Is it possible to build a champion team in a day? The following true story is an illustration of how this can happen. (Please note this is a long article, conclusions are towards the end, jump there if you are pressed for time..and..the story of this champion team is inspirational.)
“Poetry, music, forests, oceans, solitude_they were what developed enormous spiritual strength. I came to realise that spirit, as much or more than physical conditioning, had to be stored up before a race.” Herb Elliot
When Doug Henderson dreamed up the Kokoda Challenge event in the Gold Coast Hinterland he was inspired by the story of the crucial battle that occurred on the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea during World War Two. The battle that occurred was critical to the defense of both Australia and Papua from the Japanese. It is a story of heroism, extreme struggle in adverse conditions, and at core, the indomitable spirit of mateship. The Kokoda Challenge was born to promote the Kokoda Spirit, especially for the benefit of the youth of Australia.
The Kokoda Spirit, according to the Kokoda Challenge organisation, is;
value of teamwork and supporting each other. Mateship is a
quintessential Aussie value. When the going gets tough the team stays
together, works together, sacrifices for each other.
Sacrifice-service of others and the community beyond self. ORIGIN Middle English: from Old French, from Latin sacrificium; related to sacrificus ‘sacrificial,’ from sacer ‘holy.’
We step into sacrifice not as an act of giving
up, but as an act of affirmation of the greater scheme of things above
and beyond the human.
Courage-to stay the course when the times are tough and to do so with heart.
Endurance-tests of endurance as a means to promote personal growth.
Youth-the potential of youth to create a positive future
Bring this kind of spirit with you united around a common purpose and you will build a champion team.
July 18th 2009 was my third year to line up with three other women to run the 96k (59.65 mile) Kokoda Challenge. The event is in the hinterland of the beautiful Gold Coast, in Southeast Queensland, Australia. It is mostly off road trails, and while there are 5 major mountains to climb, it is rare that there is nothing to go up or come down from. Flat is the exception.
This year for the first time my training had been right to plan. I had stayed well, injury free, and followed my training schedule to the letter. No broken toes (2008), or out of whack hormones (2007). Every time we ran sections of the course we were pulling in record times. My hill strength was better, still not super, but better. My downhill speed getting even faster. I had the quite confidence born from experience and the right training.
But could I build a champion team?
I recruited a fabulous team mate, Delina, over Easter, and each weekend since we have met and run anywhere up to 4 hours. We often had company, our other champion team, no less important, with either Jenni, Toni, Alicia or Jess out there with us, enjoying the beauty and the companionship of running together. Delina is a mother of three teenagers, an Ironman triathlete, married to the wonderful Matt, emergency care nurse. She is one of those happy people you like to have around. Positive, normally chatty, greets everyone with a big hello, generous spirit.
Delina, champion team member 3b
Jackie joined the team after she ran the Australian National 100k (62.13 miles) road race, also held on the Gold Coast. For hardened runners who know times, Jackie ran around 4.40 pace per kilometer for the entire 100 k. Not only that, she holds the world record for 50 k for females plus 40 years. She has a bronze medal from the Commonwealth games in Manchester, and has held the Australian National title through the years for every event from the 10 k to the 100. Needless to say, she is a running super star. On top of that, she is a great team player, a lover of chocolate, funny, smart and married to the gorgeous Simon. (Gold Medal, Sydney Olympics, Archery). My champion team was well on the way.
Jackie, champion team member 3c
9 days out from the event we still did not have our forth champion team member. This had never concerned me. I just felt that it would happen. And happen it did. Via Jackie, we found Kim, ex pro triathlete, now super adventure racer. winner of many events, mostly off road and involving mountain bikes, running, swimming.. While Kim had not run 96 k before, she had done days of eventing and has a never quit attitude and is strong as strong and a fast runner. I now had my four team members, but would they become a Champion team?
Once again I was the eldest and certainly the slowest in terms of running speed. This time though, all of us except for Delina were in our 40’s, and Delina not far off. (Last year my other three team members, making up another champion team, were much younger than me).
