When people willingly tattoo a company logo on their person

Fans of Apple, or Nike can queue for hours, or even days when a new product is released. In addition to the products themselves they might zealously slap stickers with the logo all over their belongings, but even advocates of these brands are unlikely to tattoo the company logo on their person. However, there is one brand where this happens. The company doesn’t pay these zealots, in fact you could even argue the zealots pay the company.

Ironman is an organization that runs endurance events. They are responsible for the Singapore Marathon, the Bordeaux Marathon, and in 2017 they bought the company running the Rock n Roll endurance races. However, it’s for triathlons that they are best known, and their swim-bike-run event in Kona, Hawaii is the race all the top athletes want to enter and win. Merely qualifying for the Hawaii event is a crowning achievement.

The full distance triathlon, with which their name has become synonymous, will usually begin at 7am with an hors’ d’oeuvres of 2.4 miles of open water swimming. You’ve little time to digest that before moving on to the main course, a 112 mile bike ride. Dessert, if you have the stomach, is a full marathon. The total distance is just over 140 miles, or 226 kilometres. Cut-off time is midnight, or 17 hours.

There are plenty of full distance triathlons around the world, but only those run by Ironman can officially call themselves an “Ironman triathlon”. You know a brand has truly made it in the minds of the public when the company name or product line has replaced the more generic noun or verb. Think Scotch tape instead of sticky tape, to Hoover instead of to vacuum, Kleenex, Xerox, etc. If you are a man going through a midlife crisis then you refer to a “full distance triathlon” as an “Ironman” regardless of whether it is run by the Ironman organization. (It trips off the tongue more smoothly than the alternative, and it has the added bonus of sounding Marvel-cool.)

Participants don’t take the event lightly. Anyone who is serious about successfully completing an Ironman triathlon will start formal training for a September event in April, and should already have some base level of fitness. There are days they need to train twice, and as race day nears the weekends become almost wholly given over to ever longer bike rides and ever longer runs. (The swimming will commonly be during the week.) By the time of race day participants might expect to have run over 500 miles in training, and biked in excess of 2,000 miles.

The financial cost is not light either once you’ve paid for: triathlon clothing, a separate wet suit, goggles, bike, bike shoes, bike helmet, replacement bike parts, bike maintenance, running shoes, coaching fees, physical therapy, massage, anti-chlorine shampoo, anti-chaffing cream, expensive go-faster sunglasses, energy bars, energy gels, energy drinks, and probably dental bills as well considering all of that sugar. The race fee itself is not inconsiderable, and since races are rarely on your doorstep you may also need to incur air fare, car rental, bike shipment costs, and accommodation all before the requisite trip to the tattoo parlor. Write out a check for $2,500, but be prepared to pay more.

It’s no wonder, after such commitment, such sacrifice, and such expense, that finishers want to brand themselves with evidence of their achievement. It’s common to find the Ironman logo painted on a bulging calf, but there are many body parts selected for the ink, and even more variations on the logo design, perfectly reflecting the diversity and individuality of those undertaking the journey.

It would be easy to think the participants are all lean, muscled men with too much money, too much time on their hands, and too much testosterone but in truth the participants are a glorious pot pourri of age, gender, race, nationality, faith, political persuasion, ego and physique. What they do all share is their commitment to the journey and a desire to test themselves in this way. I would also speculate that the majority are competitive, over-achievers and I wouldn’t be surprised if even their blood is type A.

However, few compare their finish times — they just want to make the cut-off — because everyone is on their own journey. The support for one another at such events is palpable… and addictive. Although not always visible, it’s understood that each has their own obstacles to navigate and so comparing times is an exercise in futility. Comparing is not the point. Whether you have five children or none, one kidney or two, one leg or two, this diverse group of people just want to come together and see what they themselves are made of; everyone trains and races to the beat of their own drum. There is even room for my friend, Don, who definitely does not have type A blood.

Knowing that my friend Don was doing such an event later in the year, but knowing little about these undertakings at the time, I naively asked him if he had a finish time in mind. He quipped, “I want to cross the line at 11:59pm”.

I had heard the largest cheer is reserved for the last person to make it across the line before the midnight cut-off, but Don is not a seeker of the limelight. I was confused. He continued, “If I finish earlier then I have probably tried too hard.”

He went on with his dry assessment of the day, “There is also the added benefit of value for money; these things are exPENsive! The longer I spend on the course, the more of their food and drink I consume, the more I will have got for my dollar. It’s all about dollars per hour.”

Don didn’t win but he did finish. I don’t know his time either but it was probably too fast for his liking, although in a ranking of value for money I expect he was way up there. When anyone asks him his time he might shrug, or he might tell them, it probably depends on their blood type. The time is irrelevant anyway.

