The Hedgehog and the Cateran Yomp: Lessons in Strategic Thinking in Challenging Times
A Yomp is a fast march over long distances usually undertaken by Royal Marines.
The aim was to walk, or run, 54 miles in under 24 hours to raise money for the Army Benevolent Fund Charity.
I walked some of it, limped, hobbled, and crawled the rest.
This blog explores the experience through the lens of building a strategy for life or business.
I was fit (ish), carrying too much weight that I’d put down to middle-aged spread. The second half of the lockdown had been less kind than the first, and I’d had to run my business from home, which led to an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. None of these factors were helpful when considering an endurance event.
I planned an intense training programme of long walks and running that never actually came off. I used my busy life as an excuse for not training enough, so by the time the day came for the race, I was underprepared.
Luckily, I wouldn’t know this until much later, or I might never have started.
My yomp started at 7.00 am on a cool Saturday morning on the 4th of June 2022. Hundreds of people began at the same time, all fit and well-prepared. The day was going to be very hot, and if all went well, and by my estimations, I’d finish sometime around 5.00 am the following day. My target time was between 20 and 22 hours. Once finished, I could sleep some hours in my tent until about 10.00 am and drive home triumphantly. At the very beginning, before I’d crossed the start, I wondered if I could do it faster than 20 hours. Maybe 18 hours?
I kept with the pack for the first five miles and started to slow. I was feeling the heat by ten miles, and my feet were beginning to blister and hurt. By fifteen miles, my muscles ached, my feet were bleeding, and I was salt depleted. You remain thirsty when you get salt depleted due to hot weather, irrespective of how much water you drink.
I sat at a rest station after seven and a half hours of walking in the beautiful scenery of the Perthshire Cairngorms, finished after just 15 miserable miles. At this stage, I wasn’t going to continue, and it was over!
I’ve written in previous blogs about Jim Collins’s book Good to Great, where he shows how people and organisations have made positive performance jumps. The first thing that happens in great companies is that the right people come together before any business planning gets started.
“Get the right people on the bus, then decide where you’re going to go”. Not the other way around.
The main reason is that plans change; if that happens, the leadership team must take time and effort to agree and realign themselves and their organisation.
At fifteen miles, my plans had just changed. I went from an arrogant, “can I do 54 miles in under 20 hours” to a pitiful, “I want to go home”. I hadn’t got a plan anymore.
Luckily, the right people were on the journey. Two conversations happened that gave me a lot of insight.
The first came from a couple of veterans who saw I was in trouble. These experienced Yompers, gave me salt tablets, and explained that my expectations were unrealistic, and I should be carrying salt for a hot day in the mountains. The tablets helped me to rehydrate, and I started to feel better.
The second conversation was with an American veteran over with a part of a contingent of joint services. She looked at my blistered feet and boots resting by my seat and said,
“Those boots are no good. It’s too hot for boots. Did you bring some trainers”?
Yes, I’d brought my trainers in my backpack. I put them on and could stand up again.
The second thing Jim Collins talks about for successful organisational leadership is having challenging conversations. Don’t be afraid to hear uncomfortable truths and feedback.
My uncomfortable truths were that:
Firstly, I wasn’t fit enough, and I’d need to re-evaluate what I could achieve.
Secondly, making simple changes can have a significant effect. If your boots hurt, and you have a change of footwear in your bag, get on and change them. Don’t suffer because hiking boot dogma says I shouldn’t wear trainers on a long walk.
I set off pleased to walk again and happy to move forwards, but with no expectations. My feet were still in agony, but not in the same way as with the boots on.
I’d had my first two Jim Collins lessons That the people around you are critical for your success and will help you if you let them.
Secondly, a leader must listen to uncomfortable truths from those with experience and a clear vision. Listen to them and be grateful and have humility. Saying thank you is a good start.
I walked on, with my next stop being the Bronze main checkpoint at 22 miles. If I wanted, I could stop there and give up. All the money I’d collected from friends and family wouldn’t go to the Army Benevolent Fund and would be forfeited, and I would have to tell everyone I’d failed.
So, I decided to walk on.
