Welcome to the neighborhood: Cyclists, racing and a city’s biggest block party on Cry Baby Hill

Cyclists race by as crowds cheer – and drink – at the Riverside Criterium of Tulsa Tough on Cry Baby Hill.

When I got up Sunday morning, the parade was already started. Out my window, lines of people were strolling down the hill, coolers and lawn chairs in hand. Some were in costume. Most were dressed for the heat. Some were already half-tanked.

A typical Sunday morning for the third day of Tulsa Tough, an annual cycling race series and festival that has bike enthusiasts from across the country descend on T-town with all the spandex anyone could ever want. Crowds gather for all three days of Tulsa Tough, but it’s the third day, on Cry Baby Hill, that folks really get revved up.

And it happens in my neighborhood.

A little about my ‘hood: it’s tough to define. It’s older, right on the edge of downtown Tulsa, and built on the banks of the Arkansas River. It’s a mix of people, from bohemian to bums, families and retirees, living in stately older homes, shotgun houses, or in open fields not yet developed. It’s a place where you can watch incredible sunsets from your porch, or view transients stumbling down an alley. I feel perfectly safe here, but sometimes there are police helicopters and searchlights. Typical urban neighborhood, I suppose, and the site for the Riverside Criterium of Tulsa Tough.

So let’s talk about Tulsa Tough. This was the 13th year for the event, which attracts top cyclists from across the country and the world. For three days, they race through different courses downtown, and as the years have gone by the crowds have grown. There’s also a gran fondo ride that goes well outside the city and a townie ride where anyone with a set of wheels can take a more leisurely trek.

The climax of Tulsa Tough is the Riverside Criterium. It’s the toughest course, with steep inclines on every lap. I’m sure that’s something cyclists can appreciate and dread, but for most people, the Riverside Criterium is all about the scene that is Cry Baby Hill. It draws the biggest, most raucous crowds of the entire weekend, and I’d say most people are there more for the party than the races. Folks show up by the thousands.

It wasn’t always that way. When Tulsa Tough started, people in the neighborhood gathered at a house or two to watch the races, guzzle some beer and cheer them on. One legend has it that regulars at the Sound Pony, a downtown dive bar frequented by cyclists and other endurance athletes, started making the Sunday Tulsa Tough races a thing. However it started, someone built this party scene, and man, did it grow.

Today, the Riverview neighborhood is choked with Tulsa Tough spectators and revelers. There’s lots of skin, vats of beer, weird costumes and creepy baby-doll heads on sticks. There are a bunch of whistles and people in referee uniforms helping the crowds “mind the gap” so cyclists can actually freely race without fear of running into errant fans. It’s grown so big that the food truck cabal decided to come, and live music on a stage popped up. Debauchery of all sorts happens, though most people keep it in check. I think. Anyway, I tell people that Cry Baby Hill is an annual excuse to get drunk on a Sunday morning, and I think that’s mostly true.

Some of the cyclists get into it. If they’re not concentrated on actually winning, they’ll slow down and take a brew from the crowd before continuing. Cops are there in droves, as are paramedic crews. It’s hot out there, and sometimes the combination of a 12-pack of Natty Light and high heat/humidity doesn’t work out too well.

You might think the description of my neighborhood, the event, and the crowd is negative, but let me shut that down right now: I dig this scene. Endurance sports don’t get a lot of love, so when the hordes arrive to cheer on the competitors, I’m all for it. Come on down, invade the ‘hood for a few hours and have a good time. Too many parts of town (any town, really) are too buttoned down, becoming regimented to the point of lifelessness. My neighborhood is a trip pretty much every day, and I guess it’s fitting that Day Three of Tulsa Tough is sort of a holiday of weirdness for my weird little place.

That all of it surrounds cycling hits home, too. I don’t race, but I spend a decent amount of time in the saddle these days. I chose where I live so I could bike to work. It’s also close to a paved trail system that’s great for longer rides. I’m not a racer, but I get these people even if my ride costs less than the accessories they attach to theirs.

So how did all this go down for me? Well, as the crowds clogged my streets, I mowed my yard. Picked up a half-empty can of Coors Light kindly donated to my lawn. I dumped the rest out, recycled the can, then jumped on my bike and rode to the center of the action.

