The day before a trail running race over Mt Graham on the Freycinet peninsula in Tasmania Alice and I hiked up the first uphill stretch of the race trail to a saddle between two peaks to take a look at the lay of the land and get an idea of what lay in store for me.
What we saw admittedly put fear into my heart (see the photo taken from our vantage point). The peak of Mt Graham seemed unbelievably distant and way beyond the reach of my current fitness level. In addition to this I knew that the summit was only half way (turned out it was really only a third!) and in my mind I saw myself stranded in the bush somewhere behind Mt Freycinet (that’s the higher peak in the photo, to the right of Mt Graham) with darkness and freezing temperatures descending fast.
Taking comfort from the knowledge that my race buddy Talbot is an experienced mountain guide I didn’t dwell on my fears but I have to admit that I felt shaken and doubted my ability to make a decent showing the next day. Naturally Alice wouldn’t have any of it and encouraged me, vehemently 🙂 , to use all the faculties of my by then a touch weak-in-the-knees mind to create an internal representation of success and see myself crossing the finish line (remember the “15 minutes after successful completion”? Works every time!).
The next day dawned calm and clear, promising perfect running conditions, and I showed up at the start with a lot more confidence, though with a good helping of race nerves.
When you’re running for hours all sorts of thoughts make their way through your mind and on a particularly technical (that’s trail runner speak for “full of bloody big roots and rocks”) downhill part I had a flashback to one of the presuppositions of NLP I had learnt when I attended my first training: The Map is not the Territory. Indeed!
Scrambling downhill on your bum through what would certainly turn into a foaming creek bed during a heavy rainfall you can’t help realising that whatever you thought the journey was going to be like, based on the maps you studied, the reading up you did and the conversations you had with the people who have done this before, you NEVER even get close to understanding what it will actually be like.
All you do is either psych yourself out because your imagination is running wild (thank you Talbot for not telling me about the sheer cliff face I had to inch my way across – it was only about three meters long but left me briefly in a panic until you told me in the simplest terms what to do: “keep moving and hold on”, never mind that there were no hand holds – thank you Spider-Man for being there when I needed you most!) or you get it wrong the other way and relax your focus too much in which case you get the kinds of surprises no one really enjoys (the “oh sh*t” kind) and which, because you didn’t prepare for them, can turn race day into a series of unfortunate events rather than a joy.
So the “moral” of the “The Map is not the Territory” is really threefold:
You can study up all you like before a race, by reading the “map”, but that’s all you’re ever going to get before actually doing it yourself: a flat sheet of paper (or a screen) with colours and squiggly lines providing you with some data based on somebody else’s experience.
Under no circumstances must you assume that the “territory”, or even the distances you believe you see with your own eyes, will be anything like you imagine them to be. Use the knowledge you gain from the map only to prepare yourself for what could realistically happen.
If you keep your mind open you will have the flexibility to deal with whatever the “territory” will throw at you and you’ll have the best possible experience, and the most valuable one too, which is your own!
We successfully completed the 30 km trail in 5 hours with 1000 meters total altitude climbed (the official distance is 29 km but we made a detour to the summit of Mt Graham (because it’s there!) and in the end I really felt I had run 30, or if you asked my legs more like 60 km 🙂 .
Had my fears from the day before been justified? No, some things actually turned out worse (the trails were much rougher than I expected and the exhaustion in the final five kilometres exceeded my expectations, as it usually does 🙂 ), but the things I had been worried about most were much better or even non-existent: the distance that appeared insurmountable? Didn’t even think about it during the race. One step after the other (about 30,000 in total) chewed it right up. The heights I’m not much a friend of? With a little prodding from Talbot and the help of Spider-Man, not a problem! The sick-in-the-stomach feeling after sucking down carb gels for four hours? Didn’t happen (I finally must have figured out the right combination of gels, electrolyte drinks and power bars)!
One of the things I had been looking forward to very much: the conversations that develop during the flatter stages of the race. I know, how can they spare the breath to talk while they run? If you spend several hours running up a mountain and through the bush it’s actually a lovely distraction for body and mind, well worth the extra breath required.
During one of them Talbot told me about a very long training run which took him across a swampy button grass plain which he had previously traversed on several occasions laden down with a heavy overnight pack. The big difference was that this time he only carried a light pack which allowed him to step lightly and quickly, and when he would have sunk up to his hips into a particularly muddy patch before he now would quickly shift his weight and keep his momentum going. To him it seemed like he was flying across the boggy ground. Yet another perfect life metaphor, isn’t it?!
Every time we push outside our boundaries we learn and grow, and even though that’s often a painful process (just ask my legs) we are richer for it afterwards.
The maps we are given are not the territory, but they do point us into new directions and encourage us to step out and up. Used well they help us live a richer life.
Whose maps are you using right now?