It’s the middle of the night in Joannas, a small village in southern France. Heavy winds are fiercely ripping around me and, at some points, knock me over. I am completely alone. The only thing I can see is a small circle of light from my headlamp. I am mid-point in a 120kilometer (74 mile), ultra-trail marathon, sleep deprived and starting to become delirious. Is that a person over there? Coming closer, I realize it’s an illusion, not a person. This happens more frequently, the longer I’m out here.
Every time I move it hurts – muscles, bones, blisters, eyes, mouth, even ears, due to the constant high winds. In races this long, you get used to everything hurting. You learn to simply live with it, knowing you have to keep moving and slowly, ever so slowly, stride by stride, the finish line will appear.
I am desperate to stay on the trail – which isn’t well marked. There is no GPS. The trail is comprised of ten different loops of varied distances. Every so often there are reflective ribbons attached to trees along the course. Frequently, I’ll be running along the trail, and it dumps out into a tiny cluster of two to three chalets and I’m running through someone’s driveway. Am I lost? Am I on course? I don’t know until I go further and then may need to retrace – as I’ve done what seems like hundreds of times in this race.
Earlier in the race, markers disappeared completely and, after going out two miles without any, I retraced and ended up finding two German competitors (who spoke no English and I no German), and together, we ran back another 5k (3 miles) to finally find a marker pointing in the opposite direction that had been knocked over and trampled.
Now, suddenly, the terrain transitions from relatively flat to what seems like a steep wall of dirt. I check again to see if I’m on course and it seems that I am. It’s so steep, I have no choice but to climb…on all fours. I reach up with one arm, find something to grab – a small bush, tree branch, or most of the time, more dirt. Digging my hand into whatever I can, I propel the other hand up in the same way, inching my way up, holding myself in place as much as I can, but inevitably slipping down the loose dirt each time. As I painstakingly repeat the process, my body is taxed – muscles shaking, panting profusely.
I can’t see the obstacle in its entirety, only the small section immediately in front of my headlamp. I can’t tell if it’s a mountain face or small hill. All I know is, whatever this is, I have to scale it to get to the finish line and claim my UTMB (Ultra-Trail Mont Blanc) points for this race so that I can get to an even bigger, tougher race.
What’s going through my mind is the bigger battle. Where am I in the race? How close am I to the finish? How much farther is it? What is this that I’m climbing? What comes after it? Why am I doing this? What am I looking to accomplish or to prove? What if I’ve extended myself so far that I can’t finish? What if I’ve failed?
Ultra-endurance races are a great analogy for projects and large goals we undertake as leaders. Often, they are larger challenges and farther to the finish than we expect – with unforeseen “mountains” to climb and overcome, not knowing how big they may be in the moment. And yet, we must press on to the end, through the unclear and exhausting mid-point, which is the most difficult.
Why is the mid-point the most perilous? Because the initial excitement and freshness is gone. And we aren’t close enough to the finish to smell “the hay in the barn.” These “middle miles,” as we call them, become a blur and time seems to warp, feeling like it’s slowed down or sped up drastically. We lose perspective of why we started this, what we hope to accomplish by it, and experience the terrible feeling of potential failure.
While competing in this and even longer races (Ultra520k Canada, a 3-day, 320-mile triathlon), I learned that it is what we do in those crucial middle miles – just like the mid-point of the year – that determines the degree of success or failure in terms of attaining goals.
Now, as we face the mid-point of 2021 and the challenges that are all around, here are six steps to gain momentum:
1. Maintain a constant connection to why you are doing this. What are the reasons you started? Who is this benefitting and how, specifically?
2. Visualize the Finish. What does successful completion look like? What will be the ultimate culmination for all involved? What will it feel like for you and the others who will benefit? What will you be most proud of?
3. Realize people are watching. Knowing people were watching always helped me run faster, stronger, pick up the pace. I didn’t want to let them down; I wanted to be a shining example for them to count on, and bring them along in my enthusiasm and undying spirit. Whether you are in the middle of nowhere or a packed office, realize that people are watching what you do, how you deal with this and how you move forward. They take cues from you about what to do themselves.
4. Take it in steps. Realize that every step forward is one closer to success. Frequently turn back and look at where you started. It helps you realize how far you’ve come, which refuels motivation and excitement.
5. Find the next gear. We are all capable of so much more than we think. Reflect on everything that brought you to this point – all the little and big things that added up to create this opportunity. It wasn’t by accident – you are supposed to do this and are so very capable. This is your time to find your next gear and shine like never before.
6. Ask for help when you need it. Often, we never ask for help, falling into the deception that we have to do it all ourselves. Even if you feel like those around you are speaking a different language (let’s say, German?) there is always a way to work together and get back on track. Ask for opinions, garner feedback to get other ideas, and get through it together. It’s ok to ask for help and doing so often re-energizes us with newness that is injected into the project.
Oh – as for the Taranis Arga Trail race in France? As the first U.S. female to ever compete in this race, I’m happy to report that I stayed the course, overcame the middle miles, and finished well.