Note to Self No 1. Focus on the Good Stuff!
“Find a place inside where there is joy, and the joy will burn out the pain.” Joseph Campbell
I am tremendously privileged by the fact that Tri the Beloved Country (my self powered journey around the borders of RSA in 148 days) has in some ways been a practice round at life. My journey allowed me to compress a lifetime of emotions, challenges and experiences into 5 months. One of the challenges was pain. One cannot cover these distances day after day and not experience pain. (Fortunately from day to day I often experienced a new and different pain that at least introduced an element of variety!) There is something about spending a lot of time alone and in pain that focuses one’s thinking, and it occurred to me that this journey was a metaphor of life. Just like everyone everyday on the journey of life, I would have to get up and go out into the unknown, certain that I would experience joy and excitement, but equally certain that at some point I would experience pain and difficulty and fear and frustration too. I learned that despite the pain, fear and the frustrations there was always beauty and humor and humanity and unexpected acts of kindness. Every day it was a choice: would I focus on pain/fear/frustration and miss the beauty/humor/humanity/kindness? It was a great pity to miss the good stuff that is there every day, because of my preoccupation with my own suffering. It sounds like such a cliché, but I had to learn to have an attitude of gratitude, to not miss the beauty that was there every day even when the going was toughest.
Note to Self No 2. Know what makes you come alive (what makes your heart beat hardest) and don’t ever give it up! Never. Not for anything.
“Each of us has a fire in our hearts for something. It’s our goal in life to find it and keep it lit.” Mary Lou Retton
I love a lot of things. I love writing, creating stuff, public speaking (really!)…… but most of all I LOVE running. I especially love running in wild and beautiful places and when I find myself on a remote beach or mountain or desert plain at sunrise or sunset it makes me feel completely ALIVE. I am unable to wipe the smile off my face, I get butterflies in my stomach and I completely lose track of time. Sometimes I will look at my watch in disbelief and think “Wow I’ve been running for 10 hours and it feels like 10 minutes!”
I believe that God has put something inside everyone that enables them to experience this. It may be painting, dancing, surfing, building a business, playing the cello, cooking, or something bizarre or obscure like doing maths equations, or inventing stuff. It is critical that you discover what makes your heart beat hardest and then, once you have found it, you can never give it up. Even when its hard, not to. When you have your own family, job, responsibilities and are so stretched and busy that something has to give.
But if you stop doing that thing that makes your heart beat hardest, something inside you dies. And if you stop for long enough, you may even forget what made you feel that way in the first place. Somebody once said that the tragedy of life is what dies inside us while we live, and I agree. But many sensible adults have forgotten. We need to rediscover our passions to enable us to recharge our batteries, fulfill our purpose and help others whenever we can.
“If you cant figure out your purpose, figure out your passion. For your passion will lead you right into your purpose.” T.D. Jakes
Note to Self No 3. Achieving your unique dream is within your grasp. It is not something reserved for the chosen few.
There is nothing extraordinary about me. I don’t have a trust fund (I only paid back the last instalment of my student loan at age 32), I have only ever won a race by default (and only one or 2 in 40+ years), I struggle with my weight, with guilt, with juggling a career and being a mother like a million other women. I do not have a particular running gift or lead a charmed life. My one great blessing is that I am very robust and do not injure easily for which I thank my peasant ancestors who no doubt developed this gene by laboring for hours every day in the fields. Why do I say this? To demonstrate to you that I am no more gifted or fortunate than anyone else. When someone achieves a lifelong goal or dream (in any field) we tend to take note, salute them for their achievement and then dismiss their story as having no relevance to our own life. We tend to think: “Its fine for him/her to pursue and achieve a dream of that sort! He/she is afterall extraordinarily gifted/rich/lucky! Normal people like me could never do anything like that because of my responsibilities/lack of support/limitations/non-existant trust fund.” This is of course a lie. We each have a particular passion and a particular purpose which we choose more often than not to ignore because we are afraid to make the necessary sacrifices, to take a risk or to get out of our comfort zone. Achieving your unique dream is within your grasp. It is not something reserved for the chosen few.