Champion team, Speedy Quattro, Kim, Delina, Christine, Jackie
In these events, it is not just about the runners. Never is.
Essential keys to a Champion Team
1. First of all there are a thousand and one people out there who volunteer. 14 checkpoints overall, some of them manned for over a day. The people who go out on the course and mark the track so we don’t get lost, the people who manage road crossings, first aid...for over 1500 competitors over a 39 hour event, volunteers are the glue. Community service and sacrifice. These people absolutely contribute to the makings of a champion team.
2. And then there is our crew. They become our essential service. They are there for us the whole day, even though they see us for less than 30 minutes during the day.
3. Our Crew Captain this year was the fabulous Toni. Small in stature but not to be messed with, Toni is funny, focused, organised, and now the proud finisher of her first marathon July 5th, in a wonderful time of 3 hours 44. She only started running seriously in March this year, and just for the fun of it joined Delina and I on many of the Kokoda training runs. This meant she was going up hills that would make most people weep. Not our Toni, head down, determined, she powered away. She is as reliable and grounded as the pyramids of Egypt. A stayer.
Champion team crew members, Toni and Matt
Champion Team Crew, Jess on the left, Matt/Toni Centre, Alicia, Right
Jess, our wonderful dietician, now business woman, was my point person. She was supervising my erratic fluid sodium balance. I do remember at one stage she made me swallow some pills...I will
have to ask her what I took! The trust factor is high with your crew. They are indeed a champion team in their own right. Everyone loves Jess. She is one of those girls who fits in, and always with a smile. She is a very strong runner herself and has the bug, like me, to run the big races world wide. Her first marathon will be Melbourne in October.
Alicia, experienced crew member from 2007, also our hairdresser. When we are not running we do like to look good! Alicia is a mother of four, ran her second marathon July 5th with Toni, and has a heart of gold.
Delina’s hubby Matt was point person for Delina, and Jan, Kim’s partner, was point person for Kim. I can’t say too much about either because we had only just met, but you knew that they would do the task at hand with unwavering service. No question they are a champion team, friends and strangers brought together for a day of service to some crazy runners.
Champion team crew members, Alicia and Jan
We met as a team for the first time Saturday morning, race day.
Within moments we were eating chocolate. (It was not yet 6.30 am!) A very good sign that we would get on famously. It wasn’t a cold start. About 11 Celsius (51.8). After a short speech in the presence of a survivor of the real Kokoda Track from WW11, and the playing of the Last Post, which always brings a tear to my eye, at 7 am we were off. I had put together a race plan, as I had done for the last two years, and each year we had come in about 10 minutes earlier than our plan. Would we do it again? 96 k is a long way, and with four people on a team, many things can happen. With four people who had never run together, would we make a champion team?
Our goal was sub 14 hours. A secondary goal was to get to the bottom of a very steep and long downhill section in the daylight. How we placed was not so relevant, although I was quite attached to doing no worse than the last two years. Third place overall.
We got to the first minor check point and there were two girls from another team, The Off Road Chinwaggers, just in front of us. They could not go through the checkpoint until their other two team members showed up. We knew these girls as we had beaten them on the mini Kokoda event 5 weeks before. They had raced the same way that day, never in a team, always separate. I said to Delina, “Don’t worry about them. I watch behaviour, and their behaviour was speaking volumes.” I thought we would not see them again. A champion team is not born from running as individuals.
We came flying down the hill into the first major checkpoint. All good. Then, out of nowhere, the Off Road Chinwaggers went right passed us. I allowed this event to really rattle me. I think it was such a shock, as they were no where behind us as we came down the hill. And then they were there. They took off in their usual fashion, two girls dropping the other two girls. This was the last I saw of them.
