We have talked in the past about how overwhelming projects can be at work- and we offer solutions.
This blog post is about breaking down those projects into manageable chunks. It’s about being persistent. Or how to be persistent. Planning how to attack each chunk and preparing for obstructions and fuelling yourself through the whole thing so you remain on top.
It’s also about getting some perspective on your struggles!
In this session we interview someone who is operating at the edge of what normal people think is possible. We talk about his challenges and apply them to work life.
My brother Sean is a serious athlete, he’s absolutely dedicated to pushing his body to different extremes and finding out what he’s capable of. He’s a long term fan of the extreme. He is ex armed forces, ex deep sea diver (retired after one too many close calls in dangerous waters) , ex downhill mountain biker (retired with punctured lung and broken bones) , retired cyclist (drove himself to hospital after suffering what they thought was an aneurysm, after training too hard) got a first class honors degree in Maths and now works as a patent examiner at the Intellectual Property Office.
This sort of relentless effort and determination is the sort of mentality it takes sometimes when trying to make projects successful, to get on at work, or to win the support of people in your organisation.
With this in mind I got in touch to see if we could probe his mind and apply this approach to work life, so I called him up to talk about his next huge physical challenge.
Hey Sean, so what’s going on? What are you doing?
The Spine Race. It’s a non-stop 280-ish mile race, starting from Edale near Manchester and finishing in Kirk Yetholm, on the Scottish border. It’s on the Pennine Way, so it’s a fairly rough and tough national trail. In the summertime it’s apparently quite easy to navigate, but in the wintertime when you’re restricted to eight hours of light and a lot of darkness. It’s a bit of a nightmare, especially when it’s covered in snow! It’s predominantly peat bogs, mountains, open moorland, and it’s exposed, cold, wet and all-round unpleasant!
How are you going to get from A to B in those conditions?
Well, I’m going to try and do it as quick as possible so that I don’t have to spend as much time on the route! I’m going to be running, walking and crawling through the middle of the Pennines. Think rain cold snow wind and five foot snow drifts. That sort of thing.
That makes sense! And for the night time, will you stop and rest?
I’m looking at a three-hour stop every 24 hours.
Getting feet tended at one of the checkpoints.
What!? You’re only going to sleep three hours?
The terrain’s so difficult that it’s actually quite slow going, so I won’t finish in time if I stop for much longer. I won’t get a proper night’s sleep. My initial plan was to just take a bivvy bag, which is like a Gore-Tex bag, and when I get too tired I’ll take a 30 minute nap and when I get too cold to sleep any more, I’ll just get up and carry on. But, it’s so cold now, it’s minus double figures, so when you take your sweaty shoes off, they’d freeze and need to be thawed out. So, instead I’ve got a pop up tent for shelter. There are other options, like sheep shelters and public toilets, which I’ve marked on my map. It depends how far I get.
There are Checkpoint along the way right?
Yeah, there are five and you spend a couple of hours at each checkpoint to get fed and get your feet taped up and dressed. You can see a doctor if you need to, and change your clothes and socks and resupply for the next section.
Talking of food, what do you eat to maintain the energy for this type of event?
Haribo, Mars bars, Snickers, flapjacks and in each resupply there are two dehydrated meals which are about 700 calories each. They’re not bad once you add water to them, and my plan is to fill them with hot water and put them in my pockets for a bit of warmth, then eat them once they’re cooled down. I’ve got a hot water flask too, which I’ll use to make a cup of tea with at each checkpoint, and will double up as a water bottle. I’ve also marked out a burger van on the M62 and a couple of KFCs. There are some cafes that stay open 24 hours to help us out, and some pubs.
Hahaha! Amazing! And what do you do about money on the run, ‘cause you don’t want the added weight of coins or a wallet right?
Some of the cafes do a ‘Spine Deal’ which is a £10 note for breakfast, unlimited tea and coffee, and a packed lunch to take away with you, because they understand that you don’t want to carry change.
This isn’t your first race of this kind is it?
I did the Dragon’s Back in Wales and the Lakeland 100 a few times, but this is different. For the Dragon Back , you had to be fast, fit and strong. This one is all about managing the weather and the terrain. If you fall in a peat bog on the first day, that’s basically your race over. It’s about navigating and managing yourself, it’s more of an expedition than a race!
What are the biggest obstacles and concerns you are facing?
Frostbite on my feet, and getting cold. There’s a trade-off between weight and warmth. If you carry too much, you go too slow, if you ditch the weight, the warm stuff, you might be too cold. It’s a strategy, and something I’ve been thinking about for the last year. I’ve planned properly though.
