed to be at certain points of the race because I know that my strengths can never match another athletes’. Instead, I focused on running very wide through the cleaner flowing water of the river to avoid getting gravel in my shoes like last year. This worked a treat and I cleared the running waters with purpose.
Maybe I am a sucker for punishment but I love ascending big hills. However, this year I felt a little out of sorts when I first hit the hill. My legs felt a little nervous and jittery, and felt like I couldn’t apply power through my quadriceps. Instead of letting the negative thoughts overcome me I tried to focus on activating my glute muscles and unloading my quads. I also kept the energy intake happening and sipping my electrolyte. This worked and by the end of the first descent on Pluvi I felt light and fast again.
Climbing towards the top of this long hill was when I started to notice some of the other athletes struggling. The sun was coming out and I could see the beads of sweat on their shoulders. It was also dripping off the brim of my cap. I knew I needed to keep drinking and made the decision to drink water at every aid station I came to whilst constantly sipping my Shotz electrolyte.
Unlike last year, I hit the Black Range alone. Whilst this was hard from a pacing perspective, I felt comfortable running like this. Back home I have done many long hours hiking and running on the slopes of Mt Wellington on my own. Through training and overcoming some fears of wild places, I have learnt to love this sensation of isolation. I tried to run strongly but conservatively along the range, focusing on a short arm action and purposeful steps. I tried to avoid the plod and kept reminding myself that each step serves me a purpose of one step closer to the finish. I also tried to engage with the volunteers at the aide stations to ensure that the race didn’t become too serious and ‘all about me’. I kept expecting the boys to come racing past but as time went on, I realized I was probably alone for the long run.
As I came off the range someone yelled that I only had 10km to go. I was shocked and it was the first time I allowed my bubble to burst to look at my watch. I saw I had around 45 minutes to cover the last 10km. This was when the negatives started – ‘no way?!’ Then I remembered my coach saying to me just before the race, ‘Never let the negative words out if you can’t catch them’. I now had to catch my words! I went back to my strategies, taking on some energy to ward off the negative thoughts and giving my brain the glucose it was asking me for.
The last part of the race had been really tough for me in 2014 when I had found myself walking on many of the smaller pinches. This time I set myself a challenge of running more than last year and except for one purposeful walk, I ran everything. I kept reminding myself that I had been doing more than this duration in training and that I was stronger than I knew. With thirty minutes to go I took my last gel as a sign of ‘now the hard work really starts’.
My strides were starting to shorten as I ran past an official looking sign saying that I had 5km to go. My bubble burst for the last time and I looked at my watch. By my fuzzy calculations I had 20 minutes to reach the finish and this was the first time I began to really focus on the race record. But how could I do it? I had to run sub 4 minute kilometers to the finish line and although it was almost all downhill, I was beginning to experience a lot of discomfort. My new The North Face running shoes were a size too small due to availability in Australia and my big toe nail was ripping at the tips of them. All I could feel was a searing in my sock and stiffening quads from trying to run with my toes bunched up. I started talking out loud to myself. ‘Come on Hanny! This is not pain, just discomfort!’ I tried not to look at my watch for fear of what I might see. I just ran. My legs were stumps and my crunched up toes where disrupting my balance. Because of this my arms flailed wildly as I careered down the last rough hill. As I crested the arch I looked one last time at my watch and hoped I had done enough. All I could think about was not letting down the people that had believed in me so much.
The first time I realized I had done it was when I careered off the steps. Emotion exploded out of me in a flurry of excited bounds before I sank to the ground and shed a tear. People were taking my shoes off but I couldn’t concentrate. So much had led to this moment and so much relief was pouring out of me. I was niggle free for the first time in a very, very long time and it was the first opportunity I had had to race at full strength for a long while. Whilst you run alone you don’t succeed alone. So many people and circumstances gave me my armor out there on Saturday - Jackie Fairweather, James Kuegler, Darryl Griffiths, Canberra, Hobart, Find Your Feet and of course Graham... just to name a few. For all involved, I am entirely grateful.
Through running Six Foot this year I have learnt a huge amount:
Congratulations to everyone who completed the Six Foot Track in 2015. There were so many amazing results and none more than others. Be proud of what you achieved. Learn from your successes and your weaknesses. And most importantly, be content.
We are lead to believe that overtraining is a ‘syndrome’ reserved for the elite or the silly. After all, elite athletes can easily complete hours of solid training. And the silly? They just do a lot. However, in this article I wish to highlight an important paradox about overtraining.
