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.
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.
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.
It was 3pm in the afternoon and I found myself lying on my single wooden bed atop rough wooden floors in the hostel. I rarely lie down in the middle of the afternoon but I found that it is what you sometimes need when you are so emotionally challenged by your environment. Graham and I visited Nepal for the first time, there to hand out running shoes to the children and villagers living in Batase, some 35km outside of Kathmandu over imposing mountain foothills. This assortment of secondhand shoes had been collected by members of our Find Your Feet community and it was an honour to deliver them to the village.
On embarking on this trip I had a vision of mountains, monasteries, prayer flags and wild spaces. I guess that is the Nepal we see clearly in the photographs and yes, it is there for sure. In fact, we spent two nights living in a Buddhist monastery rarely visited by Western travellers. From here we ran into the national parks protected by the Nepalese army, ducked beneath prayer flags stretching across the trail, and even encountered a leopard. But the real Nepal, the one where most people live, is either in Kathmandu or in the outlying villages perched on the sides of the foothills. In Kathmandu the air pollution and dust rising off the congested untarmaced roads is so heavy that I found myself wrapping a scarf over my nose and mouth. It is so hard to think clearly about the imposing Stupa in front of you when you are finding it hard to breathe. Furthermore, the destruction of the earthquake that struck the region just two years previously is still hugely apparent, with cracks extending down buildings and rubble piled amongst the rubbish-strewn sidewalks. Further out into the countryside and the air becomes cleaner. However, the rubbish strewn through the beautiful national parks and farmlands hurt my heart. Added to this were buildings after buildings, and thus livelihoods after livelihoods, destroyed by the earthquake.
Over the course of the week, we ran and hiked through national parks and villages, experiencing a side to Nepal mostly overlooked by most Western travellers to this country. Then at night we would return to Batase and eat with the local children living in this hostel, children who had left their homes as orphans or as ‘one-too-many’ in their families. Dinner was cooked on an open fire in a corrugated iron shed, built as a replacement to the original stone and thatch buildings that crumpled with the tremors of mighty earthquakes. We would eat standing outside under the stars or with a light mizzly rain falling, chatting to fellow travellers or volunteers working in the village whilst the children babbled away over their rice & dhal inside the tin shed.
The children and villagers of Batase are blessed. Whilst life is tough it could be a whole lot tougher. They have people like us with prosperity who care for them. They have shelter and livelihoods and prospects. They can receive some form of education. However, many in the surrounding villages and towns are not so lucky. That is the hardest part and why I closed my eyes at 3pm on my single bed to ‘comprehend’.
Whilst our trip to Nepal raised the question of ‘How can we do more?’, it also made me realise that we need to really, really appreciate and protect what we have here in Tasmania and Australia. We need to stand proud of our natural landscapes and make sure that we protect them with fierce determination. What we have here in Australia is unique but it will need all the help that we can provide to ensure it remains beautiful for our children, and their children and every living species that relies on it.
Here is a further reflection of what we travelled with to help you with packing for your own third-world travels. Please note, Graham and I were able to avoid all sickness despite not drinking one bottle of bottled water. Instead, we used the Cambelbak All Clear UV Purifier which lasted the entire time on one USB charge. We also took our jetboil and our own utensils so that we didn’t have to risk picking up germs from communal kitchen arrangements. Finally, we avoided eating anything fresh and all meat products. The only fresh food we had in our time in Nepal were bananas which are safer to eat due to their skins.
What I wouldn’t leave Australia without:
What wasn’t essential but I was stoked to have with me:
Foods to avoid sickness:
What we ate lots of:
Further tips for not getting sick:
The Ultra Trail Australia events have many exciting challenges, one of the most noteworthy being the large and numerous hills that runners will encounter in the Blue Mountains. As this event has expanded, so too has the spread of runners from across our vast country. The race is now attracting runners from as far away as Tasmania, northern Western Australia and Darwin.
One of the greatest challenges that some of our Aussie runners are facing is preparing for this mountainous event when they live in a flat area. For instance, some of the runners I am working with are training in Broome where anything remotely resembling a hill is a very, very long way away.
Therefore, I wanted to share some suggestions for how to prepare for hills without hills.
