Monday, March 24, 2014

On Progress

'Progress' is a bit of a funny one. Business can talk about 'SMART' aims (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-linked), but in the world of the Outdoors, we don't really do those. We don't normally set aims, we don't really closely monitor our progress, we don't have personal development plans, we don't do increments. So what do we do when we recognise a problem and want a long-term, hardwired, resilient solution to that issue?

The root of my paddling issues I've covered at length on here, so you know the problem. Obviously I needed to improve my technical skills and my confidence, so I started keeping a live log of my river days and making notes: What went well, what went not so well, how I felt on the river, what I think I need to work on. That's coupled with one of my 3 aims from a while back, to pass my 4*, and I have a 4* profiling sheet, so I can look at my progress against the things I need to do. I've still got Kelvin, the coach's, notes from my training, back in December '12, and they're a useful guide of what someone else thought of my paddling, at a time when I was probably beating myself up about it a lot.

My log is into it's fourth year of boating now. What's noticeable? Progression, physically and mentally. It's kind of heartening to see it spread out the way it is, and to look at the issues I had back in 2011. Going from notes like "Generally okay, silly swim on Dog Leg (weight balance wrong, stuck on boil line)" to "Great fun. Chilled out run, nice surfing and steady work on eddies and ferries." The root of it was the club's Wales weekend back in 2011, that seemed to be the time I first sort of pushed myself back into boating and maybe realised how much I'd dropped away. And, perhaps, how much I wanted to get back into it.

One of the interesting things is the number of days paddling I have done over the past few years. 2011, when this all started, I only got 12 sections of river in 11 days paddling over a year. I was training for the Grand Raid des Pyrenees and, while I still did a lot of pool sessions and polo, my river boating days were utterly minimal. 2012 was better, 22 sections over 21 days. Still not exactly a royal flush, but a massively better hand than the year before, but it did include my 4* training which started the next phase of recovery. After that, 2013 was kind of my breakthrough year, 37 sections over 30 days paddling, and probably the biggest single progression impact, the Alps trip. As I said at the time, you can almost *feel* the progression when you can run similar sections day-on-day for a fortnight. The three sections that we ran twice, Upper Guisane, Gyronde and the Briancon Gorge, I felt noticeably better and happier on on our second run even though the two runs were only 5 days apart at most. Partially because of that, I'm going back to the Alps this year and I'll be interested to see what my log says for this time round.

The general gist of the whole thing, if I were to plot 'how things went' on a graph, is a nice upwards trend. Things have been gradually getting better, and that's awesome. It's interesting, though, to look at the outliers and blips too, the days when I've felt bad, when I've not bothered, when I've paddled badly. In some cases, like the Tyne Tour and at least one day on the Washburn, it's been beer-related - paddling with a hangover was never my forte in the past, and it continues not to be. In a couple of cases bad days have been kit-related - forgetting the hip wedges for my boat, having a bust drysuit zip. But mentally my worst days have been when I've felt I was the weakest paddler in a group, and when I was paddling new sections. The days, like Sunday just gone on the Lune, when I'm coaching or leading on a section I know well, I'm invincible (well, not quite, but you get the idea). New sections where I'm following, like the Gloy over New year, I struggle. Everything about that river put the shakies up me, even though it was the kind of low-ish volume, fast, micro-eddied technical beck paddling that I quite like. I paddled with Mike and Duncan as a trio, two people I haven't paddled with regularly, if that makes any difference. I paddled at the back, worried, fretted and inevitably made a couple of cockups - nothing major, no swims, no rolls - and generally felt a bit out of my depth. I got down the river but there was nothing stylish or smooth about it, I felt like a complete numpty.

Those are the type of days I said I wanted to avoid, so what could I have done: Not got on the river? I did enough no-boat days over the New Year trip, the levels were ridiculously high and I wasn't happy in my own abilities on flows like that, that's something to work on though. Paddled at the front more? That's a possibility, forcing myself to up my game and lead more might have helped. Paddled with a different group? That shouldn't matter, I shouldn't be deriving my own worth from my perception of others. I've said this for a while, other people's skill levels might define the order we paddle but shouldn't define *how* we paddle.

Why a river within my skill level should affect me so much based on the company I've kept I'm really not sure. I've no definitive answer for that one yet, and I'm not really sure there is one. I'll keep logging my days, looking at my data and, judging by the progress I've made in the past 3 years, I'm sure I'll work it out sometime.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Response & Responsibility

It's been a while since I posted up on here, but some stuff from the past few weeks got me thinking.