To go from Bronze to the Silver 36-mile checkpoint, I’d need to be part of a team of three and have all my night walking and cold weather kit ready. I wasn’t in a group at this point, and if I wanted to join a team at the leaving gate, I’d need to at least look capable of walking. Anyone with a team would be allowed to leave Bronze.
I had decided I could cope with the pain, so my short-term goal now was to be allowed to leave Bronze.
The Bronze checkpoint was a well-organised set of marquees with hot food, physiotherapy, and entertainment. I took advantage of everything on offer and left in a group with four guys from Edinburgh.
Within five miles, their pace had left me behind, and I was alone walking again. I strangely liked to do it this way. There was a sense of individualism, setting your own pace and pattern of tackling the event. I had time to experience my beautiful surroundings. The pain in the feet and legs became normalised, and my brain started to block most of it unless I hit a rock or root.
The section to Silver was my philosophical time when I had to get through Jim Collins’s next lesson.
I had to be a hedgehog!
In Collin’s story of the fox and the hedgehog, the fox character is glamorous, sleek, and cunning. He is attracted by different things, smells, and sights. But, despite his cunning, the fox does not focus on what he can be the best at. With his cunning and skill, he still tries to eat the hedgehog.
The hedgehog is slow, not cunning, or sleek. The hedgehog waddles about. But the hedgehog is the best in the world at one thing: defence. When the fox jumps out of his hiding place to attack, the hedgehog rolls into the ball, and the fox gets a nose full of spines. Despite the foxes cunning, he repeatedly tries to eat the hedgehog and fails.
It was the afternoon of the first day, and I had to decide whether I had it inside myself to complete this walk. What was I the best in the world at?
What was my inner hedgehog quality?
I knew that completing 54 miles was going to be painful, and I’d still got the cold night walk to do, and I’d be on my own. My inner dialogue went along the lines of, “this is really going to hurt, but just because it’s going to hurt doesn’t mean you can’t cross the line.”
You’ll notice the change in my language—no more talk of finishing in under 20 hours because I’m fit (ish).
My single goal was the finish line.
Now that’s clarity!
The clarity came by stripping away that which is egocentric and focusing on a sole purpose.
What am I the best in the world at? When I have clarity, I am the most physically and mentally resilient person I know. I knew I could keep going.
It was 11.00 pm when I got to the Silver checkpoint at 36 miles. I was on the downhill stretch but still had the night hike, and the temperature had dropped to below zero. I pulled my warm kit from my bag, put my hood up and set off.
The night walk was fantastic. The sun never entirely set, and an orange glow followed me around the horizon until it finally rose in front of me, full of splendour. The walking was hard, and roots and stones hurt my feet through the soft trainers. My language deteriorated into lots of cursing and swearing. As I was alone, it didn’t seem to matter.
It was time for Jim Collins’s final personal and business strategy lesson.
Leaders must have personal and organisational discipline.
To know what you must do and keep doing it.
In my case, this meant:
- Keep walking – one foot in front of the other. Yes, it hurts. Put your big boys’ pants on and keep going.
- Keep drinking. Hydration is key.
- Sustain a steady pace, chip away, one mile at a time.
- Don’t waste time getting lost. Stop, check, walk. Don’t get distracted.
- Don’t take long breaks because muscles stiffen quickly.
The morning was lovely sunny and warm after the cold of the night.
I was in Collins’s clarity and discipline mode. I was there to finish the job, come what may. I’d already settled into not caring if there was no finish line to cross anymore because I was so late, everyone had gone home. Just finish.
At 9.30, I saw the town of Blairgowrie, where it all began. I saw the grand marquees and could hear the announcer. One of the organisers passed me going in the other direction, looking for a group of army veterans who were amputees, and still out on the hill, determined to finish. I felt a surge of pride for them, as we’d all been part of something extraordinary. All doing our hedgehog thing!
After crossing a farm track and heading for the finish line, I entered the main field at 10.25 am.
“Is that Andrew Woodward” the announcer shouted over the PA system.
Yes, it bloody well is! – 54 miles in 27 hours and 30 minutes.
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Wow; what a great story and fantastic achievement Andrew – well done for going all the way.