The rain batters louder onto the sloping sheets of exposed tin above my head. Light glows faintly through narrow slits in the timber walls of this old cow shed, its exposed earthen floors emitting a musty dampness into the small room. We lie side-by-side like cucumbers under doonas and sleeping bags, cocooned, riding out the stormy night. Just outside the rickety door a cow begins to bellow, calling to her calf. Separated from its mother, the calf is also shut up for the night in nearby barn. The owners want the mother’s milk in the morning to make gloopy piles of cheese. I close my eyes, listening to the storm rage and echo through the valley, a drum beat to the higher pitches of cows, chickens, horses, goats and humans. As my eyes close I find myself expressing my gratitude for this opportunity to be here. Once again, I find amazement for the opportunity to run through this landscape, a place on beginning to hit the tourist map. As far as I am aware, we are the first trail runners to run across this mountainous region. - ‘Thank you for this night and to the trip now drawing to a close.’Then I sleep.
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Leading a running tour to Albania begun as an off-hand comment from an attendee to a spontaneous talk we held in Hobart at Find Your Feet back in 2017. During a day on the retail floor we met Rok, a travelling Albanian and Patagonia sponsored kayaking athlete striving to protect the last wild river of Europe, a snaking length of water running through the Valbona valley in the heart of the northern mountains of Albania. Rok had come to Tasmania to discover more about how Tasmanians had fought to protect the natural flow of the Franklin River. After his informal slideshow evening at Find Your Feet, we added Albania to our longer-term bucket list. But as the last guests left the premises, one lady pulled me aside. ‘Have you ever considered a Find Your Feet Running Tour to Albania? My daughter owns a lodge in Valbona. I can give you her details if you like?’From pipe-dream to forming plans, it looked like we were off to Albania.
Two years on we were joined in Tirana Airport by thirteen intrepid trail running enthusiasts from Australia. Amidst the buffet breakfast around sleek tables atop gleaming floors, we began to explain the plans for this inaugural tour to Albania. ‘This trip is exploratory. That is, we haven’t been here yet either… I am sure there will be many adventures in store.’As the waitresses bustled around us, delivering fine espressos and soy milk lattes, little did we really know what we were in for!
The first tastes of the country came half-an-hour later as we boarded a compact, dated minibus and headed towards the major A1 highway leading north. Half-built buildings dwarfed dilapidated homes now neglected as a sea of petrol stations popped up around them. Fields of corn and maize hugged them closely, enwrapped by the arms of small streams reaching down from the mountains. Litter dangled like cheap jewelry from the small shrubs lining the creeks, a sad sign of neglect in an otherwise beautiful landscape. Chaotic cities came and went, then the mountains lifted us into their midst, first dry but eventually tinges of green joining the pastel painting. The heat in the bus was stifling and we stopped on two occasions to take a break from the twisting, turning, gut-gurgling bus ride, eventually reaching our final destination with bewilderment and an overwhelming sense of displacement. As we disembark, chickens pecked the scratched earth, a pen of sheep peered through the roughly weathered timber of their yard, a dog barked, a cow bellowed and a family wandered into the scene to greet us. English is very limited in this northern region of Albania but with generous hospitality we were seated at their outdoor table and presented with a feast for lunch, all prepared from the fruits of their farm and their labor – homemade bread, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, setting a tradition for the remainder of our trip. Not ideal food to run on for our upcoming afternoon jog but delicious non-the-less!
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Each day of the tour we awoke early to the calls of the pigeons, or cows, goats, sheep or children playing. Breakfast looked like dinner, albeit with the addition of fig or plum jam, and our picnic lunch was a simply slab of break, a tomato and freshly harvested cucumbers. Vest packs donned, we would turn on our Suunto Spartan watches and navigate towards the trails, always blessed with a large climb through forest to meet the alpine meadows and their swaying heads of wild flowers, a bobbing sea of beauty. Past stone and log shepherds’ huts we would walk or run, waving enthusiastically at the children, women or weathered males. Occasionally we would be asked in for coffee and tea, the latter a blend of mountain flowers seeped in hot water. It was hard to gauge the ages of the individuals who braved summer and winter up there in the mountains, the sun, wind, rain, snow and shepherd lifestyles etched into their faces like a map of their territory. We tried to comprehend living in their shoes, especially when the winter would once again descend upon them, but sadly we couldn’t. It was just too far removed from our privileged lifestyles back home in Australia.
The mountains of Albania (and Montenegro and Kosovo when we crossed their borders too) reach up to over 2500m. A mixture of gnarled, white limestone and lush green pastures create a green and white tapestry that stretches to the horizon. The Accursed Mountains were especially spectacular, their jagged peaks erupting into the sky like the teeth of scissors, cutting Albania and Montenegro apart by dramatic alpine passes. It was through this landscape that we travelled, overnighting in the valleys before ascending again come morning.
We traversed three countries on this Find Your Feet Running Tour and there was a distinct difference between Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo. Albania felt slightly rougher around the edges, and despite generous hospitality that stemmed from their gardens and their herds, there often felt like a wall between them and our western ways. The buildings were more rustic and whilst clean, there was always a feeling that their walls and floors had seen a lot of life, and maybe hardship. Then, when we crossed into Montenegro there was a clear difference in the language, lifestyle and our guesthouses. The architecture was sharper, the timber fresher and the smiles of the hosts more apparent. We especially loved Lilly and her brother Arben who welcomed us into their brand-new guesthouse with open arms. Their father had built it, their mother our generous chef, and Lilly and Arben a wealth of knowledge about growing up in a land of richness and poverty.
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On the last morning of the tour I awake in our cow barn, kicking back my sleeping bag and waiting for the sound of rain still falling. However, the weather gods are now silent and instead I am met by the continued ruckus of the shepherding lifestyle echoing around the valley. Easing my way out the creaking doorway I wander out into the meadows, marveling at the strength of the horses as they flock together, waiting the journey that also lies ahead for them as they transport our bags across the last lift of mountains and into the valley of Kosovo just beyond these hills. What a privilege to guide a group through such a rich landscape! I am humbled as I pull on damp, smelly running gear and prepare for breakfast.
On this last day of running we reached Kosovo, a country torn apart by war in a short three-month period in 1999. To reach our transport home we skirted around the country’s highest peak, past more shepherd huts and alpine glacial lakes scattered across the naturally barren plateaus. After descending from these lofty heights, we were met with our horses who had lugged our luggage across the mountains to meet us, and then our 4x4 transport back towards civilization where we were confronted with a plethora of graves and memorials littering the roadside’s fringes. This is a country torn apart by three-months of war in 1999, and now in a frantic phase of rebuilding. Houses, memorials, commercial complexes and yet more petrol stations were in varying stages of redevelopment. We all fell silent as we watched this all slip by.
The tour concluded back in Albania with a night spent in our Panoramic Hotel in the town of Kruje, a short bus ride from Tirana Hotel. The beating shower and fine dining such a contrast to our previous night’s accommodation in a cow shed. Sharing our highlights of the tour around the dinner table reinforced to us just how extraordinary this tour was and just how much more exploring we all want to do now. Yes, we are never too old or too busy to play wilder!
This 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.
These articles are a collection of my writing. If you have feedback or questions, would love to hear from you!
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