Note to Self No 4. Translate the Dream into a Goal.
“A dream is just a dream. A goal is a dream with a plan and a deadline.” Harvey MacKay
It is not uncommon to live in the vague belief that all our dreams will somehow materialize if we want them enough. I dreamed about embarking on this journey for many years. I hoped that things would fall into place and that the perfect moment would show up for me to run off over the horizon without too much risk or discomfort. But there is never a perfect time, and circumstances are never as they should be and if one waits for the right time the dream will remain just that. There comes a time where you have to draw a line in the sand and say: “I am committing to this project and D Day is _________. If I have no sponsor and I am destitute for a while, so be it. If it is inconvenient for a lot of people, I will make it up to them.” In taking this first step of faith, there is a fundamental shift. Something significant happens, something is activated in a realm we don’t fully grasp and I do not doubt that all the universe conspires to help you achieve your destiny. But you have to take the first step.
Note to Self No 5. Self discipline/routine holds things together in the tough times.
I drove my family crazy by being incredibly and constantly anal about my routine. I had to be up by 5.30 every day. I had to be running by 6.30am. I had to cover half of my distance before I was allowed a meal break. I had to run 6 days before I was entitled to rest. No exceptions, EVER. I instinctively knew that I had to ingrain this discipline and routine in the good times, because when the bad times came (and they certainly did) it was only this routine that would keep things together. In the unbearably tough times I would simply out of sheer habit continue to do what I had always done. This is always true in whatever tough times you face. If the discipline is there, you will keep on keeping on largely because you don’t know any different. As Winston Churchill put it: “When you are going through hell, keep going!”
Note to Self No 6. Reward yourself, but only when you deserve it.
We live in an age of immediate and constant gratification. We all eat before we are hungry, drink before we are thirsty, medicate at the first twinge of pain and stop at the first sign of boredom or monotony. Because we almost never want anything hard or long enough before we get it we have forgotten the incredible motivational power of deprivation and reward. I learned however on this journey that I could drive myself forward all day with the promise of a brand new pair of socks or a peanut butter sandwich. At the risk of putting it out there that I am in need of a lot of therapy, this is what I would do on the tough days:
I have a sock fetish. I LOVE the feel of brand new socks. I especially love Falke trail running socks. When I knew that I would be digging deep, I would have a pair (with the label still on) in my backpack and I would THINK about them all day. I would imagine the feel of them on my tired feet and I would promise myself that at the 21km mark I could have them. When I got to 21km, I would re-negotiate with me. Just keep going to 25km and then you can have them. 30km and they are yours, 32km and this time I PROMISE you can have them. And then with only 10 or 15km to go and a brand new pair of socks on my feet I was unstoppable! I could do the same with a sandwich, a nougat, the promise of a swim.
Note to Self No 7. Learn to receive help.
I have never really had a problem with giving help. That’s easy. Receiving help and being vulnerable, well that was a different story altogether. But suddenly I found myself in a situation where I was constantly dependent and on the receiving end. No whizzing past the landscape in the 4×4 with the destination GPS’d and the B&B booked and the cooler box stocked. I needed help every day to find my way, make good route decisions, fill up with water, camp on someone’s land, get across a river… the list of neediness was endless. It was at first a new and uncomfortable sensation to be on the receiving end of help all the time. I was both humbled and inspired by my dependency, I understood for the first time the meaning of Ubuntu and grasped that people with less than nothing would help me gladly with no wish for anything in return. I understood that it enriches the giver to have the opportunity to give. Learning to ask for and receive help has been a massive learning experience for me and has encouraged me more than ever to give too at every opportunity.
Note to Self No 8. Get out of your comfort zone.
“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” T.S. Eliot
“The Edge…There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.”
I realised on this journey, (especially on the flooding Orange River) that it had been many months since I had repeatedly awoken with a sweaty top lip, shaking hands and butterflies in my tummy. It was a long time since I had felt really challenged in any area of my life. I can only change and grow when I am challenged. Being comfortable is both necessary and nice but cannot be sustained indefinitely. This is true in every area of my life. I have to take stock of my life and audit my situation regularly to ensure that I am not slipping into a comfort zone for too long a period of time. I have to regularly force myself out of complacency in order to develop and grow.