However, my usual calm and strategic self was rattled to the bone. I didn’t follow my own experience. It was only 1.5 hours into the event. I knew that as a team they were dysfunctional, and that this event sorts these kind of teams out. The champion teams from the people interested in running for other reasons that are not to do with the success of the whole. Synergy where 1 +1+1+1 = 10, or 150. In truth, I rely on this kind of behaviour. Yet...here I was thrown right off centre. It took me a good 40 minutes to let it go. Wrong, wrong wrong. Jackie gave me a good talking too...she knew I knew better.
It was apparent early that Kim and Jackie were our very strong team members. Kim had collected a lanyard at the check point and I found myself being towed up the first of the big five hills, with Jackie behind me pushing gently. Extraordinary! We were well over 30 minutes under schedule, so the pace was not slow. I think all of us had really disliked being passed by four other women. Together, as a champion team, we did what we needed to.
At some point in this section, the longest and hardest section between crew check points, and I can’t remember exactly when, I started to feel unwell. My old foe nausea. It was hot. I remember going up one hill and not only feeling the sweat pouring off me, but have a sense that I was feverish. Reflecting back on Sunday post event, all the writing was on the wall. But at the time, it made no sense to me.
Feeling nausea is one thing, added to this I became incredibly weak. I simply had no strength at all. I was mortified. I was OK running down hill because this is my strength, but the moment we went up hill it was like the button was turned to OFF. On top of this I was dizzy.
I was taking salt tablets, drank all of my water (must have been between 2 and 3 litres over 3 hours) and was eating a reasonable amount. But the nausea and dizziness persisted.
A champion team in action
We came into the next major check point at 11.15 am, still 30 minutes under schedule, so despite my state, we hadn’t lost time...all be it because of my stoic team who were pulling and pushing me. Jackie was talking to me all the way. Be positive, chest up, breath, think strong, head up....at one point I remember thinking she was right...I was in a down spiral of despair. I had to mentally pull myself out of it. Occasionally the nausea and dizziness went away. But not for long.
At the checkpoint Jess tried to make me eat things and drink things..most of which I just couldn’t get down. Managed some electrolytes.
We went from the checkpoint immediately up one of the hardest hills, Pages Pinnacle. Again towed by Jackie. She didn’t even break a sweat. Followed by a long downhill, which gave me some recovery time.
The next section had seven creek crossings, and in one of them I went down. While it was a shock, the icy cold water was such a relief. We were into the 7th hour and I knew at this stage I was in serious trouble. This was not normal, and was not resolving. I felt like a drunk.
When I spoke to the girls they said that they would walk it with me, or do whatever to get me to the finish line as a champion team. When I said my health was in jeopardy, they said they would stop if I stopped. I felt lousy. Not only from the nausea and dizziness, but because of my team. I was their burden from such an early place. It seemed to be that I was the burden each year and I felt awful. And so very disappointed. After such a perfect lead up...and such an extraordinary champion team. Yet in my heart I knew I was going into a bad place health wise.
By this stage I was also getting cramping in my legs, cramps that moved like waves through my big leg muscles. Something I had never experienced before.
We were within 10 minutes of the next major check point, still 10 minutes ahead of schedule, when I hit the deck again. Hmm.. not good. We decided to stop and take our time at the checkpoint (We had scheduled 2 minutes per check point) and eat solid food (Instead of lollies, gels, biscuits, and other assorted high sugar foods.). As we ran in Kim yelled for a few sausage sandwiches. Now, I am a vegetarian, but that sandwich tasted pretty good, although I didn’t eat it all. Alicia was holding me up while I sat. All I wanted to do was lie down and go to sleep. They called the paramedics. Pulse through the roof, ECG erratic. Struggling with staying conscious. All the crew kept at me to stay awake. “Open your eyes Christine, look at me.” Matt, Delina’s hubby, emergency nurse, was there, and I was grateful. It was like having family. I could remember the day and my name, so I wasn’t completely in lala land. Oxygen mask, didn’t seem to help. Just wanted to lie down and sleep. I didn’t realise I was struggling to stay conscious.
