4 pillars of mental toughness – dealing with challenges you don’t choose

Day 3 of the Kungsladen trail

Day 3 of the Kungsladen trail

Life throws challenges at us every day. The challenges of our own making are ok, I like them, thrive on them even. With the other type, the ones that are imposed or “gifted” to us by others, I find it hard to maintain my usual levels of energy and enthusiasm. I’ve had plenty of unavoidable, grit your teeth type work trials over the years but this summer, I faced a different test, one that needed serious energy – an 8 day, 120km hike along the Kungsladen trail, at the top of Sweden, 250km inside the Arctic Circle.

I’ve learnt over the years that when the going gets tough, the tough ask for help! In this case, a great conversation with Sports Psychologist and Coach Sarah Fenwick www.sarah-fenwick.com made all the difference.

I was anxious about the physical aspects of the trip. It meant carrying all your kit and food, getting water from icy rivers, sleeping in huts and crossing my most hated terrain – bog, ice and snow, thigh deep in places, thin and dangerous, squidgy and melting in others. I’ve had long term back and hip problems and was receiving treatment for a grumbling rotator cuff shoulder injury. I’m fit and used to walking but imagined serious discomfort.

Equally tricky were the mental aspects, the timing was awkward and I had competing priorities. I’d been struggling with my second novel, had recently found a creative seam that I needed time and space to explore. And, as is often the way with self-employed people, I was worried about where the money was going to come from. Why I felt I couldn’t say no was that it was one of my best friends’ 50th birthday celebrations, a relationship with a lot of love and history. My challenge was someone dear to me’s dream “holiday.”

So I’d begun the training walks daunted and with little excitement. It was all about the detail, buying kit and weighing kit, in my mind, a grey mist settled over my preparations for the hike. I begrudged buying what came to be essential kit – including a glamorous black veil – a netted hat to avoid being attacked by Arctic Mosquito’s.

Having coached life threatening expeditions across the Antarctic Sarah was the perfect person to share my worries with. Sarah did 3 very helpful things:
– firstly she encouraged me to find things that I wanted to achieve within the challenge. I’m a writer I could take inspiration from the dramatic scenery, create new imagery, and dream up new stories and situations.
– secondly, scenario planning my worst fears – what was I going to do when I had to wade through icy melt water, well up over my knees? Answers included, not feeling sorry for myself, preparing properly, getting back to the kit shop for gaiters (which in the event proved useless but I had to laugh) and remembering it’s just water, what was the worst that could happen – I’d get wet.
– and finally, the four pillars of mental toughness (Jones and Moorhouse 2008) which meant I was ready for our most demanding day.

Day 3: Alesajaure to Salka. We were up at 5am, after not enough sleep in a 10 bunk room, with a string of mosquito bites on my forehead and one that had blown up, hot and irritated, inside my boot. The hike ahead was 28km/18miles much of it across unreliable snow. At one point it took us an hour to go 1km. But I managed it and felt a great sense of achievement. Here’s how the pillars of toughness model helped.

i) keeping your head to be able to make good decisions – in my case this included decisions from the smallest level, like concentrating clearly on where I am going to put my foot next, noticing when my head was going down or my mind was wandering and I was losing the path. I made important choices too, to share my hiking poles and chocolate with someone in the team who didn’t have any, taking and appreciating help when it was offered, like the lovely friend who lifted my pack onto my tired shoulders.

ii) Maintaining (finding) motivation- I delighted in the prospect of having a hot sauna at the end of the day in a beautiful hut in the wilderness and getting to the hut before the rain set in. It certainly made me walk faster.

iii) Focusing on what matters – Making your day as comfortable as possible, controlling what you can and letting the rest go. For example: remembering to stop and take some deep breaths at the meditation stones, which were thoughtfully (mindfully) positioned at regular intervals along the route (those lovely Swedes.) I remembered to take in the stunning landscape and to drink, avoiding dehydration. It’s also about the balance between short and long –term goals, picking the things that will help contribute to the overall goal, like saving energy because there’s 4 more days to go.

iv) Self-belief to achieve – I was never in any doubt really that I could complete the test. It was about reminding myself I’d done the training and about what I’d achieved before. And as I said at the start, that I enjoy challenges – it’s easy to forget this when you’re knee deep in bog being attacked by mosquito’s. I enjoy challenges because that’s one of the ways I learn and grow, whether I choose that challenge or not.

I don’t really consider myself mentally tough – like my three friends who made it to the summit of Mount Kebnekaise – but there were no tears or tantrums from me. The Mental Toughness ideas were invaluable and I’ll remember them the next time I’m asked to do something difficult that isn’t on my own to-do list. Thanks to Sarah and the amazing women on the trip, I “got over myself,” learnt a lot, had amazing unexpected conversations and came to see the experience as a gift.

So watch out for a new story about what goes on under the tundra carpet. There will be fingernail mountain flowers, arctic gentian, orchid and bartia, evil Skewer birds that will rip out your liver, suicidal lemmings and the wise words of Dag Hammarskjöld – Swedish secretary general of the United Nations in 1961, who died in a mysterious plane crash.

“It’s the effort that finds us, not we the effort.”

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