Everyone has their thing, right? For some people it’s motor racing, others get in behind their favourite rugby team. For me, it’s running stupidly long distances that people respond to by saying: “that’s a long way to drive, let alone run.” I’ve never said that running ultramarathons was for everyone, nor that it’s sane. Whatever the reason, it’s a sport that suits me – both physically and mentally.
One thing that has always fascinated me when participating in running races that span over 24 or more hours, is the mental aspect of the journey. It’s fascinating at 3 am after running all day to be moving along, on ones own, and to have what I liken to an out of body experience. I’ll often, in those dark and lonely hours, observe myself from above, almost like I’m hovering in the air. I use those times to gauge where I’m at: have I eaten enough, how bad do my legs feel, is my running form ok?
I’ve been thinking about running ultramarathon and their parallels in real life and particularly in business. That parallel seems even more relevant this week as we celebrate the first anniversary of Cactus Oudoor’s acquisition of Albion Clothing. Cactus is our 28-year-old workwear and outdoor products brand and, exactly a year ago, it bought Albion Clothing. Albion has, for close to half a century, been making the uniforms that clothe our soldiers, sailors, firefighters and police officers.
We bought Albion as part of our ambition to rekindle manufacturing in New Zealand generally and, more specifically, apparel manufacturing. The sector was once a huge employer of New Zealanders and producer of value-added goods. Today, however, we’ve reached a situation where a small player like us, with 100 or so technicians, is the largest remaining producer in the country.
But, and here is where the ultramarathon analogy comes in, dragging a sector back from the brink of destruction is hard work. Like really, really hard work. And dragging that sector back into health, when you have a market that is used to buying stuff at rock bottom prices from low-cost economies who don’t care about the social or environmental impacts of their production is even harder.
And so, at this anniversary, it feels like we’ve just hit nighttime in an ultramarathon we started 12 or so hours ago. We’re 80kms in, but we’re only halfway. We’re kind of in sight of the end (if you squint really hard and use a bit of creative imagination) but at the same time, the start line isn’t so far behind us that we really feel a sense of achievement yet. We’ve done enough that our legs hurt, our stomach doesn’t much like any of the food we offer it, we’re cold and giving up really appeals.
So, what do we do at that point in an ultramarathon?
It’s very simple. The fact is that stopping is always going to be easier. But it’s only going to be easier at the moment – the pain of failure lasts far longer than the sweet relief of rest. So it is in business, the “easy” thing for us to do is succumb to the pressure and ship our production offshore. It’s to join all the other pseudo-Kiwi brands who talk about their sweatshop-manufactured items being “Made of New Zealand.” It would mean not having to deal with the inevitable stresses of keeping a big factory working – all of that stress would be outsourced to some nameless, faceless individual.
But there’s the thing. While that would be the easy option, it would mean that we’d failed. It would be a capitulation to the pressure of neo-liberalism, hyper-globalism and Adam Smith’s view of specialization. And that capitulation would hurt far more than the day to day slog that being in business entails. It would be arrogant to suggest, even for a moment, that there is some kind of higher-calling in what we do. We’re just trying to make our way in the world making good products using awesome people. But, at some level, that too is important.
I’ve only ever pulled out of one ultramarathon and my running buddies still relentlessly hassle me about it. The memory of the feeling of emptiness that set in once the short-term buzz of no more pain passed by is sufficient fuel to keep focused on the slog that is manufacturing in New Zealand.