While recording part of the race from a more “family friendly” part of the course, a half-baked spectator noticed by Denver Broncos ballcap and proceeded to talk smack. Turns out, he was a Chiefs fan. They got us twice last year, but I reminded him that the Broncos have three Lombardis in the case to Kansas City’s one. He was forceful at first (I was hoping that this wouldn’t turn into a real fight), but chilled out long enough to have a more nuanced discussion about how the AFC West was going to play out. His girlfriend got bored, so we bro-hugged and they left.

I rode to a few more spots, taking pics and taking in the scene. Everywhere I went, the streets were lined with people, sometimes ten deep. Whistles would blow, a chase vehicle would zip by, and then a couple of cyclists would follow. Behind them, the whirring gears of a few dozen more cyclists, bunched up in the peloton, breezed by. The crowd cheered, yelled, rang their cowbells and took a swig from coozy-lined cans and red Solo cups.

This scene repeated itself for several hours until the last pro races were done. Podiums were mounted and trophies awarded. Fans eventually stumbled back into their houses, or toward their cars, and not a small number of them took the next day off.

What does this all mean? I’m not sure about the origins of Tulsa Tough. There’s a healthy cycling community in Tulsa, but not more than any other mid-sized city. Even so, Tulsa Tough is a huge success, an international draw, seemingly getting bigger every year. That an obscure endurance sport can become so huge here is encouraging, even if half the appeal is just showing up for the party. It’s a weird, geared-up and beer-soaked thread in a community tapestry that might otherwise be mildly bland.

Come next June, we’ll do it all over again. See ya next time for Year 14 of Tulsa Tough. Cry Baby Hill awaits.

Bob Doucette

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Of thrilling victory and tragic defeat: A tale of two climbs on El Capitan

El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park. (Wikipedia commons/Little Mountain 5 photo)

Years ago, ABC used to air a weekend program called “Wide World of Sports.” It was a staple for many who were interested in watching events that weren’t part of the “big four” of American sports, that being football, baseball, basketball and hockey.

But the show’s most lasting imprint on popular culture didn’t come from the sports it televised. It came from its intro, a montage of clips from a variety of contests. The narrator speaks of “the thrill of victory,” then cues up a downhill skier wiping out violently during a race before continuing, “and the agony of defeat.”

The stakes of sports are what make them compelling. The higher the stakes, the greater the drama. Nowhere is that more true than in the mountains, and we saw both the thrill and the agony play out within days of each other on one of the most iconic rock faces on the planet.

On June 2, climbers Jason Wells and Tim Klein were on El Capitan’s Freeblast route when they fell, ultimately plummeting more than 1,000 feet to their deaths. Both were accomplished, experienced climbers on a section of the route described as well within their abilities when the fall occurred.

On Wednesday, June 6, climbers Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell were also at El Capitan, trying to set speed records on the Nose. They accomplished this – twice. The new speed record for climbing this route stands at 1 hour, 58 minutes and 7 seconds, an astonishing feat on a route that takes most people days to complete.

Two solid climbing teams, two very different outcomes, on the same mountain. Wells and Klein are mourned; Honnold and Caldwell are celebrated. Only four days separated them.

This is the dualism of mountaineering. Obviously, there are other possible outcomes. You can get turned back by weather or route conditions, or perhaps forced into retreat by illness or injury. But there are few sports where the reward for success is, in reality, so modest, and the toll of failure (even if you did everything right) so painfully high.

It’s something I think about every time summer draws near. Exploring the mountains is becoming more popular every year. Most aren’t climbing El Capitan, but they are venturing into wild places that aren’t inherently safe or forgiving. Many thousands cut their teeth on the easier peaks, then try tougher challenges as time goes on. The vast majority do OK. But some don’t make it back. That’s how it works in the high country.

I won’t waste time grousing about the unnecessary chances people take, or social media pressures to go bigger each time. That’s been covered. But it does make me stop and think. Last year, scores (hundreds?) of people successfully climbed Capitol Peak in Colorado’s Elk Mountains. But within a span of six weeks, five people died on that same mountain. Other peaks, in Colorado and elsewhere, had similar stories, I’m sure.

It would also be silly to ask why people bother, given the risks of climbing, mountaineering and backcountry exploration. Mountains draw us in. Wild places fascinate us. Summit views, the sounds of the woods and the quiet of wilderness are always going to be a draw. The good parts, and the feeling of accomplishment, have their own special allure. That’s our version of the thrill of victory.

