Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Learning to Gain Traction in Slippery Mud

Anyone who knows me well understands that I am not someone who appreciates change all that much.  I am a planner.  I enjoy the quiet predictability in any situation to bring me to my comfort zone.  Changing course quickly generally does not go well for a period of time as I try to wrap my overthinking brain around circumstances I suddenly cannot control or make sense of.  I suppose that is why when I set out to run my seventh Spartan Race last Saturday, I was able enter it with a quiet confidence of an absolute known.  After all, I already knew I could do the monkey bars and the multi rig.  Grab hold, swing, swing, release on the back swing, patience, grab on the front swing, repeat, repeat, repeat....ring the bell.  I could do the spear, watch the rope, aim higher than the target, put some arc into it, step and throw.  I was working on the rope climb, j-hook, reach high, pull up... repeat, repeat, and maybe this time will ring the bell.   At the very least, I appeared to know what I was doing there.  I even learned the roll technique under the barbed wire was way easier than the crawl.  There really isn't an obstacle I have not seen before, and the ones I struggle with I have my core race team to pull me along.  As far as my running was concerned?  I had a full year of training under my belt since facing this same venue last year.

The venue itself was familiar too, as I had done it last year here.  It was a flat course, so no mountains to conquer.  Really, the only issue I had was worrying about that small stretch of mud we had last year.  It was probably a third of a mile of ankle deep mud where both of my calves cramped and I stood unable to move in sticky mud screaming as if my legs had been amputated. I think my business partner thought I had been shot at the time as he and my son struggled to limp me through that whole stretch while I struggled to keep my shoes on. Not this year though. I made sure to preemptively solve that problem, and drank some electrolyte water in the morning.  I left for the course with my biggest worry being supporting my team of newbie racers as they discover what they are made of. That was truly what Saturday was about and I was going to show them the way.

Then we arrived at the course.  It had rained all week in Chicago and getting off the bus to the venue we were met with mud.  Ankle deep mud.  Everywhere we turned there was mud.  As a rule, I never put my race shoes on until we get to the start line.  However, on Saturday, I lost a flip flop in the mud before I even reached check in and found myself walking to the start line barefoot not even sure how it was I was going to get my race socks and shoes on, as I already had mud well above my bare feet and ankles with no visible water source for a rinse off.  I finally decided that I would wipe my feet off with the outside of my long socks, figuring they would get muddy anyway.  It wasn't ideal, but my my shoes were at least on.  A group of sharks is also known as a shiver, and as we are the Team 1DOS Sharks, I lined up with my mighty shiver, the proud Mama Shark of a team of 7 experienced racers and 8 newbies.  We had the obligatory "I AM A SPARTAN, AROO, AROO, AROO" of the start line, we were off.  I should clarify we were off into ankle deep mud.  What began as a third of a mile of mud last year, had turned into a full 9.5 miles of ankle deep or more mud.  My worst thing.  My biggest challenge of last year was suddenly present the entire race.

I found myself slipping and sliding along with no opportunity to enjoy the quiet confidence I had awoken with that morning.  The things I knew how to do were suddenly all new and different, and my ability to conquer obstacles I had in the past was completely compromised.  I was not running how I had planned, as it was not possible with miles of sticky mud.  I was not in any kind of rhythm to focus on the quiet cadence I thought I had mastered at the monkey bars.  The first barbed wire crawl?  Inches of water overlying sticky mud making the rolling impossible and turned that more into a muddy slip and slide.  Nothing was going as planned.

I found I was frustrated with myself for a good bit of the race because all of the huge things I assumed I would adeptly demonstrate for my team of newbies had essentially fallen apart in front of me due to circumstances I didn't plan on.  I pondered all of this as I took a moment to pull ahead of my team for a minute to pull it together.  As I did that, I suddenly realized my timing chip was gone, lost in a sea of mud somewhere.  Now I would not even be able to analyze ranking later, or possibly would not even get credit for finishing the race.  Not one single thing was going according to the plan I had in my head for that day and I was well out of  the structured design I had come up with better known as my comfort zone.

It was in that moment I found myself climbing the castle stairs.  A wooden structure off the ground.  Firm footing, confident steps and solid ground.  Seven feet off the ground with my first confident steps an hour and a half into the race, I realized it was time to let loose of my preconceived notion of what a successful race looked like for me as the team captain and Mama Shark, and instead focus on firm footing, and leave the rest.  By the time I came down the back side of that I was ready to dig in and go again, only this time worrying about staying steady on my feet, encouraging my team, and finishing the race.  I paused and waited for my team to catch up and we did just that.  One step at a time, one obstacle at a time. Some we conquered, some we failed and had to do burpees, but in the end we came together to finish 5.5 hours later as one mighty shark shiver.

As I reflect on the events of Saturday, I think about how many times in life we as leaders enter into situations we feel are absolute knowns.  We set out to lead those around us through obstacles, assuming the best way to do that is to confidently show demonstrate our own prowess.  However, we seem to forget that sometimes, circumstances change on a dime.  What we feel is an absolute known can suddenly provide shaky footing and no longer resemble anything we thought we knew.  When the ground begins to shift we can suddenly feel our plans crumble as we slip and slide to gain traction yet still appear to lead.  Maybe the better answer is to stop sliding, toss out the preconceived notion of the experience, embrace the demonstration of vulnerability that goes with failure, and to learn to climb those unstable muddy hills arm in arm with teammates just as we did, drawing strength from the shiver, not personal position or past experience.  I am beginning to think that this is where leadership really exists.

I am grateful today to my 8 newbies who gave this course hell and held me up through my own stumblings.  I can't think of a more amazing team of gifted sharks each of whom taught me something different about myself.  I only hope you are starting to see as I have, that it really doesn't matter how many goals you reach or how many obstacles you conquer,  the best is truly yet to come. AROO!

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