I was aware that the team decided to go without me. I was so grateful.I wanted them to. I knew they would catch the other team. I knew Jackie would have the bit between her teeth, and would rally the troops. Never had a doubt. Now I could relax and be miserable and not feel the burden of holding them up. My champion team rose to another level. We all struggled with me quitting. But at the time, it was the right thing to do.
Ambulance came...it took over an hour. By this time I was quite chipper. Could walk slowly, had had a pee, first for the day. Insisted that I didn’t need to go to hospital and Sandy the ambulance officer said she thought I was right, but that it would be an issue if I didn’t go and it was for the best.
Alicia had been with me for the whole drama, holding me up, keeping me awake, being resolute that I was not going to do anything else but go to hospital. She came along with me. So I took the very tax payer expensive trip to Robina Hospital, got there and peed blood (Quite normal after a long distance run..your kidneys get beaten up), became a pin cushion for blood tests (With bruises as testament), and gave a few people a scare with my inverted T curve on my ECG (my normal “abnomality”- but in most people the indication of a heart attack.).
Donna showed up to support both Alicia and I. Neither of them would let me leave until the doctor had seen me. Finally, about 6 pm, I got the go home signal. With warnings that if I felt sick at all to come back immediately because I could be suffering renal failure! Such fun. I knew I wouldn’t be back. For the most part, I know my body. On this day, though, I learned a whole lot more about it.
We had been staying up with our champion team progress by telephone. They were gaining on the Off Road Chinwaggers. They had made the bottom of the steep descent in daylight. They were on schedule, or under it. I was so excited for them.
Perennial winners, Team Nike, another champion team, with my friends and sometimes training buddies, Peter and Mike, had crossed the line at 7.29 pm. However Mike had also had to pull out with similar symptoms to me. So they were a team of three as well. While I was sad for them as a team, I was consoled in a small way. Mike, like me, is not a quitter. I have only ever quit one event, for reasons of mental weakness (The very pathetic reason of it being too hard and I didn’t feel like it!!) and the mental and emotional pain I went though for 6 weeks after this was so bad I determined never to quit again, unless I was near dying. I knew Mike would have been pushed to his red line before he quit. And that his team would have done all they could to support him through. Which they did. It is what a champion team does. In the process they lost over 35 minutes on last year.
And yes, our team had passed the Off Road Chinwaggers. I was ecstatic. The three girls crossed the finish line, holding hands, in 13 hours 27 minutes. I hour and 20 minutes faster than last year. And this with a 15 minute break for my breakdown.
Jackie looked like she could do it all again. Delina was shattered and happy. Kim looked like she had had to go deep at some point, but was smiling. No matter...they were heroic. It was beautiful to behold.
Sometime later, the gathering of people started to make a lot of fuss because the official wining team, the first team of four, was about to cross the line. They would be the first team of four women to win, they would hold the course record for a women’s team. So there was quite a lot of noise and cheering.
Two girls got to the finish. The person on the mike urged the crowd to keep clapping while the other two girls arrived. However, they took 8 minutes to arrive. 8 minutes! They finished as they started, running as individuals. The crowd had stopped clapping. Finally, all four crossed, 13 hours 48 minutes.
They may have won the race, but our champion team, Speedy Quattro, were victorious. As was Team Nike.
How to Build A Champion team in a day
Of the Kokoda spirit, our team had all the ingredients in spades.
four women who didn’t know each other and had never run together, the
team spirit was intrinsic from the first second of sharing chocolate.
There never was a moment where we did not work as a team. Not even a
flicker. Why? Each of us were the kinds of people who would die (almost)
before quitting, but we were also wise enough to know that anything and
everything can happen and you simply have to work together. We
understood team. We were committed to our own personal mastery, and the
dynamic mastery of the team.
All of us made sacrifices that day. Jackie gave up her superb speed and
settled for slow. Kim the same. Both of them pulled and pushed Delina
and I at some point. Delina had to dig really deep to keep up with two
incredible athletes, I had to let go of all my planning and quite
confidence and surrender to the inevitable. We all had to sacrifice
finishing as a team of four.