Run on Trails
The shear nature of trails requires runners to be strong. As you bounce from foot to foot over the uneven surfaces of rocks, roots and sand there is a more holistic activation of your muscles. These are the same muscles that will activate when you run up and down a hill, such as your quadriceps, hamstrings and gluteal muscles. So, if you have the chance to hit the trails and even practice some faster speed endurance work on them, this is a really good training strategy.
Fastpacking is the term used to describe fast hiking. One strategy that I have found highly beneficial for runners preparing for the UTA events is to load up their running vest pack with lots of weight and set out on a fast hike. The way I load up my pack is to use a 5 or 10L water bladder or wine cask filled with water. I put this in my vest pack and set off for an hour or two. The muscles required to hike with this weight are similar to those employed to run up and down a hill. Therefore, this can be a really great way to get stronger and more resilient by May.
Uphill treadmill running
Whilst I personally detest running on a treadmill, they occasionally have some usefulness. Conducting a hill interval session on a treadmill can help to replicate the nature of hills. Set the treadmill to an 8-10% incline and carry out a session. You may also like to finish the session off with a short period of time on a stair climber machine.
Flat treadmill running for downhill
Again, desperate times may call for desperate measures, a great one being running on a flat treadmill. Evidence suggests that running on a flat treadmill has some impact similarities to downhill running. Whilst this strategy may be somewhat useful, be careful not to overdo it.
Get out of the saddle
Standing out of the saddle on a bike or stationary bike is really hard work. Powering down through your quads without sitting on the bike seat activates similar muscles to those you use to run or hike up a steep hill or set of stairs. Building in some out-of-the-saddle work into your training could be really helpful. One suggestion would be to do 10-15mins of out-of-the-saddle training before you start a fartlek session or tempo run to help simulate what it feels like to run on the flat after you have just climbed a steep hill.
Go for a wander
Walking activates slightly different muscle groups to running. And in the Blue Mountains we will likely find ourselves walking at times. Therefore, the more efficient you are at walking the less emotionally stressful you will find this activity on race day. It will also help to build strength. Therefore, add in a little fast hiking into your training program.
Take a pilgrimage
If you have the luxury of sneaking a weekend away over summer or the Easter holiday period, then this could be really helpful for your training. Rest a little before flying to somewhere which has luscious hills to play in. After the rest earlier in the week you can go ‘a little bit nuts’ over the weekend and maximize some time spent in the hills.
Small can be beautiful
Small inclines or stairs should never be overlooked. If all you have time and access to is a small lump in the local park then just enjoy switching off the brain and running up and down it a zillion times. Just like sand granules on a beach, small things really do add up.
See if you can find a local strength guru to give you a hand with a strength program specific to hill running. This can include body weight exercises, skipping, hopping, single leg activities and some weighted gym work. Exercises could include: lunges, squats, deadlifts, single leg drills, gluteal activation work, calf raises and isometric holds, core work and much more. Sometimes you might like to do your strength session before you go for a run so that you can learn to ‘run heavy’ as you might feel after climbing up a large hill on race day.
My last suggestion comes with a little caution… sand. As we all remember from our childhoods, running on sand can be somewhat exhausting. Adding a little sand running into your program can help. However, be careful! Sand running places great loads on tendons and soft tissues, such as the Achilles Tendon and your hip flexors. Therefore, rather than setting off for an isolated sand dune running session, I recommend incorporating only a little running on sand during a standard session.
In summary, whilst I firmly believe there is no perfect substitute for running on hills, if you find yourself living in a region void of steepness then the above suggestions could help you feel more confident come the race day in May. Start carefully and gently on the path to adding hills because if you have been training on the flat-lands for a while you don’t want to shock your running legs and risk injury. Finally, be gentle on yourself. Whilst hills may not be your strong point, some of us have no flat regions to train on! So where we might have power on the hills, you might be superhuman on the flats!
Darkness hides our fears; at least I hope I am not alone in this apprehension. Head torch beams bounce through the awakening dawn. Car headlights sweep into the Waldheim car park. A slip of light filters from under the toilet door. The runner’s pack in front of me is constantly adjusted – tightened, loosened, shifted – its owner awaiting the beginning of the role call. It is race day. And the bright dawn has snuck up on us whilst we fuss.
It is the 2nd February 2013 and our mob of forty-nine race entrants has a place in history. We are the 33rd cohort of fussing runners to pose on the tip of boardwalk snaking away from Waldheim in a southerly direction towards Lake St Clair, the deepest lake in Australia. Turning back twenty years and the synopsis still stands true.