Note to Self No 9. When the resources you have always relied upon dry up, open your eyes to creative alternatives.
I had one very annoying issue that plagued me for most of my journey but was hardest to bear for the first month. A week into my expedition my lips were already in such a state of blistered, painful sunburnedness that I had to begin my day by peeling the scabs off them so that I could open my mouth. Setting off in the morning without my lip balm in my backpack was understandably a serious problem. Nevertheless, there were times when I did so and the day before Port St John’s was one of them. I was beside myself with pain and discomfort and to add to my suffering my water was finished with no hope of replenishing any time soon. I had been running for hours in the 40’ heat and hectic humidity with Nanto (my local soccer star who started to flag after 25km) and I was starting to panic. I needed water and I needed my lip balm and they were nowhere to be found. As my panic rose, I was oblivious to the fact that a solution to both my problems surrounded me on every side. I was used to relying on my hydration pack and my lip balm and they were unavailable. This blinded me to the fact that all around me were bushes laden with amathungulu berries, full of liquid and energy and an amazing milky substance that soothed my lips way better than lip balm. But with my frantic focus on the absent resources that were MEANT to be there, I was missing the more creative solution right under my nose. When I was able to calmly, creatively, prayerfully look around me for another solution, I was never let down. This is an amazing planet with endless potential and we have incredible brains with immeasurable creative potential but we limit ourselves by going back obsessively to the place from where our “cheese” was moved. Later the same day I needed to get Nanto across a river, I hadn’t realised he couldn’t swim. I was briefly worried about how I would achieve this but remembering the amathungulu miracle I looked around calmly to see what I could use. I was worried that he would panic and drown us both if I was too close to him. My dry bags made perfect flotation devices, one under each arm. There was a piece of rope lying at the high water mark, just the perfect length to tie to him and drag him behind me at a safe distance. Lesson learned. When our budgets and gadgets and energy and food and water begin to disappear there is always a solution. I need to calmly and creatively seek it. The earth has boundless potential and so do I.
Note to Self No 11.Expect and plan for the difficulty of change. Even good change is sometimes tricky.
By the time I got to the mouth of the Orange River at Alexander Bay I was heartily sick of bikes and boats and all the things that could go wrong with them. I could hardly WAIT to be back in my running shoes and to relish the simplicity of running again. Running is my THING after all and I was so grateful that the cycling and paddling were over at last.Can you imagine my horror and devastation when 20km into day 1 of running I was in such pain that I could barely hobble from one cat’s eye to the next? I had been so supremely confident in my ability to handle this good change that I had failed to plan for it. Even the wonderful changes present hardships and challenges. If I was realistic and prepared there were many things I could have done to reduce or eliminate the shock and the hardship of this (good) change. I could have stretched my ITB every morning and evening on the river. I could have run or walked just a little bit every evening and rest day. I could have taken a transition day, I could have started off more slowly and walked a bit and not insisted on sprinting. I could have covered 30km on day 1 and made up the missing km’s as I got back into the swing of running. My arrogance and stupidity and lack of planning caused me a lot of pain and could well have caused me a lasting injury. I have learned to approach all change with caution, care and respect. I hope that I can remember that lesson.
Note to Self No 12. Take time to take care of the important stuff before you find a crisis on your hands. Preventative maintenance is key!
I am pleased and proud to say that I got the whole way around South Africa without one blister on my feet (or on my bottom for that matter). I drove some of my running mates nuts by insisting on stopping, changing socks, eliminating sand and wet, dousing my feet with foot powder and removing stones or grit the minute I became aware of any friction. My feet were too precious to mess with. I had seen what serious blisters could do to even the most determined and hardcore athletes. Prevention was way better than cure and the lost time of faffing with my feet would be made up when I wasn’t hobbling a couple of days down the line. This principle is true of every aspect of our lives. The moment one becomes aware of a niggle, of friction, one should stop and sort it out before it turns into a bigger problem. This is true of health, financial and relational issues. Don’t ignore the warning signs and the first knowledge of friction and discomfort. Stop and sort the problem out the minute it arises or ideally even before it does. It will pay dividends in the long run.
