Monday, June 05, 2006

Learning through adaptation... and failure

On Saturday, I took part in an event called Race for Life with approximately 3600 other women (a further 3600 were expected for the repeat event the following day). This is a sponsored 5km (roughly 3 miles) ladies' "race" held in various centres through the year, raising money for Cancer Research UK, specifically for women's cancers. (Note: I have heard that this caused a furore in the US among male survivors of breast cancer and their families, but I'm not going down that road today)

All three of my Dad's sisters had breast cancer. Only one survived. Needless to say, I buy into the work of this charity! This was my third year of participation, and I entered confidently, knowing that I had completed the event easily for the past two years, raising a respectable amount of money for this charity in the process. I told people I expected to finish in 30 minutes. That's roughly 6mins/km (or 10mins/mile). No problem. Some of the sponsors took me at my word and agreed to up their sponsorship money if I managed to complete the event in under that time. Now it must be pointed out that I am a South African. A nation not known for a relaxed attitude towards sports and competition. That proviso had the word challenge all over it and, strangely, the look of a gauntlet about it...

I immediately adjusted the chips on my shoulders and trained carefully with a view to squeezing that extra money out of them.

The day of the race dawned bright and clear. Not a cloud in the sky. Just before 1pm, we headed up to the helipad, where the event was to start and finish. After a suitable aerobic warmup, we were advised that the start of the event would be delayed, as someone had parked across the route of the race. Once that had been sorted out (which took a little time), we were able to start. I got stuck way back in the field at the start, so was unable to get away as quickly as I would have liked.

Once I did get underway, it was no more than 100 metres before the first bottleneck. Immediately after that, we had a very steep down hill on a narrow gravel (!) path. Suddenly all my careful training was inadequate. I had trained on the flat. We always ran on the flat before, and here we were, facing hills! As I am an experienced runner, I like to keep a steady pace and move up the field as I go, but the route was very narrow and we hit several more bottlenecks along the way. I finished a full 5:19 outside of my target time, and roared in frustration as I crossed the finish line. By contrast, other women around me were whopping in triumph.

So what lessons did I learn out of this?

  1. Preparing for an event doesn't always prepare you for the event. My training wasn't fit for purpose. It helped. I was able to keep a steady pace, and I adapted to the unexpected better for having had the training than I would have without. The world is changing so fast that what we're learning now may not suit the situations life throws at us tomorrow. But we'll be better prepared with the learning that is available than we would be without any at all and we're smart - we'll figure out how to cope when the need arises.
  2. You don't always achieve your goals. I didn't finish in my goal time... but I finished. If I hadn't started with a goal in mind, I might have taken even longer. If we frame goals based on what we think lies ahead, we have a better chance of achieving something than if we don't. We might have to adapt those goals on the fly once we realise what we're up against.
  3. Other people have an impact on what you achieve. The worst part of the whole thing was the delayed start thanks to the bright spark who had parked across the route. Sometimes there will be someone who thoughtlessly blocks your path, and you may have to wait for him/her to move or be moved. Breathe. Breathe. The nature of the event also means that it attracts a lot of "enthusiastic amateurs". They have a habit of haring off at breakneck speeds and then almost coming to a complete standstill smack dab in front of you. Or they run carrying hockey sticks or "magic wands" that endanger life and limb of everyone in the vicinity. The temptation is to yell at them to get out of the way, but you know what? Their hearts are in the right place, and they're doing the best they can with the knowledge that they have. I need to temper my overdeveloped sense of competitiveness and get a life. I heard one woman saying "I can't run fast" and I was able to advise her: don't go for fast, go for steady. Sing a song in your head that gives you a rhythm you can stick to. Sing it all the way to the finish line (and then groan because you can't it out of your head). I suggest Nelly the Elephant, Natasha Bedingfield's Single or Weapon of Mass Destruction by Faithless. We can share our knowledge and experience and help each other along the way.
  4. The environment has an impact on what you achieve. I didn't get to pick the course. I didn't even like the course. In fact, I thought it was downright dangerous in places: there were bottlenecks in several places. But it was reality. I just had to deal with it. It was a hot day. I drank fluids, but I still got a bit dehydrated along the way. My left knee (which is none too clever at the best of times) was not happy with the last hill. External factors can have a role to play in our progress. We don't always have control.
  5. One person's failure is another person's success. Women finishing behind me were delighted. They whooped. I was frustrated. I roared (I do that). We had started out with different goals in mind and they had bettered theirs while I had fallen short of mine. Of the 200 or so women who finished ahead of me, no doubt some were pleased, while others were disappointed in their times, too. Perspective. I was not pleased to finish ahead of this person, or disappointed to finish behind that one. I was disappointed at not achieving my goal. Not everyone can achieve the same goals. Each person's sense of achievement (or failure) should be based on their own potential. (However, having said that, if a team is needed to compete against other teams, they should select the fastest runners - no question! My competitive streak doesn't stand aside for political correctness.)
I'm sure there's a lot more besides, but that will do for now. So what comes next? Well, I am running for my employer in a team event in London in a few weeks. I will be training for that. And guess what? That training will include hills! I'm not going to make assumptions about the course ahead of time. That's something else I've learned!

If you're interested, my review of the event with pictures can be found here.

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