‘It began in the chill half-light of a Tasmanian dawn. Forty other people will attest that we huddled on the fringe of a Myrtle rainforest, our runners’ pinks and greens and blues incongruous in that ancient landscape. A ribbon of wet boardwalk leading away across the button grass plain gave our group focus and was about to give it purpose.’ – Nigel Davies, 1993
With a maximum of fifty runners, entering the event has become somewhat of a computer game. Be seated at your computer on the count of midnight when entries open and cross your fingers and toes that you are the quickest touch-typist. A two-finger typist will join the impatient list of runners on the waiting list.
It is amazing to think of this event as being so popular when you sift back through the history books and early runner’s reports:
‘The trail was mostly just bog, which seemed like fun for the first two hours or so, but after that it started to get to me, as everything, and I mean everything, was full of mud by then’ - Max Bogenhuber, 1987
‘Rarely does the runner see any of this. For you the primary colour is black. It is in the mud that you can't take your eyes off, in the snakes you hope not to see. It is the colour of the leeches, of mosquitoes as large as march flies. At times it is the colour of your thoughts.’ John Ayliffy, 1992,
‘The race notes suggested gaiters as an option but we discovered they're obligatory; for the button grass will tear the hairs off your legs and the mud will suck your shoes off’ – David Sill, 1992
Running along the icy boardwalks, rounding the corners gingerly in fear of upending into the button grass beds beneath me, I try not to think of how far there is to go. In shorter races it is easily possible to trick the mind into a game of ‘Just around the next corner… only a couple more hills to the finish… up and over and down the other side…’. But to think in this manor may leave one weeping on the trackside at Pelion Hut with the wombats and leeches singing – ‘another one stuck in the mud’. Instead I focus on the hill beneath me and the track winding past hanging lakes and up the sharp ridgeline towards Kitchen Hut. As I relax into the environment I find a sense of tranquility. Feet cover the ground in a mindless manner; I slot into a rhythm behind the leading males, and change the station on my mental remote control to the Sunrise Channel over Cradle Cirque.
Despite heavy skies above, I am grateful for the relatively dry trails and the board walks protecting me from the perilous mud once recorded. I am secretly proud that I have snuck through Waterfall Valley and Waldheim huts before any of the tent’s occupants have begun their morning routines. By Pine Forest Moor a couple are traipsing along in full wet-weather gear and towering rucksacks. Not for the first time in history, I appear to be the only one smiling. As Bob Frost, 1999, stated,
‘This is a true wilderness area through mountains, marsh and thick forest. There are many lost souls along the Overland Track…’
Descending into Frog Flats at approximately 30km into the race, I am gazing into every mud puddle with trepidation. The night before my best friend and Cradle Mountain Hut’s guide, Ciara, had carefully described the large sodden mess that awaited me in the area. Each time my foot squelched and slipped into another hole I thought, ‘this must be the puddle she warned me about!’ It was only when I found myself sucked into the middle of thick bog did I realize these were just the preludes.
‘This length of trail is covered in tree roots and the rain had turned the earth to mud that I would sink ankle deep in. Some runners had talked about stepping in mud, stepping out and leaving a shoe behind. I could now appreciate what they meant. Runners passed as I slogged downhill; on my left was a steep embankment to the Forth River; on my right a steep grade upwards covered in tangled rainforest.’ - Sean Greenhill, 2002
Having survived the sucking hollows of Frog Flats I felt like I was dancing as I skirted Pelion Plains. Out of the mist loomed Pelion West and Mt Ossa, Tasmania’s two highest peaks. My progress was slightly different to that of the early explores to the area. Exactly 57 years earlier, pioneer Keith Ernest endured a slow and painful crawl through sections of sharp, prickly Richea scoparia to summit these two mountains that dwarf the plains. He later described these as ‘The Giants of the Reserve’.
Part of the beauty of this run lies outside of the natural sights and rather with the bag of jelly lollies held out in greeting by the beaming officials on the course. Perhaps it’s the Tasmanian connection but their enthusiasm and delight at my muddy appearance was infectious. Retracing historical footsteps, I pranced away from Pelion Hut with an extra bounce and a mouth full of jubes. Some before me hadn’t felt quite so good-humored.
