My town, Tallahassee, is trail-rich for runners. On a recent evening, a group of us planned to preview a trail that would be used for an upcoming race. We met at a specified gate, which was closed behind us, and ran about a mile to the entrance of the trail. From that point, the trail was supposed to take about 2.5 miles, after which we would run back to the gate.
I knew I would be at the back of the group (I am always at the back of a group of runners), but I felt relatively familiar with these trails because I had run portions of them before. I also had previously run with this group and seen how careful they were to make sure everyone was accounted for, even when their directional signs had been removed by the county the previous week (the county thought their event was over).
What’s the worst that could happen?
On this particular evening, the coordinator had planned to put out directional flags for the upcoming race on Saturday, but they had been forgotten, which didn’t seem like that big a deal. Someone actually said, “What’s the worst that could happen?”
We gathered for the initial review of the course, standing at a course map. What I heard was “You’ll be starting at this entrance, then follow the orange blazes on the trees for the whole course.” Clearly I missed the part where he said “and follow the ‘Oak Hammock Trail’ signs.” This was an important part of the instructions!
After we ran the mile to the trail entrance, the coordinator said to me, “Okay, you are going to come back out here at this multipurpose road, then you will turn right and go to our cars. He also said he would catch up with me on the trail.
Losing My Way
I continued on, enjoying the beautiful night and the pleasure of running in the midst of nature. I came to one “decision point” about 3/4 of the mile in to the trail portion, and retraced my steps several times until I found more orange blazes, then I kept going.
I came to a multi-use trail a few tenths of a mile before I expected to be hitting the road I needed. For some reason I had “Trail W” in my head, so I kept going since I was at “X” and had just passed “Y.” The road also had a different feel than the one we had started on … too much wet clay.
When I got to the “W” marker, it was evident that wasn’t right either — there was a marker but no road.
That was when my mind started whirling. Although the trail isn’t that far from a road and civilization, I was definitely turned around. It all looked familiar from previous race events but this was not an event (in the “race” sense of the word) so there were no directional flags and no volunteers. I stopped running and started walking, because I needed to stay calm and think. Even though I am a slow runner, choosing to run instead of walk was putting more distance between me and a solution.
Here’s where technology comes in! I Facebook-messaged the coordinator with a message that said “still on trail” and gave my phone number. Although I knew the gate wasn’t locked and he had shown us how to open it, I still was rapidly beating myself up with the idea that I was keeping my fellow runners from being able to move on with their night — someone would have to make sure I made it out of the woods!
Ultimately a fellow runner, looked me up on the map (I was able to provide some visuals) and found a service road he could use to pick me up. I was so happy when Walter and his dog, Magnus, pulled up!
What does any of this have to do with business and life? Let’s discuss four “truths from the trail”:
At the beginning of our outing, I was preoccupied with taking a picture of the group to share later on our Facebook page, and failed to listen attentively to the instructions. There are times in life when it is okay to let your attention wander. When you are about to be in the middle of the woods where many trails are marked with orange blazes (not just the one you need), however, missing one phrase in the verbal instructions can be a problem.
Making a concerted effort to stay fully focused on instructions can be the difference between success and failure.
You Won’t Always Get as Much Guidance as You Expect
In the previous week’s run, all of us overcame the issue of the “missing signs” easily. The course was more compact, and the group leaders were able to keep up with everyone (even us slow runners) by stationing themselves at critical intersections. In this case, the combination of the forgotten directional flags, vague trail signage, and my poor listening was a recipe for a deviation from the plan.
Backup plans should always ask “how will I fill in the blanks if I need more help than I originally anticipated?”
Staying Calm = Power
If I tried to write out the thoughts in my head as I tried to solve my problem, there would be a lot of run-on sentences, a general lack of organized thought, and abundant exclamation marks. Something like “Ohmygoshtheymustbesoworried WhereonearthamI Whatifmycargetslockedin? Iamsostupid! Itisgettingdarkfast WhatwasIthinking Ohmygosh Isthatarootorasnake Ohmygosh.”
Accepting Offers of Assistance ≠ Weakness
I would rather solve problems myself (which has led to more than a few pieces of feedback over the years about my need to delegate) and don’t want to inconvenience people. As this incident pointed out, there are times when we are not enough without other people.
We are strongest when we humble ourselves to ask for help.