'Responsibility' is a bit of a funny word in the world at the moment. There's so many situations where it's both a good word and a bad word, a blessing or a curse. It would be too broad-brush to say that people don't like responsibility, but you do seem to see so many stories in the gutter press where 'responsibility' equals 'liability', equals 'fault', equals 'blame'. Unfortunate things happen, and people look for someone else to shoulder their burden for them, financially at least. Teams of no-win-no-fee lawyers wrangle and twist people's testimony to wring out every last penny, scrying for that tiny chink in the armour/crack in the pavement/missed paragraph in the training document to prod and jemmy until coins fall out. Okay, that's an over-the-top view, and I'd like to believe that the world isn't as full of rabid ambulance chasing lawyers as TV and the papers seem to say, but sometimes it's hard to hold on to that belief.

These thoughts all spring to mind because I'm often in a position where I am, effectively, taking some responsibility for other people. Whether that's as one of the Safety team organisers for the National Student Rodeo, as a coach and river leader with the Leeds Uni Canoe Club, or as a safety and sweep marshal for Rat Race, in some capacity I take some responsibility for other people's wellbeing, as well as my own. Frankly, that responsibility isn't something that crosses my mind very often, because 95% of the time that assumed responsibility never rears it's head. People I come into contact with in the world of outdoor sports are usually very cogniscent of their own responsibilities, they prepare properly, they have the right kit, they are aware of their fitness to take part in whatever event or sport. So my responsibility only arises when something goes wrong, and when that person is, in some capacity, less able to take sole responsibility for their own wellbeing. When zemblanity occurs. When, as they say, shit happens.

So why do I do it?

Frankly, I put myself in that position willingly because, like almost everyone else in the world, I am capable of assessing and judging the risks around me and making a personal judgement on whether I'm happy to accept those risks or not. Because, like most other people again, I'm capable of either mitigating those risks or simply removing myself from the situation if I'm not happy to accept them. Not necessarily because of qualifications or certificates I have (though they have helped), but because of knowledge I have and because of the confidence I have in my own skills and the kit I'm carrying, whether I'm carrying that kit for my benefit or someone else's. It's only a small step up from assessing those risks for myself to assessing those risks on behalf of myself and someone else, assuming that I'm there for a reason and that they're no longer in a position to mitigate those risks entirely on their own.

I don't do it for the buzz, for any kind of power trip or acclaim, though a 'thank you' and a 'well done' at the end of the day is always gratefully received. I sometimes sit at my post on these events and feel genuinely worried for some of the participants. I can manage my own fears and be confident I've mitigated and managed any risks to myself, I can hope they've done the same - contrary to some evidence, in a few cases - and I can hope they get a day of fun, either Type 1 or Type 2*, and feel happy and satisfied afterwards without ever needing my input. If I've spent a day bored, that's kind of fine.

If you're ever a participant in an event and you see the marshals and safety team around, give them a smile, and remember that for them it's often managed boredom. They are sitting doing nothing knowing that if they have to get up and do something, it's because some poor sod's in trouble. If they have to work, it's because bad things have happened, and if bad things have happened to a participant there, bad things could happen to the safety team there as well. They want to be busy, but wouldn't ever want to wish ill on anyone so they can actually do something, because that means maybe putting themselves at the same risk as the first person did. The second mouse isn't always after the cheese, sometimes it's trying to extricate the first one.

And they often do have to extricate that mouse, because a big part of adventure is taking risks. Doing something that scares you is often down to doing something where you're not sure whether you can mitigate every hazard out there, where there is a real fear that shit might, quite possibly, happen. Without the chance of shit happening there is no danger, there is no adrenaline response, there is no excitement. And that is, quite honestly, what a lot of us do these particular sports for. The feeling and the knowledge that we've pushed ourselves, because we've felt that adrenaline response, is what we're after, whether that's at the summit of a mountain, the bottom of a deep gorge, the landing of a jump.

But this isn't a treatise on risk management, irrational fear and adrenaline junkie-ism. It isn't comparing what we do in the outdoors to crossing the road in a 'safe' urban area. It isn't a lecture on kit choice and backups. It certainly isn't trying to convice people to turn to me when the excrement hits the air conditioning. It's just a rambling way of saying that, if you see me in the hills or on the river, I don't want to have to take responsibility on your behalf.

But I will do if I have to.

*Type 1 fun - fun. Type 2 fun - fun in hindsight. Type 3 fun - not really fun at all.