He has earned the label without needing to mark himself. He said it wasn’t necessary because HE knew what he had done, and that was the most important thing. When he said that, I thought about our hidden allegiances, our hidden tribes, and I thought about Don’s humility.

He smiled. “Some of those tattoos are really pretty cool though. They just aren’t for me.” I looked back at him, standing there in his Ironman hat, his Ironman t-shirt and his rather pricy Ironman finishers’ jacket, drinking coffee from his Ironman mug, and I found myself nodding.

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When we cheer on marathon runners, are we applauding the right thing?

A few years ago I returned to my parents’ home after a long run. I was training for a marathon. Early one Sunday morning and covered in sweat and spit (but having taken off my shoes) I shuffled into the family living room. My father and brother were seated on comfy furniture engrossed in the newspapers. My father looked up, smiled, and asked me, “how far did you go?”

“Seventeen miles, I replied.”

My brother casually dipped the top of the broadsheet he was reading and without missing a beat inquired, “did you take my car or mum’s?”

We can always rely on family and close friends to keep our feet on the ground, and to remind us that sometimes what we do is not normal. 

I’m writing this on the eve of the 2018 Chicago marathon. Most of those taking part will have been in formal training for over four months. Chicago has a large number of group training programs, which is lucky because it helps to have coaching, it helps to have peer support, and because misery loves company.

Towards the beginning of training the athletes may run 15 miles a week. As they progress through the program this can climb to peak in excess of 40 or 50 miles. Their bodies are being pushed beyond what were once were limits. As new thresholds are breached, successes are celebrated. As unexpected injuries arise, they are navigated… or commiserated; simply getting to the start line in something close to one piece is a huge win.

On their journey they will learn more about physiology and anatomy than they ever wanted to know: which muscles work in tandem with one another, which joints suffer when a body is out of balance, and how to address weakness in stabilizing muscles through cross-training. They will learn a foreign language with words and expressions such as ‘plantar fasciitis’ and ‘iliotibial bands’. The risk of over-use injury increases with each week if the training isn’t measured. You can’t cram for a marathon. Consistency is key.

In addition to their muscles they are training their gut to absorb an amount of sugar that would make a dentist weep. Post race showers perform a cleansing role – vital to their loved ones – but the hot water also serves to inform them, painfully, which parts of their bodies they need to lube in order to head off sometimes bloody chaffing. And all those miles on their feet will build the calluses needed to protect them on race day; you don’t want to lose this hard-won armor during a pedicure.

What each runner puts into a race is beyond impressive, but this is only part of the story. 

A successfully completed marathon training program takes self-discipline, and it takes sacrifice. The opportunity cost, as economists refer to it, of training for an endurance event is immense; it’s not what you do in order to achieve success, it’s what you give up.

Near constant tiredness means prioritizing sleep wherever possible. If the runner has a family and only a small support network then this is not always an option; there are many days they are flying on vapor. 

Nights out with friends are curtailed, or even put on hold in order to be able to wake up for the weekly long run that can begin at 6am. The alarm goes off even earlier to allow for the obligatory morning movement – one’s bowels must not be rushed. Restrooms are not always an option on some routes, and if your run lasts for 20 miles then…

Other hobbies, past times, and responsibilities are put on ice to accommodate what quickly becomes an inflated time commitment because in addition to the core event listed in the training program, the runner needs to factor in the travel to and from, and stretching immediately following. What the training program also fails to mention is the time required for sports massage, physical therapy, buying new running attire, nutrition,… and the list goes on. Running becomes they only thing they can talk about.

Finally, the role of the support network can’t be understated. It’s not just the runner who is giving up time with their friends, it’s also the friends giving up time with the runner. At home a partner may be taking on more of the chores. And don’t forget the emotional wringer; it’s a roller coaster of joy and misery, delight in hitting goals, doubts when they are missed, or when the athlete needs to start all over again after an injury. It takes a village.

If a marathon takes place in your city, please cheer these people on. Please also know that marathon running is very much like the proverbial iceberg and it’s not just for that one day you’re cheering but also their hidden effort, their hidden sacrifice, and their hidden village. Thank you for your support.

 

Three pillars for managing change

 

“Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

Turn and face the strange”

David Bowie

We don’t need to be told that change is hard. Any one of us who has started a new school or job, thrown out a cherished but battered item of old clothing, or been dumped by the person who told us we needed to throw out that item of clothing, knows change is hardest when we are given no choice. 

When we suffer, we each find our own coping mechanism, some more mature than others. But now place yourself in a work setting where you may feel more constrained in how you can behave. Take that one step further and put yourself in the shoes of someone instigating change… and then having to ‘manage’ it. How on earth do you do that when few people enjoy being told what to do? Almost none of us wants to be told how to feel, and those of us suffering change are also feeling limited in how we can express our emotions, if only because we’d like to keep our jobs.

