Running on Purpose

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7th June 2014

This post has little – perhaps even nothing – to do with my professional work.  Other than the fact that it explains something of who I am, some of my passions and interests outside the work I do.  Which I would argue has A LOT to do with my professional work.

I have always run, though I have never considered myself a runner. I have also always swum, but I don’t consider myself a swimmer either. I am a person who runs and who swims, but neither has ever defined me, not even a bit. Perhaps it’s because I have never been fast at either (though I was once faster); I have certainly never been a sprinter. I don’t like pain. I used to deplore the 50 m sprints (run or swim) we did at school. Why bother? You start and it’s over. Very occasionally we would go for an urban 3 km jog outside the school grounds in our gym lessons. Those were just about worth getting into gym kit for.

What I have always been is someone who runs as part of something else, for some other reason, or purpose. Orienteering was our family sport, what I grew up with. Navigating was the main gig; running was just the sideshow. Mum and dad would pack their 5 kids (plus a couple of hangers on, whose parents presumably had better things to do with their Sundays), into our VW van. They would drive us up or down the full length of the country, and sometimes into a neighbouring one (we lived in Brussels, so this was easily accomplished), find the appropriate forest and off we would all go. We each had our respective course, sometimes long, sometimes short, often hilly, brambly, wet, or snowy. We’d invariably get lost at some stage of the course, (I might even cry pitifully – my older brothers used to enjoy teasing me about the hungry wolves that would come to get me), waste valuable minutes considering alternative route choices, get very muddy, get back to base and then joyously complain about how badly we’d fared (“my mistake was MUCH worse than yours…”), even if there was often a medal or two accompanying us on the journey home.

I stopped orienteering at university because there were other sports to try, and the idea of being squashed into a rickety minivan with other sweaty bodies had lost some of its charm. But to this day I miss the sport. I would be back in those moist, musty woods in a heartbeat if the events were run on Sundays rather than Saturdays where we live. I have three kids, and I realise what a fantastic family sport it is – together, yet alone – energy-consuming, sociable, skill-developing and attitude-changing. To this day I love maps, I’ve never been afraid of navigating or wandering around new places, and I see the merits of being more like a tortoise than a hare.

Running free in the French AlpsFast forward a couple of decades and by now I live in a stunning part of the world (the Geneva area), surrounded by “our hills” (the Jura) and “our mountains” (the Alps). When the three kids were very young, I left the family behind for a “fat week” to visit Armenia and build a house with Habitat for Humanity. Our team leader, Laura, told me that I should lead a team myself sometime. I pooh-poohed the idea (I had three young kids, for goodness sake, and was working full time, with extensive travel), but something in what she said must have stuck. A year or so later, during our summer holiday in nearby Chamonix, we came across the UTMB (Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc) event, and as we watched the finishers coming across the finish line – whether the elite or the more pedestrian – I found myself wracked with enormous sobs. Clearly something was happening for me. I wanted to do something like this. I wanted to accomplish something that totally wasted me, but that I could still just about manage.

Swiss Alpine K42 in 2012I was delighted to find out about the “baby” version of the UTMB (the CCC – Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix) and registered for the event the following year, when you didn’t need points or anything other than a doctor’s sign-off to get in. It was 86 km at the time, with 4,500 m climb. Still far further than I had ever run (only a couple of flat road marathons in my “life before kids”, and a mountain marathon earlier that summer as training). Because my Habitat for Humanity memories were still very fresh, it seemed natural to raise money for that charity; and close behind came the idea of getting not only muddy legs but muddy hands too. And so the idea of raising money for a worthy charity, and “running on purpose” was born.

In that first CCC event, I raised enough money to build two houses in Kyrgyzstan, and the following summer co-led a team of 16 people to the region of Issy Kol, where we helped build two more. Since then I have run 101 km in the Sahara with my dad (over four days, mind); this was his 70th birthday present; swam 8.4 km across Lac Leman (Lake Geneva) – the Rhone runs through it so there’s a heck of a current; and run a 40 km in the Swiss Alps – all of this for Habitat for Humanity in Madagascar and Ghana. Most recently, on 1st June 2014, I ran 36 km in the French Jura hills mountains, the TransJu’Trail; and in late August 2014, I will run the “newest, babiest” race in the UTMB suite of events (the OCC, or Orsieres-Champex-Chamonix, which is a mere 55 km with 3,000 m climb). These two events are to support Adanu, a charity in Ghana that we worked with last year, building latrines and teaching in rural schools (see  I am still collecting donations for Adanu so get in touch if their cause inspires you.

DSC02281 copyEven the marginally astute among you will notice that my mountain runs have dropped in length from 86 km to 40 km to 36 km (and hopefully back up to 55 km), and yes, I notice this too. Yet having just completed the 36 km Jura event in a bit over 6 hours, the idea of 55 km makes me more than a little nervous.  Is this really good for me? My doctor has advised me to stop. Will I take about 10 hours? Probably – and that’s if all goes well! I am closer to 50 than to 40 now, and this negative correlation between distance and age suits me fine.

When it takes that long, you have to just enjoy it. My goals are always the same: enjoy it and finish it. I don’t like the waiting around at the start, but once the starter gun has gone, I love it.

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I ease into my gentle pace – the pace at which I feel I could run around the globe – at its widest point. I notice the runners going past me, and just get into my rhythm. And once I am there, I just “be”. I am not zoned out – anything but. I feel the sun on my skin, and the breeze helping my sweat keep me cool. I breathe deeply, I look around, I smile, I grin, I giggle, and even guffaw at times. I thank the supporters who cheer and cajole me, and praise them for being there. I help fellow runners out if they need it, (and I accept help from those who offer help to me). I have a little chat with the volunteers who provide the vast spread of foods during the course, and who turn a blind eye to the handfuls of salty cubes of cheese that I always go for. I take photos of the stunning scenery, and try to embellish them by capturing smells and sounds in my memory. I think of the people who pulled out their credit cards and donated to the charity before my foot even crossed the start line, I remember all the people who have joined my trips, and I bring to mind the beautiful smiles of the people I have met in Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Madagascar, and Ghana. And my heart fills with joy, and I am wracked with sobs.

 Pause for Thought

Village girls in Kuigba, Ghana

What are your “outside work” passions, and how do you “bring them to work?”

What is the role of “passion” at work?

How do you talk about “passion” with your team, and make it a legitimate topic of conversation?

How do you connect people’s natural passion and energy with the work they are doing for the company and its clients?

How do you ensure your passion, and that of your co-workers, is not left at home as the working day begins?

What might you, or the company, be doing, that quashes people’s passion during working hours?