About to head out into the dark for the last time this run.
What attracted you to these extreme activities? And why do you keep going back for more?
I did a half marathon once, seven years ago, and I was like “OK, now I can do a marathon”. Then after that it was “I’m going to do something longer than a marathon”. It’s a moderation thing, I’m just constantly testing myself, I think that’s what it is. There is also a huge camaraderie thing going on. . You meet the same sort of people, who are all legends. The people who you meet on these things, they’re really nice people. It just gives you opportunity to… well it's quite spiritual, not that I'm a very spiritual person, but just stripping yourself bare and relying on yourself and everything you've got inside you, rather than anything else. It's like an adventure, the preparation and the completion.
Very deep, but let’s not get too spiritual here. How do you cope with the thoughts of getting through the race?
You can pull the pin and ask for help, but then you’re off the race, so there’s a safety net in place, but if you want to finish it, it’s down to you. No one’s going to help you, it’s your planning, your preparation, your training and the decisions that you make during the race.
What lengths have you had to go to in terms of cutting weight from your pack?
I’ve got a 20 kilo drop bag, so I’ve gone to the point of cutting straps off the bag because they weigh 85g each. I’ve emptied half my talcum powder for 50g and same with Vaseline and Sudocrem. I changed all the internal bags from bags for life to thin plastic bags, to save 10g. This sort of process may have seeped into other processes in my life, but I’m not sure.
Feeling very relaxed at the last checkpoint.
Are you concerned for your safety in any way?
Don’t die, that’s number one on my hierarchy of needs. Number two is to avoid developing any life-changing illnesses, like severe pneumonia. Number three is to finish the race. Number four is to try not to lose and fingers or toes. I’m putting finishing the race above losing fingers or toes. If there’s an emergency, you have a tracker with an SOS button on your shoulder, and as soon as you press that, the mountain rescue get deployed, but as soon as you press that, you’re out of the race.
I’ve got my fingers crossed for you! Any advice for others who want to get into extreme running?
You've got to want to do it, I think. I think for making the step from half marathons and marathons, which are pretty achievable I think, for most people, if they really had a sit down and thought about it. The step between them and doing the longer stuff is just about belief, rather than ability. You'll get loads of people who say, "You can't run a hundred miles 'til you've run a marathon." Or, "You can't run a hundred miles 'til you've ran 50 miles." That's not true. You can't run a hundred miles if you don't think you can run a hundred miles. That's the only thing that stops you. I haven’t actually done a dedicated marathon yet.
How do you turn off that voice in your head that tells you to stop? When you hit a wall, how do you get over it?
It's experience I think. On the Dragon's Back I'd have dark spot, after dark spot, after dark spot, but once you've been through your first dark spot and into the light again, then into the second dark spot and then into the light again, through your third dark spot, you know that these dark spots don't last. You can't count on any decision that you make during the dark spots. If you think, "I'm going to drop out", you give yourself another couple of hours and you think, "Actually, I'm not going to drop out, I'm pleased I didn't drop out when I was thinking about dropping out."
You shouldn't make a decision to drop out of a race when you're at a checkpoint, when it's nice and warm and you're having a cup of tea and a hotpot. You should make that decision when you're away from the checkpoints, when you're in the space where you can make that decision and trust it. Plus, you don't make that decision unless you've got hyperthermia, or your toes are dropping off…
End of the race with a well deserved pint of tea. "How do you feel?" "Tired but can we find a pie shop?"
Sean completed his race! 113 runners started the race . 63 finished. Sean came 27th. Well done brother!
How can you apply this?
Sean’s determination to complete this race is inspiring and should serve as motivation to those who wish to challenge themselves, whether it’s fitness, business or meeting personal goals.
Here’s how Sean thinks this attitude applies to his approach to work
- Limitations are all in your mind. Do not listen to the voice in your head saying you can’t do it. You can do it. You just need to work out how.
- Break down projects into milestones
- Break down milestones into tasks
- Break down tasks into sub tasks
- Break down sub tasks into moments in time and put them into your calendar
- Do one thing to move the needle towards your goal every day
- Perfect planning prevents poor performance.
- If you are going through a bad patch remember that it won’t last long. Note how you feel in the dark patch then when you feel better look back over those notes...because you will face more dark patches in the future and this will help.
- Don’t make tough decisions to pull the plug when you are tired and under siege. Wait it out , sleep on it, then make the call.
- Celebrate and enjoy that it is you and you alone that can made this happen.
Thank you for reading!