Note to Self No 13. Don’t be immobilized by the enormity of your challenge.
When I left home to embark on this expedition I underestimated the distance substantially. I had calculated the distance to be 5 500km when in fact it was closer to 7000km. I am glad that I didn’t know that at the time. There were moments when I would think about the enormity of the task I had taken on and would become panic stricken and immobilized by the enormity of the challenge. There is no way to tackle a goal this big other than to break it down into manageable chunks. One step at a time, one kilometer at a time, one day at a time. I found that if I allowed my mind to go beyond the demands of the day I was living I would be overcome with panic and fear. I could not allow my mind to go beyond the present. This is true of every big challenge. It is so easy to become immobilized when the task seems too big.
“Nobody trips over mountains. It is the stones in your path that cause you to stumble. Navigate your way across the stones and you will find you have crossed the mountain.”
Note to Self No 14. My Body is an awesome machine. It is for this reason that I love, respect and admire it.
I am one of those people who has always struggled to some extent with my weight. I am not ever going to be particularly lean and tend towards being over- rather than underweight. I have always done a lot of running and have been grateful for physical tenacity and tank-like ability to run 42km’s or 100km or 160km without stopping or breaking down. It was, however, the demands of Tri the Beloved Country that fully opened my eyes to the magnificent strength of my body. I would look down at my legs and feet at I ran and be amazed at them. These legs, these arms, that have carried me so far over such hectic terrain, across such wild rivers. How MIRACULOUS are they! How awesomely they are made! I would sometimes lie in bed at night with my legs up against the wall to elevate them and help recovery and admire them vocally. Not because of how they looked (really too muscular unevenly tanned and hairy to fit our bizarre Barbie ideals of beauty) but because of what they can do. They are 4×4 machines, a good couple of years old with thousands of kms on the clock and getting stronger every day! It occurred to me in a very definite way that my body’s value lies in its ability to master its environment. It is a machine, not an ornament. I love it for what it can do, not what it looks like. If in the pursuit of health and strength it begins to look good (or at least better) that’s an added bonus but it will never be the chief reason for valuing my body.
Note to Self No 15. Listen to your heart.
Before I embarked on this journey many people advised me not to. They were mainly well meaning people who loved me and cared about me. I was told that my body would break down, I would be raped, murdered and flung into a ditch, I would be destitute, my marriage wouldn’t survive and my daughter would contract malaria and develop lifelong issues with me. I decided to go anyway. I have learned that when I experience an overwhelming, all-consuming compulsion to do something I have no choice but to forge ahead. One must certainly listen to wise counsel, make contingency plans, try to be responsible but there comes a time when one is forced to close one’s ears to the prophets of doom (the voices of whom are often loudest in my own head) and simply proceed with that thing that one is so compelled to do. To do otherwise is to deny your purpose and to ignore that thing that you were born to do and to live with bitterness or resentment for the rest of your life. That seemed altogether more dangerous than any of the other possible evils.
Note to Self No 16. Have FUN!
Especially as a team/family. It’s very necessary and very energizing!
Final Note to Self No. 17 (and not part of the original manuscript). Learn to say “I am so sorry, I totally screwed up! I will SO fix this.”
I have been trying very hard to teach my (now 9 year old) daughter the value and disarming power of a complete unequivocal apology, quickly followed by the need to take responsibility for fixing what she has damaged/broken/hurt. I explain to her that although I may be enraged by certain behavior, my anger can dissipate in aninstant if she says: “Mom I am so sorry. I was completely wrong. I will fix this. ” On the other hand, if her response is: “Its not MY fault!” (when it clearly is) I am tempted to assault her. This applies to every relationship, and as much to professional as to private relationships. This is a critical life lesson to learn. There is supernatural power in a sincere apology. Proviso: This does not mean that you should EVER apologise for something that you are not responsible for.
“An apology is the super glue of life. It can repair just about anything.”– Lynn Johnston
“Any good apology has 3 parts: 1)I’m sorry 2)It’s my fault 3)What can I do to make it right? Most people forget the third part.”– Unknown