But I suppose it’s worth considering the agony of defeat. I’ve had a few close scrapes, but have come out of those OK. Others haven’t, even if they have many times before.

Maybe that’s the lesson from Yosemite Valley last week, just in time for the crowds who are heading into the mountains now.

Bob Doucette

Here’s what happens when a non-crossfitter does Murph

I have a basic approach when it comes to fitness. Do some running. Hike. Get on your bike. Lift heavy things. Lift, run, bike, hike for short.

But I like taking on different challenges, even if they’re out of my wheelhouse.

On Memorial Day, a lot of people like to do a Crossfit workout called “Murph.” I’m not a crossfitter, and I’ve got no plans to be. But they do some things right in the Crossfit world (they’re getting more people into barbell training than anything else right now), and some of these workouts are definitely worth trying.

So on Monday, I decided I join the legions doing Murph. For all you curious non-crossfitters, this one’s for you.

FIRST OF ALL…

Lt. Michael Murphy, aka “Murph.” (U.S. Navy photo)

Let’s get this straight, because it’s important: What is “Murph?”

The more accurate question is not what, but who.

“Murph” is Lt. Michael Murphy, a U.S. Navy SEAL who was killed in action while serving in Afghanistan in 2005. If you’ve read the book “Lone Survivor” or saw the movie of the same title, then you know his story and that of his team. If you don’t know it, look it up. A small group of SEALS fought like hell against huge numerical odds, even while gravely wounded.

Murphy invented this workout, which he called “body armor.” Following his death, the workout was named in his honor.

So what’s the workout? Glad you asked.

THE WORKOUT

It’s simple: Run one mile, do 100 pull-ups, do 200 push-ups, do 300 body-weight squats, then run another mile.

Simple, right?

Well, there’s also this: In its strictest form, you also do this with a weighted 20-pound vest.

The goal is to do it in less than an hour. Really fit people can do it in 45 minutes.

Here’s what I figured: I run plenty. I lift several times a week. And I’m getting decent at pull-ups. Why not give it a shot?

SOME CAVEATS

I’m also a realist. I don’t own a weighted vest and didn’t have access to one. Being the first time I tried this, I decided to skip the weighted part.

Crossfitters will kip their pull-ups. I refuse. I’ll do them as strict as I can as long as I can.

I doubt there are many people who can do 100 pull-ups in a row, even if they’re kipping. Same is probably true of the other exercises. I’d be breaking these up into manageable chunks, hoping to make good time.

WHERE I DID IT

I went to a high school track/football field. The track offered me an easy way to measure out a mile and stay close to some water I brought.

The track was a good idea, but this plan had its problems. For starters, it was 91 degrees and mostly sunny, with a heat index of 95. That sort of heat will elevate your heart rate far above what it would normally be indoors or, say, any other time of year. Since I’d be doing the non-running exercises on the field, it would feel even hotter.

Also, there was a lack of decent places to do pull-ups. I settled for a soccer goal crossbar. The steel tubing didn’t offer much grip; it was fat enough that I was more “palming” the bar than gripping it. So that was working against me.

But hey, who cares? If you’re going to do Murph, don’t bitch about your problems. The workout will be hard enough as it is.

HOW IT WENT

The first mile run was a breeze, mostly because I didn’t push too hard. Maybe a 9:30 pace, trying to conserve energy for the work to come.

Once that was done, it was time for the pull-ups. I started doing sets of 6 to 8 reps, taking short breaks. But soon, the sheer volume was killing me. So I scaled it by switching from overhand grip pull-ups to underhand grip chin-ups. I know, lame. But I needed to get reps to move on.

By the time I got to 52 reps, I realized I’d be out there forever unless I found ways to knock out reps in the other exercises. So at the point, I supersetted chins with pull-ups and squats. That helped.

But dang, if this isn’t a whole other kind of fitness. I do all sorts of conditioning drills when I run, but this is just different. The steady flow of work and the heat radiating off the artificial turf surface I was on spiked my heart rate something good. By the time I was done with all that mess, it was time for that second mile-long run.

A zombie shuffle ensued. Maybe one of the slowest miles I’ve ever “run.”

