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Monday, October 29, 2012

Leadership, Teamwork, Marines, and Tough Mudder


First, let me be clear: I am not an expert on leadership, and I don't even have a clear grasp on the vocabulary of leadership. I also have professional buddies who work in the field, and I don't want to infringe on their turf lest the return the favor. Nonetheless, I gave proud witness to an event last Saturday that could have been scripted as a textbook example of systemic leadership and teamwork.

It is not hard to find people in any given workplace using words like teams, teamwork, and leaders. What's harder is to find substantive examples of these words and ideas. Oh sure, you can find glimmers, glimpses, and sparkles of hope everywhere, but my nigh on 60 years on this planets has found the vocabulary exceeds the reality by an alarming amount, and people still think of leadership as George Washington in that iconic painting as his army crossed the river.

I suspect that concept, if not the picture itself, has done more to hinder growth in leadership and teamwork than anything else. As was asked in a book I can't at the moment remember: Will the CEO of the Internet please stand? And yes, by typing it, I remembered it. (Systemic Leadership by Allen and Cherrey) Aging. Go figure.

So here in the spring of my second childhood, I entered Tough Mudder. You can read about that journey in earlier posts. What I'm writing about here is something I watched unfold during the latter half of the event.

We have been following a group of military runners. Marines, I suspect, but they could have been Army. About a dozen of very well put-together men. One was running on a blade, and the group moved as a loose knot. I don't think they were ever more than ten feet apart during the time I trailed them.

Yet, it is without doubt that some could have moved faster had they but chosen. Or needed. At one point, I watched in amazement as one in that team broke loose from the knot. He ran as a gazelle across the terrain they had just passed to recover a lost item. You might have thought he was a sprinter freshly entering the race, not a man who had just run 12 miles to engage two dozen obstacles.

They stayed together. They. Stayed. Together.

We reached the obstacle called Mount Everest. A quarter-pipe some 20 feet tall. You have to run up it. Some can make it to the top. Most cannot. Those who can make it reach back to help those who cannot. So what did the Marines do?

As a group, they stood in line until they were next, and then as a group, they moved to the base of the pipe where they systematically formed a prone pyramid along the surface of the pipe. With the pyramid in place, the Marine with the blade climbed over the pyramid to the top of the pipe where he turned and waited, likely not even hearing the cheers of the crowd. The members of his team collapsed the pyramid, returned to the top of the line where the rest of us waited, and then systematically, one-by-one, they launched themselves into the challenge. The man with the blade caught the first. Those two caught the second. This continued until those Marines defeated the Mount Everest.

The group probably had a senior officer, but I can assure you they had no George Washington. They had no Rambo. Their training made them a sentient pack. You would not want these men angry with you.

Bear in mind that I make no call to release us from independent thought, perhaps even action. There will always be that need. However, in the mightiest campaign, the lowest grunt on the field can halt that campaign with a single word when that grunt sees something wrong, and good leadership, confident leadership, competent leadership sets the stage to accept input from all levels, not just the pleasant few. I look forward to the day such systemic leadership not only trickles down from the military to the rest of our world but also to the day when organizations release the chains of hierarchical leadership and adopt systemic leadership, leadership through the ranks.


Sunday, October 28, 2012

So Grandpa finished Tough Mudder


It's been a rockin' year with a series of minor injuries more irritating than anything else, and so as I step onto the glide path to 60, what better to do than relive my miss-spent youth and enter Tough Mudder. If you don't know what that is, Google it. The website will catch you up quickly.

The trail started in February when Danger posted the notice on Lily's Facebook page about the Mudder. Normally, I wouldn't pay much attention to such, but this time I clicked the link, and the landing page video had me from the opening scene. I had been long lamenting my obvious decline into couch potato-hood, and this was my climb out. I had no idea just how deep the hole I was in was, and I’m not sure I’m really out yet, but that's okay. One step at the time.

And so yesterday, we drove to Society Hill, SC, parked, and stood in line to enter Tough Mudder. The entry was uneventful. They wrote our numbers on our face and arms, the stated reason being so they could identify the bodies later, the reality being to make picture identification easier for the post event picture sales. We knocked around a bit. I got a haircut and a beard trim. We went through our individual rituals of eating, drinking, and supplement taking. We watched the preceding heats line up and leave. We discussed tactics for the obstacles and called it strategy. We hit the potties. Repeatedly.

And then it was time.

And no, you don't just line up. To get in the line, we had to scale a 6-foot wall. No big deal, but still a foretaste of glory divine.

In the lineup, we had the motivational speech. The pledge. The Star Spangled Banner. The gun. The waiting for the pack to spread. We assembled at the rear of the wave to let the sharks take off first. Pacing is important, especially when you're an old fart and bitter old queen. Besides, Tough Mudder is not a race. It's an endurance event. It's where we explore our limits, and it's important that we know our limits. Very important.