There are parallels between managing change inside and outside a business setting because change is about people; it can help us to draw on these parallels. There is an art to managing change but there is also a process. For both leaders and sufferers it can help if we consider three tenets, regardless of whether we find ourselves in an office, a factory, a school, or a family. 


1. Acknowledgment and Sympathy

We cannot have change without loss. Something of the old must be sacrificed in order to make space for the new, and anyone suffering loss needs to go through a form of grief. The extent of that grief will vary from circumstance to circumstance, and from person to person. Losing a favorite pair of shoes is not the same as losing a dear relative, but loss remains loss even if the form, severity, and duration are dramatically different. 

When a business undergoes change, the effect of that change will commonly be assumed or ignored by leaders. Leaders think they ‘get’ you. Their assumptions mean they become diminished in your eyes. They really don’t understand you, just as you don’t get them either. 

When a manager ignores the effect of change it’s rarely a lack of care, and more commonly a lack of realization, a lack of time, or a lack of perspective. When a change is brimming with benefits, it is easy to overlook the possibility of loss. 

If a company is introducing a shiny new IT system, the message from the leaders will commonly be focused on how much easier it will be to work, and how reports will soon be ‘automatic’. They can neglect the seemingly irrational anxiety of the analyst who has to give up their labor-intensive spreadsheet. “What is not to love about this labor-saving new system?”, the leaders are thinking to themselves.

The analyst has invested extra hours in building this glorious data monster. They feel a sense of pride in having overcome the challenge. Moreover, this spreadsheet is just the way they like it: it has right column order, the right sorting,… the right colors. They are invested. It is hard to give up something in which we are invested. It is hard to give up something we have suffered to create, even if it’s a spreadsheet.

Compare this with your partner at home telling you that you need to throw out that tatty old t-shirt. They see something tired, and dated, and which lessens your appearance. What they can’t see is just how damn comfortable it is, nor all the crazy memories that are associated with this item of clothing. 

Each side needs to understand there is loss. Each side needs to listen, without bias. Each side needs to understand the change is founded on a good reason, or what’s the point of all the disruption and heartache.

2. What is the why? What is the vision?

“The way we’re doing things now is rubbish!” is hardly a message that fires up the world for a paradigm shift but it’s a format we hear all too often, presumably because it derives from our own pain. However, in helping others we need to step outside of ourselves a little. Our message needs to coalesce around both a positive reason why, and a clear vision of the future state. 

The why is the push; the vision is the pull. Both are needed. We can see the importance of this bifurcated approach illustrated in the political arena on both sides of the Atlantic. 

When the UK voted to leave the EU – Brexit – there were many reasons why: concerns over immigration, disenchantment with a bloated EU bureaucracy, a greater sense of control over one’s own destiny. It doesn’t help that there are many reasons why rather than a single defining purpose, but the volume and size of each reason does not invalidate a need for change, it only makes a clear and galvanizing vision even more important. As yet there is no such clarity around what the UK is moving towards.

The US, by way of example, is going to be great again, and they are going to build a wall. The leaders have provided a clear and consistent vision, and everyone knows what the vision is. Moreover, the why is also known because the people in pain were the ones who voted for this vision. (The whys in the US are eerily similar to those in the UK: fears over immigration, not wanting to be pushed around by the rest of the world, loss of job opportunities, feelings of being disrespected, unheard and forgotten.)

On the face of it, making the country great again is also a positive message, but what does it mean to be ‘great’? Everyone has an opinion, and that lack of clarity in the vision makes it ripe for being picked apart by opponents.

In business as well as politics, the people undergoing change want to know where they are going and why. Perhaps sensitivity and security preclude business leaders from sharing all the details but they can usually manage expectations: “we’re falling behind our competitors … we’re beginning a project lasting nine months… this will allow us to improve quality and reduce returns by 25%… it means less re-work for you… no loss in personnel… despite our best efforts you will experience some disruption… we’re assessing how much… a series of monthly update meetings we’ll be holding with you…”

If you’re hearing that message you might not like what it says but at least you’ve been shown respect. You’ve been treated like an adult, and all parties can move to the next step in the process together. Through honesty and an element of transparency the leaders have also preserved trust. That is easy to erode and hard to build. If the change is a particularly challenging one trust will become a most precious commodity, and every step should be taken to preserve as much of it as possible and for as long as possible.

Coming back to our old t-shirt, maybe your partner is asking you to throw out that tatty old t-shirt because they care about you. Obviously that care isn’t evident when they yell, “Get rid of that t-shirt; you look like a vagrant!” But perhaps they want the two of you to look good together. Maybe you could be freeing them from worry over what the neighbors are thinking of your fashion sense… or hygiene standards. Maybe your partner shouldn’t care what the neighbors think but maybe they shouldn’t be afraid of spiders either. Simply telling them to stop being afraid won’t make it happen. They have explained the why. They have created a vision of the future state. After that it will be your call on whether your partner’s fears and worries are more important than an old item of clothing.