When I was finished, I missed that 60-minute goal. By a lot. I definitely was not physically up to the task of making that goal. I shuffled off the field and into my car a sweaty, beat-down mess. Lesson learned. Murph is legit.

AFTERMATH

The next day, I was sore in some expected places, mostly in my shoulders and upper back. But not in my legs (you’d think 300 squats would have done something, but nope). But I was surprisingly sore in my abs. I wasn’t expecting that. Perhaps I should do more core, eh? Anyway, it was a built-in excuse to not lift the following day. I ran three miles and called it good.

THE TAKEAWAY

What I’ve learned about fitness is that when you do something different, expect to suck at it. I’ve learned this many times over.

I used to play a lot of basketball, maybe three or four times a week. And not that half-court BS, either. We ran the court, fast breaks and all. I got to where I could handle that. But run more than a couple of miles? I might as well have been trying to climb Mount Everest. Two different types of fitness.

Another example: Back when I was doing jujitsu, we had a new guy come in. He told us he’d be fine in terms of conditioning: The dude ran six miles a day. When the workout was over, he was outside puking in the parking lot. Once again, a different kind of fitness.

The same is true here. I know Murph is not indicative of everything Crossfit, but it is a good example of the type of training crossfitters do. Murph is not a strength test; It’s a conditioning test with some elements of strength involved. So while I lift frequently and hard and do my fair share of conditioning drills (400-meter intervals and negative split workouts come to mind), what I do is not going to go that far with something like Murph.

Crossfit bills itself as preparing its trainees to be fit enough to do anything at any time – they pride themselves as fitness “generalists” and through their Crossfit Games, aim to crown the winners as “the fittest people on earth.” There’s some truth to that, although Crossfit programming seems to create a lot of people who need shoulder surgeries.

But there is value in trying new things, and finding your weaknesses. On Monday, on that steaming hot high school track, Murph helped me find a few of mine. I might have to try it again.

Bob Doucette

Eight awesome people at the gym

The gym can be cursed with d-bags, but it can also be populated by solid citizens.

I’ve written about the gym characters that annoy us. A couple times, actually.

But to be fair, most people who head to the weight room aren’t preeners, meatheads and creeps out to ruin our workouts. In fact, there are some pretty good souls out there who make those gym sessions great. So this one’s for them.

The good trainer: A decent gym is going to employ trainers. Some of them are OK. Some of them suck. But some of them are great at their jobs. They’re knowledgeable, helpful and encouraging. They’re good teachers who not only talk to the talk, but walk the walk. Working with these folks usually leads to positive results. Sometimes they’re pricey, but when it’s all said and done, they’re worth every dime.

The reliable workout buddy: If you’re the type of person who trains with others, you know the value of having a workout partner who shows up, works hard and pushes you. Accountability matters to these people. There may be a sense of competition, but not in a weird or negative way. Instead, it’s fuel that makes both of you better. Iron sharpening iron, as it were. Both of you benefit.

The real-deals: We’ve all seen them. The powerfully built dudes. The rock-hard gals. They’re the ones who aren’t just regulars. They’re mission-oriented, working hard to create the strongest, fittest, healthiest versions of themselves that they can. You can take them one of two ways: Be jealous or be inspired. A lot of times, the real-deals are friendly enough to talk training, nutrition and whatnot to help you on your way. It’s not a bad idea to get to know them. You might learn a thing or two.

The elliptical dudes: These guys/gals might also be on some other machine where you work out, but at my gym, it’s three fellas who meet at the same time, mount up on three neighboring ellipticals and watch “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” while they break a sweat for 40 minutes or so. They’re old friends, they’re always there, and they know everyone by name. I don’t know how fit they’re getting, but there’s nothing but positive vibes from this trio as they do their thing, day after day. Keep on keepin’ on, fellas.

The spotters-in-a-pinch: To me, these are they guys who are doing their own thing, but we all know each other, all talk to each other and generally keep each other motivated. Occasionally, when we’re working on the same thing, we’ll lift a few sets together. And when the bar is loaded at a challenging weight, they’ll gladly spot you when asked. We’d all be workout buddies if our schedules and goals were more in sync, but even so, these familiar faces are often the ones that push you to go a little harder and get a little better. In a pinch.

