The latest insights on narrative, storytelling and leadership in higher education.

Week Two: Hour 3

Preparing to go the distance

By Louise

Throughout Staying Truly Connected you’ll experience techniques to use with others that will help you strengthen connections with them while leading remotely. But in this hour, we want to encourage you to press pause, and connect with your own leadership. We’ll ask you to think about how you keep your stamina topped up. What are the experiences you’ve had that can help you build resilience and navigate uncertainty? What mindset will help you stay the course as the academic year unfolds?

To really unpack these questions, we’re going to draw on the practice of ultra-running, going anywhere beyond the 26.2 miles of a marathon. It’s a hell of a distance, and this year is a little like that: always pressing on. Like leadership, running these kind of distances calls for a strength and energy that sits deep within us. It’s putting one foot in front of the other when you’re dog-tired. It’s emotionally and psychologically committing yourself to a journey that you know will test your endurance. And it’s acknowledging that it takes a community to get to the finish line. 

Here, we share two stories from ultra-runners about their experiences of running, drawing parallels with the sorts of leadership challenges that might be on the path ahead in 2020-21.

Mark Simpson,
Pro Vice-Chancellor (Learning and Teaching)
Teesside University

I am a leader and a runner… an ultra-runner… maybe an ultra-leader. Ultra-running involves running anything over the distance of a marathon, in many cases over pretty rough and hilly terrain. My longest run to date is 126 miles and I have medals for single stage races of 110, 60, 55 and others. These events involve a lot of preparation in terms of training, clothing and fuelling strategies along with route planning. During the race, I rely on the support of a team, to water, feed and patch me up… if I am really lucky, the occasional cat-nap. I could not do it without support. It is therefore both a lone and team sport in one.

Naturally leadership involves a community, just like running. Without others, there would be no one to lead, but equally it is a lonely pursuit. In both leadership and running, determination and resilience are key. Both pursuits involve preparation (project management) and the key to success is breaking down the project (milestones) and focusing on the achievement of reaching these – not the miles to come! Both can be incredibly  tough, but the rewards make the journey worth it.

Rosie Jones,
Director, Student & Library Services
Teesside University

In my many years of ultra-running I have repeatedly completed events that have at times felt impossible. Even entirely overwhelming from both a physical and psychological perspective. I run races that not only cover huge distances, most of the time I also complete them on high mountainous terrain, often covered in snow and through treacherous conditions.  Ultra running involves visioning a way through the unbearable, imaging the goal and striving on. Like leadership, when things get tough you find things that keep you going, you might fall into step with another runner and take the time to encourage each other, you might reward yourself at a checkpoint with a favourite snack or you might just find a way to break down the problem and focus on getting to the next target. Completing them leaves me with a sense of euphoria, power and confidence. 2020-21 already feels a little like an ultra-event solving the impossible and pushing forward.

Ultra-running is just one example of how to think about the emotional and psychological factors at play when you lead others; blending the idea of a sole pursuit but one that’s only ever successful when you have people around you to cheer, nudge, or pull you along. You may have an example of your own that you can find ready parallels with. Wherever you find inspiration, use what resonates as a road map that you can use to check in with yourself about how you’re getting on, what’s on the horizon and how best you can get to where you want to be.

Your activity

This activity will take about 10 minutes of preparation, and as much time to reflect as you have available. To start, find a map – physical or online – that you can annotate, stick post it notes on, or refer to on a screen. It can be any map, geographical, abstract, fictional, etc.

On the map, draw or visualise a route, starting in one place and ending in another.

Give yourself a good distance between the two (it doesn’t have to be linear). Now, read through the questions below.

Use these as provocations and write down or type your answers to these, annotating different points along your route as you go. For a more playful experience, you could try post it notes stuck on to a physical map if you’re using one.

  • Runners plan their food and hydration. What fuels you and keeps you going when you need it most?
  • Thinking back over the last few months, when have you paused, rested and looked back to see how far you’ve come? Does this pattern work for you?
  • What are the signs that you’re pushing too hard, or could go further and faster? How do you spot these in advance?
  • Who are the people that can support you, and keep you at the right pace in the long haul?
  • Ultra-runners tap into the environment around them to help keep energised. What physical, emotional, or psychological cues help you to look up, see what’s on the horizon and use this to give you momentum to keep going?
  • What experiences can you draw on from your professional or personal life that will remind you of a time when you’ve had to reframe how you saw the finishing line?
  • How do you recognise the contribution of everyone when you finally get to the end?

This map is only for you, and is intended as a light-hearted way into helping recognise the things that will keep your stamina topped up as you prepare to go the distance in your leadership. When we meet in Zoom next, we’ll ask the group to share any insights if you’d like to contribute any of your reflections.

Finally, we encourage you to draw on your experiences from your professional and personal life when you’re thinking about these questions.


A selection to read, watch or listen to, to help find a new perspective.

Louise Clifton

Louise is the Director of Marketing, Communications and Operations at Invisible Grail. Specialising in professional development, Louise thrives on working with people to bring alive the stories that show the wider world who they are and why what they do matters.