Courage What do you think? Reading this, did you get courage? Was our heart in this? Did we go above the line and beyond?
Endurance Well...again that was present without question. We all endured our own demons in some form.
Youth Hmm..this year I have been learning about youth. Youth is not in your biology, youth is in your spirit. Youth is the intent and willingness to stay in the conversation with the youth of today...to be able to speak their language, understand their music, get their technology, know their fears. It helps to have a teenage daughter, and...I am determined to keep myself up with the language and culture of teens as my daughter moves into her 20’s and beyond. We bring age upon ourselves by our thinking and doing, and refusal to remain fit and agile in mind, body and spirit.
And...what about four women in their forties (nearly) who decided at some stage in their lives that age was never going to stop them from doing what to many people seems not only impossible, but stupid. In the book, “Born to Run” written by...Christopher McDougall (no relative), he proposes that we are all born to run, and that our real gift in running is endurance. His evidence to support this is quite compelling. None the less, the lives we now have adopted, built around idleness, over eating, over drinking, over consuming...laziness and wastefulness... is not a life to be proud of. It is killing us more definitively and in massive numbers than long distance running will ever kill anyone. All our major diseases are lifestyle based. So who is the sillier? Me, for running so much and loving it? Sure, some times we push the line, but we do so from a place of extreme good health, and there is always a lesson about our bodies in this that few people learn by watching TV.
Any leadership development plan would be wise to address some of the critical aspects of champion team highlighted in this article. The ability for mateship, sacrifice, courage, endurance and youthful ways of seeing and responding to the world.
No question...we had the Kokoda Spirit in spades and we were a champion team.
Jackie and I debriefed the event on Sunday, particularly my condition. At some point Jackie suggested heat stress. I went to take a shower and thought about this. Oh my God...she was right!!! For years, since I had been diagnosed with exercise induced hyponatraemia (low blood sodium), I had always thought my nausea was brought on by incorrect salt/fluid balance. I knew that it was worse under hot conditions. But now on reflection, every event I have run in hot conditions had caused the same effect. Nausea, loss of strength, dizziness. All to varying degree’s. The first New York marathon, run with snow flurries, I was great. The second, it was hot, 18C. I was bad. First Kokoda 07, it was cold. I was great. Last year, it was hot, this year hotter, and I was bad. Even when I run in winter, I get hot quickly and cannot wear too much clothing.
I went to the internet and did some reading. Sure enough...every symptom I had was described clearly as heat stress. Fever...heat stress; muscle cramping, heat stress; dizziness..heat stress....
Oh my..for years it has been right in front of my nose. I just couldn’t see it. The good news...you can train to acclimate. Jackie suggests I just over dress. Build body sensitivity. Make sure you do cooling things. Its manageable. Yes..yes...I finally have a solution. Oh joy..I can’t wait to get out and build the heat muscle.
On Saturday while I was out there suffering I was hearing myself thinking...I will never put my body through this again...
Come Sunday, I am already planning the next years event. Not only to get my finish, but to get a champion TEAM of four women across the finish line in record time. Because the results as they are today gall me.
I have learned so much. I have learned about my body again...a gift of the tuned in athlete. Not many people on the planet speak body fluently, not many people are even interested enough to know what their body is saying. Yet everything is there for the hearing, if we would only listen and pay attention.
I have learned once again to trust myself and the plan. To NOT get caught in someone else's race, something I am usually so very good at. Endurance events are about patience and the old tortoise and the hare.
I have learned that the true spirit of team can be created in a heart beat, when people come together around a common purpose and with the same values. That you can create a champion team in a day.
I have once again glimpsed the triumph of the human spirit, I have seen it in my champion team, my crew, the volunteers and the thousand other competitors that went so far out of their comfort zone and got off the couch to participate in this majestic event...
Tomorrow, I will got for a run...on my way to next year, and simply for the joy of running. Want to join me?
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