Reflections on the High Five-0 Challenge experience

Come 6am on Saturday 7 February I’ll be lining up at Rotorua’s Redwoods Visitor Centre with hundreds of other people hoping to complete the seventh annual Tarawera Ultra Marathon (TUM).

http://www.taraweraultra.co.nz/

The TUM is part of the Ultra-Trail World Tour which is a coup for TUM Founder Paul Charteris and his team, great publicity for the TUM and New Zealand trail running. Some of us will run 60, some 85km and barring fire, floods and tropical cyclones forcing a shortening of the course, some particularly hardy individuals will manage 100km. Some of us will not finish. About 30 of us will run with Mal Law up Rangitoto Peak along the way as part of Day 1 of the High Five-O Challenge. If you are part of the Tarawera phenomenon on 7 February you will see us running in our red shirts.

As a trail running addict I would have run the TUM eventually so arguably signing up for the High Five-0 Challenge didn’t require much additional effort. As the official start of the Challenge draws near it seems like a good time to reflect on my reasons for joining  and the journey so far.

Ultra-running, peak bagging and the camaraderie of teams

In essence the High Five-0 Challenge is an adventure whereby Mal Law will set out to demonstrate his mantra “ordinary people can achieve extraordinary things” by climbing 50 peaks and running 50 off-road marathons on 50 consecutive days.

Undoubtedly Mal is planning something extraordinary. While the mileage is averaged across the days so for example, the ascent of Mt Taranaki will be 25km and Mt Luxmore as part of the Kepler is 61km, all travel involves trails of varying degrees of technicality. At one end of the scale the ascent of Hawkins Hill situated in the Wellington suburb of Karori should be fairly straightforward provided Wellington’s notoriously changeable weather co-operates but there are some epic missions like negotiating Dragonfly Peak (2165m) or Mt Tyndall (2496m). These peaks are situated in remote spots in Mt Aspiring National Park. They will involve 2500m and 2600m of height gain, 38 km of distance to bag each peak and each objective will take over 12 hours. They will be done as Day 17 and 18 in the schedule by which time Mal will likely not be feeling as fresh as when I run with him on Day 1. He will need to find his second wind for tackling the high peaks of the North Island including Ruapehu, Ngaurahoe and the already mentioned Mt Taranaki on days 37 through 39.

Author + a new buddie, both running with Mal on Day 1.
Author + a new buddy, both running with Mal on Day 1.

Whether Mal is ordinary is debateable but he is certainly relatable. As he says himself about himself he is neither an elite athlete nor a spring chicken. He will be relying on his mental resources at least as much as, if not more than, his physical conditioning and endurance. He will be relying on the presence of support runners like me who have volunteered to run with him on various days along the 50 day journey and he will be relying on his own team to implement a mind bogglingly complex logistics programme. As well as managing his daily nutritional requirements and potential injury risks every few days Mal will have to move regions and every day he will have to link up with new support runners while his peak bagging spree continues uninterrupted. The planning and design that has gone into the High Five-0 Challenge is at least as demanding as the Challenge itself.

Mal really enjoys peak bagging, running ultras and the camaraderie that is generated by undertaking these challenges with the people who choose to run with him for a day or two. The process is good fun. It’s not all about Mal. It’s about people working together to achieve a common goal. The sum of the whole is greater than the individual parts. He has a history of trail running and achieving audacious goals for charity behind him to give him credibility which makes attracting support runners and business sponsors easier. As an aging non elite runner who also enjoys peak bagging and having outdoor adventures with other like-minded people Mals’ passions are similar to mine. The High Five-0 Challenge fits well with my interests.

Enroute to Mckinnon Pass, Milford Track, Fiordland NP
Enroute to Mckinnon Pass, Milford Track, Fiordland NP

Raising awareness about mental health issues is a meaningful objective

The High Five-0 Challenge is designed to raise money for a charity, no surprises there. Given the ubiquitous presence of social media any business or individual regardless of profile can decide to undertake a project for a good cause and raise some money for it. The charity chosen for the High Five-0 Challenge is the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand. Money raised will be used in mental health promotion programmes around New Zealand. You can check out the work the Foundation does here:

http://www.mentalhealth.org.nz/home/our-work/

The High Five-O Challenge is about embarking on a big adventure in order to bring the issue of mental health into the open and remove some of the stigma and ignorance that surrounds the subject. It’s about sending out positive messages about the role of exercise and goal setting in managing our mental well-being. For me the cause resonates. In New Zealand, and I suspect other countries as well, it is still much easier to talk about physical illnesses or injuries than it is to talk about anxiety, depression, bi-polar disorder or any other mental illness. Yet mental illness is at least as prevalent and at least as debilitating as its physical counterpart. For example, in New Zealand 1 in 5 people will experience a serious mood disorder (including depression), 1 in 4 of those people will be females.