3. United leadership

Transition is an uncertain time. It’s important that any leadership team (parents, directors in a company, politicians…) act in harmony with one another, that they visibly bring all concerns into consideration, and that they present a reassuring and consistent message to those affected. Easy on paper but not in practice. That’s why good leaders are as rare as hen’s teeth.

If two departments in a company are merging, and one department manager is using the opportunity to make a land grab for power, resources and control, the merger may well go through without a hitch, but it could sow the seeds of resentment and propagate disruption for years to come. It takes insightful and effective leadership by those in authority above this manager to identify the issue and to head it off. 

The UK’s management of Brexit would make a great case study for change management. In addition to lacking a unifying vision, they have divided leadership. At the latest party conference the former Foreign Secretary openly criticized the Prime Minister and her approach to Brexit. This fragility in control has led the party to circle the wagons and they have opted for a unilateral approach in negotiating with the EU. A strong leader, with an inclusive and representative team, could have avoided what we’re now seeing, which might best be described as a repetitive game of  “or-how-about-this?” every time they go back to the negotiating table. Time is running out.

Leaders can do worse than set the right tone, remain consistent, and demonstrate by example. If your child has been wearing the same dress for the past five days, still showing evidence of Monday’s breakfast, you’re not necessarily a bad parent, but it can’t help if daddy is wearing yesterday’s t-shirt smelling of something other than fresh laundry.

Of the three elements in this article, weak leadership is the one where those suffering have the least control over proceedings. However, in the political arena you do have options. You could wait for the next scandal. These come around with great regularity, although many never seem to land a fatal blow. (I’m reminded of a wag who once remarked, “If Bill Clinton had been on the Titanic, the iceberg would have sunk.”) You could lead the change yourself – if you have it within you – or you can vote:

Over 40% of people failed to even turn up and vote in the 2016 US presidential elections. In the UK, nearly 28% of people failed to vote in a Brexit referendum that was won by less than 4%.

I guess voting is the inconvenient price we pay for living in a democracy.


The above is far from the entirety of the change management process but without these three – acknowledgement of loss, a why and a vision, and cohesive leadership – you are on (as they say in the UK, and with typical British understatement) ‘a bit of a sticky wicket’.

If you need to give up your spreadsheet, it’s not irrational to be sad. If you are asking your partner to jettison that filthy old t-shirt with 15 years of wonderful memories, be kind, explain why, and listen without bias – don’t assume your reasons obviously outweigh theirs. If you’re guiding others through change be as consistent and as honest as you can. It’s on all of us to manage change. Leaders help sufferers, but sufferer also help leaders, and in so doing, by setting an example to others, become leaders themselves. 

Change is about people and everyone is different. In that regard we are also all the same. It’s a truth that change can be hard, but it’s so much easier with a little kindness, humility, and respect.

Feel the fear and then… err…

Feel the fear and do it anyway. Or, feel the fear, think you’re ok, feel some more fear, and then change your mind entirely. There is a reason I’m not a writer of pithy book titles and there is a reason my inspirational writings are not flying off virtual shelves in virtual stores.

I have always worried what others think of me. This fear is not debilitating, and so I’d not class it as social anxiety disorder, but on many occasions my anticipation of criticism has prevented me from doing things I otherwise might. Getting older has helped, because the older I get the less I care, but unless I am Methuselah incarnate I won’t grow old enough to fully eliminate the worry. 

In this day and age, where more people are judging and being judged, when the outrage bus has standing room only, and where there are entire business models placing the judgement of others at their core, it’s probably something I just need to ‘get over’. Some days I am bewildered by the level of judgement in the world, even though I am a judger myself.

Bombarded by blogs, videos, and images of people whose self-confidence seems stratospheric, I don’t always see the talent to support those levels of enthusiasm. In truth I am captivated by anyone who just ‘goes for it’. I am in awe of them. Their seemingly self-sustaining confidence is a thing of beauty, and it should be cherished. 

These are the people who go to Karaoke, not worrying about finding a song to match their voice, not caring if they end up following someone who sings like Adele or Freddie Mercury. These passionate creatures are bloated with life, bleedingly honest, and I derive energy from having them in this world. 

It was with in a quest for this energy that I posted an unassuming musical video of myself on Youtube. Youtube gave me the coward’s option of privacy, allowed me to sanitize the end product, and happened to be free. Result!

