But I wasn't ready...
In June 2010 I found myself in a two man tent at 14,000 ft above sea level clinging to the side of a mountain. I was having a chat to an awesome guy who worked as a security contractor in the Middle East. We were both part of an unsupported expedition to climb the highest peak on the North American continent. We still had the best part of 7,000 vertical feet to climb - by far the toughest part. The tents are tiny - they have to be to conserve space and load - so at that point we were separated by about one foot. Within a few days we would be separated by over 20,000 of them. He at the summit and me back at base camp. One of us successful and one of us not.
But we will get to that.
Back to our tent discussion.
We were discussing our preparation for the climb. When faced with an expected and known physical challenge people may prepare in different ways - use different strategies or tools - but the underlying concept is generally the same. What will I need to be able to do to get the job done - then train to be able to do it. Can I drag heavy loads for long periods, can I climb uphill day after day, can I carry a heavy pack for days. Yep, Yep, Yep. Did I make the summit. Nope. My tent mate's approach - business as usual. His concept was simple - 'if you stay ready, you never have to get ready'. Summit - check.
'If you stay ready, you never have to get ready'.
It's a very simple premise - stay in shape (mental and physical) and whenever a challenge (or opportunity) comes your way, planned or otherwise, not a problem. In the months and years since I have often returned to this concept - and seen it play out in my own life, as well as the lives of others. I have seen it both elevate and decimate people from all walks of life in all kinds of situations.
A few weeks ago we had a string of seriously hot days - high 30's low 40's - the good stuff. And pretty much every gym in our area cancelled classes. We didn't. We ran the classes, as planned. We don't have air conditioners, or evap coolers. We have big roller doors that let the sun in and serve to highlight the complete lack of breeze. Are we reckless? Are we foolish? Are we endangering clients?
Nope, the reality is we are being brutally honest. A significant proportion of our clients are first responders. Ambulance, fire, police, military. You know what happens when it gets too hot at their work place.
They keep working.
As coaches we need them to understand how to manage heat, how to work in hostile environments, how to hydrate, how to regulate their performance, mental and physical. Because their work, their lives - and potentially yours - depend on it. They have to take personal responsibility for their fitness because they and you depend on it. One of our firefighters - who has totally transformed himself - was asked how he did it - 'I started to take personal responsibility for my fitness'.
I'm not talking about becoming some Chuck Norris ninja warrior, ready to slay thousands during the impending zombie apocalypse. Simply taking personal responsibility for your health and how that impacts you and those around you. It's one thing to have your physical capacity relied on in your work. But how is that different to being a parent? A husband or wife? Or simply being responsible for your own wellbeing?
When a real test comes and someone else is relying on you - will you wish you had taken a little more care of your body, conditioned your mind to not quit so quickly. Let's be brutally honest - if your toddler gets a decent head start for the road can you get out of your chair and sprint 100m before she is front of a car? If you had to do CPR for ten minutes on your mate at work - could you? If your dog got a snake bite and you're 1 km from your car - can you carry him back fast enough?
Whether you like it or not at some point your body and mind will be tested - probably not at a time and place of your choosing. And the consequences of your success or failure might be paid by someone else. Potentially paid in full.
There is a flip side to all this. Sometimes these tests arrive in a pleasant form - hey a bunch of us are going camping and mountain bike riding for the weekend - want to come? Sure just give me a few weeks/months to get in shape...
Imagine if whatever came up, you could be confident to go, yep I reckon I can handle that - and go out and live it!
Back to the mountain.
So what happened? Training for a specific event is fine but can lack two distinct facets. It may leave you unprepared for the unexpected and it may leave you unprepared for the long haul mentally. If you are well rounded in your fitness then whatever comes your way you should be relatively well equipped for. If you have conditioned your mind to do the work, whether you think you need to or want to, then when the wheels fall off or you hit an unexpected hurdle the mind will strive forward, not throw in the towel.
I was well prepared for what I expected, but not what I encountered. I had plenty of climbing experience under my belt but when I hit some unexpected snags - boot problems, some gear malfunctions and what I later learnt was a chest infection - my mind folded, closely followed by my body.
I descended, unsuccessful, went home and immediately set the wheels in motion for the following year, same dates, same lead guide. And I trained - but differently. I trained for everything and anything. Whether I thought it was entirely relevant to the climb or not. I simply trained to be fit across the whole spectrum. When I went back things were different - I still struck gear problems, the climbing conditions were worse and the mountain seemed keen to take it's toll on everyone - 36 evacs and 7 fatalities that season. But I was different, my mind was relaxed, I wasn't worried about what was coming because I felt prepared - for anything. And after 19 days of hard slog we spent a whole 2 minutes on the summit and then spent two and half days getting down. (21 hours a day of sunlight, a downhill run and the promise of a shower and a burger from a place featured on Man Vs Food can help you move pretty quickly).
I haven't climbed for a few years now as life moves me in different directions, but I still train as if a climb is just around the corner, or an adventure race, or a disaster, or weekend hiking, or....
Remember if you stay ready, you never have to get ready.
'..If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!..'
- R. Kipling
Now go have some fun!