The treadmill grinders: Not everyone likes to run on pavement every day, but they like running as much as they can. So you’ll see the treadmill grinders pounding out six miles in one workout, or doing their 8x400s, or perhaps some other run-based workout as they gear up for the next big race. Why are they admirable? Because it takes a serious amount of dedication to mount that treadmill and run on it every day. Once or twice a week is about all I can handle. More often than not, they’re better runners than me.

The exceptional instructor: Spin class. Cardio kickboxing. Group strength training. Zumba. And a bunch of other variations of the group exercise classes designed to make you sweat and push your heart rate through the roof. Most of us have been to one or more of these, and you can tell when the instructors are on their game. Learning how to lead these classes is a bunch of work, and the fitness level to not just lead the class, but to talk folks through it as you go takes a high degree or conditioning most of us don’t have. The best of them challenge you, encourage you and make you want to go back. What’s that? You can lead us to the edge of cardio-induced  insanity and back, do it with a smile on your face and keep us coming back for more? Yes, please.

The old warhorses: Years have given these folks a wealth of wrinkles and gray hairs. No matter. Decades of their lives have gone by and they’re still showing up, working hard and living awesome lives because they refuse to give in to the couch. Guy or gal, it doesn’t matter. A lifetime of fitness has endowed them with knowledge, experience and a brighter future than most of the world. They may even outlive you. Hell, they might even outlift, outrun or otherwise outdo you altogether. If you’re lucky – and consistent – maybe you’ll be an old warhorse one day, deadlifting twice as much as the young buck in his early 20s two stations down.

If you work out at a place with a lot of these people, consider yourself blessed. Stick with that place, because you know there are others that are too often filled with folks who don’t know the Gym Rat Code..

Bob Doucette

Sharing the love of trail running

Just one scene on my local trails.

Summer heat doesn’t excite me. But those daylight hours sure do.

Sunsets that start pushing the nine o’clock hour mean I have that much more time to do things outside. I had my eye on spring and summer when I asked my weekly run group if they’d be interested in doing some trail running.

In case you don’t know, I started leading a Friday evening run group through my local gym. Early on, we kept it close to home, running the streets near downtown Tulsa where the paths were more predictable and there was at least a semblance of street lights. All that is absent on the trails, and I wasn’t about to take people who were new to trail running for a night run. Even with headlamps, that’s a lot to ask of a trail running newbie. So I waited for the days to get longer.

For our first outing, we did a simple 3.5-mile loop. It’s one I’ve done dozens of times before, with a sweet cruise down a wooded ridgeline, then a roller-coaster, technical uphill climb back to the trailhead. My road runners weren’t quite used to the sustained uphill that comes with trails, or the steepness those inclines present. And don’t forget the tripping hazards. I guess I should confess that the only one who bit it that night was me.

Last week, it was the mostly the same crew, but with a few new faces. Most were, again, road runners who hadn’t been on these trails much, if at all.

I took them down that same ridge but chose a different path for our return to the trailhead. It’s one of my favorites, one that meanders down a ravine and across a now-dry creek bed before beginning a steady, switchbacking uphill ascent that doesn’t let up much. It’s technical and difficult, and one small slice of it is too steep to run. That part of the route is everything I love about trail running, cloaked it woodlands and scented with the sweet smells of springtime in the forest.

We’re all in decent shape. Some of the gang is clocking in at 23 minutes or less on their 5Ks (not me, of course). But everyone comes back from these trail runs a little humbled by the challenge. Twice I’ve asked if any of them wanted a little more, and both times they’ve all said they were cool with calling it a night. They enjoyed it but knew when it was time to head for the house.

In the past, I’ve run with groups who’d chill out at the trailhead, drink beer or maybe go for tacos. We’d talk about running, but also everything else about the outdoors: hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, you name it. I’ve found some kindred spirits in those groups and more than once, we’ve hit the road to hike distant trails and climb mountains big and small. Trail running is a gateway drug to all things outdoors that I cherish.

But the basics of it are what’s best. After that first run, one of the fellas talked about how much he enjoyed just being in the woods. No cars, no machines, none of that. Only the sounds of the forest and his footfalls. Being out there calmed his mind, he said.

Man, I can relate. I nodded in agreement, thinking about how a few years ago, in the months after I lost my job due to a layoff and weeks later, lost my oldest brother to cancer, it was running on these very same trails that proved to be the best medicine. I was hurting bad. But the earthen paths through the trees got me through. Years later, the trails opened a whole new chapter in my life.

