What winning the first skiing race to the north pole taught me about resilience

A positive mindset and emotional awareness are essential ingredients when performing in high-pressure environments. Manley Hopkinson puts this into practice in extreme circumstances, as he shares his experiences of skiing to the North Pole

Racing 360 miles across badly broken frozen sea ice with a wind chill factor of – 60 degrees centigrade, pulling a sledge with 200kg of food and fuel, and with the local polar bears convinced of their position at the top of the food chain, this was going to be tough.

Our resilience would be vital, not just to try to win the race, but for survival.

I use the definition of resilience as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, both physically and mentally, through a positive mindset and emotional awareness.

For this to happen we must look at resilience from a holistic viewpoint. I will, of course, need a positive mindset and to be acutely aware of how I am feeling emotionally and physically, but I will also need to monitor and maintain my energy levels – knowing when to push on and when to hold back and re-charge. Resilience is not boom and bust, it is maintaining optimum performance throughout the challenge by balancing the needs of emotion, mindset, energy and health.

Personal commitment

I was the least experienced person on the team by some way. Both Chris McLeod and Phil Ashby, my teammates, had extraordinary experience of polar conditions as highly decorated ex-Royal Marine officers, both eight years my junior, brilliant skiers and supremely fit.

I am a sailor at heart and yes, I had skied a fair bit downhill, but three months before the start of this race I had never before donned a pair of cross-country skis. I did bring value to the team with my experiences in navigation and I know what it takes psychologically and physiologically to push yourself far beyond any perceived idea of what limits you thought you had, but … I was determined that I was not going to be the weak link in the chain. I was not going to let the team down. So, I made a commitment. A commitment to myself and to Chris and Phil. ‘Chaps, I will do everything in my power to ensure that you never have to say: ‘Hurry up, Manley.’

They never did.

That commitment was etched in my conscious mind. It helped me snap out of ever feeling sorry for myself. It helped me push on when my body was screaming for me to stop. It gave Chris and Phil the confidence that their teammate was on the top of his game.

Personal resilience requires a foundation of commitment. Team resilience comes from respecting and being compassionate about the shared individual commitments.

What is your commitment? Who else have you shared it with?

Be conscious of how your body feels – body intelligence

We ran a unique day of only 20 hours. We did not want 24; that would be too long and would mean we both march for too long and sleep for too long. From an energy perspective this would be disastrous.

The sun never set where we were going, so we were free to choose. Resilience means listening closely to your ‘body intelligence’. Don’t ignore a niggle. A niggle is a friendly early warning sign of potential dramatic failure. When a cold spot on your cheek no longer feels cold, don’t assume it has warmed up, it could be the beginning of frost-bite. When the hot-spot on your heel enters your consciousness, stop and deal with it immediately or you will be in pain for a long time. The danger is we press on, we tough it out, we ‘man-up’! That’s not sharp and it’s not resilient. Listen, respect and be compassionate to your body. Tune in to your body intelligence.

What are you doing with what your body is telling you?

Discipline

We split our 20-hour day into 13 hours of marching. Then two hours to melt ice for water, prepare the food, repair the kit and deal with ‘personal admin’ as we called it. Four hours sleep – long enough for the body to rest but not so long that it starts to atrophy (to eat the muscle groups we are not using in the process of recovery). Then on-hour after sleep to eat, pack, prepare and go. We broke up the 13 hours into 90-minute non-stop sessions, with a short break; 90 minutes and a break, 90 minutes and a break and so on.

If you were to take a five or 10-minute break, how long would it be in reality? It is never 5 or 10 minutes. It is a nebulous concept. It is open to interpretation. When we took our breaks, we took seven minutes – exactly. We never ever broke the 7-minute rule. In essence, the seven-minute break was the external manifestation of our internal discipline. If you do not have the personal, internal discipline to do what you know you must, then nothing will change.

Internal discipline if the bedrock of resilience. How is yours?

Shut up

We rotated position at each seven-minute break. Whoever had been at the front now went to number three. The second person took the lead to number one and the old number three into the middle as the new number two. The number one and number two positions were important and would need not just the big physical effort but a strong mental one too.

Number one had the role of micro-navigator – to find the best path through the broken ice, minimising the sheer drops, the slush and the dead ends. Number two had responsibility for macro-navigation, to scan the horizon, keep an eye on the passage of the sun and the direction of the wind; to ensure we did not deviate from our path of northwards ever northwards.

As for number three? From a resilience perspective this was the toughest place to be. Number one and number two held an immense mental focus and time disappeared. The man at the back had no role, save that of recovery. Mentally and emotionally dangerous. The doubts creep into our minds. The aches and the pains of sore joints, previously listened to and dealt with, now start to nag and bite away at our confidence. The sheer scale of the task becomes daunting as we scan the horizon in all directions and see … nothing.

I learnt two vital lessons on resilience from being at the back.

First, it is in these quiet moments that you fall back on your commitment for the strength to carry on and maintain that positive mindset. Without that shared commitment your mindset, emotion and energy all wane.

Second, I learned the power of silence. Absolute silence. There is no noise save the rhythmic scree, scree, scree of the skis and the sound of your own pulse in your head. This was a beautiful and profound gift.

In today’s world we are always in contact, always distracted, always juggling more and more inputs from an expanding and uncontrollable array of sources. Our minds never settle. The noise never stops.

Like throwing stone after stone after stone into a pond, the surface becomes so confused with ripples that we cannot see into the pond’s depths. Stop throwing stones. Let the waters become still and then you can see.

To be resilient we need to learn to stop the noise and focus on what is happening inside. To be still and check in to ourselves. Resilience begins with self-compassion.

Manley Hopkinson is the founder of renowned leadership consultancy Manley Talks LTD, author of Compassionate Leadership and a keynote speaker.

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