‘There was no race organisation on this most dangerous of runs and those 'officials' we did meet were all afflicted with the 'Tasmanian Disease': they lie, they lie! "How far to the Gap? "…'About twenty minutes - and then it's duck-board all the way". It was an hour-twenty - and then there was a kilometer of boards in thirty or so.’ – David Sill, 1992
Passing through Kio Ora Hut I delve into the Du Cane Myrtle forests. This is my heaven and the flat, technical trails bring out the child within me. Minutes later I glimpse a flash of white through the trees, which slowly melds into the unmistakable outline of ultra sensation, Matt Cooper. Talking was unnecessary as we fall into rhythm together; his only comment being – ‘what a magical playground’. Whilst Coops came and went like a magical aura, we arrived at Narcissus together in grateful companionship and still in time for lunch.
There is something superbly delicious about the offer of a cup of coke when you are standing there in a stupor looking at a perfectly laid out feast. It was not until researching this article did I realize just how lucky I was to receive such a luxurious greeting from the race organisers.
‘It took us thirteen and a half hours to arrive at Narcissus, Lake St Clair, to find we'd failed to reach the cutoff point and anybody official had gone home. So we got to use the mandatory survival gear and ended up sleeping the night in a plastic bag, temperature outside 2C. Meanwhile, our three wives and John's teenage children spent restless nights haunted by their earlier experience of the Race Organiser cheerfully greeting them with the ominous news: “Aren't you the wives of those three blokes from Sydney who are lost in the mountains ?”' – David Sill, 1992
The lake. Ask any Cradle Mountain Ultra runner what is the toughest section of the course and the answer is always the lake.
"The last bit was soul-destroying. I'm sure that everyone felt that when you get to the lake at Narcissus Hut you've broken the back of it and you know you're going to finish. But it breaks your heart. It's torture made worse by the fact that when you leave the hut there's nearly a kilometer of duckboard but it comes to a dead-end! And then there was the darkness.” – Steve Nordish, 1992
Perhaps it was the Coke but my recollection of this perilous section of trail is that of entertainment. The mini ups and winding downs; the curving flats and fallen trees to surmount; gob-smacked walkers darting out of your path; and finally the wide, groomed pathways of the Watersmeet where should you wish to, you can take in the botanical names of the plants you have been darting past for 82km. Unlikely!
You can almost smell the finish as you try and yet fail to run elegantly over the smoothest, flattest section of the entire race. Even had our running technique suggest class, our muddy, salt-crusted appearance was a complete giveaway of our exploits. It is with 300m to go one well-dressed teenager cruising the other way queried, ‘Are you in a race? How far?’… What do you say?
No matter who you are or what time you have run, by the time you reach Cynthia Bay the idea of this event being a race has long since passed. What remains is a deep sense of camaraderie – with yourself and your accomplishment, your running comrades, and the organisers themselves.
‘With around 300 meters to go, I take off like a scalded cat, surprising myself how strong I feel. I cross the finish line, and Bob says "you made it just under 15 hours". I say "how much exactly", and he replies "14 hours, 59 minutes and 27 seconds". I think that's pretty neat.’ – John Lindsay, 2003
Sleep is hard to come by post-race. The ache of muscles you never knew existed and a stomach sitting like a loaded barge from a sugar overload makes for a restless night. Yet despite the weariness there is a joy in crawling from under the covers, sipping tea, and then shuffling across the car park of the Derwent Tavern to mingle with runners at the presentations. Whilst winners do grin and Rob Walter and I collect our certificates, through the sharing of stories and applauding all finishers, we celebrate the accomplishment of forty-nine pairs of feet and 4018km travelled together.
Coming to the end of my creative juices and wondering how to conclude an article on an event that still lives fiercely inside me, an email flashes up on my screen. Distracted I absent-mindedly open it to find a new post on the Cool Running Australia blog. It reads:
‘My first time for the CMR this year and it was awwwwwesome. I've never really run as relaxed as I did in this event: stopping to take photos and video etc. This was so special that I was often wanting to just stand still and inhale the awesome. (if it weren't for the cut offs at Pelion and Narcissus I probably would have). HUGE thanks to all the organisers and volunteers - what an incredible event you put on. Thank you thank you thank you!... Applause… I hope to one day return! May be see a few of you again?’ – ‘Chaneebear’, 2013
This story is now concluded.
These articles are a collection of my writing. If you have feedback or questions, would love to hear from you!
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