Last Sunday was the day of the University Boat Races, between Oxford and Cambridge. Full of tradition, it is a gladiatorial contest rowed over nearly 7km of the Thames, with two eights fighting it out for victory. For many, it is anachronistic and irrelevant, and yet it attracts huge interest, typically with more than 250,000 turning out to watch live from the riverbank, and a global TV and radio audience of several hundred million.
For me, boat race day will always hold a very special place in my heart. In 2002, I raced in the Boat Race, having raced in 2001 for Blondie, in the reserve boat race. It remains one of the proudest, most intense and most emotional days of my life, the culmination of 7 months of training and preparation, all for a six minute race*. We lost. It was devastating at the time, and yet those six months were some of the most formative in my life. Determination, teamwork, strength in the face of adversity, resilience, deep connection to those around me, lifelong friendships, self-awareness, living with uncertainty, focus – all things which were formed and honed over that period.
Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, I realise it was also the period of my life where I had the greatest clarity of purpose. There was no doubt in my mind what was important, what was my “what for”:
“To be the very best I could be as part of producing the fastest Cambridge crew we could create on race day”
My goals were to beat Oxford, and to pass my finals that summer with at least a 2:1, but my “what for” was actually about exploring what was possible for me by truly committing to being my best. There were times when choices had to be made, such as between study and recovery from my training, and the clarity of my what for allowed me to intentionally make those choices to serve my overall purpose. And, my “what for” remained whatever the ultimate outcome. I could fulfil on my vision whether we won or lost on the day.
I’ve recently been reflecting on and refreshing some of my personal projects, doing the work to get really clear on my own “what for”. In my experience, being clear on my “what for” is the thing that sustains me through setbacks, keeps me in action, and allows me to intentionally make choices and keep moving forward. It also gives me places to look with my own coach when I get stuck, by coming back to the underlying reason why I took a project on, and what is important to me about fulfilling it.
I invite you to take a look at your own “what for” in relation to the goals you’re working towards in your own life. What does success look like for you? Why is the goal so important to you, personally? What will achieving it make possible? What will shift for you if you fulfil on your declaration?
The photo shows the victorious 2017 Cambridge Women’s Blue Boat, who beat Oxford by 11 lengths in a course record time of 18 mins 34 secs.
*Prior to 2015, the Women’s Boat Race was held at Henley over a 2km course. In 2015 it moved to the Tideway, to race from Putney to Mortlake, over the same course as the Men’s Boat Race.