Like many of those who have volunteered to be a support runner for the Challenge I have friends, family members and acquaintances with experience of mental illness. I have watched them both struggle to manage their illness or to care for and support those with mental illness and struggle to get others around them to acknowledge and support them in their endeavours. Changing behaviours and attitudes doesn’t happen overnight it takes a great deal of practice, patience and persistent effort. It can be done though. In my life time I’ve witnessed attitudes towards cigarette smoking move from the activity being regarded as a cool thing to do to an activity that is to a large extent considered undesirable.

If you believe as I do that society is better off when those with illnesses are treated with empathy and kindness and that more can be done to help people achieve better mental health and manage existing conditions for which there is no “cure” then raising money for an organisation like the Mental Health Foundation is a worthwhile endeavour. Leading the way through talking about mental health issues and learning more about them as well as listening to others stories and providing practical support where possible are all worthwhile endeavours. Of particular interest to me is the link between physical activity and mental health, participating in the Challenge has been a great way to take this further. The High Five-0 Challenge fundraising is for a cause that aligns with my values.

The High Five-0 Challenge models self-managing for wellbeing and provides opportunities for personal awareness and development

There are as many reasons why people run and climb hills as there are people who do so. I run because I can or to paraphrase Mallory in the context of a rather tall mountain, “because it’s there.” As I get older I am increasingly aware of how lucky I am to still be able to run. Arthritis runs in my family, injury lurks around every corner, a potential show stopper. Running and climbing are two activities that consistently improve my mood. Through training and setting myself goals I hone my focus, determination, resilience and confidence. I get space to think about stuff and forget about stuff. The great thing about running and climbing is their flexibility. It can be about seeking out solitude or the company of good friends. Some of my best ideas have come to me while out running, it’s great for stress release, problem solving and making new friends.

These are merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of reasons why I run and climb but you will notice these reasons for the most part link to mental wellbeing. Of course there are numerous physical health benefits as well. It is well established that there is a link between physical activity and both mental and physical well-being. The mind and the body are connected.

During Mental Health Awareness Week the Mental Health Foundation launched a public awareness campaign emphasising five ways to wellbeing: connect, give, take notice, keep learning and be active. This campaign would have probably passed me by if I hadn’t been plugged into the Challenge social media and prompted to send in a red shirt picture to mark the start of awareness week. Participating in that event got me thinking about wellbeing and the role of the Challenge.

Mental Health Awareness Week pic
Braving a stiff southerly for a Mental Health Awareness Week pic

The High Five-0 Challenge is not just about “being active” it embodies all five ways to wellbeing giving the Challenge an authenticity that has made fundraising and training a privilege rather than a chore. As a support runner I have a training goal and a fundraising goal. We all must raise a minimum of $400 for the charity. Unless you are willing to put up your own cash this fundraising effort means that you must reach out to the people in your community to solicit donations. Inevitably connections are made. When I started the journey I was not worried about the training, I’ve set and met training goals before. I was anxious about how I would fundraise and how I would explain what I was doing in a way that would make sense to people. I thought I would get thoroughly sick of posing in my red shirt and that others would get thoroughly sick of my posing. Over the last six months I have gotten pretty good at explaining the cause and why it matters, I have listened to many stories of individual struggles with mental health issues along the way and I’m proud to wear my red shirt anywhere.

Summit of Cotterell, Nelson Lakes National Park
Summit of Cotterell, Nelson Lakes National Park

Challenge support runners have their own Facebook page where we can post pictures of training efforts, find buddies to train with or talk about our struggles and experiences or anything else we feel like. By utilising social media to foster mutual support the Challenge effectively models the ways of wellbeing the Charity is looking to promote. Indeed the entire Challenge is built around the giving through fundraising and giving through mutual support. The upshot is the evolution of a strong sense of community organised around shared experiences and a common goal. I have made many new friends through my involvement in the Challenge before Day 1 even kicks off.

Mt Travers, Nelson Lakes National Park
Mt Travers, Nelson Lakes National Park

Mental health practitioners long ago figured out what many of us learn through experience, that trying new things or rediscovering old interests and setting goals in relation to these helps us to become more confident, resilient and find new avenues for enjoyment. We are easily bored or distracted. Activities or topics that once interested us may lose their appeal over time. Life inevitably fails to go according to plan, and not all changes affect us in positive ways. Seeking out new experiences and testing ourselves helps to give our lives meaning over and above just getting through each day as well as training us to cope with change in general and life’s curve balls in particular. As a bonus we may discover new passions along the way, develop a greater empathy for others, examine our own beliefs and values and improve our skills as members of a team.

