Many athletes defy their age, happily accepting compliments like, “Wow,
you don’t look your age,” and I believe that how we choose to celebrate birthdays
is key to how we will ‘age.’ With birthdays, I place myself in the same
position as I do when I am competing as an athlete: I want to be better than
the previous year (or race), stronger than before, changed in a way I will only
know through exhaustion. So, come the 1st of October each year, I
require two things of myself, each for 31 days or more. The first is a physical
change (permanent or not), and the second, a mental challenge.
This year, turning 29, I felt I was peaking physically as an individual
and athlete, and as a businessman, so it needed to be a significant birthday.
The physical change (non-permanent) was a full beard – keeping in mind that I
cannot stand facial hair in the slightest. It’s itchy, looks untidy, and gives
me the creeps when I look in the mirror. The mental challenge: 31 days of climbing
Table Mountain every morning at sunrise.
Admittedly, I hadn’t quite thought the second part through that
thoroughly, but the prospect was motivating. Needless to say, however, that when
I worked it out, I realised I would have to be up every weekday morning at 4am
to be on the mountain by 5am, which is about 22km from where I live in Blouberg,
then have just over an hour for hiking to be back in the car by 6:20, in Blouberg
by 6:45 to get ready for work, take my daughter to school and be at work by
7:50. Weekends I would have to be up at 4:30, on the mountain by 5:30 and down
by 7:30 to take my Fit Friend class at 8am on Saturdays and sailing on Sundays.
The first 10 days, I was all over that mountain like a dassie on drugs,
trail running like a king, taking photos of everything, rock-hopping till my
quads and calves burnt like the 4th of July fireworks. Days 11 to
20, I was not quite so optimistic. Fun ran ahead of me… far ahead! Miserable
fatigue and exhaustion were setting in for the long haul.
Days 20 to 25…I had never felt so deeply drained before, almost
regretting the sheer stupidity it took committing to such a challenge without
thinking it through. I talked my way out of it several times when my alarm went
off, but then talked myself back into it at the five-minute snooze buzzer. Most
mornings I faced a stubborn tug-of-war with myself. Thankfully, on days 26 to
29 I felt at ease with the fact that I only had a few days left. I had come
into a rhythm I appreciated.
The mornings of 30 and 31 October, and Friday 1 November (when I hiked
Lions Head for a change of view), were some of the most epic mornings I have
experienced, in so many unexplainable ways. My expectation of the days had
changed forever. I felt so intrinsically connected with the world, with myself,
with everything I came into contact with.
I wrote in a diary every day to map my thoughts, and the amount of
self-coaching I went through during the month was impressive. It’s fair to say
I am very hard on myself, but extremely effective. The beard was with me throughout,
and having the world around me on board with my double challenge, the
exhaustion in my face was always a conversation-starter. But shaving on the 1st
of November was, well, bliss.
As difficult as this challenge may have seemed, once it was over I knew
I could do 100 days if I really wanted or needed to. Like many athletes, I have
the mental capacity to persevere and push myself where many don’t, or can’t go,
and through sharing my madness I saw friends, family and people in my fitness
classes change their perspective and expectations of themselves.
I feel strongly that at some stage during the month this became bigger
than me, and that’s one of the biggest reasons I completed the challenge. It
was not so much about finishing it, but having started it in the first place. There
are adventures in our lives that we sometimes forget we have had, but building ourselves
from those blocks, I think, is the foundation by which athletes define
themselves – personal experiences all put together to make up this person that
achieves, that strives for more from themselves.