In the video, I played the guitar and sang. Even if I do say so myself, my performance was somewhere between tragic and abysmal, but in my defense I sanitized nothing – that would have been cheating. Through the publication of that raw video I felt noble for pushing past my self-imposed limits. I had taken the advice of Susan Jeffers to heart by ‘feeling the fear and doing it anyway’. I celebrated my success by promptly logging back in, switching off the comments, hiding the link, and pretty much burying the post so deeply that I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to find it again. However, I didn’t delete it – for several days – and so I still allowed myself to feel worthy, at least for that brief time that it was technically ‘available’ to the pubic. I am my own worst critic, and I had found myself wanting.

The same fear of judgement has also shaped my writing. On the one hand my ego wants the attention, and wants to be told that I am a wordsmith descended from Homer and Shakespeare. On the other hand I really don’t want the attention, because I do not have that lineage at all, and I also worry about wasting the time of others. The inner monologue goes something like this:

“Why bother writing it? No one will read it.”

“Yes they will. They might give it a clap.”

“In another context the clap is not a good thing.”

“Don’t be a jerk! Someone might like it.”

 “That sounds a bit desperate… ‘SOMEone’… my last piece got no comments on my blog, and only one ‘like’ on Facebook.”

“Facebook is just an exercise in ego massage and vicarious living for crying out loud. You LIKE writing.”

“But I’m always editing it down so as to head off misunderstanding and minimize the risk of offending. And I don’t like it when people point out spelling errors, factual misstatements, or a lack of creativity. It makes me want to delete the post.”

“Some of the things you’ve done are really cool. People want to hear about that. Nobody is looking for perfection these days. They just want you to be real.”

“I don’t write briefly enough for the short attention spans everyone seems to have these days.”

“You don’t need to be brief. Twitter and Facebook might have brief posts but by the time a person has lost two hours of their lives drowning in a sea of breadcrumb trails, click-bait, and in the forlorn hope that the next item might give them the chemical kick they’re craving, they’d have KILLED for a savior vessel of some quality.” 

“But others have already written something like my stuff… and they’ve probably done a better job?”

That last rebuttal is probably the one that has held me back most frequently. We are bombarded by inspirational people who have overcome great adversity, or shown blinding creativity, or demonstrated acts of such selfless courage that we are truly humbled. Occasionally I’ve been a bit brave, come up with the odd cool idea, and been a bit charitable. I like to think of myself as a selfless, courageous artist but I’m not on the same level as those who inspire me. Why should I bother telling my story when those others have lived and shared more dramatically? It is only recently that I have settled on a response to this question.

Back in 2000 I was having a low moment, as we sometimes do, and was reading one of Richard Carlson’s Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff books. (I was in the middle of self-help book addiction). On this particular day I was reading a message, a life lesson that struck me so deeply I can still remember my emotions and the entirety of my surroundings with perfect clarity nearly 20 years later. 

The message explained that much of what we fear is based on what we imagine will happen and not what actually happens. If we save our energy for dealing what is rather than what we fear we’ll find fewer of our fears come to be realized, and we’ll also have more energy to face them if they do eventually transpire. 

As I read that message back to myself now I am smacking my head in faux drama because the lesson is already known to me. It’s no longer an epiphany, and it seems a waste of time re-sharing it. Of course knowing the words doesn’t mean I can always follow their advice, otherwise I’d be singing more karaoke, but I do have what I need from them. However, that point about smacking my head, about my reaction to something I already know, gave rise to a second lesson I’m only just beginning to digest.

If Richard Carlson had not written that book, even though what he was saying may have been said by others, if I had not been reading it on that day, and even though I may have already heard the message before, I would not have absorbed what I needed. There is a saying that when the student is ready the teacher appears. 

This second lesson is one of the biggest catalysts to me writing now. I strongly suspect that other articles have addressed the point of anxiety in relation to putting yourself out there. They have, with more energy, encouraged you to share your story, find your voice, be ok with being you and damn what anyone else thinks. But maybe there was too much vernacular, or too little in them with which you could identify. Maybe you didn’t read their post when you were ready.

I am writing to say that your voice is important. As you begin, you might find yourself worried by what others think and you might, in the early days, choose to round the sharp edges and smooth the rough surfaces of your writing. Over time you will learn that people crave texture but it’s ok to take your time as you work up to revealing that to the world. Like any new sculptor in search of the art within the stone, you will inadvertently hit the marble at the wrong point and end up with something limbless or headless, but we still want to see that authentically crafted torso. Maybe torsos will become your thing, and that’s ok too.

And so as you ease your tender are cheeks into the hot bath of public opinion, you may may feel the heat upon contact with the water. It’s ok to swiftly lift your buttocks lest they be irreparably burned. It’s ok to take time to build up your courage again. And it’s ok to repeat the process of lowering and raising, all while letting out weird wheezing and whooping noises, until you have acclimatized your unmentionables. 