Run. Run. Run. Up hill. Down hill. Headed to the first obstacle. Arctic Enema, a huge cargo container filled with a slurry of ice water. Because we're special, they dumped in extra ice for us. With a front-end loader.

The slurry was only a few degrees above 32 when we jumped in, and as mammals, we had only a few seconds to figure our way out, which included a dive under a barrier, before we locked up in the cold and they had to use the front end loader to get us out.

They next hundred yards of running were special, what with the numb feet. From that point forward, I stopped counting the obstacles. Counting got in the way of living in the moment, and being exactly in the moment is not negotiable. Later, I was to learn that the hard way.

We crawled through tunnels, dark and winding, and by dark, I do mean dark. Very dark. Think no photonic activity. Just the wild splashes of color that arise when your eyes are trying to see things in the dark. Hands and knees. Close quarters. No stopping. No thinking about getting stuck. 

Controlling thought is probably the most important thing because claustrophobia is a constant companion in the tunnels. It's always just on the edge, and you simply cannot go there and survive. The thought would flitter in, and I'd just have to pay no attention to it. The current moment was sufficient in and of itself. I didn't need to bring in any additional responses that would arise from imagined problems. Unfortunately, the calorie count for that work is undocumented. 

One tunnel was dry with gravel to make my knees happy. The other tunnel was initially dry, as it slide us easily into a small pit of warm muddy water under a nest of barbed wire. Then we had to get out. Up a tunnel. Equally slick. My body size and shape made hands and knees useless. Yes, I did try, and I just slide backwards. Rolling over to the side didn't help the cause. Finally on my back, mostly, I was able to scootch an inch at the time by kicking my left foot while arching my back. It was slow and steady progress, and I even had to pause occasionally for the Marine ahead of me who was using another technique. 

You really can't study for something like this. You have to find what works in that moment, and what works in that moment for the one might not work in that moment for the next because of conditions, body types, preparation, and skills. And shoes filled with mud from the previous activities.

You have to find your own way.

You also have to walk the plank. Twenty feet up. Jump. Come down in a pit of water equally deep. Get out the best you can. Unlike the wild boys, I didn't jump. I sat upon the ledge, dangled my feet, turned, and slide into oblivion. I underestimated the weight of my mud-filled shoes, and they pulled me down in the water such that the lifeguard tossed me a lifeline. I also underestimated the vigor of the splash down, which removed my tied on glasses. Could I not have seen that moment coming? Someone will find them next week when they drain that pit.

Don't feel too bad. I was scheduled for new glasses over Thanksgiving, so it more nuisance than tragedy.

Facing an obstacle, it's easy to see that most people brute up and power through, and sometimes that's about all you can do. You just have to disengage brain, stop thinking about doing it, and just do it. I sound like a Nike commercial. Toting the logs for a mile, half of that through a pond, was one of those activities. I picked up my log, put it on my left shoulder, cast my gaze on the next step, and marched forward. It did occur to me to let the water float the log in the pond, but at that point, I was locked in, and I believe I could have hauled that log back home if necessary. The chiropractor will be smiling over that Monday morning.

Sometimes facing an obstacle reveals alternative approaches. There was a hundred yards of lateral mud pits to traverse. Dirty Ballerina. Someone had a field day with a large ditch witch. And a fire tanker of water. As I walked to the obstacle, the fellow before me started jumping across the trenches, one after the other, until he face-planted on the fourth. We applauded. Then I noticed the boundary marker to the right included the end of the trenches along with about six inches of solid ground. I hopped a zigzag path along the side of the trenches and skipped out.

Now, before you fuss at me for taking the easy route, let me remind you that there is little to nothing easy about 12 miles and two dozen military-grade obstacles, and I have no compunction against engaging brain now an again to augment the encounter, bend a rule, or otherwise take another path. In fact, such seems perfectly reasonable. There are many ways to skin a cat.

I also have no problem respecting my limits. The Berlin walls. 15 feet of wall. No foot or hand hold. I helped others up and over, and then I walked around. I’m not, yet, ready to do that. Yet. Yet. Maybe next year, Lord willing and the creek don't rise. (I had previously successfully scaled the 12-foot walls with the aid of a fellow who patiently offered hand, knee, and shoulder to help the rest of us over. How did he manage by himself? He jumped, grabbed, and flipped himself over.)

The rings and monkey bars were much the same. I watched men who I thought had the upper body strength, and grip strength, to defeat these obstacles fall directly into the muddy iced water below. I just waded across. We'll work on that business of monkey bars in the upcoming year. I was glad just to get my running back up to where moving through the 12 miles was possible. One step at the time.