I know that’s true for a lot of people. My story isn’t unique. But a lot of people could benefit from coming here, even if it’s just for a stroll. Being in wild places is a healthy thing.

And I guess that’s why these runs are special to me. I get to share these paths, these woods, and everything they hold. I get to take people to all my favorite places, “secret” routes that I discovered a long time ago. Maybe they’ll get what I got. Perhaps they’ll gain something different, but equally good.

We’ll keep running our downtown streets. I’m sure as the weeks plow into the summer, those will be some really hot, uncomfortable outings. But the long, sweltering days of summer will also give us enough daylight to take special trips to the trails. One thing is for certain: It’ll be worth the sweat.

The run group after a fun few miles on the trails. It’ll be a new route for them each time we go.

Bob Doucette

Mountain reads: ‘Backpacking 101’ by Heather Balogh Rochfort

NOTE: This is an installment of an occasional series on books, old and new, about outdoor adventure.

The growing popularity of outdoor adventure, highlighted in famous books and movies, has more people hitting the trail. Many are seeking to travel to wild places for days at a time, but as you might guess, those sorts of adventures aren’t as simple as throwing a few items in a day pack and waltzing through the woods. The gear, knowledge and preparation inherent with backpacking is substantial in its volume. Any cursory search of the internet will reveal that. Often it can feel like drinking from a fire hose.

So how do you pare that down into something more digestible? Enter “Backpacking 101,” a compact tome by backpacker, traveler, blogger and Backpacker Magazine writer Heather Balogh Rochfort. She’s spent a lot of time on the trail and on the road with her life on her back on a few continents and numerous wilderness areas across the U.S. In her book, she seeks to create a primer for people looking to turn their day hikes into deeper adventures.

The book breaks down backpacking into its core elements — the gear and supplies you’ll need, how to pick a campsite, first-aid, hygiene, navigation and more. Included in its pages are diagrams and illustrations, and short breakouts that highlight specific issues of importance related to each chapter. It’s written in an accessible style (it’s absent of the stodgy, “owner’s manual” language of a lot of how-to books on the outdoors), but that doesn’t mean it’s light on details — it’s rich with useful information. I’ve had a decent amount of time on the trail, and I learned new things upon reading it.

I’d mention a couple of things about sections on gear. A lot of equipment comes with different ratings that don’t mean much to the average consumer: temperature ratings, fill ratings, insulation ratings, etc. All of these things are explained or illustrated in the book, thus taking some of the mystery out of gear purchases. And pay special attention to the author’s breakdown on footwear. It’s thorough.

Balogh Rochfort also takes time to explain considerations that are unique to women, be it gear or self-care in the wild. It’s done in a way that breaks the ice on certain topics which, at first glance, can be a barrier for some women when it comes to giving backpacking a try. She solves this by demystifying these issues, breaking them down as logistical problems with simple solutions rather than blowing them up into full-blown warnings.

You’ll also find information on wilderness ethics (where to set up camp, how to store food, and what to do with gray water, for example) as well as a chapter devoted to backpacking with dogs.

Backpacking has a special allure of adventure, but given the cost of gear and the acquired knowledge it takes to do it safely, it can be intimidating. “Backpacking 101” is a good way to educate yourself and hopefully set yourself up for success in the outdoors.

You can see more of Heather Balogh Rochfort’s writing at her blog, justacoloradogal.com.

Bob Doucette

The art of being a follower: 8 key attributes to being a good role player in the outdoors

You’re not always the top dog out here. But you will have a role, and how you fill it will go a long way toward success or failure.

Last week I wrote about eight attributes of a good outdoors leader. I believe those traits carry into other areas of life, be it at home, at work or in any organization you’re a part of.

But not everyone can be the leader. For every good sergeant, there needs to be solid foot soldiers. Not everyone can be LeBron. Sometimes you need to be a role player coming off the bench. Same goes for the outdoors.

Most of the time, you’re not going to be the leader. For lack of a better term, you’re going to be a follower, and there’s an art to it. Good followers have their roles to play, and when done right, they’re a major part of a team’s success, wherever that endeavor takes them. So let’s take a look at that.