I recently had a client who came to me following difficulty completing a trail race. He was a forty-year old, single parent of three children and running his own business. He was also chairman of a school board and heavily involved in his eldest son’s sporting ambitions. Amongst this schedule, he was fitting in four sessions of training a week. Two of these were intervals with a local squad. The remaining sessions were run early in the morning before the children got up. On his best weeks he may complete about five to six hours of training, plus a little stretching before bed.
Following discussions with my client, it became evident that he was suffering from overtraining: sleep constantly disturbed; heart rate suppressed whilst training hard; elevated heart rate in the morning; daily fatigue, especially in his legs; depressed mood with decreased tolerance to stressors at work and home; moodiness with the children; and a failure to athletically perform in races. He was neither elite nor silly, just a guy who works hard for the benefit of everyone.
This leads to the question, how could my client be over trained? After all, the text-book definition suggests overtraining as: ‘a physical, behavioral, and emotional condition that occurs when the volume and intensity of an individual's exercise exceeds their recovery capacity.’
When I raised this notion of overtraining my client’s response was, ‘but I only train up to four sessions per week!’ If you experienced a similar reaction to the word exercise, now consider this:
Overtraining = Working Out + Daily Stressors > Rest + Recovery
Many athletes do not take into account their daily stressors, which may actually be a far greater load than that of the workouts they complete. Note that I am not talking about stresses. You may enjoy these activities but cumulatively, they place a load on the body. Busy adults can find that the cumulative load of training and daily stressors can exceed their rest and recovery. My client loves many aspects of what he does but the cumulative load has led to emotional, mental and physical fatigue to a point where he risks injury, sickness or underperformance.
This now leads to the next question, how do you bring a busy adult back from overtraining? Too often we divert straight to the exercise. And whilst yes, this may need work and adjustment; it is not always the underlying problem. What I like to suggest to my clients is - modify what you can modify.
For many individuals it would be hard to create more time in the day for rest and recovery whilst also doing everything else that you do. We can’t change the number of hours in a day or the fact that we must work in order to pay the bills. For an adult, exercise is often a necessary unwind, a chance to personal endeavor, or socialize with like-minded people. Simply cutting back training may not be the answer.
However, often we can change small things, small routines, behaviors or personal rules that have become so ingrained that we barely recognize them. Not only do they take time, but also valuable emotional and physical energy. Do any of these ring a bell?
These are just a few arguments that I have heard over the last few months and a case of very black and white thinking. I have found that most athletes I work with are Type A personalities and like myself, we struggle to see the shades of grey. Reducing unnecessary rules, tasks and routines may be a positive start in allowing your body more rest and recovery. For example:
Secondly, everyone can change his or her diet. It doesn’t need to be going on a diet, but everyone can modify what they choose to eat to reduce or eliminate refined carbohydrates, unhealthy vegetable oils, caffeine and sugar. Dietary changes can have a huge impact on a person’s life, especially the quality of their sleep and balance of their moods. A balanced diet rich in protein will assist the body’s ability to recover from training sessions whilst healthy fats will support the neural and endocrine systems.
Rest and recovery also needs your attention. Rest certainly suggests sleep but other passive and active recovery methods are also important to consider. Tasks that are creative or mindful will nourish your body as they help to alleviate some of the stress response. Tasks such as cooking, art, reading, mindful walking and yoga are great places to start. Further to this, socialization in moderation will help to support the hormonal system, especially the regeneration of our masculinity and femininity.
Finally, allow the body to sleep. It is during sleep that the true physical and mental recovery can happen. During the night, the earlier sleep cycles are important for the body’s physical recovery then in the latter dreaming cycles the body is mentally and emotionally repairing. Dealing with daily stress, including dietary stress, will lead to better sleep quality, and greater mental and physical performance the next day.
In summary, one of the most common misconceptions in sport and exercise is that training is just completing a workout. On the contrary, training is the workout PLUS the recovery that follows. As our body deals with all stressors in the same way, the harder we push in training (volume, strength or intensity) and life (work, family, volunteer, social) the greater the recovery required. In essence, if you wish to optimize your performance and avoid overtraining, consider everything that you are doing. The less stress we are under in our daily life, the more capable we will be of training to capacity.
These articles are a collection of my writing. If you have feedback or questions, would love to hear from you!
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