- Be clear.
- Be specific.
- Reduce uncertainty.
- Speak to the most pressing need.
- Keep running. You still have a long way to go.
No, I did not just come down off the mountain of some Tony Robbins motivational speech. No, I did not use the featureless timescape of shelter-in-place to read all of the self-help books heretofore exerting their gravitational force on my office’s shelves. Instead, I am recalling one long night in June of 2019.
Some of you know I dabble in the sport of ultramarathon. These are (usually) trail races that exceed a distance of 26.2 miles. The sport’s Super Bowl is the Western States Endurance Run. One hundred miles on foot, from Squaw Valley to Auburn, CA, mostly following the trail of the historic Tevis Cup horse ride. This might be a good place to remind readers that horses are generally not as bright as humans, but back to the story. You might be surprised to know that there are so many applicants for entry each year that, for most, a lottery provides the only remote shot at toeing the start line.
Like with many things in life, there are exceptions. Since it takes even trained ultra runners almost, if not more than, 24 hours to cover 100 rugged miles, let’s say you volunteer to pull an overnight shift at one of the aid stations that service the course? You might then be eligible for one of the few spots reserved for and assigned to aid station captains, to dole out at their discretion. Now, when I say “aid station” I don’t mean a folding table lined with cups of warm Gatorade. At “States,” we’re talking huge productions with food, medical, HAM radio operators, spectators and pacers. One, in particular and to which I had access through my running club, Tamalpa Runners, sits at “Rucky Chucky.” Here, at just under Mile 80, runners traverse the American River, sometimes by wading via guide rope or, in high-water years like 2019, they are shuttled across on rafts.
So it was that I found myself on “the Far Side.” There, on its sandy and overgrown bank, we would help runners out of the rafts, undo their life vests, and send most of them on their way up into the darkness of the summer night via headlamp. It was a surreal scene. At one point shortly after midnight, I found myself working alongside another volunteer. This individual, a young man who clearly had some first responder experience, stood prominently at the front of the line and enthusiastically directed the runners in a clear, loud voice as they clambered off the rafts in various states of exhaustion and quasi-delirium. Here’s a paraphrased smattering of what was hitting their ears:
- “Runner 146, I am here for you. You are doing great. Come directly up and I will help you take off your life jacket!”
- “Runner 318, I have been waiting for you. Keep up the great work! Look right at me. I will take care of everything for you.”
- “You are looking great, Runner 212. I will assist you from here. Proceed to me, watch your step and don’t worry about anything else.”
I could not believe what I was hearing and experiencing. The comfort I — the guy who was NOT running — felt each time he directed an athlete in this manner was palpable. Ah, the sweet relief of not having to make another decision in my tired state! The reassurance the runners must have experienced in the dead of that night may have touched them for just an instant, but isn’t that what execution of all imposing tasks requires? They are almost always a series of individual moments where doubt must be quashed and the spark to continue must be ignited yet again, and again, and again.
The 2020 Western States Endurance Run has been canceled due to COVID-19. There will be no race this June, no Rucky Chucky support crew, and my own dream to someday run will have to be postponed. But upon hearing the news of the cancellation, I recalled my experience volunteering. In this uncertain, weary, stressful time, I was encouraged to revisit my communication strategy with my clients and referral partners. Am I clear? Do I project certainty, optimism and offer a beacon of help? Do I help eliminate the stress of unnecessary choices and do I help get them on their way to their own success, even if my role will not necessarily be remembered in the chaos of all else going on? We, in many of our professional roles, are ultimately in a service business. How we go about assisting others in the toughest of times, in the dark of night, when we least feel like doing it, says the most about what we’re made of and who we really are. And that…that can never be canceled.
One day, 100 miles,
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