  1. Know your strengths and weaknesses. Do an inventory or your skills and experience. What are you good at? Where could you use some work? If you know your strengths, you know what you have to offer the group. Identifying where you’re weak will give you an opportunity to bone up on skills. Blithely glossing over areas where you’re soft won’t help you or your partners. And if a task on a particular adventure is way over your head, consider bowing out until you’ve gained enough skill to participate and contribute. For me, that weakness is rock climbing. I can do the simple sport stuff, but if people are counting on me to lead climb multipitch routes, they’ll be sorely disappointed. Worse, they might be endangered. And never lie or exaggerate about your experience. As is the case with the outdoor leader, it’s also true with the follower: You’ll get found out and instantly lose credibility, and worse, you might put your group at risk.
  2. Be a good listener. If you’re not the top dog, consider your time on that adventure as a good place to listen and learn from those with experience. I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned by listening and watching people I’m with. More often than not, experienced adventurers are willing to share their knowledge and advice. Then you can put those lessons into practice and raise your game. Driving 4WD roads, backcountry diet, ice axe and crampon technique, fishing trout streams – my friends have taught me a lot that I couldn’t gain from reading a book or watching a video.
  3. Speak up. Rarely is there a time when the leader of a group rules with an iron fist and you’re not allowed to give input. If you see something amiss, point it out. If you have an idea on how to tackle a problem, say something. Your viewpoint might just be the key to solving a puzzle others don’t see. Communication is a major factor when it comes to a successful outdoor adventure.
  4. Be a contributor. While it’s nice and all to put in your two cents, you’re going to need to give more than that. You need to carry your weight when it comes to the basics. Whether it’s bringing the proper gear and provisions for a trip or sharing in camp chores, step up. If you only enjoy the fruits of everyone else’s labors, you’re guaranteed to be the type of person who never gets invited to future adventures. And yeah, that includes gas money and trash hauling. Proactively seek opportunities to get things done, then do it.
  5. Be prepared. There’s that old Boy Scouts motto! But seriously, being part of a group means showing up ready. This encompasses a lot. You need to know enough about your trip to be aware of what you should bring in terms of gear and food. You should also have working knowledge of how to use that gear. And you should, as best you can, be in shape to tackle whatever awaits you in the backcountry. If you’re part of a backpacking trip that’s heading into the high country, do yourself and your team a favor and put in some miles before you show up at the trailhead. And don’t be the guy who bogarts other people’s gear and food because you forgot or didn’t know what to bring.
  6. Ask questions. If you’re unsure about something, an unasked question is a wasted opportunity, and potentially a dangerous oversight. Let’s say you’re testing some of your gear before a trip, but it’s not working like it should. Give your more experienced buddy a call, or go to the store where you bought it and find out what’s wrong. That sheepish phone call or the time spent with a salesperson is far better than not knowing how to do something and letting that fester all the way into the backcountry. The same could be said for not knowing how to undertake a specific task. Let’s say you’re going to do some kayaking or canoeing, but you’re unsure how to steer the craft. Find someone who knows what they’re doing and ask for help. You’ll enjoy the activity a lot more, and you might just save yourself from unneeded risk on the water. I could go on, but you get the idea. If you don’t know something and never ask a question about it, your ignorance – and the consequences of it – is on you. But it also might affect everyone else. Even if it’s a stupid question, ask anyway.
  7. Help others who lack your experience. Not every “follower” is a noob. You may be in a support role, but have extensive backcountry experience. Some of your buddies could benefit from that. Some helpful advice or just hanging with your newbie friend can go a long way toward strengthening a team, and this can be done without usurping the role of the leader. I can’t count the number of men and women who have had this role for me, and I’ve been blessed by their guidance.
  8. Be a unifier. Being a unifying influence in a group has less to do with being a cheerleader and more to do with being the kind of person people would travel with again. It’s critical in team environments to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. People who are disagreeable, dominate discussions, lord their experience over others or take advantage of other people’s efforts are fracturing influences. No one wants to make camp with that type of person. But how about the gal or guy who chips in their fair share and then some? Who listens as intently as they talk? Who helps less experienced team members, or who humbly accepts guidance? You know, the anti-diva? Those people get invited back.

So there you go. If you look at last week’s post, there are similarities to this one, and that’s no accident. Part of becoming a good leader is learning how to be a good follower. And being a good follower is a great way to learn how effective teams work, a lesson that might prove handy when, one day, you become the one people look to for guidance.

Bob Doucette