I get all kinds of responses from people who hear me speak for the first time. I don’t blame them – before I open my mouth, I’m never entirely certain exactly what sound will come out. Usually, people think I have laryngitis. Once, a Woolies cashier openly laughed at me, and I often have call centre employees call me Ma’am.
I would have thought that the name Oscar is a big enough clue as to my gender, but hey, who knows these days?
At several points since 2006 I haven’t been able to do anything other than whisper, so I take this as a win. Being saved from phone calls is also a win, but it can be extremely frustrating to ring someone’s doorbell, and for them not to be able to hear me over the intercom. Joining in on dinner table conversations was generally impossible, and I went through periods of actively avoiding parties or restaurants. Even now, I often prefer to remain quiet.
I was once on my way to have a meeting with someone called Luke. At the entrance, the security guard asked me whom I was there to see. I don’t think he saw the humour of my Darth Vader-ish voice telling him I was there to see Luke (“I am your father, Luke”).
From about 2003 or 2004, my voice got progressively more hoarse, until I lost it entirely, in 2006. The cause of this was found to be cancerous growths on my vocal chords, and since then I’ve had six surgeries, as well as a six-week course of radiation. Vocal chords are extremely sensitive bits of equipment; while these treatments have left me without cancer, I have extensive scarring. Hence the voice.
There was a time that I referred to myself as the Boardroom Whisperer. My brother called me Il Voce (the voice).
Before this started, I had already started reading the Harry Potter series to my daughter. The growing hoarseness was progressive, but I just kept going, complete with made-up voices for all the main characters. Believe me, you’d rather listen to the Stephen Fry reading Harry Potter, but we’d already started, and even though she was perfectly capable of reading The Deathly Hallows herself, we had to finish it the way we’d started. The main problem was that the final book was more than three times as long as the first!
Books are a process. They have a defined structure, complete with start and end points. Words make up sentences. Sentences make paragraphs. Paragraphs make pages. Pages make chapters, and chapters make books. One step follows from another. Small bits cumulatively make something big. This also works in reverse for people writing books. Even writing just 500 words a day can be life changing for an aspirant author.
The point of this is that all of us who loved the Harry Potter books got completely drawn into the world of supernatural powers. I’m here to tell you that every one of us has superpowers, and they don’t require the use of spells, or finding horcruxes.
There is magic in process. Let me give you an example.
By the end of 2015, my surgeon had decided that he couldn’t keep cutting away at my vocal chords. He prescribed a six-week course of radiation, which resulted in the worst pain I’ve ever experienced. I lived on soup and morphine for something like two months in the first quarter of 2016. At the end of it I’d lost nearly 15% of my body weight, and it’s not as if I ever had much in reserve.
I already had an entry for the 2017 Cape Epic, which was almost exactly 12 months after I finished radiotherapy. I was a keen mountain biker, so it just seemed like a simple process of starting to ride again, and the rest would fall into place.
After my first few rides, I realised that this wasn’t going according to plan. In fact, I felt so bad on the bike that if I didn’t have the objective of getting fit for Epic I might have stopped right there. I could barely cycle around the block, and even the tiniest bit of exertion had me sounding like Darth Vader because I could barely breathe.
I went to the Sports Science Institute for a proper training programme. I stuck the programme onto the fridge, just as I had done with the schedule for my 33 radiotherapy appointments, and I followed the instructions to the letter.
13 weeks later, I completed the four-day Imana Wild Ride, along the coast from Morgan Bay to Umngazi, which is one of the most awe-inspiring bits of landscape in South Africa. I can highly recommend the experience!
Training continued from August until March, and then we rode the 2017 Cape Epic. It’s one of the toughest mountain biking stage races in the world. Over the course of eight days we covered nearly 700km, climbing 15000m. My body had got stronger, but I still made a lot of noise when breathing. I can’t tell you how many times fellow riders offered me asthma pumps, or how many times they rode ahead to let my partner know that I might be in trouble.
That we reached the finish line is a testament to the power of following a structured training programme – in other words, the Magic of Process.
After finishing Epic, I discovered that I’d trained for – and ridden – the event on something like 50% of my breathing capacity. It’s not quite the same as breathing through a straw, but it gives you an idea of the effect. Sometimes it’s better not to know things like this, because I might not even have attempted it if I’d known about this limitation.
I need to tell you a bit about my riding partner, Piet Viljoen. We met as a result of a blog I posted in February 2016, entitled Will You Be My Epic Valentine? At that point, I could barely whisper, I certainly wasn’t strong enough to exercise, and I still had nearly a month of treatment left. Piet, on the other hand, was about to run the Two Oceans Ultra, was in training for a full Iron Man, and would go on to do a bunch of extreme endurance events in 2017.
Piet is a value investor, but even a ‘reversion to mean’ model would have had difficulty forecasting the extent of my recovery. In my darkest days, I was the equivalent of buying into African Bank while it was in curatorship, or purchasing Greek bonds under threat of default. We couldn’t sensibly cycle together until the end of 2016, and yet Piet didn’t waver. His level of commitment puts his immediate “yes” on the level of “I do”. I have spent many hours looking at the back of Piet’s RECM cycling kit, with the strapline: “Follow your conviction.” Even if I’ve been the one doing the following, I can tell you that the conviction part is real.
