Lessons From the March

This past weekend, I was privileged to be able to participate with other Alpha Architect team members in the Pennsylvania National Guard’s annual March for the Fallen event.  The course was 28 miles of steep inclines, treacherous footing on broken rocks, and one very precipitous descent, which, strangely enough, was the most challenging portion of my experience.  I elected to “enhance” my experience by strapping an extra 35 pounds of gear to my back, which served to strain my endurance, tax my muscles, and generally test my willingness to see the event through.  Upon completion of the event (which for me took nine hours and nineteen minutes), my feelings were of satisfaction and relief in having completed the event, combined, strangely enough, with not just a little regret that it was all over.  Here are a few of my takeaways from the weekend and from the event itself.

1. In the months leading up to the march, Wes Gray and Dave Babulak were the perfect mixture of “good cop, bad cop” for the weekly preparation emails.  Wes played the role of “bad cop,” constantly telling me that I was probably going to die and suffer a lot if I chose to carry the extra weight.  Dave was the “good cop” with motivation, tactics, and a general confidence in process triumphing over problem.  In a way, this was the perfect approach.  When faced with any daunting task like investing for retirement, doing an endurance event, or whatever, the proper mindset should be a balance between quiet confidence – otherwise, why would you attempt it? – and “appropriate fear,” the purpose of which is to keep you humble and training.  Overconfidence or despair will ruin your chances of achieving your long-term goals.

2. It is shocking to what degree the finance world is full of brilliant minds who are still humble and accessible.  I was privileged to meet so many individuals who were more than happy to share their valuable insights with me either in the barracks before the march, or during the march itself.  You would be hard-pressed to find a brighter group of intellectuals who are also a great group of guys.

3. As far as physical training goes, it is my opinion that independent of each other, neither strength nor endurance is particularly useful.  The march required both physical endurance and mental tenacity to grind through the hours of aching joints and feet.  For those of us with the extra weight, however, it also required a strong core to support the weight, and a well-conditioned posterior chain when it was necessary to shift into low gear to ascend the steep inclines of the path.  My good friend Dave Kraft, who is both a powerlifter and Strongman competitor, likes to tease those who focus solely on upper body strength by saying that “you can’t fire a cannon out of a canoe.”  I did not realize how valuable squats and deadlifts were until I needed the extra impetus to haul an additional 20% of my body weight over 28 miles.

4. Good leadership is invaluable.  I have known Wes Gray for a few years, but his full leadership skills were on display over the weekend.  From recruiting participants and organizing logistics to making sure that every team member was in good shape during the event and accounted for afterwards, Wes showed what a true leader is.  It is rare to find someone who is interested solely in completing the mission and who could not care less who gets the credit for it, but that is Wes in a nutshell.  Those of us who participated are forever grateful to him and his wife, Katie, for accommodating us, and I think all of us are now prepared to follow him into hell with a bucket of ice water if he asked us to do so.

5. For me, carrying the extra weight led to a kind of religious experience.  As a practicing Catholic, I have been told more times than I can say to embrace the crosses we are given in life.  Indeed, Francis Bacon tells us that not only is adversity not to be avoided, but also that it is theblessing of the New Testament.  Similarly, Thomas a Kempis instructs us that “[i]f though willing bear the Cross, it will bear thee, and will bring thee to the end which thou seekest[.]”  It might seem silly for secular readers, but in a very real sense, I came to understand what was meant by this admonition as I found myself alone and traveling in pain for hours along the route.   I came to embrace the burden which I had chosen to carry and it was in those hours of solitude that the burden became a companion, and carrying it through to the end the sole and immediate focus of my existence.  On the other hand, I was also pretty dehydrated, so I may not have been thinking all too clearly, but the lesson was learned all the same.

In sum, the March for the Fallen was a blast, and one hell of a learning experience.  I am grateful to my wife for allowing me the time off to participate (she graciously allowed me to miss our anniversary this year to do so), and to my colleagues at Fortune for holding down the fort in my absence.  I hope to see everyone there again next year.