Posts Tagged 'challenge'

On Being a Realist

On the 18th July 2010 I was lying in the acute ward of The National Spinal Injuries Centre in the UK. It was two weeks after my fall, I couldn’t feel or move my legs, I was pumped full of morphine and despite all of this I was feeling lucky to be alive.

As I lay there in the middle of the night I wrote a blog called, ‘Optimist, Realist or Something Else? I was surrounded by guys who were paralysed from the neck, chest or waist down and I was better off than many of them and worse off than some. I could acknowledge that they were paralysed but the question that I could not answer was: “Am I going to be one of these guys?”

And, as I wrote the blog I remembered a book that I had read called ‘Good to Great’ by Jim Collins. He spoke about the Stockdale Principle, a principle based on the experience of long-term prisoners of war and how the optimists were not the ones who survived. Realists did. The reason for this was that the optimists thought that they would be free soon, so they never faced the reality that they may never get out. As a result they were constantly disappointed, demoralised and died in their cells. Whereas the realists dealt in facts, faced the reality of their current circumstances. They were the ones to survive.

This is why I titled the blog Optimist, Realist or Something Else? In those first couple of weeks I questioned if I should be super positive and say – I will make a full recovery – and risk being a Stockdale optimist. I also wondered – should I be a realist and embrace the fact that my legs are not working and therefore are unlikely to recover? But if I did that I feared I would potentially shut off the power of my mind and body to recover in ways that we don’t yet understand.

Looking back I can see how being an optimist was the easy option because it doesn’t demand an examination of the facts. Yet my reluctance to be a realist was misplaced and left me looking for something else. But there is nothing else, being a realist is the only option.

Now, as a realist I have been able to deal in all of the facts. The fact is that I have a catastrophic spinal cord injury. The fact is that I am paralysed and cannot move anything below my waist. The fact is that finding a cure has proven to be impossible up to this point in history. But it is also a fact that human history is made up over and over again of accounts of the impossible made possible through human endeavour.

I don’t believe that there is any need to worry about being a realist. Being a realist allows us to examine the full suite of options and that includes as much despair, as it does acceptance and fantastical hope.

Mark in Wheelchair

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Battery-powered team-mates

For years I’ve been banging on about the importance of getting the right team around you…and this post is not going to dispute that. However, over the last week I added an electronic team-mate to the group.

A talking heart rate monitor from Oregon Scientific – the AH310 – is the new addition. It’s a heart-rate monitor chest strap with a built-in earphone jack in the chest belt. Through the ear phones I get periodic updates on what my heart rate is and I’m blown away by the impact it is having.

When I could see I used to use a whole suite of electronic equipment to measure my progress on a given day – electronic read outs on rowing machines, speedos on bikes and heart rate monitors when rowing, running, swimming or anything else. I was constantly checking and rechecking my progress against previous performance.

Sometimes I was ahead, sometimes I was behind but the point is that I had something to work off. But when I lost my sight I lost my training independence. From 1998 until today, unless I had a willing team-mate to either set the pace or read my scores out then I was completely on my own. I rarely, if ever, got off a piece of exercise equipment or out of the pool feeling like I had done enough. And for years I have found motivating myself for training a real drag.

The races and adventures have been amazing but getting my training right has been really tough. For example, back in 2006 I did most of my training on my own and eventually managed to over-train myself. I was training for Ironman Switzerland (3.8 km swim, 180 km bike and then a marathon) and was scared of not doing enough training. Pushing myself to the point where I became over-trained was, in no small part, due to a lack of feedback. For the most part I relied on perceived effort (difficult if you don’t have an initial mark to base the perceived effort on) and far too much time spent in the pool, on a stationary bike and on treadmills. The result was that my performances dropped dramatically, I was really down in the dumps and my weight shot up.

The over training, I believe came about due to 2 factors: firstly, I had very little feedback on how hard I was training which resulted in me doing far too much and secondly, I wasn’t fuelling my body for the effort I was putting in (but I didn’t really know how much effort I was putting in!)

Today, I’ve learned lots about the importance of nutrition and hydration but until I put my new talking heart rate monitor on for the first time, my work rate in training remained a mystery. Now, talking heart rate monitor in place, I seem to be motivated to train again on my own. This simply hasn’t happened since 1998 when I could see. I’m training more effectively, enjoying it and am even eating better than I have for ages.

Maybe, just maybe, this simple piece of electronic kit is the missing team-mate that I’ve been looking for. I’ll reserve judgement and see if my enthusiasm lasts but right now the heart rate monitor is in the team!

Shreddin’ the Slopes: Courage, Fear & Assessing the Risk

The challenge for last weekend was my first snowboarding experience on real snow. The plan for this challenge had been to get Nick Wolf (my Gobi March team-mate) to talk me safely down a mountain in Switzerland on my walkie talkie system that I bought for this year’s challenges. It seemed like a sensible, achievable goal.

We stood at the top of the mountain in Switzerland, our boards no wider than baking trays, and prepared to “shred the slopes”. As we strapped in, however, I was battling with a growing sense of fear. Surging through my mind were waves of doubt which often surface before the rush of adrenaline takes over.

All the usual suspects were there: Why am I doing this? I’m going to hurt myself. I can’t do this. How can I get out of this?

But with the board strapped on the navel-gazing was squeezed out by the adrenaline in full flow around my body. I was compelled to get up and go.
A rush of blood to the head made me set off without doing a radio test on the walkie-talkie or checking if Nick or the others were ready. Before anyone could say a word I was off. Sliding, turning, falling, sliding falling, turning, falling. But with cries of encouragement from Simone I soon entered my own world.

After my first few slides I didn’t hear the others. As I lay flat out after another major tumble Nick caught up and told me that I was just metres away from a tree and he had lost sight of me over the brow of the first hill. We hadn’t turned the walkie talkies on for this first run – whoops!!
Challenges like this are always met with a balance between courage and fear but the key is to make a judgement based on a sober, objective assessment of the risks. The aim in trying snowboarding was already a stated one so that was not in question. However the fear I felt was, I’m sure, part of a conscious and unconscious series of risk assessments.
As I sat at the top of the mountain I was scared. But where did these feelings actually come from and what was I really scared of? Was I scared of hurting myself? Was I scared of looking like an idiot? Was I scared of having to write this blog post with a report that snowboarding blind is just too damn hard?

The answer is probably yes to all of these things but ultimately, whether subconcious or not, I made the choice to push off and give it a shot. I felt the risks were not insurmountable and I had factored some of them out. For example, I had tried to arrive on the slopes prepared and ready by taking lessons on the indoor slope. I thought I had overcome the directional issues with the walkie-talkies as a substitute for sight. And I was relying on my own ability based on experience from other sports.
Our ability to assess the risks, to balance courage and fear, is done by preparing. But preparation can only take you so far. Eventually you’ve got to stand up and step off the mountain. It’s up to you…



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