As I leave you with far too many mixed and disturbing metaphors, presumably of someone performing a noisy up-thrusting routine above a  torso and buttock soup, please know that you do not need to write for everyone, you only need to write for someone. That ‘someone’ might be you but it might also be someone else who needs to hear your voice. Maybe you are the one who has the right words for them. Maybe it’s your message that will be delivered to them at the right time. Or maybe they just love passionate karaoke, authentic torsos, or hot buns.

Cool books:

Disclosure: the links to the books below are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. 

How to prevent a runner’s side stitch… maybe

I still remember my worst stitch. I was 12 years old. Our school class had trooped off to a local park late in the autumn term to do one of those British weather-inflicted cross-country runs that teachers think are fun, and that kids think are stupid. We were deployed like mini Marines on manoeuvres and on this day the overused paths were peppered with deep puddles and cloying mud from frequent rain; our activity was more of an obstacle course than an afternoon jog.

I quickly worked out the secret sauce for success in these activities; the technical name is called being bothered. At 12 years old most kids couldn’t be. If you were in the ‘Not Bothered Brigade’ you had two tactics for keeping for your feet dry: hug any tree holding the high ground either side of the obstacle and then jump when necessary, or carefully pick your way through brambles. The NBBs would invariably return from their exertions with chests covered in verdant moss, and with tiny red rivulets on their arms and legs. Apparently, the possibility of blood was better than the inevitability of mud.

I was looking forward to getting back to the showers early and was squelching along, feet caked in mud, minding my own business, when an invisible knife pierced my side just below the ribs. My phantom running buddy pushed the blade in further, and then twisted it. I like to think I didn’t scream, or at least yelp. I probably did. I paused for a time and recall looking back; the blood warriors were still out of sight and I was on my own. I eventually began walking again, ever more briskly, but the stitch remained. In fact it didn’t even get better until some time after the end of the run, and as is the case for many things in life I simply learned to live with it for as long as I had no choice.

The next time it happened I had a teasing warning, as though my hidden tormentor was playing with me. I tensed in anticipation, waiting, waiting, until the blade finally made its way through the side door and just sat there, inside me, like the dodgy relative who turns up on your doorstep unannounced, eats all the best cookies, and who can’t take a hint that it’s time to leave… not realising it was never even time to arrive. 

Looking for a cure

A stitch is what I always called it but the name doesn’t really matter. Others might call it the runner’s stitch, side stitch, side cramp, ‘ETAP’ (exercise-related transient abdominal pain), etc. We could call it Fluffy Bunnykins and it wouldn’t make it any less annoying or painful. It can happen when I am running fast, and even when I’m running slowly and it feels like a knife or a needle, although I understand others can experience it differently, perhaps a dull ache. It was of no relief to eventually learn it had affected Olympians and marathon greats like Haile Gebrselassie and Deena Kastor.

From time to time I’d research causes and solutions. I tried all of the preventative measures, with varying levels of enthusiasm:

  • don’t eat too close to a run
  • don’t drink orange juice before a run
  • don’t eat too much before or during a run
  • don’t eat spicy food the night before or on the day of a run
  • don’t have too much sugary food before or during a run
  • build up your tolerance to sugary drinks (woo hoo!)
  • develop your core strength
  • develop your flexibility
  • warm up properly
  • become fitter
  • get older

All of these are good advice anyway, apart from avoiding sugary drinks bullet point. (It’s hard to do a long run with no carbohydrate.) The getting old thing is also to be avoided where possible, unless you’re as ageless as Audrey Hepburn. Audrey Hepburn has nothing to with stitches or running, at least as far as I know, but any blog post is going to seem a little classier with a light sprinkling of Audrey. She’s awesome! Just saying. 

I am now older, fitter, stronger, less spicy, and after all my sugary runnning I’m also a damn sight sweeter. The stitches are coming less frequently than they used to but Fluffy Bunnykins still keeps turning up unannounced, expecting a cup of tea and wanting to eat my Chocolate HobNobs and Jammie Dodgers. (The UK has some of the best names for cookies and biscuits.)

If prevention wasn’t working, could a cure be the solution? I have tried those too:

  • Carrying on running while pushing my fingers into the side that hurts (Which sadist…!?)
  • Carrying on running and timing my breathing so I breathe out when my foot on the side of the stitch hits the ground (before, presumably, deducting my date of birth and dividing by the number I first thought of)
  • Slowing down my run, or walking
  • Stopping the run to fold myself over at the waist and breathe slowly and deeply
  • etc.

The only things that have worked for me are slowing or stopping.

I think I found the problem

In his book, Born to Run, Christopher McDougall notes that unlike most animals the breathing of humans is disconnected from our running pattern. Contrast this with a cheetah, whose leg motion acts like a bellows for its lungs. I.e. its lung activity is directly connected to its leg activity. A cheetah is fast, but it cannot last long. Homo sapiens, however, can take long deep breaths or short sharp breaths, mixing up the pattern as and when needed, regardless of our pace or the motion of our legs. We can’t outrun a cheetah over short distances, but we can outlast a cheetah over long ones. This flexibility in the way we breathe, which should be an asset, was also my problem. Periodically I would do it all backwards, sometimes when I was running quickly, sometimes when I was running slowly.

