Finding headspace away from the comfort zone

One thing I’ve always been pretty good at is running. As a teenage middle-distance runner, I could have gone for a scholarship at a university in the US but opted for a law degree at the University of Dundee instead and soon gave up competitive racing. 

In hindsight, the law degree wasn’t a bad thing to have in my back pocket and since I’ve got back into my running after a 25-year break, I’ve enjoyed it even more than the first time around. I can also buy lots of nice running gear - I think there is a term for this, “running shoe porn” - but, more importantly, it’s made a big difference to work-life balance and made me leaner and meaner for the day job. 

Since starting back, I’ve put in the hard work and this has paid dividends as I’ve broken into the top-20 for my age group in the UK at 5 and 3 kilometres and the metric mile. Increasingly though, out and about on Scotland’s business scene I’m meeting people who put my relatively modest sporting achievements in the shade. 

Anneli Ritari-Stewart, Managing Director at digital performance agency iProspect in Edinburgh, is a great example. Not content with winning a national cup at ice hockey in her native Sweden, playing semi-professional football or storming the 105-mile Nokia Coast to Coast race via bike, foot and kayak, Ritari-Stewart has taken up powerlifting since relocating to Scotland where she has gone on to break a series of Scottish records and picking up three medals at last year’s Commonwealth Powerlifting Championships.  

Anneli says, “It’s all about getting those small incremental gains over time. Also, something I’ve learnt in business is that if you want to drive fundamental change it takes time but the small gains soon mount up to real progress.” I couldn’t agree more with Ritari-Stewart’s view that getting stronger physically also helps you to feel stronger mentally and can become very empowering. 

Earlier this month, Rettie & Co director Nick Watson undertook the inaugural For Rangers Ultra, a 5-day long-distance race through some of Kenya’s under pressure game reserves. As a fellow runner, Nick has talked to me about his pure love of running and it wasn’t lost on us both that Kenya is not only thought of as the birthplace of distance running, it has arguably also produced the finest distance running athletes the world has ever seen. 

Watson says, “long distance running is a very personal activity for me and is more about exploring new places and appreciating landscapes and nature than the race itself. Ultra running allows a high level of exploring to be squeezed into a relatively small amount of time. I got started on ultras through a love of mountaineering and being in wild places alongside the realisation that family, work and other commitments mean time is increasingly limited.”

When it comes to modern day Scottish adventurers, they don’t get much more impressive than world record shattering cyclist Mark Beaumont. I heard Mark talk to over one thousand people at the EICC on his glorious return to Scotland after his Around the World in 80 Days herculean feat, then at a more intimate dinner with Adam & Company earlier this year. 

When I bumped into Mark recently, we discussed the motivations behind business executives taking on high performance and endurance sports. I mentioned Callum Murray, CEO and founder of Amiqus, who rowed from Barcelona to Ibiza last year as one of the people who have impressed me most with their spartan-like dedication to an endurance event. 

Beaumont says, “there are definitely more executives taking on adventure travel, races and expeditions. I’m pretty sure you’ll find that many of them talk about creating a different headspace, balancing the pressures of work and having a major physical target to train towards, particularly around a busy work schedule and also being something that is important for their wellbeing. The challenges are mental, logistical and, often, about stepping well outside of their comfort zones.”