And this was on the back of a brief coffee meeting with someone who until that point had been a complete stranger. It says a lot for the power of making a choice … and sticking to it.
I can tell you that it makes a HUGE difference to share a challenge with someone who has the kind of values, energy and commitment that support your objectives.
Far from the 2017 experience scaring us off, we repeated Cape Epic in 2018 and 2019.
There’s a little bit of synchronicity to my Epic story, in that a racehorse I co-owned with my mother, Sergeant Hardy, was at point the country’s top-rated sprinter despite having impaired breathing. Our Cape Epic team name was Hoarse Power (with an ‘a’), and we rode the first one in pink kit that was inspired by my mother’s racing colours.
There are a number of other learnings from the experience of riding Epic, or indeed any other endurance event. The simplest, and most obvious, is that as long as you keep turning the cranks you will get to the finish. What I’ve also learnt is that pain is not permanent. While you’re working your way up the mountain, it may feel as if the pain will never end, but before you know it you’ll find yourself having fun on the descents.
This is a phenomenon I’ve experienced in all kinds of real-life situations. Those feelings of difficulty pass. Whether it’s the “are we there yet?” of long journeys, or troubled times, they all pass.
A few months ago, I even found myself applying ‘Epic Mind’ during particularly unpleasant root canal treatment.
Attitude is a big contributor to how we deal with the stresses and difficulties that we encounter. Do we turn molehills into mountains, or the other way around?
I can’t point to empirical evidence, but I believe that one of the things that has helped me is that since the age of 17 I have meditated for 20 minutes twice a day. That’s well over 8000 hours of being in a deep state of relaxation. The daily benefits are release of stress, greater clarity of thinking, and better sleep, and I believe that the effects are cumulative. Whether this has helped me to be more resilient, I don’t know, but I couldn’t imagine living my life without it.
Every moment we’re alive, we’re being invited to answer the question, “What action are you going to take next?” The most obvious benefit of taking part in a series of directed actions – or what one could call a process – is that we are more likely to move closer to our objective.
The second benefit is that it’s very hard for us to feel that we’re victims when we keep taking conscious actions. There are times we may feel that we have no power, but the one thing that no-one can take away from us is the choice of how to respond. Even if all other power has been removed from us, we still have control over that choice.
A structured sequence of actions may seem like an extremely boring way of doing things, but it has a knack of delivering results … almost as if by magic.
What I like about having them listed on a sheet of paper on my fridge is that there’s no negotiation. Especially when it comes to training, if there isn’t a programme or plan, one can easily create all kinds of reasons to justify why one shouldn’t get onto the bike.
I like that the programme’s daily steps are binary. Either one has done what’s required, or one hasn’t. The power of those daily steps is cumulative. Each increment brings one closer to the objective.
By making each step manageable, we get positive feedback on a daily basis, which reinforces commitment to the process. People who work in the field of motivation recommend having a mental picture of oneself as the complete article. So, if I visualise myself as a Cape Epic finisher it’s easier to follow the actions that will get me there.
But this thing isn’t just about visualisation, or working my way through lists posted on the fridge. There has to be an element of selfishness to the way I allocate my time every week to make sure that I do the training that is required. Plus, if I have to be on the bike early on a Sunday morning I’m not exactly up for a big night of partying on a Saturday. In this respect, I’ve been extremely fortunate to have the buy-in and support of my entire family.
The other key person in the process is my coach, Erica Green. She may not be pedalling the bike, but she is as invested as each of her athletes.
The point is that we’re better off with a network of support around us.
While planning this talk, I’ve had the thought that it might have greater impact if the person standing here were an Olympian, or had national colours. However, that could create a disconnect because of the athlete’s superior capabilities. It could make the achievements seem out of reach.
I’m just a regular person. I didn’t start this with superior physical abilities.
Apart from the proper preparation, the one thing that all endurance activities share is the endurance part. Basically, no matter how tough the going gets, one needs to have the mental power to keep going. Mind over matter is a ‘thing’.
My friend Jonno Proudfoot, who swam from Mozambique to Madagascar, talks about creating a web of accountability, in which you are so committed to key people and sponsors that giving up is just not an option. This is the power of not just making the choice to tackle a challenge, but also telling family and friends about the decision. Once you’ve added sponsors and a support team, there are a LOT of people that you don’t possibly want to let down.
If you are well enough prepared, and pace yourself properly, you’re unlikely to find yourself in the zone where it’s too hard to keep going. However, even with the best preparation, there are days when the conditions are adverse, and you have to dig deep. When this happens, there are just two things to think about:
- firstly, by maintaining movement you keep getting closer to the finish … in other words, what is the next action I need to take
- secondly, giving up is not an option
Sometimes you just have to ‘vasbyt’.
Each of us has different dreams at different times in our lives. Putting together a series of directed actions is the magical process that turns dreams to reality … no wands required!
It was through reading to my kids that I discovered Dr Seuss’ wonderful book, Oh The Places You’ll Go. I highly recommend that you go out and get a copy, but I leave you with the first two paragraphs:
Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!
You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
(This was a talk I presented in 2018, with update reflecting the third Epic, in 2019)