I felt much the same about the quarter pipe, Mount Everest. However, as I stood and watched the people engage this obstacle, I was privileged to witness an event that was astounding. For the previous three miles, we had been following a group of a dozen Marines, at least one of whom was running on a blade, and doing so better than me, I will add. We reached Everest, and they never broke stride. They walked directly up the the pipe, laid themselves out in a pyramid, and sent the guy with the blade to the top where he, in turn, started pulling up the others as they ran up the pipe.

I would not want that group of men angry with me.

In that brief five minutes, I witnessed more teamwork from those few men than I have witnessed these 59 years at all the jobs I've ever held combined, even those workplaces where the word, “team,” is bandied, espoused, and glorified as though a team were present. That sight all by itself was worth the price of admission, the bruises, the sore feet, and the lost glasses. I walked around Everest, even as a team member ran up it, knowing I had nothing to offer here but a poor example, though I would be back in about nine months.

The last obstacle was Electroshock Therapy, a gauntlet thick with charged wires. Most people chose to barrel through, and in doing so, engage the wires. At 10,000 volts. Quite a few f-bombs are dropped here. I suppose I could have done that, but instead, I walked through, slinking this way and that way until I stepped out the other side. (Previously, I managed the Electric Eel much the same way, by flattening down in the mud and crawling on my ample belly taking path that, mostly, avoided the charged wires hanging down. It probably helped that I ate enough mud to lower the level of the pool.)

It seemed anticlimactic, and I suppose it was. The feeling I had was exactly that of my dissertation defense when I stepped into the hall to let the committee discuss what I had done. At that point, I didn't care what they said or thought. I knew I had passed. It's just this time, I got an orange headband for it instead of a five signatures.

And it was over. Dos Equis never tasted so good, and it probably won't again until 01 Jun 2013 when we do it all over again.  

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Running the Mudbug with Lily

I wasn’t going to run this one, what with it being a week out from Tough Mudder. What if I hurt something? Then Lily decided to run, and I immediately jumped for the chance to run it with her. Then she hurt her foot, and had to postpone the Tough Mudder and give up on the Mudbug, so I decided to run it alone. Then she found a specialist and some better shoes, and BOOM! she’s back in the Mudbug if we could take it slow and easy, which we could. (The Tough Mudder will need to wait.)

We gathered at noon, and made our way over to Hagan Stone Park. I used to run there two and three times a week, but that was some 30 years ago. Still, it was like meeting an old friend. The trails are certainly better marked now.

Lily and I were in the 2 P.M. heat, and the organizers wasted no time introducing us to mud. Lots of mud. Not the specialized proprietary red stuff. Oh no. Pond mud. Creek mud. Smelly, black, sticky mud. We crossed that pond and creek over and over in many evil ways. Lil stepped on a turtle. I fell in a hole. Snakes were everywhere. I saw them. Trust me. 

An hour and three miles later, we crawled down the 15-foot wall and skipped hand-in-hand across the finish line. (I had earlier explained how the law required just this sort a finish.) I doubt this dad has smiled so in years. Lil hit the slip and slide for her Grand Finale, and we both headed for the beer stand.

I have not had a better Saturday afternoon in a very long time, and yeah, that beer was excellent. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

The last Sunday


The Tough Mudder team has been visiting Umstead Park ever Sunday morning for a 6-mile run along the Loblolly trail. Three miles out. Three miles back. The monotony of the return trip was hard on the peeps, and many branched out to other trails so they wouldn't have to turn around. The repetition was never a bother for me because I rarely see much of the trail. Running is a moving meditation for me, and while I tend to mind where I step, especially on a trail riddled with root, rocks, and other ankle-breaking meanies, I really don't pay that much attention, preferring instead to stay inside my head for the duration.

So I'm up, doing laundry, having breakfast, and otherwise coasting through Sunday morning when in comes an email from a team member. He and a few others, those hardcore souls who run at 8 A.M., had decided to do the horse trail at Umstead for about 12 miles. We're two weeks out from the Mudder, and they wanted to take our last Sunday in training to see if they could do 12 miles, which is the distance we'll run at the event.

Bastards! Offering up this manly morning before I'd even finished my mint tea. I hate a good idea... especially when I don't have it first, and so I altered my plans. No, I didn't offer to run at 8 A.M., but I did decide to run farther this morning. Specifically, I decided to repeat the Loblolly trail as feet permitted.

At 10, still early enough to be in bed, I engage the trail. Tum had long since settled its Clif Bar. There was even a PowerBar gel pack going down. Three more gel packs were in my pocket. I wanted to try one at the turn-around to see how they'd do without water. At the second mile, I was finally warm enough to start sweating. The next four miles went off without a hitch. I didn't even stumble over a root, though I did dance around several walkers who had the unmitigated gall to use my trail.

A half-liter of water, a visit to the bathroom to not pee because I was a little dehydrated, a gel pack for the sport, a taste more water, and I'm off on the second trip. Not as fast as earlier, but a lot looser. Already soaked top to bottom in sweat. It took some doing, but I pushed out the thought that I might turn around at the 1-mile mark, and soon I was turning around at the park boundary, just as I'd done an hour before.