Running round a volcano
Running round a volcano

In the course of training for the High Five-0 Challenge I have discovered the joys of running with other people after being primarily a solo runner for many years, I’ve discovered Wellington trails I didn’t know existed and I’ve found I can run 72km around a volcano in a day and across a mountain range in under 48 hours. I’ve experienced the joys of fast-packing – a hybrid of running and tramping which involves running tramping trails with just a small pack and overnighting along the way – fast and light. I’ve also learnt a bit about how to fundraise, a few things that work and a few things that don’t.

Tararua tops during an attempt to do a north to south traverse in under 48 hours, known as the SK
Tararua tops during an attempt to do a north to south traverse in under 48 hours, known as the SK

The “be active” aspect of modelling wellness is perhaps the most obvious way in which the Challenge links to mental health. In order to support Mal us support runners need to get out there and train and we have to fundraise. This combination of physical challenge and teamwork alongside community service is not unique to the Challenge, you see it in many other places from Outward Bound education programmes to team based adventure races designed in part to raise money for charity. The High Five-0 Challenge is a good opportunity for learning about mental health, personal awareness and development.

The High Five-0 Challenge is a great example of authentic engagement

I have not yet read any of Mal’s book One Step Beyond that details his life changing experiences running New Zealand’s 7 Great Walks on 7 consecutive days  to raise money for charity though I certainly plan to. Nor do I have any expertise in fund-raising, event organisation or promotion so there are probably many aspects of the High Five-0 Challenge that I am ignorant of. As a layperson what sets the Challenge apart from my perspective is that above all else it is inclusive, empathetic, egalitarian and innovative.

There was a timeframe for joining up to be a support runner but apart from buying a t-shirt and providing basic assurance that you will train there are not many eligibility requirements. You do not have to be wealthy or particularly fit you just have to be willing to put in some effort. Nobody prescribes how you train or fundraise but plenty of tips and ideas flow from both the organisation and other participants in a non-hierarchical fashion.

Although the Challenge revolves around Mal the vibe is overwhelmingly egalitarian rather than elitist. Mal is not placed on a pedestal. Mal shares his trials and tribulations along with everyone else. Mal and the team are as likely as any other participant to offer you support and just as likely to post some self-depreciating story or to be impressed by whatever you’ve achieved in terms of fundraising and training. This might not sound particularly special until you remember that there are hundreds of people spread all over New Zealand and further afield who are participating in the Challenge. Without social media the level of inclusiveness would not be practical but it also takes a high level of commitment from the people running the Challenge to communicating in an inclusive and empathetic manner. This project has a genuine sense of “by everyone for everyone” and I have no doubt this reflects the values of those involved.

High Five-0 Challenge support runners posing at the start of the Aorangi Undulator
High Five-0 Challenge support runners posing at the start of the Aorangi Undulator

The organic and flexible nature of the organisation and the willingness to embrace ideas wherever they come from along with the high level of responsibility and with it ownership delegated to participants was a big attraction for me. This approach fosters an engagement. Mal had a fundraising goal of $250,000. The goal was reached a few weeks ago so a new goal of $400,000 has been set. If Mal or his team have a problem or want help with anything they ask the High Five-0 Challenge community. We are encouraged to come up with suggestions and ideas. This week, totally unprompted, a support runner’s dad designed some special light weight gaiters for Mal to wear during the Challenge.

The whole concept of 50:50:50 has not been done before anywhere that I’m aware of and it represents a nice way of show casing the best that New Zealand has to offer. We have a comparative advantage in terms of natural beauty and remoteness and we have lots of lovely peaks just waiting to be scaled. The Challenge leverages these aspects of New Zealand to full advantage. The team gets to see some of the best bits of New Zealand’s countryside and because the event moves around the country it will touch most parts of New Zealand so the messages about mental health issues should travel beyond the main centres to more remote places. The High Five-0 Challenge project embodies values that I share so I’m happy to go the extra mile to spread the word.

View from Iron Hill, Lockett Range, Kahurangi NP
View from Iron Hill, Lockett Range, Kahurangi NP

Stuff you can do if you want to participate

It is too late to join us as a support runner but you can still donate to the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand through my fundraising page if you feel so inspired. Thanks to all of the people out there who have already done so!

http://www.fundraiseonline.co.nz/HighFive-0Challenge

Or monitor our progress on the Facebook page which includes information on how to make a donation by txt if you prefer to donate that way.

https://www.facebook.com/high50challenge

“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can”. One of my favourite quotes comes from Arthur Ashe the legendary African-American tennis player who contracted HIV from a blood transfusion after receiving heart bypass surgery and spent his later years educating people about HIV and AIDS. The one important way you can participate in the Challenge that doesn’t involve shelling out cash or running or peak bagging is to integrate some of the ways of well-being into your life – connect, give, take notice, keep learning and be active. There is every possibility that modelling the ways of wellness will both make you feel better and improve the lives of those around you.

http://www.mentalhealth.org.nz/assets/StayingWell/Five-Ways-to-Wellbeing-images-and-files/mentalhealth-5ways-web-single-2.pdf

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