Yoga practitioners and freedivers will be familiar with the three part breath, which emphasizes the importance of breathing not just into the top of your chest, but also into your belly. When I was running, I was doing two things wrong:

  1. I wasn’t breathing deeply enough into my belly, and so I was reducing the amount of oxygen taken in with each inhalation and
  2. When I did breathe into my belly, I was squeezing in my tummy just as I was trying to fill it with air, and pushing it out when I was trying to exhale.

That second point is really important… and it makes no logical sense. I was putting my internal organs under strain by asking them to make the space inside my abdomen smaller just as I was trying to fill it, and to make the space bigger just as I was trying to empty it. The Far Side’s “Middle School for the Gifted” sprang to mind.

 

Somehow, over the years of being more bothered than most 12 year old kids, I had developed this totally incorrect habit. Audrey would be horrified.  

Learning how to breathe

My solution for addressing my stitches, other than becoming older, wiser, more sweet, less spicy, etc. is now to focus on my breathing, and to incorporate breathing into a mental checklist that I go through every mile or so on my run:

  • am  I relaxed?
  • how is my nutrition and hydration?
  • how is my cadence?
  • am I landing mid-foot?
  • am leaning?
  • am I belly breathing?
  • am I pushing out my belly as I breathe in /squeezing in my belly in as I breathe out?

 

Credit for the above image to: https://yurielkaim.com/belly-breathing/

I still catch myself breathing incorrectly but at least I’m aware, and I hope that if I keeping checking in with myself the new habit will eventually become engrained.

A final word

The latest word on stitches is that the issue is not Fluffy Bunnykins at all but rather the parietal peritoneum. (If only I had known this earlier in the article.) The connection between the parietal peritoneum, a membrane around your abdomen, is… going into too much detail. Instead I think it’s safe to say that when it comes to stitches, lots of things can bring it on and the trigger can vary from person to person because we’re all individuals.

Endurance runners know there is no one size fits all solution. In much the same way that one form of nutrition is great for one person and by hated by another, we all need to find our own path when we suffer discomfort. I’d advocate addressing whatever will bring most benefit quickly. If poor eating just prior to a run is your kryptonite, then that’s what I’d focus on first. However, if you walk around stiff as a board all day then I’d focus on your flexibility. If you’re not sure then you might need to hit a few tactics all at once.

This article says breathing is the solution. Well, it’s my solution. I think I had slowly eliminated the larger risks until I reached the point where breathing was simply the next big thing to address. Even now, as I reflect, it may not address the issue for the reasons I believe. Maybe going through that breathing check just reminds me to address poor form. Maybe the focus on breath distracts and relaxes me – a breathing, running meditation of sorts. Maybe it’s not down to breathing at all but rather because I just got even older. Maybe I don’t need to understand why it works at all; right now I only care that it seems to be doing the job.

Cool books:

Disclosure: the links to the two books below are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. 

Other online references:

https://www.popsci.com/what-is-side-stitch

http://www.abc.net.au/news/health/2017-11-01/9089048

http://www.athleticsweekly.com/performance/how-to-avoid-a-stitch-59637

http://www.mountainmadness.ca/documents/Runners_Stitch_by_Jenn_Turner.pdf

https://runnersconnect.net/side-stitches-abdominal-pain-causes-and-treatments/

https://www.verywellfit.com/how-do-i-get-rid-of-a-side-stitch-2911699

https://www.runnersworld.com/training/a20788032/four-ways-to-stop-the-dreaded-side-stitch/

https://www.runnersworld.com/health-injuries/a20838539/how-to-beat-side-stitches/

 

 

Silence the squeaky wheels

58% of CEOs in Fortune 500 companies are six feet tall or more but only 14% of all men in the USA are this tall. On the face of it, being tall means you’re four times more likely to get the top job than if you’re not.

Here’s another: after dipping to 21 in 2016, the number of female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies rose to a ‘whopping’ 32 in 2017. Reading this stat literally, having a Y chromosome means you’re nearly 16 times more likely to become a ‘grand fromage’ than if you were blessed with two Xs.

Our physical attributes play a part in how much of a boost we get in life – that is hardly earth shattering news – and so do our personalities and predilections. Consider extroverts, people who are extreme – and so attract attention, the charmers, those who love the limelight, etc. Put all of this together with the physical, and you end up with, errr… a tall, white, male who is a polarizer rather than a unifier, not exactly mortified when people are talking about him, and with an overwhelming compulsion to claim vocal credit for everything from a rising stock market and low unemployment, to the end of the Jurassic period and the invention of gravity.