I really don't recall much of either trip, but the second is particularly foggy, probably because I needed to carry a little more water than I did. Grandpa needs a CamelBak if he's going to keep up with mess like this. Tough Mudder will have five water stations over 12 miles, far better than my one station over six miles.

The important thing here is that it happened. It has been well over 15 years since I knocked out 12 miles, and if the creek don't rise, it won't be that long before the next one. I'm thinking about two weeks to be precise. Oddly, I can walk this morning. The medical support team is probably a bit surprised there. No, I didn't go to the podiatrist as advised. 

Wait! Jim ignored advice? Say it ain't so! 

Instead, I bought minimalist shoes with metatarsal protection. I still prefer my Five Fingers, especially the KSOs, and I look forward to being in them again, but for now and in the new shoes, I can run without making the tendinitis worse. No, I will not complain.

And so our last training Sunday was a welcome surprise. We are ready.  

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Malarkey

See the online Free Dictionary, or read it here: Exaggerated or foolish talk, usually intended to deceive.

Is it just me, or does this word sound best with an Irish accent?

Elections produce a lot of malarkey, and the current one has been one humdinger as far as malarkey goes. Elections also produce a form of reality TV called debates, though anyone who has ever witnessed a formal debate knows the infotainment from the elections has less to do with debate and far more to do with a college freshman bullshit session. 

So I usually avoid the political debates. Besides, I get all worked up when the moderator does not moderate. Maybe one day, they can hire Judge Judy. Until then, I veg out on something else. During the recent veep debates, I simply went to bed, but instead of reading the Washington Post as is my usual beddie-bye habit, I found myself following my Twitter feed. 

The snark level on Twitter was running high that evening, and it pegged the needle when Biden used "malarkey." I do believe it's been decades since I heard that word used, well, with the possible exception of Chief O'Hara on the original Batman series that runs on CheapTV now and again. 

For as old a slang word as it is, it certainly characterizes election rhetoric well, doesn't it? And that's true on both sides the stage, not just the Republican side, though the continued usurpation of the GOP by the Tea Party has taken the nonsense up several notches. 

I wish it were possible to turn off the TV ads after voting early, but it's not. 

So until the Wednesday after American Election Day, Amazon will benefit as I stream TV and video at two and three bucks a pop. You might want to load up on the stock. 


Wednesday, October 10, 2012

On the cusp of Tough Mudder


17 days. 17 days before the Tough Mudder. It seems like only last week I started this trek, and while I'm pretty sure I'm not ready, I also know I'm as ready as I'll be anytime soon. It's now or never.

A lot of people rolled their eyes at the thought. Many spoke outright about the failure it would be. I'd like to thank them all for the extra motivation. Isn't it interesting how many people there are who are ever so eager to tell you what you cannot do? You can count them by the 100s.

People who support, who encourage? These people are few and far between, if they exist at all.

Looking back, I see this preparation as a logical extension of the summer let-down that led to the Season of Me, followed by another, and then another. Yes, that's selfish, at least from many perspectives. It's also extended introspection, and frankly, this world could use a lot more of that. That a good friend died as this year started only served to make it all just that much more intense.

The climb out of the physical hole I was in has not been without incident. You don't spend a decade or more on the couch, hop up, start moving without lots of physical challenges, and I'm certainly not done with those challenges. Stress fractures. Tendinitis. Turned ankles.

The running partner who announced last month we weren't ready for Tough Mudder, like I didn't know, like I needed to hear it, like that'd slow us down. You know, there's a reason I prefer to run alone, and it's more than my need for the hour-long moving meditation.

But somehow, here we stand. There are about eight of us who will journey to South Carolina on the 27th for the opportunity to run a half-marathon with a couple dozen monstrous military-built obstacles, some with barbed wire, some with 10,000 volt exposed wires. It's going to be a hoot.

One huge disappointment was my Lily's injury that took her out of the Mudder. It was Walking the Plank, hand-in-hand, cannonball-diving with Lily that was calling to me. 20 feet down into water 20 feet deep. Get out the best way you can. Can you think of a better father-daughter moment? I cannot. Nor do I want to.

Not to worry, she transferred to a June event, and I registered with her. We'll be there with bells on. I didn't think twice about a second Tough Mudder. I still don't. We will do that one together.

And so, the training hasn't killed me, though the event still might, as I told the doctor when he geared up to help me plot a course through the training. I told him then that any discussion of mortality was moot. I still retain that sentiment. His partner got a load of it when she announced that the cure for the tendinitis was six weeks of rest. Like that was going to happen.

The team and I are going to do this, and our world will be a better place for it. We might survive, but that's not really an important option. I'm not sure I'd survive missing it.