Thursday, June 09, 2011

The art of walking...

That is pretty much it...walking....what we are doing here. After all we have 1600 KM to cover. About 8 hours everyday are spent on this activity, focused on covering distance and then there is walking between the tent and the dinning table, tent and a bush, tent and another tent.

I had not giving this art a thought until i realized that it would consume 60 days of my life walking the Gobi. It is an art, mind you, though it comes naturally to all homo sapiens, perhaps even before they can talk coherently. And it take a hell lot of practice to get it right. In fact, if we paid enough attention to correct our walking, we would be free of half our health issues. Well, this may be a tall claim, but you'll see the logic as i explain. And mind you, some of the conclusions here are retrospective too.


When i began my practice, i walked without any load at first..it was all city walking..quite a
different ball game as compared to what i am doing now. But then i had to get it right, just the walking part. There are several things you can work on- your stride, the swing of your arms, the straightness of your spine, neck and head positions, how you place your foot, what force you place it with, what footwear you are wearing, and so on.

Most if us walk in a style that is lanky, easy and steady. We can walk fast when we want to but, some are not naturally inclined towards it. I love to swing my arms, since they bring a rhythm to the walk. And if there is nothing to hold, all the better to set a pace. I used this baseline a the beginning of my practice to build on. After all, i had to play to my strengths-- speed is not my forte as prolonged activity is.


After I had established a steady pace and a style that did not cause me any awkwardness or pain anywhere, i added load. I started with a light day pack. I had not moved on to tyre dragging just yet. I now had to work my feet to take a fall on different terrain. So I was away in the hills, on the beach, on the roads and on mud roads as often as i could.


I had ordered my Scarpa shoes early on and practiced with them at all times. Just so that I could break them in. They fit me till just above the ankle and have saved me many an ankle sprain on topsy turvy terrain.

Walking can be a passive as well as an active activity. It appears active when there is passion in your walking and a great purpose in your stride. Nothing can distract you. Passive is when you are walking like you are breathing, without being conscious of it and are preoccupied with something  mental at the same time. At such times the pace is easy, you don't notice all obstacles and distractions are easy.

This brings me to my walking in the Gobi. You'd think all the practice and all the shoe breaking in has helped, right? Wrong! The shoes are as good as new...it took two weeks for them to settle down after giving me umpteen blisters all over my toes and foot pad. And my legs, protested at every step. I was made aware of every tiny muscle i have in my legs. The calves, hamstrings and thighs..all of them took a hit. Nothing prepares you for a Gobi walk except another Gobi walk.

I have begun to use walking sticks these days since i hurt my knee after shoving my foot down a marmot hole on the second day.  The pain is gone but the sticks feel good. I swing them over my shoulder, carry them one a side or use them like they are meant to be used.

What goes on in my head as i walk? A hell lot of things-- whistling, singing tunes to myself, making up to do list for that day/next day/when I am back home, thinking...a lot of thinking, plans for the future, what car I want to buy, what is the first thing I'll do when I am back to civilization, visualization of ending the day/expedition, memories with friends and family.

Then there is the scenery around, though it does not change too much daily due to our speed, but the photography is something to do.

I am not sure what every one else on my team does, but the memories and the thinking drive me hard and give me that much needed push. I count steps when the going gets tough and for every 500th step, take a sip of water.

This blog was entirely written in my head while walking, so I know i can do only 16 things at a time. :P

Cheers to the art of walking, which I am still trying to master.

Before joining an expedition..

At any given moment, there are hundreds of expeditions going on around the world. They might be solo or team events. The more extraordinary and not-done-before kind they are, the more they attract attention. I am glad to be a part of one such expedition, that is not been frequently attempted before. Not from India, anyway.

Over the 5 odd varied expeditions I have been a part of, I have concluded that it is the team's leader that makes the biggest difference to how well it goes for you. Forget you ability to cope, your capability to accomplish or even your experience of past expeditions. For every expedition that you are a part of to be successful, a great leader is a common denominator.

Communication is key. A great expedition leader communicates often, clearly and with decisiveness. There are no maybes and there is always a definite plan for everything, even the unpredictable. The communication has to be conveyed to all directly, and together. Asking questions, also takes top priority as does answering them. Letting on as much information as possible and the rational behind some decisions is crucial to gain the team member's trust. Selective communication or ignoring any individual does not inspire confidence in a leader. Misinforming the team about the overall plan or not informing them at all, can ferment silent rebellion in the team.

In a team, the leader's authority is ultimate. Advice may be solicited and opinions sought, but the decision remains the leader's alone. A poor leader undermines his position by having others solution the team member's issues.

Establishing a patterns earlier on is extremely important for the expedition's success. This includes timing the daily activities, break and meals. A reaction pattern also needs to be set for situations that call for everyone to act fast. Like, in our case, runaway camels. This not only ensures that the body copes well with the sudden hike in physical effort, but the team member's are at peace too. They know what to expect at particular time of the day and in case of certain events.

Creating groups of similarly abled team members to buddy each other often reduces the leader's load. Though the responsibility remains with him, delegating works effectively when distance and/or lack of means of communication prevent the leader's presence at hand. A great leader accepts all the team members with their strengths and weaknesses. Smart delegation is called for when all individuals are different culturally and by physical ability. Quick wit and a sense of humour are indispensable tools in a leader's backpack too.

A golden rule that every leader follows is to be true to facts--past, present or future. Under no circumstances does the leader dispute or contradict the claims he has made about other past expeditions, an older edition of the same expedition or his achievements. Seems unlikely, but people remember and learn to connect the dots.

It is truly a thankless job, when done well. As a leader, you need to answer all questions, take difficult decisions, and live with them if they do not turn out to be appropriate in the long run. But then, with a job done well, come the rewards. Your reputation precedes you and you are sought after to lead the next one of its kind expedition. Repeating successes and happy teams are the hallmark of a true expedition leader.

So before you embark on you next expedition, be sure to ask the leader his/her experience in leading expeditions in the past.