The rest of us can get on in life despite not wanting to be Youtube-famous, not being over six feet tall, not being extreme in our abilities, or opinions (especially our opinions of ourselves). We want to be ourselves, indeed we are told to be ourselves. However, it’s all well and good preaching the merits of authenticity but that will only take us so far. We still need to neutralize the imbalance, and so we end up having to work harder, try to be something we’re not, or find a different path.

But there are things we can do that are within our comfort zones, and that don’t require much effort. We can begin by challenging accepted norms, and not just those related to conventional lines of discrimination. Did you know, for example, that those promoted internally to lead an organization tend (on balance) to perform better than those recruited from outside. Yet the prevailing wisdom remains to hire from without. How many of you have seen well deserving colleagues passed over for promotion as a revolving door of charming, but less competent strangers join an organization with a golden handshake… and then leave it with a golden parachute? Here is one of many articles on the topic, Share this news. Begin a discussion. Challenge the assertion. (To me one of the most laughable suppositions of why external hires want more money is because they need to be compensated for having to navigate an unfamiliar environment; shouldn’t the internal hires actually get more money because if we are paying according to level of experience then they are already intimately familiar with the environment?)

We need to address our own biases, perhaps by focusing on results rather than words, and in this way we may be able to silence all those squeaky wheels who hog the oil. Moreover, we need to not just shut our ears to the squeaky oil hoggers but we need to take our own lights and collectively shine them on the good deeds we come across in case those making them happen were born with a broken torch; we need to look out for one another, people!

Change is coming. Social entrepreneurship is on the rise. But we need to be a part of that change rather than wait for it to happen; we can choose to shape our destinies or we risk becoming victims of them. It’s on us. Look out for one another. Refuse to accept what is not right. Let’s do good things.

That hot potato is a total banana skin

Recently I was reminded of the brilliant comedy writing in two TV shows from my formative years: Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. The genius of the writers, Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, was particularly clever in the way they blended idioms, mixed metaphors, and interspersed malapropisms. The memory prompted me to begin a list of my favourite word play combinations, some from these shows, some I’ve genuinely heard used, and others I’ve stumbled across in writing:

  • … like a stampeding herd of vultures
  • You don’t put the cart before the horse if you want to lead it to water because that would be like locking the stable door
  • I wouldn’t eat that with a ten-foot pole
  • We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it
  • It’s not rocket surgery
  • Leopards don’t change their stripes
  • It’s like shooting fish off a ducks back
  • I hate all generalizations
  • Half of one, six dozen of the other
  • We don’t want to have the dog wagging the cart
  • Time is fun when you’re having flies
  • I‘m not a negative person
  • You say potato, I say whatever
  • Let’s not jump at straws
  • Enter your names in numerical order
  • They broke the mould before they made you
  • Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice… can’t get fooled again
  • We’ve climbed to new depths
  • There is only one way to eat an elephant and that’s by starting with the low hanging fruit

… and then the one I’ve never heard:

I’ll need this later rather than sooner

I’m an expert at nothing

It’s an old analogy but when asked where his talent lies, a fish that has spent many years diligently practising the violin, making huge sacrifices to become as accomplished as possible, could justifiably cite musicianship as his or her thing… and completely ignore the fact that he or she is not only a bloody good swimmer but one that can breathe underwater.

It’s hard to identify our own strengths. Those most noticeable to us are where we’ve suffered to acquire them; where we’ve had to make an effort, or make sacrifices, usually for a sustained period of time. But we ignore those things that come naturally to us.

When we can do something without thinking, there is no effort for us and it seems too easy to be worthy. Or perhaps we think others must find it as easy and as natural as we do. This was the case with Greg Louganis, the gold medal winning Olympic diver. I heard an interview with him in which he explained how, from a very young age, he would execute all of his practice in his head, and when he had it right in his imagination, then he would execute it with his body. He thought everyone went through that mental rehearsal and it wasn’t until many years later that he realised how rare this was.

We also tend to think first of sports, arts and trades when it comes to expertise: she is a good runner, she is a good carpenter, she is a good sculptor, etc. We forget those attributes that are less visible: he is a good organiser, he is a great lateral thinker, he is one of life’s connectors and he’s the one that keeps our social network together.

I emerged from school without any A grades in my national exams (of which there were 15) and this was despite being able to choose most of the subjects myself. I didn’t win any sports events at school. If I’m looking for my own expertise then I need to look at my life in a different way. Or maybe we need our friends to tell us, because what is natural for us might not be for them.

If you’re a fish, make friends with an elephant. If you’re a painter, make friends with a mother who only has time for their family. If you’re a runner, make friends with a weightlifter. You may see in the other what you are not. You might be able to help one another. And you’ll have someone to remind you that it’s really pretty cool to be able to breathe under water.